Staff Picks: Movies
Staff-recommended viewing from the KPL catalog.
The new documentary from filmmaker Ken Burns (The Central Park Five) is an outrage-inducing expose of the insidious injustice carried out upon five New York City teenagers in 1989. The story begins with the brutal attack of a jogger in Central Park. From there, the police department and prosecutors seek out those that they could label as the perpetrators, not the actual rapist. The evidence would suggest that investigators were neither interested in justice nor the truth about who was responsible for the vicious crime. The city explodes in racist condemnation of the teen suspects with much of the media and political class trying the case in the court of public opinion and tabloid. This is a must-watch film that should be shown in every classroom across this country.
The Central Park Five
The Turkish film Once Upon a Time in Anatolia was on many end-of-the-year polls of best movies. It’s a slow burning film about a murder and the men who venture into the dark of night charged with locating the deceased’s body. The viewer already knows who did it. The murderer sits between two police officers in the back of a car that traverses the Turkish countryside. It’s actually not about the murder at all but rather about the interior lives of its varied cast of characters. It’s a film about what goes unsaid, that which is communicated only by silence and the elapse of time. It’s a film about a single night and the complicated pasts of men living in a moment.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
It’s pretty easy to argue that movie expert Roger Ebert was America’s First Film Critic, in the sense that he was the country’s most well-known and respected reviewer of cinema. Ebert passed away yesterday from complications due to cancer. Ebert and the late Gene Siskel introduced millions of Americans to thoughtful conversations about both commercial and artistic-oriented films with their Saturday afternoon television show that aired from the mid 1980’s until Siskel’s death in 1999. Ebert’s brilliant reviews, many of which are collected in numerous books, are an excellent starting point for the novice fan of film to introduce themselves to the treasure trove of great movies. Ebert was known for his superb prose, much of which eschewed jargon and obtuse forms of critical theory. He also had a keen ability to criticize films he found intellectually stupefying or devoid of purpose with a biting sense of humor, some of which can be found below.
“The Last Airbender is an agonizing experience in every category I can think of and others still waiting to be invented. The laws of chance suggest that something should have gone right. Not here. It puts a nail in the coffin of low-rent 3D, but it will need a lot more coffins than that.”
“Battlefield Earth is like taking a bus trip with someone who has needed a bath for a long time. It’s not merely bad; it’s unpleasant in a hostile way.”
“Dice Rules is one of the most appalling movies I have ever seen. It could not be more damaging to the career of Andrew Dice Clay if it had been made as a documentary by someone who hated him. The fact that Clay apparently thinks this movie is worth seeing is revealing and sad, indicating that he not only lacks a sense of humor, but also ordinary human decency.”
“Saving Silverman is so bad in so many different ways that perhaps you should see it, as an example of the lowest slopes of the bell-shaped curve. This is the kind of movie that gives even its defenders fits of desperation. Consider my friend James Berardinelli, the best of the Web-based critics. No doubt 10 days of oxygen deprivation at the Sundance Film Festival helped inspire his three-star review, in which he reports optimistically, ‘Saving Silverman has its share of pratfalls and slapstick moments, but there’s almost no flatulence.’ Here’s a critical rule of thumb: You know you’re in trouble when you’re reduced to praising a movie for its absence of fart jokes, and have to add ‘almost.’”
And one of his most famous disses concerns Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen. It "is a horrible experience of unbearable length, briefly punctuated by three or four amusing moments. One of these involves a dog-like robot humping the leg of the heroine. Such are the meager joys. If you want to save yourself the ticket price, go into the kitchen, cue up a male choir singing the music of hell, and get a kid to start banging pots and pans together. Then close your eyes and use your imagination."
Federico Fellini’s most well-known film and a classic of Italian cinema, 8 and 1/2 continues to stand-up as a trailblazing film that introduced viewers in 1963 to an overly self-conscious form of storytelling that mixes fiction, memoir and dreamy surrealism together as a prophetic statement about the nature of celebrity, the mass media and the pressure to create art even when uninspired. Self-referential, wildly imaginative and irreverent, this classic film points the finger at the film industry and increasingly aggressive media while humorously mocking the hollowness of fame. Poking fun at both himself and his critics (both Catholics and Communists), Fellini delights in highlighting the absurdity and emotional alienation of those forced into positions of creating successful commerce while their personal life grows increasingly dysfunctional. See a trailer here.
8 and 1/2
While End of Watch’s storyline doesn’t break new ground (Cops vs Drug Cartel) in terms of fresh subject matter, the affecting bond between the two LAPD officers and the remarkable performances delivered by the actors Michael Pena and Jake Gyllenhaal are enough to recommend this gritty, police drama, written by David Ayer (Training Day). See a trailer here.
End of Watch
One of last year’s most electrifying documentaries, The Imposter will leave an indelible mark, if only to remind you how entertaining (and ultimately sad) the interplay between fact and fiction, truth and fantasy can be when linked to a thriller of a story. One cannot describe this film without spoiling much of the suspense but viewers are likely to be both scratching their heads and muttering such things as “really?”, “no way!”, and “are people really that stupid and gullible?” How does a missing 13 year old boy from Texas mysteriously reappear in southern Spain, claiming he’d been kidnapped by military personnel, tortured and sold into slavery, convince the boy’s family and government officials that he is in fact the missing teen? Well, the answer to that and much more will likely leave your head spinning as you consider the subjects’ motivation and capacity to deceive. Fans of the runaway hit Catfish will find a great deal in The Imposter to like. View the trailer here.
In preparation for St. Patrick's Day, be sure to stop in and check out some of the many films that we own that feature the Emerald Isle. We have biographies, history, travel, documentaries and feature length films that highlight the rich and vibrant culture of Ireland.
The Quiet Man
Rattle and Hum
Beckett on Film
The Swell Season
The Wind That Shakes the Barley
My Left Foot
Rick Steves' Ireland & Scotland
A Love Divided
The Butcher Boy
If you like sweet and charming dramas with a pinch of humor, may I suggest the film Liberal Arts. How I MetYour Mother’s Josh Radnor wrote, directed and starred in this film about an increasingly disaffected thirty-something suffering from a bad case of nostalgia for his college days after he finds himself stuck in an emotional rut. After being asked by one of his former college professors (Richard Jenkins) to come back to his Ohio alma mater to attend a retirement dinner, Jesse realizes how much he misses the excitement, innocence and idealism of being nineteen, intellectually hungry and feeling optimistic. Such euphoria leads him to Zibby, a classical music-loving sophomore co-ed (Elizabeth Olsen) who is talented, precocious and drawn to Jesse’s enthusiastic love of books and because he's not the typical college boy she's interested in. As their relationship develops, the issue of their age gap comes into play while Jesse’s former professor struggles with his own anxiety about his post-employment future. Liberal Arts is definitely sappy in places and oozes with maudlin marrow but if you can get past some of the movie’s weaker elements, you’ll find the core of the story’s message about aging with grace relatively well-intended and affecting.
Most filmgoers know Christopher Nolan from his work as the director behind the recent Batman films and Inception but it was the film Memento that unleashed Nolan’s talent for sinister and suspensful movies that underscore his interest in the darker elements of human nature. Nolan’s work is also interested in exploring the elasticity of narrative and how the various constituents of a story fragmented and detached from a linear unfolding, impact the viewer’s experience and expectations. Fans of his films should definitely see his first film, the playful thrillerFollowing, a Paul Auster-like nightmare where identities are swapped and nothing is as it seems. One can see in this early attempt at disorienting the viewer’s grasp of time and plot, a precursor to the brilliant Memento.
As a punk rock skateboarder in the 1980’s, Another State of Mind was the most authentic depiction of life as a teenager involved in the underground music scene that any of us had seen put to film. It could only be found on late night cable television during the eighties and early nineties (you were lucky if one of your friends had a VCR and made a copy of it) and so I leapt at the opportunity to add the DVD release to our documentary film collection, hoping it would appeal to a newer generation as well as those who experienced the eighties punk scene first-hand. Made in 1982, at the time of hardcore punk’s heyday, the film takes the viewer on a cross-country journey with legendary Southern California bands The Youth Brigade and Social Distortion. There is plenty of live footage of the bands playing but the filmmakers primarily concentrated their focus on detailing the experiences of the band members as they struggled to survive the daily grind of touring in an old school bus. There’s also quite a bit of attention given to providing voice to kids the bands met along the way as well the occasional teenage denunciation (targets include: Reagan politics, middle-class conformity, religion, etc.). It certainly brought back some fond memories of my youthful days of DIY music and culture. See a clip here.
Another State of Mind
Wayne White has worn many creative hats over the years (art director, painter, puppeteer, music video director, set designer, animator, comic book illustrator, and so on) but what is most striking about this incredibly accomplished artist is his enthusiasm for integrating humor, levity and fun into his work, a rare mission for someone who has been embraced by both the entertainment industry (Pee Wee’s Playhouse) and the fine art world of museums and galleries. Like most, I knew nothing of his life or work until I saw the wonderful documentary portrait of this high energy personality called Beauty Is Embarrassing. You’ll learn about White’s humble, Southern origins and about his artistically constituted family (including his wife Mimi Pond). There are also tender moments in between the laughter and absurdity where White discusses his upbringing and the support he had growing up from his parents. This is a great film that will inspire your inner artist and rebel.
Beauty is Embarrassing
In Richard Linklater’s Bernie, a surprise hit released in 2012, Jack Black delivers a dialed down performance worthy of award recognition. Black belts out Gospel standards, dances to show tunes and brings a dramatic depth and sympathy to the role that one rarely finds in his oeuvre of slapstick comedies. Bernie is based on a true crime set in East Texas. Black plays the lovable but quirky Bernie, the assistant funeral director who when not comforting his beloved widows, befriends the town matriarch, a mean spirited woman made of money, played by legend Shirley MacLaine. From there, Bernie’s life of piety and service spins out of control when he deviates from his saintly deeds and finds himself confronted with the truth and consequences of his actions.
Director Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter brought him huge commercial success and an Oscar Award for Best Picture in 1978. His follow-up movie, the epic Western Heaven’s Gate, became known as a major flop of a film that almost financially ruined its studio (United Artists) and led to the label of Cimino as overbearing, obsessive and overly ambitious. For those interested in the behind the scenes drama of the making of Heaven’s Gate, see Steven Bach’s book Final Cut: dreams and disaster in the making of Heaven’s Gatefor an excellent summary. The Criterion Collection has recently released the director’s cut of this notorious film and it clocks in at over 200 minutes long.
Starring an excellent group of actors like Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, Jeff Bridges, and Isabelle Huppert, Heaven’s Gate is a fictionalized story about the class and cultural conflict between the big money interests of the Wyoming Stock Grower’s Association and European immigrants who were accused of poaching cattle and land in the faraway outpost of rural Wyoming. Cimino’s vision is grand and evocative of the vast, beautiful American West, warts and all. While neither a perfectly misunderstood masterpiece nor as terrible a film as its detractors have suggested, Heaven’s Gate is worthy of a viewing but be prepared for the long haul.
Gerhard Richter Painting is basically a straight forward, gimmick-less documentary presenting the world’s most famous painter doing what he does best--making art. The aloof Richter, now in his 80’s, shows few signs of slowing down though he admits during the film that he’ll call it quits when there’s nothing left of interest. The most fascinating part of the film, which will appeal to those who are working artists themselves, are the scenes revealing Richter’s techniques, many of which are suggestive of both an unpretentious approach and a meticulous thoughtfulness to the act of creation. Few will deny the genuine eclecticism of his highly celebrated oeuvre and fewer yet, will be able to afford one of his sought after paintings even if you win the Lotto.
Gerhard Richter Painting
The Michael Haneke film Amour was nominated for Best Picture this morning in large part because of the amazing performance of 85 year-old French actress Emmanuelle Riva. But did you know that we have Riva’s first film, the brilliant Hiroshima Mon Amour? Released in 1959, the famous French New Wave director Alain Resnais’ beautiful lament for lost love, innocence and peace (both international and personal) introduced the French actress to the world. Set in the recovering city that suffered the explosion of the first atom bomb, Resnais delicately tells the touching story of two lovers, who over the course of a day, search for what it means (if anything) to remember, to forget and to heal from the wounds of war. An affecting masterpiece of both innovation and storytelling, Riva ‘s anguished character (She) attempts to explain to Eiji Okada’s (He) where she came from (the city of Nevers) and how she has arrived in Hiroshima, a city that symbolically parallels her own life’s troubled arch.
Hiroshima mon amour
Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski’s mysteriously elegant film The Double Life of Veronique explores the supernatural tale of two women, played by the same actress, who never formally meet one another and yet who look exactly the same and who both feel the presence of the other. Set in both France and Kieslowski’s native Poland, the beautiful Irene Jacob stars as both Veronique and Weronika, two women living parallel lives who both sense that they are both ‘here’ and ‘somewhere’ else at the same time. Following Weronika’s death while singing on stage in Poland, Veronique seeks answers to her strange feelings while beginning to stitch together an explanation for the odd events that have begun to culminate, increasing both her unease and her curiosity.
Double life of veronique
After years of plowing through the great films, scratching one masterpiece after another off of my cinema bucket list, I finally sat down and watched the one film that is almost unanimously regarded as the ‘best ever’—that being Orson Welles’ signature debut, Citizen Kane, released in 1941. Did it live up to the hype? Well, yes and no. No film is perfectly conceived or executed and while Welles’ masterpiece ushered in a new, modern looking and sounding film that cemented his talent, Citizen Kane left me feeling a wee bit let down, mostly because much of the intrigue of the story was already spoiled for me. I suppose my expectations were unfairly high to begin with and that I was likely responding to it with judgments based upon the 70 years of filmmaking history that it had inspired.
The tale is a Shakespearean rags-to-riches-to-fall from grace formula but one that creatively unfolds byway of a frenetic, flashback narrative structure that helped to usher in a new era of innovative methods of cinematic storytelling. The acting performances are strong and the shadow-based cinematography predates the film noir style that would become popular throughout the 1940’s. The story of the making of the film is almost as interesting as Welles’ thinly disguised portrait of newspaper magnet William Randolph Hearst. So even having been exposed to hundreds of parodies and references of this strikingly contemporary film, Citizen Kane was still worth the wait and definitely should be viewed by any serious fan of film.
If you enjoy the romantic comedy genre and don’t mind English subtitles, the movie Delicacy might be for you. Starring Amelie actress Audrey Tautou, Delicacy is a creatively anodyne yet enjoyable film about tragedy, mourning, and second chances at love. Combining the kind of predictable rom-com tropes with just enough charm and sweetness, fans of quixotic romance will likely accept the film’s lack of originality for its bountiful amount of sentimentality and tenderness. It's emotional candy for the holiday season.
We come to literature or of certain books in strange ways, sometimes circuitous, often by chance but how we get ‘there’ is of less importance than the experience we have inside of the interior worlds that our favorite books evoke. I often pick up a book when I’ve read that a particular book or author has some sort of relationship to a favorite author of mine. Usually the relationship is only tangential and often what the writers have in common is less about stylistic similarities than the sort of common themes, concerns and tones that are explored. The name of W.G. Sebald always seems to pop up in reviews, essays or on lists of great writers. Though I have not read any of his transgressive, category-less books, I recently stumbled across a documentary film that maps out his work and discusses his artistic contributions to literature. Both fascinating as a biographical introduction and as a documentary film that explores Sebald’s book The Rings of Saturn, Patience: After Sebald, has now intensified my interest in his highly praised books.
Patience: After Sebald
Oslo, August 31st is a beautiful and affecting film that will leave viewers amazed by its humane and sensitive treatment of the subject of drug addiction and depression. The film unfolds over a single day and as the film suggests, is set in the hip and fashionable parts of Oslo. We follow Anders around Norway’s capital city as he leaves his upscale, suburban drug treatment center for a job interview. His anxiety about the future is clear from the opening scenes. The trajectory of plot is presented in a straightforward and well-paced way, periodically weaving the poetic musings and memories of unseen voices (one assumes they are Anders, his family and friends into the narrative mix). Anders visits old friends for affirmation but he can’t seem to relate because of their seemingly comfortable lives. But are they comfortable? Are they happy? Will Anders utilize his intelligence, talent and strong upbringing to transform his life of addiction, fear and shame or will he sink deeper into a pit of psychic despair? I picked this movie up without knowing anything about it and I’m glad I did. This is one of the most sincere, honest and compassionate portraits of a troubled soul I’ve seen in some time.
Oslo, August 31st
Shoot the Piano Player is French New Wave director Francois Truffaut’s homage to the American noir and crime genre. Filmed in 1960, the story centers on a classically trained pianist named Edouard Saroyan, whose life has hit the skids after the tragic death of his wife, leaving him emotionally broken and looking to escape. Taking on a new identity to erase his past, Saroyan becomes Charlie Kholer, a sad and introverted piano player working in a Parisian dive bar trying to forget his life as a successful concert hall musician. Unfortunately for Charlie, his criminally minded brothers get him involved with a robbery gone badly. From there, his life spins out of control even as his romantic life begins to look up. Sad, funny and poignant, this is one of Truffaut’s best films.
Shoot the piano player
The HBO film The Artist is Present chronicles the lead-up to Marina Abramovic's incredibly popular and well-documented retrospective at the MOMA in 2010. Since she emerged as a provocative performance artist in the 1970’s, Abramovic has blurred the distinction between life and art, using her body as both a literal canvas and a means to shock and move her audiences. One of the most interesting take away’s from this well put together film is how seemingly down to earth she appears compared to the intense character and controversial nature of her creative output. I also developed a much more nuanced understanding of her creative themes and intellectual motivations while not necessarily finding the entirety of her work to my liking. However, I dare even the most cynical of us to dismiss her recent (and probably most famous) work wherein which she sat in a chair for three months straight, everyday, simply staring at museum-goers during open hours. Highly emotional, the grueling performance situates the meaning of the work inside the personal responses and experiences of those who exist before her hypnotic gaze. If this sounds like your conceptual artist’s cup of tea, give it a shot.
The Artist is present
Fans of cinema will want to look over Sight & Sound’s most recent poll of 250 of the Greatest Films ever made. Compiled once a decade since 1962, this list is a great primer for anyone interested in watching the most talked and written about works, including silent films, movies from Hollywood’s golden era, contemporary art house flicks and foreign language masterpieces from the 1950’s and 60’s. Comedies, Drama, Westerns, Noir, Romance—it’s all there. Here are the top ten:
- Citizen Kane
- Tokyo Story
- La regle du jeu
- 2001: A Space Odyssey
- The Searchers
- Man with a Movie Camera
- Passion of Joan of Arc
- 8 1/2
Passion of Joan of Arc
The history of cinema is a rich and varied one that can be enjoyed and understood by engaging in works that dot the historical timeline and cross geographic borders. If you’re a film buff who loves discovering classic films and pioneering directors like I am, you’ll certainly want to keep an eye on our collection of historically significant foreign language films. Many of the greatest films to reach the big screen came about in European, Asian and Latin American countries, where filmmaking represents a fundamental piece of their cultural identities. Below, you’ll find a brief list of foreign language films made from the mid 1950’s through today that are transformative works of art that are crucial touchstones in the development of world cinema. Many of these rule-breaking films are now available from the Criterion Collection.
- Jean-Luc Godard
- Francois Truffaut
- Carl Dreyer
- Robert Bresson
- Frederico Fellini
- Ingmar Bergman
- Wong Kar-wai
- Ranier Werner Fassbinder
- Werner Herzog
- Wim Wenders
- Akira Kurosawa
- Michangelo Antonioni
- Andrei Tarkovsky
- Roberto Rossellini
- Pedro Almodovar
- Jean Renoir
- Milos Forman
- Fritz Lang
- Krzysztof Kieslowski
- Claude Chabrol
- Louis Malle
- Luis Bunuel
- Bela Tarr
- Agnes Varda
- Ashes and Diamonds
- Werckmeister Harmonies
- Aguirre, The Wrath of God
- Umberto D
- Bicycle Thieves
- The Conformist
- Vivre sa vie
- Pierrot le fou
- Tokyo Story
- City of God
- Amores Perros
- El Topo
- Cinema Paradiso
- Breaking the Waves
- My Life as a Dog
- Fanny and Alexander
- Battleship Potemkin
- All About My Mother
- Red, White and Blue Trilogy
- Wild Strawberries
- Wings of Desire
The New York City art world in post-war America was dominated by the rise of Abstract Expressionist painting. Led by iconic painters like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning, abstract painting and its theoretical exponents tended to be an exclusive man’s club. However, there were several female painters who emerged during the late fifties and early sixties who are now recognized for their creative talents and artistic output. One of these pioneering figures was Joan Mitchell, a painter whose gestural works often hang upon the same museum walls today as her better known male counterparts. This documentary weaves together a strong and personal portrait of her life as a midcentury painter working through her romantic relationships and the frustrating battles with the gender politics of the art world. She spent much of her life in France, finding inspiration from nature and the physical universe.
ESPN Films' Catching Hell is the captivating tale of Steve Bartman and how he became a city-wide pariah and scapegoat. Who is Steve Bartman you ask? Award-winning director Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Darkside) first introduces the viewer to former Boston Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner, a man who knows a little something about having an entire city’s rage and anger directed at him and his family. During the 1986 World Series, Buckner infamously allowed a ground ball to dribble through his legs, allowing the New York Mets a Game 6 victory that would subsequently propel them on toward a Game 7 victory, thus denying the long suffering Red Sox fans a championship. Buckner was universally blamed by the Boston fans and media while the poor play of his fellow teammates went unacknowledged. In Buckner, the fans had their scapegoat and target to vent their frustration toward.
Bartman, like Buckner would also find himself at the center of a bizarre twist of fate during the 2003 National League Championship Series between the equally futile Chicago Cubs and the Florida Marlins. Five outs away from a place in the World Series, Bartman’s actions would forever link him inextricably to Chicago Cubs history. Gibney’s well directed documentary asks us why we scapegoat some while not others and to what extent do we take our love of sports too far.
The Fab 5 is a smart and nuanced documentary that will appeal to University of Michigan basketball fans that followed the meteoric rise of these five young men from highly touted high school blue chippers to college basketball icons. From the initial recruiting process of the Michigan coaching staff to the off-court legal problems faced by one of its star players, the film successfully weaves together the known and unknown while thoughtfully providing background regarding the experiences of these teenagers who were thrust under the media’s microscope from the beginning. The film does a nice job of discussing the high stakes world of collegiate basketball, the pressure to succeed and the high’s and low’s of the Fab 5’s on-court success and disappointment.
The Fab 5
The writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson takes his time and thoughtfully chooses the kinds of stories he wants to tell. To this end, his patience has left fans of his dynamic pictures with only a handful to ponder and obsess upon. Luckily, the small number of films to which he’s made (6 in all) in no way diminishes the artistic strength of the work. In fact, one might argue that with the possibility of a minor hiccup in Punch Drunk Love (a decent but not great film) that both his reputation and talent continue to grow. He is among a small number of my favorite directors working today who make powerful, smart and compelling films that eschew Hollywood conventions. His films are not easy to emotionally or intellectually abandon, as they have a unique way of sticking to your pyschic bones well after the roll of the end credits. His newest success, The Master, already christened as a tour de force by some, opens nation-wide today. We’ll have to wait a few months before it becomes available for purchase but you can always take a look back at his previous films (There Will Be Blood, Hard Eight, Magnolia).
There Will Be Blood
The award winning comedy Modern Family is comfort food television. It's a sugary snack that leaves you with a warm heart and feeling a bit gooey on the inside. Exaggerated characters full of zaney cluelessness crisscross through the lives of their siblings and parents, screwing things up for one or more of their family members. Because these characters only exist in TV Land, they always pull together to resolve the mishaps with a lesson learned and a family hug by the end of the show. It's not a show that will sit along side the Seinfeld's of the comedic world but for a few hours, you can rest your brain and let slip a few chuckles at these disfunctional clans as they navigate contemporary issues.
The documentaryJazz on a Summer’s Day (National Film Registry selection) is a one of a kind film that brings to life in lively Technicolor, the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, featuring live performances by musical legends like Louis Armstrong, Gerry Mulligan, Anita O’Day, Mahalia Jackson, and Thelonious Monk. Pieced together by art director and still photographer Bert Stern, the expressionistic film is mostly absent of dialogue or narration. However, the visual energy and kinetic tone of the film captures much more than just the great music of the day by extending its images beyond the stage to capture the colorful fashion and style of the late fifties (delight in the myriad of cool sunglasses and hipster chic), not to mention costal scenes shot of yacht races and summertime Newport life.
Jazz on a summer's day
Jack Cardiff was the twentieth century’s biggest name in cinematography. Camerman: the life and work of Jack Cardiff documents his long and storied career as a remarkable innovator of the art of shooting films. Having worked with the most famous actors and directors from the 1940’s on, Cardiff shares intimate details about the movie industry men and women who he worked with and filmed including Michael Powell, Alfred Hitchcock, Marilyn Monroe, Kirk Douglas, Charleton Heston, Sophia Loren, and Audrey Hepburn. Cardiff applied his interest in painting and light to his work with the Technicolor film that came of age after World War Two. His relationship with director Michael Powell during the late 40’s was incredibly fruitful having resulted in some of the most expressive and beautiful images put to the big screen including classic films Black Narcissus, Stairway to Heaven and Red Shoes. Film buffs will love this!
Cameraman: the life and work of jack cardiff
Our film collection offers a wide variety of educational and documentary portraits of many fascinating and noteworthy individuals whose contributions, in most cases, left a significant mark on the historical record. Whether you’re a history buff or a student looking to supplement print resources, don’t forget to browse our biographical works. Over the years we’ve blended artsy documentaries like The Fog of War, I’m Still Here, Man on Wire, Tarnation, and In the Realms of the Unreal: The Mystery of Henry Darger with PBS portraits of Ansel Adams, Mark Twain, Ronald Reagan, Frida Khalo,Woody Gutherie, Walt Whitman, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Here’s a sampling of some of the persons you may want to learn more about:
George H.W. Bush
John and Abigail Adams
Robert E. Lee
Frank Lloyd Wright
Charles and Ray Eames
Oddballs and Miscellaneous
The Fab Five
Fog of war
Technically, I've missed the mid-year mark but here's a list of my picks for recommended film viewing. I'm sure other titles will end up on the year-end tally (I suspect P.T. Anderson's The Master will be my number one) but here's a start.
Beasts of the Southern Wild
In no way deserving of the hype that this buzzed about indie has received but certainly warrants watching. A five year old protagonist's cute face and acting chops can't save this picture's flaws but many will find its story uplifting and moving.
Damsels in Distress
Indie darling and pre-Wes Anderson autuer of the twee aristrocracy, Whit Stillman returns with a film that will no doubt divide audiences along love/hate lines.
The Turin Horse
Bleak, hopeless, painfully unfolded end of the world fair shot in a sumptuous black and white that will appeal to the existentialist-leaning devotees of Bresson, Bergman and Tarkovsky. No Michael Bay stuff here.
The Deep Blue Sea
A somber story of heartache and loss expressed through the fine acting of British actress Rachel Weisz.
Gerhard Richter Painting
A straight forward documentary that will likely appeal to those familiar with the world's most famous living painter's role in the shaping of post-war art.
The Turin Horse
There are quite a few similarities between the 1945 British drama Brief Encounter and the newly released Deep Blue Sea. Both stories are set in post-war England, a drab and darkly lit place where background buildings show the ill effects of Germany’s bombing raids and where the sun rarely shines. Both tales bring to light the inner frustration of women caught in difficult situations where the sum of their choices and regrets, understood as matters of the conflicted heart, may lead them down the road toward unhappiness or social stigma. Rachel Weisz is simply brilliant at playing the unhappy wife who falls for a younger, ex-fighter pilot to escape her bland, loveless marriage, only to find out that life is rarely forgiving when the comforts of privilege and stability are stripped away. I’ve always enjoyed the acting of Weisz and I’m hoping her performance receives some attention come award season. The film’s reoccurring score is also a lush and beautiful lament that captures the somber tone perfectly.
Brief Encounter, directed by the great British director David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago, Bridge on the River Kwai) also tackles the subject of temptation and fidelity (see also: In the Mood for Love). A lonely but relatively content housewife meets a stranger at a railway station, sparks fly and the two develop a romance that may or may not lead to something further. Both films have very straightforward, traditional plots that rely heavily upon the authentic, emotional turmoil of conflicted characters and the choices they make and their subsequent consequences.
Deep blue sea
The PBS television series The History Detectives, not known for drawing attention to itself, made headlines this week by declaring that they have found and authenticated the Fender guitar used by Bob Dylan at the legendary 1965 Newport Folk Festival. The current owners of the guitar, the daughter of a man who flew private planes for Dylan in the 60’s, claims that her father picked up the sunburst Stratocaster after it was left behind after a trip. Not so fast says Dylan’s representatives, who claim the famous axe is still in the possession of Dylan. Who is right? We’ll just have to see, given Dylan hasn’t stated whether or not he’ll actually provide physical proof to contradict the program’s evidence.
Several months earlier, Dylan and filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker joined forces to film several of his United Kingdom shows. Don’t Look Back is a classic rockumentary that takes you behind closed doors to give you access to a somewhat contrived Dylan and his growing dissatisfaction with fame and with his folkie fans. His sycophantic entourage and their gratuitous mocking of both the press and his contemporaries (see: Joan Baez and Donovan) are weaved in between the footage of Dylan playing songs from his albums Another Side of Bob Dylan, Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited.
Don't Look Back
Summertime in hot, hot, Michigan means getting out on the tennis courts, baseball diamonds, soccer fields, trails and of course, diving in the water. For those days where the sweltering weather is prohibitive for even the most dedicated of athletes, be sure to stop by the library and browse our eclectic collection of sports-related documentaries.
Muhammad and Larry
Jews and Baseball
Vintage World Series Films, Detroit
ABC Wide World of Sports: 40 Years of Glory
The Birth of Big Air
Thrilla in Manila
Only the Ball Was White
Jews and baseball
Bobby Fischer Against the World is a fascinating rise and fall portrait of a man that struggled with genius, fame and mental illness. From his troubled childhood to his triumphant victory over the Soviet world champion Boris Spassky in 1972 and concluding with his final days living in national disgrace and exile, Fischer captivated the world with both his extraordinary aptitude for chess and his often peculiar public image. A fair and balanced documentary that presents the perspectives and recollections of those who knew him best throughout his life, Fischer’s tumultuous story is both sad and bewildering.
Bobby Fischer Against the World
The multi-episode series On the Waterways is a fun documentary that takes the viewer along with a young ship crew of college-age adventurers and introduces us to the many individuals and communities that lie alongside a body of water, while highlighting the important role that water has played in the development of towns and economies throughout the United States. Narrated by the late actor Jason Robards, On the Waterways may look and feel a bit outdated but it still stands up as an entertaining and educational examination on the relationship between humans and their environment.
On the waterways
Writer and director Nora Ephron passed away yesterday from cancer. Some of her films include Silkwood, When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, You've Got Mail, Heartburn, and Julie & Julia. Known for quirky, romantic comedies, Ephron's work lives on here at KPL.
Julie & Julia
I don’t often use the superlative ‘masterpiece’ when describing movies but Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker warrants such a descriptor. This enigmatic allegory that routinely finds its way onto ‘Best Of’ lists was almost never made due to the careless corruption (it has been suggested that Soviet authorities were responsible for the film’s destruction) of the original film stock, which then forced its brilliant director to reshoot most of the film a second time even as his health declined.
Stalker, a parable film known for its long, beautifully developed scenes and cryptic plot, delves as deep as any film before or after into the murky, existentialist terrain that one finds in the cinematic work of masters Robert Bresson and Ingmar Bergman (Tarkovsky’s major influences). One of the most gorgeous films you will watch, Tarkovsky blends vibrant colors with sepia toned silver, with each shot meticulously filmed and edited to emphasize both nature’s beauty and its mysteries.
The film’s three characters (the Stalker, the Writer, the Professor) journey into a mysterious, quarantined off area referred to as The Zone for different reasons. Rumors abound of a secretive room that exists at the heart of this depopulated area that Soviet authorities have surrounded and barred entrance. The room will allegedly grant you a wish of your making. The Stalker, who is paid by The Scientist and the Writer to sneak them past the Soviet guards into The Zone may or may not be who he says he is. With a famous ending that rewards the patience of the viewer, Stalker is like no other film you will experience.
From time to time, a film buried long ago, unknown to most, emerges from its cult status to reclaim its proper place in the pantheon of great cinema. The 1956 documentary On the Bowery is one such film that can make that claim. Introduced by the legendary filmmaker Martin Scorsese, who explains why he identifies with the film both on a personal and historical level (he grew up a few blocks away from where the film was shot), Lionel Rogosin’s On the Bowery takes the viewer to the famously impoverished New York City street known for housing the destitute and those suffering from alcohol abuse. While there is a very simplistic plot setup that frames the film’s three day course, most of the film captures the essence of the Bowery by employing a kind of impressionistic realism that gives the film its gritty, naturalistic look. Rogosin sought to portray his subjects sympathetically, simply showing their persoanl struggles without preaching or romanticizing their plight. The film was added to the prestigious National Film Registry in 2008 because of it groundbreaking stature.
On the bowery
For steadfast Beatles fan, this HBO documentary by Martin Scorsese is a must-see film. For the casual music buff, you’ll learn all about Harrison’s life as the “quiet Beatle”, from his austere, post-war Liverpool upbringing to life in the Fab Four and thereafter. Harrison’s unique contribution to both the music world and his interest in Indian spiritual practices are fully explored through old interview footage, concert clips and the honest remarks of friends and family like Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Olivia Harrison and Paul McCartney.
George Harrison: living in the material world
I’ve really enjoyed watching many of the sports-meets-society series called 30 for 30, produced by ESPN Films. Each film tackles a singular sports subject by broadening the scope of the featured topic by taking into account the social, economic, and cultural determinants as well as the historical impact. The films are well produced and include candid commentary by journalists, athletes and entertainers. One Night in Vegas details the final moments before the rapper Tupac Shakur was killed. The library owns the following films in this series:
Straight Outta L.A.
June 17th, 1994
One Night in Vegas
The Birth of Big Air
The Two Escobars
No Crossover: the trial of Allen Iverson
Little Big Men
Muhammad and Larry
One night in vegas
For those too young to remember or to have lived during the Black Power Movement of the late 1960's, this film will function as an introduction to some of the seminal figures in this political and cultural movement designed to radically reorganize society, redistribute economic power more equitably and shift the Civil Rights Movement toward a more confrontational style. Black Power Mixtape, 1967-1975 is composed of mostly news footage shot by Swedish journalists eager to understand the explosive social issues confronting American society, namely, the role that key civil rights leaders like Stokely Carmichael, Angela Davis and the Black Panthers were playing in rethinking the movement’s strategies and goals. Throughout the film, both new and old commentators alike (Erykah Badu, Harry Belafonte, Talib Kweli, and Melvin Van Peebles) share their thoughts about the legacy and importance of these historical figures and their relevance to today’s younger generation.
Black Power Mixtape
In the documentary Stone Reader, filmmaker Mark Moskowitz tries to locate the author of the 1972 novel The Stones of Summer, a book that was critically acclaimed when first published but that dissapeared from library shelves as quickly as its author dropped out of the limelight, never writing another book again. Moskowitz cites the book as one of his favorite reading experiences while in his twenties and is clearly fascinated by the cultural and pyschological power of great literature. He wonders why a writer as talented as Dow Mossman threw in the towell after his initial success. Along the way toward locating Mossman (assuming he does), Moskowitz interviews writers and critics about the creative process in an attempt to better understand what may have driven Mossman's retreat from writing. A small yet affecting film, Stone Reader will reinvigorate your love for the classics and for reading in general.
Charles and Ray Eames were the two most popular American furniture designers during the 1950’s but they were more than just the creative face of mid-century, American modernism. They made a variety of different kinds of films, designed groundbreaking homes, constructed wartime leg splints using plywood, were commissioned to create animated commercials for IBM and much more. Follow this fascinating journey from their humble beginnings at the Michigan-based Cranbrook Academy of Art to the evolution of their successful firm in Los Angeles. Eames: The Architect and the Painter is a dazzling introduction for the lay person and a wonderful celebration of two of the most important artists of the 20th Century for the rabid fans of their coveted chairs.
Eames [videorecording] : the architect and the painter
Thanks to the strong acting performance of Oscar nominated actor Demian Bichir, hopefully more film fans will be drawn to the emotionally moving and poignant film A Better Life. The storyline is straight forward and echoes other journey films of immigrant life like El Norte or In America. The narrative centers on the personal struggle of a single father working to keep his son from gravitating toward the allure of gang life while he works toward starting his own landscaping business amidst the constant threat of deportation. A wonderful and affecting film about the love between father and son, A Better Life balances sentimentality with the material realism of today’s immigrant experience.
A Better Life
A classic is a work of art that can stand the test of time and remain relevant, fresh and engaging years after its creation. It possesses the internal mechanisms and universal themes to produce pleasure and awake interest in its audience year after year. Its appeal will carry on long after trends and fads dissolve into the dustbin of historical detritus. The films of John Hughes are unquestionably considered classics today by both the navel gazing critic and the new movie fan alike. Hughes worked mostly in the 1980’s, mostly concentrating his writing and directing on intelligently conceived teen comedies (The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, Some Kind of Wonderful) that possessed depth, dimension and pathos, characteristics that were rare for youth-centered movies of the eighties. Hughes had a string of hits that he either wrote or directed beginning with Sixteen Candles (1984) thru Home Alone (1990).
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, a hilarious romp that follows the afternoon adventures of a school skipping Ferris, his girlfriend Sloane and his best friend Cameron, launched the career of Matthew Broderick and also featured a cameo from a young Charlie Sheen. Arguably one of Hughes’ best “teen” films, it continues to feel unsullied by time, even today, twenty six years after it was released.
Ferris Bueller's Day Off
The film review web site rottentomatoes.com gave the documentary film The Interrupters a score of 99 percent “Fresh”. Other movie critics have also been quick to praise the gritty, unromanticized film that brings to light the challenges faced by a small group of urban mediators tirelessly working to halt violence and resolve conflict on Chicago’s most unforgiving streets. Day after day, shooting after shooting, the members of CeaseFire take to the streets in Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods to work with communities on how to better resolve disputes. You’ll learn about the personal stories of these community heroes and why they’ve dedicated their lives to stem the tide of youth violence when the odds are so clearly stacked against them. There is little discussion of the social and economic factors that play a central role in why violence is such an epidemic fact of everyday life in many parts of the United States however even as it refuses to explore solutions or to critically analyze the roots of violence, this striking film is well worth exploring. Here is a video clip of one of the featured interrupters on the Colbert Report.
Like many of the famous rock stars of the 1960’s who lived fast and died young, Jean-Michel Basquiat exploded on to the world art scene in the early 1980’s, made a sizeable impact on the development of painting, was befriended by his idol Andy Warhol, grabbed headlines as an enfant terrible, and then was dead at 27. Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child chronicles the meteoric rise and fall of this painter whose relationship to the art world was deeply complicated. Once the beloved darling of the downtown art scene, then castigated as a manufactured, one-hit wonder, Basquiat’s legacy and artistic achievements have been firmly cemented with the passage of time. This is a perfect documentary to watch in celebration of Black History Month.
Jean-Michel Basquiat: the radiant child
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.
On a recent day, whilst in the midst of reflecting upon the great breadth of films we own at KPL and those I’ve watched, I challenged myself to list 100 of my favorite movies while acknowledging that such a list was neither full nor accurate (the problem of memory). I’m sure I’m missing some very obvious choices but here they are, in no particular order and with almost no employed criteria involved whatsoever. Later on this year, I'll add another 100 to the mix.
Harold and Maude
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
There Will Be Blood
My Left Foot
Dog Day Afternoon
Au Hasard Balthazar
Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner
The Elephant Man
The Breakfast Club
Breakfast at Tiffany’s
Tree of Life
Cool Hand Luke
All the President’s Men
Night of the Hunter
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Rebel Without a Cause
The Way We Were
The Royal Tenenbaum’s
A Few Good Men
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Coal Miner’s Daughter
Dead Man Walking
The Shawshank Redemption
Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
My Own Private Idaho
The Deer Hunter
A Streetcar Named Desire
Full Metal Jacket
Little Big Man
Kramer Vs Kramer
The Last Picture Show
Do the Right Thing
Frankie and Johnny
My Life as a Dog
Wings of Desire
Silence of the Lambs
Thelma and Louise
This is Spinal Tap
Raiders of the Lost Ark
When Harry Met Sally
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf
The Age of Innocence
The Big Lebowski
In the Mood for Love
Days of Heaven
Glengarry Glen Ross
The professional [videorecording]
Of the films nominated for the best picture award at this year’s Academy Awards, my vote goes to the impressive, sprawling, sublimely beautiful Tree of Life. Terrence Malick is one of my favorite directors and so it comes as no surprise that I’m voting for this ambitious, yet not altogether perfect allegory that mixes the personal with the historical, the metaphysical with the existential with lush, painterly strokes. Tree of Life is more like a romantic painting or an extended tone poem than a linear, Hollywood cliché designed to sell overpriced candy and heart-stopping popcorn and for that reason alone, it will not win.
On a side note, the film's studio has elected not to release this film as a stand-alone DVD in an attempt to boost its Blu-ray sales and to shift consumer buying practices. Unfortunately, libraries are then only able to circulate the extra DVD's that come with the Blu-ray editions.
Tree of Life
A difficult documentary to summarize, Nostalgia for the Light is one of the best nonfiction films I’ve seen in a while. The film is not about one thing in particular but rather synthesizes relatively tangential subjects into a beautiful lament for innocence lost and memories of lost ones. Beautifully crafted, NFTL ties the scientific quest for understanding the origins of our planet with the somber task of mourning and emotional closure for victims of the Chilean military coup in 1973. Highly recommended.
Nostalgia for the Light
There have been several touching, documentary portraits of musicians that are known both for their significant contributions to the world of music and for their personal struggles. Fans of cult artists like Daniel Johnston (The Devil and Daniel Johnston), Gram Parsons (Gram Parsons, Fallen Angel) and Harry Nilsson (Who is Harry Nilsson: And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him?) will surely want to watch Be Here to Love Me, the story of influential troubadour Townes Van Zandt. This is a wonderful introduction to Van Zandt’s story and one that shouldn’t be ignored if you enjoy the music of country and folk artists like Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, Guy Clark and Steve Earle.
Be here to love me
The clanging of bells hung around the necks of goats, the elderly herder and his incessantly barking dog, and the soft whistle of an Italian breeze. Great films don’t always need a lot of dialogue and this one is no exception. A poetic and haunting film full of rich and mysterious images, director Michelangelo Frammartino forces the audience to surrender not to the language of a fabricated and plot-driven dialogue but rather to the meditative sounds of our mundane lives, the stirring rhythms of life—birth, death, ritual, and nature are presented as long, visual poems. This film is much better experienced than described so I won’t say much other than to suggest that Le Quattro Volte (The Four Times) is one of the year’s most enigmatic films, once again, reinforcing the idea that a skillful use of economy and delicacy can produce a profound and moving piece of art.
Le Quattro Volte
There have been a slew of Saturday Night Live alumni that haven’t accomplished much of anything after they departed from the long-running late night show. For every Tina Fey or Eddie Murphy, there have been countless cast members whose careers stalled. Fey’s good friend and sometime collaborator Amy Poehler, has had tremendous success with her hit show Parks and Recreation. I just love this show for its bumbling characters and madcap storylines, all of which center around the Parks and Recreation Department in the fictional city of Pawnee, Indiana. Longtime fans of the show The Office will recognize many similarities between the two series, including how the show is formatted, filmed and narrated. Here’s to hoping that the quirky, smart plotlines continue to stay fresh and hilarious.
Parks and Recreation
The newly released film Submarine is a sharply written, sweetly-toned, dark comedy reminiscent of the quirky films of Wes Anderson (see: Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaum’s) and the lively joie de vivre of the French New Wave. The film doesn’t cover new ground in terms of themes and subject matter, but it sustains your interest and deserves to be seen for the beautifully rendered cinematography (the gray, sunless beauty of the Welsh coast is its own character) and the strong acting performances, especially the work of Sally Hawkins and Noah Taylor as the protagonist’s parents. The movie is an adaptation of the novel by author Joe Dunthorne, who also co-wrote the screenplay.
Oliver Tate is an angst-filled and precocious teen who sits in class, fantasizing about his own death and how his schoolmates will remember him (heroically of course). Cut from a similar cloth as Harold from Harold and Maude and possessive of the qualities of a slightly neurotic, hormonally-driven teenager (see: every coming of age movie over the past fifty years) who speaks with a rapid-fire deadpan, Oliver sets out to address his two biggest concerns as a 15 year-old: saving his parents’ marriage from a new age “mystic” and figuring out his relationship with his firework’s-obsessed, anti-romantic romantic girlfriend Jordana. In between these two goals, Oliver plays movies in his head and listens to the records of French crooners. He constructs mental films of his existential woes (what tormented teen doesn’t?) and not surprisingly, has a Woody Allen photo on his bedroom wall and reads Catcher in the Rye and Nietzsche (because as we all know, most teens are reading The Birth of Tragedy). His problems range from the domestic to the romantic, both conflicts driving him to actions both absurdly funny and achingly real. Some of the best parts of the movie are when Oliver attempts to intervene in his parents’ rocky marriage, spying on them both while conceiving of ways to bring them closer. The soundtrack, written by Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys is fantastic as well.
Over the past couple of months, I’ve been compiling my Best of 2011 list, an annual ritual of sorts, comprised of my favorite books, movies and music published throughout the year. But what about all of the great movies and music from years gone by that I’ve recently embraced and enjoyed? Well, here is a list of films that I’ve recently viewed, some of which are well known classics and others that are gems just waiting to be discovered and checked out. Compared to recently released films, they hold up quite well.
All That Heaven Allows: The great director Douglas Sirk’s classic tale of domestic and social conflict between a restless widow (Jane Wyman) and a close minded society that refuses to accept her love for a younger man played by Rock Hudson. The vibrant Technicolor and use of innovative filming techniques makes this seemingly conventional melodrama an influential touchstone for contemporary directors like Todd Haynes (his great movie Far From Heaven is a reworked homage to Sirk’s classic) and Ranier Fassbinder.
A Streetcar Named Desire: A stunning movie when you consider the time period in which it was made. Everything you’ve read about Marlon Brando’s visceral performance is accurate. His explosive screen presence set the stage for younger method actors to take more expressive approaches to acting. What I didn't know was how mesmerizing Vivian Leigh was going to be as the doomed Blanche DuBois.
Night of the Hunter: A perfectly rendered performance by Robert Mitchum as the creepy murderer posing as a preacher (famously adorned with the words hate and love tattooed on his knuckles) makes Night of the Hunter one of the 1950's most influential films. Mitchum’s deranged killer faces off against two children and an ornery grandmother as he tries to secure a large sum of stolen money. The famous ditty sung by Mitchum throughout the film was referenced by the Joel and Ethan Coen in their 2010 film True Grit during the closing credits.
Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore: One of the director Martin Scorsese’s lesser known films from the 1970’s but a strong, poignant film nonetheless. Driven by the award-winning, tour de force performance of Ellen Burstyn, Alice tells the story of a young mother in search of a career as a torch singer. Unsuccessful in love and singing, Alice ends up in the American Southwest working as a waitress at Mel’s Diner (later to be spun off as a television sitcom). Kris Kristofferson plays a man who shows an interest in Alice and her son. Will Alice settle down and marry or will she head off to California to strike it big as a singer? Her quirky, talkative son provides the movie’s comedic and lighthearted touches. Cameos by future stars include a very young Jodie Foster and Scorsese regular Harvey Keitel.
The Big Sleep: A lively if often convoluted whodunit, this first adaptation of the Raymond Chandler classic, was a major success at the box offices when it was released in 1946. Starring Hollywood’s hottest couple at the time, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, this Phillip Marlowe-centered, detective thriller is one of the few book adaptations that translates well to the big screen in large part to the great chemistry between the two stars and the crackling dialogue, filled with gritty innuendo.
Alice Doesn't Live here Anymore
The Swedish coming of age film My Life as a Dog (1987) is both touching and lighthearted, successfully balancing sentimentality with multifaceted, dramatic themes (loss, death, sexuality, friendship, etc.). The director Lasse Hallstrom’s most impressive work to date (even admitting in a 2002 interview that he has yet to top it with subsequent movies), tells the tale of both the innocent blossoming of youth and the harsh realization that life’s twists and turns often result in both delight and sorrow. Set in both the Swedish city and the bucolic countryside, My Life as a Dog follows the puberty-saddled Ingemar, a precocious 12 year old that cannot seem to avoid trouble, a predicament that makes life difficult for his ill mother and antagonistic brother. Sent to live with his Aunt and Uncle during the summer months, Ingemar comes to grip with both the hard truths of life and its rich and beautiful possibilities. A Soviet dog abandoned in space, the sweet science of boxing, a confusing if not budding friendship/romance, eccentric townies and a controversial sculpture add peripheral character to this charming story of embracing setbacks with humor, love and barking.
My Life as a Dog
This is a must-see documentary for parents who have children engaged in violent sports like football. Tackling the dangerous rise in concussions and physical injuries to young football players, Football High also shines a light on the culture and industry of high stakes football programs. As more and more evidence mounts regarding the brain’s response to concussions and accumulative damage from physical trauma, the film's producers pose the question: what are the long-term risks associated with violent sports and are schools prepared for the consequences or will big money and athletic prestige trump the safety and health of student athletes?
Marwencol is the story of Mark Hogancamp, a man who constructed a fictional universe made up of World War 2 toy soldiers and Barbie dolls. This first-rate documentary follows Hogancamp’s artistic endeavors and provides the contextual grounding for understanding Hogancamp’s drive to heal both physically and emotionally while exploring in great detail, the highly personal and original nature of his work. Hogancamp was brutally attacked outside of a bar by five people. After emerging from a coma, he lost most of his memories and suffered both physical and emotional damage as a result. For therapeutic reasons and to aid in his recovery, Hogancamp began to develop a fictional account of a war strewn town called Marwencol (constructed outside of his trailer home) populated by soldiers, wherein which many of the characters assume the names of friends and co-workers in Hogancamp’s real life. Hogancamp situates the dolls within a variety of plot twists, even going so far as to fashion a time machine out of an old VCR that allows one of his characters travel time in order to save the story’s main protagonist from the Nazi dolls. He then photographs the dolls playing out their various scenes, many of which mirror Hogancamp’s own life.
What happens when Hogancamp’s fantasy world of violence and revenge is discovered by an art critic and subsequently asked to exhibit his work in a fancy NYC art gallery? You’ll just have to find out. Marwencol will appeal to artists and non-artists alike. Recommended.
Has it really been 25 years I heard my inner voice ask yesterday when NPR highlighted the quarter of a century anniversary of Stand by Me, the classic film adaptation of a Stephen King short story that starred a young River Phoenix. I find myself often uttering those words more and more. A true sign of aging I suppose.
But anyway, back to the movie. Rob Reiner of All in the Family fame directed this tale of a group of young high school boys who venture out into the wild Oregon mountains in search of a missing body, presumably that of a local boy who had died. What they ultimately learn is that family relations are complex, growing up can be difficult and that the friendships that they develop during the teenage years can last a very long time. Check out this classic 80’s coming of age tale.
Stand by me
Last year’s Rabbit Holeshares several thematic similarities with the Best Picture of 1980, Robert Redford’s Ordinary People. Both films tackle the subject of grief and how the painful loss of a child often can lead to marital strain as the two people struggle to forgive themselves and to move on with their lives. It’s a simple story: a young boy is accidentally killed while chasing the family dog into the street. The husband and wife, played with humanity and compassion by Aaron Eckhart and Nicole Kidman work through their emotional pain, sadness and guilt by taking different paths toward healing. I was most surprised by the range of emotional depth that Eckhart brought to his role. Overall, Rabbit Hole succeeds by not being heavy handed and manipulative but rather a genuine glimpse of two people trying to make sense of their new world.
As I was driving to work today, I was reminded of the seminal 1990’s film Boyz in the Hood by way of a National Public Radio piece that summarized the story of how the movie was made and its lasting legacy. A college film student by the name of John Singleton wrote and directed this powerful depiction of life in South Central Los Angeles, a community in the late eighties that was struggling with gang violence. With a strong cast and script, BITH went on to have both commercial and critical success, launching the acting careers of Cuba Gooding Jr. and the rapper Ice Cube. A Blu-ray edition has been released and will be here soon.
Boyz in the hood
The veteran actor Peter Falk passed away last week at the age of 83. Most associate the late actor with the television series Columbo. However, my favorite Falk performances are from the seminal 1970’s John Cassavetes film Woman Under the Influence and the poetic Wings of Desire, directed by Wim Wenders.
Wings of Desire
You might not think that a film where the primary character is stuck in the same place without the capacity to move for almost a week would possess the kind of dramatic force and narrative flow that is required of a movie almost two hours in length but Danny Boyle’s127 Hours succeeds in keeping the audience focused and committed to the real-life story of Aron Ralston by intercutting flashbacks and dream-like sequences. It’s a terrifying journey yet one with a happy ending.
Ralston, played by actor James Franco, becomes trapped within a canyon wall in the Utah desert after a large boulder falls upon his right arm. Miles away from help and with little hope of rescue, Ralston must find within himself the physical and emotional strength to survive an almost unbelievable situation. For almost a week, the ingenious Ralston attempts to free his arm but to no avail. Finally, as death nears, Aron decides to extract himself with one last attempt. It should be noted that the squeamish may want to avert their eyes from some of the more gory details of Ralston’s heroic escape.
So what is Magnolia about? Well, it’s a movie that covers the deep contours and complexities of life lived and the death to be faced, the burden of guilt and the redemptive quality of forgiveness, the reconciliation of the past while struggling day to day to survive the here and now, the mysteriousness of coincidence and the weight of chance, and a few descending amphibians. You won’t find a film with a better ensemble cast. Directed and written with masterful grace and humanity by Paul Thomas Anderson, lovers of intelligent movies will forgive the film for its length (3 hours). Magnolia, more than just a flower, it’s a masterpiece that pieces together disparate lives and flawlessly connects them to what is often called the human condition. The two soundtracks (Jon Brion and Aimee Mann) are also fantastic companion pieces.
American film director/writer Terrence Malick is by no means prolific. In fact, the much admired auteur has only produced a handful of films over the past 30 years--his fifth work coming out this summer (Tree of Life). Malick’s movies are lush, visually sensual pictures mostly shot in outdoor settings, using natural light. His directorial style, known for its poetic touch, nevertheless wrestles with serious subject matter including the fog of war (The Thin Red Line), violence and celebrity (Badlands) and colonization (The New World). Fans of Malick’s work are a patient lot and are hoping that the star-studded (Brad Pitt and Sean Penn) Tree of Life lives up to the inevitable hype.
Admittedly, I’m not a very big fan of television series. Those that I do enjoy tend to be dramas or comedies featured on cable networks (The Sopranos, Deadwood, In Treatment, Six Feet Under, MadMen, Curb Your Enthusiasm). A friend of mine who is predisposed to making awful suggestions regarding films and television series mentioned that I might like the comedy How I Met Your Mother. Well, apparently you cannot be wrong all of the time and in this particular case, my friend’s suggestion hit the mark. HIMYM centers on mid-twenty-something, hopeless romantic Ted Mosby and his quirky journey to find his soul mate amongst millions of New Yorkers. Alongside Ted are his best friends Barney (the lecherous womanizer and author of the Bro Code), Lily and Marshall (the perfect, engaged couple) and Robin (a possible love interest). The unreliable narration unfolds in reverse to Ted’s children via flashbacks by the dubbed voice of Bob Saget in the year 2030.
How I Met Your Mother
Never Let Me Go is a grim dystopia that explores the triangular relationship between Tommy, Kathy and Ruth—three British boarding school students who attempt to understand and reconcile secrets about their lives that sealed their fates when they were born. Based upon the novel by British writer Kazuo Ishiguro (Remains of the Day), audiences who prefer their movies full with hope and buoyancy will likely be unsatisfied. Aside from the uncompromising darkness of the movie, the actors give strong performances and the cinematography is remarkably rendered with artistic flare.
Never let me go
Maybe you never heard of these series when they were first produced or maybe they didn’t appear on the surface to be your cup of tea, so you bypassed them altogether. Now, like a fine wine, aged with time, these programs are considered classics which pushed the television industry envelope. Here are a couple of television gems within our collection that you may want to revisit or experience for the first time.
Sports Night: A show written and produced by the award-winning writer Aaron Sorkin shortly before he moved his focus to The West Wing. Sports Night fuses comedy and drama together with a rapid-fire delivery of dialogue, reminiscent of Sorkin’s best work (A Few Good Men, The Social Network, Studio 60 on theSunset Strip). The show struggled to find a balance between humor and more weighty subject matter and thus confused both its network and audiences (the addition of laugh tracks were eliminated by the second season). It lasted a mere two seasons but is thought of as a forward-thinking show that posited inventive ideas about how to mix comedy and drama with the occasional sprinkling of politics.
Freaks and Geeks: Another show that baffled its network at the time of its release in 1999 and yet garnered both critical acclaim and a robust fan base. Set in 1980’s Michigan, Freaks and Geeks, like Sports Night, was adept at suturing madcap narratives and hilarious dialogue to sensitive themes and dramatic depth. The series centered around two high school cliques—the nervous and awkward incoming freshman crowd and the hard-to-reach students comprised of school rebels. The character Bill Haverchuck may be the most layered and multidimensional nerd in the history of television. Judd Apatow, the successful film director and producer was an Executive Producer on Freaks and Geeks and many of its actors have appeared in his other movie projects. The show’s future stars included James Franco, Jason Segel, Busy Philipps, and Seth Rogen.
The Larry Sanders Show: Years before Curb Your Enthusiasm emerged as one of HBO’s most cringe-worthy comedies and years before the overly self-conscious and meta-choreographed rise of reality television and shows like Entourage, there was The Larry Sanders Show—a show about a show. Comedian Gary Shandling plays a neurotic talk show host who rarely has a day off from the various shenanigans that fate has dealt him. Surrounding Larry is a well-rounded cast of celebrities playing themselves, often to hilarious effect as well has his screwball agent (Rip Torn), his Ed McMahon-like sidekick (Jeffrey Tambor) and host of other future stars like Jeremy Piven and Janeane Garofalo.
Freaks and Geeks
In today’s post, I’d like to highlight several films that engage in one way or another with the theme of forgiveness (both of oneself and that of others). The affirmative expression of forgiveness and its role in repairing damaged lives and communities will be a central point of discourse during this year’s Reading Together programs. Each of these films and their characters either directly or sometimes in subtle ways explores the ways in which subjects negotiate the complexities of forgiveness, either on a broad social level or that of individuals in search of unburdening of some sort of psychic pain in order to reconnect (Ordinary People). Throughout these films, there is a thematic current of struggle to redeem and to mend, coursing its way through the lives of characters as they hunt for meaning in an otherwise turbulent and uncertain world. Whether it’s the death row inmate seeking forgiveness prior to his execution in Dead Man Walking or the colonial slave trader in The Mission looking to amend for his earlier crimes amongst the same community he unjustly worked to destroy, films have long probed the difficulties and possibilities involved with reconciliation. So while you’re enjoying the book discussions with your fellow community members and participating in a Reading Together program or two, don’t forget to supplement your engagement with this always timely and dynamic topic with a thought provoking film from our rich collection.
The Straight Story
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
The Royal Tenenbaum's
In my previous post, I mentioned the film In the Mood for Love because of its lush and stylistic cinematography. Released in 2000 by acclaimed director Wong Kar-wai, the film takes place in Hong Kong in 1962. Two lonely neighbors are brought together over the fact that their spouses are engaged in an affair; and while they're committed to not duplicating the deceit by having their own tryst, a bond between them developes a unique intensity as they find solace in eachother's company. A film that resists cliche at every turn, In the Mood for Love is buttressed with strong acting performances and an amazing musical theme that evokes the anxiety and aching desire between these two characters as they grow closer with every masterfully shot frame. A truely original work of simplicity and beauty!
In the Mood for Love
There are certain films that are beautifully rendered and a joy to watch because of the way in which the cinematographer has chosen to use light or a certain kind of film that produces striking and dynamic images. Here are a few of my favorite films where color, light and shadows are as central to the end product as are the plot, characters or setting.
Days of Heaven
In the Mood for Love
The Man Who Wasn’t There
The Thin Red Line
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
The Street Stops Here mixes dramatic tension, high-stakes basketball and the economic recession into a documentary film that packs an authentic, emotional punch. The film is a superb portrait of a small, Jersey City Catholic school (St. Anthony) under pressure financially to keep its doors open while the school’s storied basketball program and its inimitable coach Bob Hurley Sr. seek to win their 25th state title. Like the award-winning Hoop Dreams before it, The Street Stops Here depicts the lives of several key seniors, both their off the court struggles to transcend their disadvantaged upbringing as well as their struggle to win their first state championship, However, its Hurley, a former probation officer, who takes center stage throughout the film as the audience gains intimate access to his heavy-handed forms of discipline and tough love approach. A big thumbs up.
The Street Stops Here
In a recent article featured in Entertainment Weekly, the author suggested that certain films were far more likely than others to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, largely based on they’re being nominated for other awards. Many of the leading contenders are beginning to be released on DVD and available at the library. Here are some of the acclaimed films released in 2010 that have begun to trickle into the library that may well end up taking the award.
The Social Network
The Kids Are All Right
Toy Story 3
The Kids Are All Right
One of the most frequently asked questions that the Audiovisual Department receives is "what do you have that is good"? Since everyone's taste is a little bit different, we encourage patrons to let us know what film genres they enjoy most and make suggestions accordingly. We also refer patrons to helpful online resources that compile movie ratings and reviews. For current movie reviews, I like rottentomatoes.com and Metacritic and for the classics and critically acclaimed, check out the 1000 Best Films list as compiled by the New York Times.
Koko A Talking Gorilla
Kisses is a small-scale but affecting film that showcases the impressive talents of its two young actors. Emotionally and physically abused tweens Dylan and Kylie, set out on a twenty-four hour adventure in the big city in hopes of escaping their domestic problems. Searching for Dylan’s big brother, who allegedly lives in Dublin, these two tough yet sweet kids from the suburbs discover that the city possesses both a dangerous and exhilerating side to it. Kisses effectively mixes together a romantic tale about childhood innocence with the grim depictions of an unforgiving urban environment.
The tearjerker is a film that transcends one’s predispositions and cuts into those deep and often impenetrable portions of our shared, collective humanity to move us in ways we never dared to admit. Another view, one much less celebratory, reads the tearjerker as the sort of film that eschews realism for romanticized dramatic effect, that idealizes human relations, or that revoltingly rejoices in the most insidious forms of Hollywood sentimentality. Sometimes intellectually or creatively deeper than acknowledged, but still retaining of the elements of the cheesiness factor, are films that balance both of these tensions and contradictions; films that are both at times lurching toward being maudlin and overwrought and yet at other times depict authentic and truthful depth.
Here is a short list of films that will have you racing for the Kleenex.
- The Way We Were (1973)
- Kramer vs Kramer (1979)
- Umberto D (1952)
- Sophie’s Choice (1982)
- Love Story (1972)
- Terms of Endearment (1983)
- Bambi (1942)
- One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
- Glory (1989)
- An Affair to Remember (1957)
- The English Patient (1996)
- The Elephant Man (1980)
- The Deer Hunter (1978)
- The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007)
- The Mission (1986)
- The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1968)
The Way We Were
The 1970’s were arguably one of the best decades for film making in the United States. Many of the major studios began to allow young directors much greater power and freedom to craft artistic pictures and in doing so, gave birth to the last golden age of American cinema. The seventies saw the emergence of decorated and influential directors and writers like Steven Spielberg (Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind), William Friedkind (The Exorcist), George Lucas (American Graffiti, Star Wars), Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, Mean Streets), Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather Trilogy, The Conversation, Apocalypse Now), Terrence Malick (Badlands, Days of Heaven), Robert Towne (Chinatown), Peter Bogdanovich (Paper Moon, The Last Picture Show), Sydney Pollack (Three Days of the Condor, The Way We Were, All the President’s Men) Sidney Lumet (Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico) and Robert Altman (MASH, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye) to name but just a few. Here are just a few of the most interesting films made during this original decade that we currently circulate. Lastly, a great documentary that chronicles this subject, Decade Under the Influence, will soon accompany these other classic films on our shelves.
The Last Picture Show
Harold and Maude (VHS)
Little Big Man
Kramer Vs Kramer (VHS)
The new documentary film Obscene tells the story of maverick book, magazine and film publisher Barney Rosset. Name an author or book in post-war America that was considered dangerous or that was banned and chances are, Rosset was centrally located near the controversy. A committed First Amendment activist, Rosset fought the politics of banning books by aggressively contesting legal and cultural obstacles throughout his time at the helm of Grove Press and Evergreen Review. No doubt a controversial subject, Rosset’s court room victories allowed libraries and book sellers to introduce some of literature's most popular books, many of which today are considered part of the literary canon. Some of the books and authors discussed include Samuel Beckett, Che Guevara’s diaries, William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer.
Gus Van Sant is a major American film director and writer whose early work (Drug Store Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho) along with others like Quentin Tarantino, Whit Stillman, Spike Lee, and Steven Soderbergh revitalized American cinema in the early part of the 1990’s. His most commercially successful film Good Will Hunting solidified him as an important director that could straddle the art house/commercial fence and introduced the acting and screenwriting of Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. Here are some of Van Sant’s most lauded works.
My own private idaho
Having recently taken over the responsibilities of selecting films for our audiovisual collection, I’m excited to report about some of the new titles that I’ve recently ordered. Some are here in the building and others are on their way. Why these films you ask? Well, these are personal favorites of mine that I would argue with great adoration and zeal that because of their artistic merits warrant their inclusion within our diverse and varied cinema collection. Some are big name classics and others are great films that have either languished in obscurity or have been appreciated only by its ardent fans. Some may have already been part of our collection in years past and now have a second chance at falling into your hands. I hope you enjoy these movie treasures.
- The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner
- Ghost World
- Carnal Knowledge
- Coming Home
- Hoop Dreams
- Killing Fields
- Lone Star
- Little Big Man
- My Left Foot
- My Private Idaho
- Il Postino
- My Beautiful Laundrette
- The Professional
- Splendor in the Grass
- Silence of the Lambs
I watch more films than the average person, so while the allure of the Lake Michigan shore often takes priority during these warm, sunny months, I've still managed to find some time to view several exceptional films that are worth checking out.
- Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Classic political satire from Frank Capra)
- La Vie En Rose (French biopic on singer Edith Piaf with an amazing performance from Marion Cotillard)
- Vivra Sa Vie (Classic from the French New Wave master)
- Avatar (Lot's of CGI without much of a plot, at least not an original one)
- Metropolitan (A cult indie classic from influential director Whit Stillman)
Given that yesterday was a day for punching voter ballots, here is a list of some of my favorite films about politics.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
All the President’s Men (1976)
Wag the Dog (1998)
In the Loop (2009)
Bob Roberts (1992)
Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
All the President's men [videorecording]
The documentary film Painters Painting: A Candid History of the New York Art Scene 1940-1970 is an excellent introduction to the ideas and inspirations behind the explosion of American, post-war art. Packed with rare and archival footage, the film is a who’s who of New York artists (Barnett Newman, Frank Stella, Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Motherwell), all of whom are today considered transformative visionaries associated with the development of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art. Emile de Antonio’s wonderful film will attract those both familiar with this highly influential time period in addition to younger artists whose works will undoubtedly be created within the shadow of these pioneer painters. Below is a clip from the film, featuring Barnett Newman discussing the problems of modern painting that he and his contemporaries sought to explore.
Painters painting [videorecording] : a candid history of the New York art scene, 1940-1970
The French film director Jean-Luc Godard was arguably the centerpiece of the La Nouvelle Vague (New Wave). This loosely associated group of French directors and critics were heavily indebted to the contributions of the Italian Neorealism movement (Federico Fellini, Vittorio De Sica, Roberto Rossellini e.g.) and came to prominence in the late nineteen fifties and early sixties, seeking to revitalize French cinema with paradigmatic changes to the classical style of Hollywood movies, their plots and aesthetic approaches to narrative and editing techniques. Godard, who continues to work today, created some of world cinema’s most recognizable and influential films; his most important and conventional, produced between 1960 and 1967. For the beginner, I would recommend delving into Godard’s self conscious tales of cinematic referentiality, satiric deconstruction, and counter cultural politics in chronological order: Breathless (1960), Vivre sa vie (1962), Alphaville (1965), Pierrot le fou (1965) and Weekend (1967). A very stylized director who broke with traditional movie-making norms and cinematographical techniques throughout his long career, Godard's influence can be witnessed throughout contemporary movies as well as in the sort of jump-cut editing found in television commercials and MTV videos.
The Beaches of Agnes is a clever, Surrealist mash-up that chronicles the life and memories of Belgian director/screenwriter/editor/producer Agnes Varda. Employing both documentary and memoir, Varda whimsically stitches together her recollections using photographs, scenes from her films, and playful reenactments that retell her story, from her childhood in coastal France, her success as an influential film maker during the sixties and seventies, to her long marriage to French director Jacques Demy. In addition to being a love letter to the great film makers of French cinema, this is a fun, lively and visually experimental piece that locates the nebulous nature of memory as one of the primary characters.
Beaches of Agnes
When talking about directors who consistently make provocative, intellectually-inspired films that are commercially successful while not slighting of the audience’s acumen, the conversation must include the films of the Coen brothers (Joel and Ethan). Known for their genre bending, dark comedies, the Coen’s have made some of the most memorable films of the past two decades, including the adapted No Country for Old Men, which won Best Picture in 2007, Fargo (1996), Raising Arizona (1987), Miller’s Crossing (1990), and the cult masterpiece, The Big Lebowski (1998). There have been a couple of missteps along the way (Intolerable Cruelty and The Lady Killers) but for the most part, their unique vision of human destiny embodies a distinctive mixture of gallows humor, richly drawn characters, and absurd circumstances that often pit their protagonist against both the quirks of chance and the poorly conceived decisions of individuals. While I wouldn’t characterize their newest film A Serious Man as one of their best movies, it remains as one of last year’s better films that will likely satisfy the devotee. What do you get when you engage a Coen Brothers film? A little bit of crime fiction, a dash of film noir, a teaspoon of odd ball comedy, a bag of literary and film allusions, topped off with a pinch of both real and implied violence thrown in. Of their 14 full length films, the following selection is arguably their most important.
No Country for Old Men (adapted from a Cormac McCarthy novel)
The Big Lebowski
The British comedy In the Loop is an uproarious, political comedy akin to satiric classics like Wag the Dog or the imitable Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Bumbling policy wonks, hawkish politicos, a peace loving general, and a foul mouthed British government official find themselves either fighting against or fighting for the invasion of Iraq. Fast paced, witty and outrageously scathing in its characterization of those who run the British and U.S. governments, In the Loop pulls no punches at laughing at the slapstick-like antics in this fictional account of the lead up to the invasion and occupation of Iraq.
In the loop
This is following upon Ann's earlier post about the depth and diversity of our film and television collection. I'd also like to point to the marvelous array of foreign language movies and in particular those that have been released by the Criterion Collection. There is no better way to introduce yourself to the rich body of world cinema then to explore Criterion's growing pool of cult films, many of which have never found a broad audience here in the United States. I'm referring to Larisa Shepitko's heartbreaking The Ascent (Russian), François Truffaut's memorable new wave coming of age story The 400 Blows (French), Hong Kong action hits like John Woo's The Killers (Cantonese), the highly influential masterpiece Rashomon by Akira Kurosawa (Japanese), and Steven Soderbergh's provoking narrative about drug trafficking Traffic (Spanish/English).
Essential art house. Rashomon [videorecording]
There are times, be they often rare, when a brilliantly written book full of narrative depth and lyrical splendor becomes re-imagined through the camera’s lens and smartly adapted for the cinema without losing any of its literary power. Michael Cunningham’sThe Hours, an almost perfectly conceived novel that won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction was adapted for film in 2001 by Stephen Daldry, the director of the recently Oscar-nominated film The Reader (also adapted from a book). Like Cunningham’s book, the film is visually lush in its expressive hues and tones, often focusing on the evocative luster of flowers, the glowing and bucolic gardens of provincial England, or Mrs. Brown’s richly frosted birthday cake. Philip Glass’ somberly toned score is a harrowing body of music that brilliantly ties the narrative pieces together (Three different women, plots, settings and time periods), underscoring the intensity of despair and want that seethes below the placid facades of the primary characters--Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Brown and Clarissa Vaughan. Daldry deftly handles the story’s inventive unfolding, showing his talent for translating the essence of a book to the medium of film, while a star studded cast (Meryl Streep, Ed Harris, Julianne Moore, Nicole Kidman) give great performances.
The hours [videorecording]
Looking for a great film to watch after the kids have sleepily gone to bed after tearing open their gifts? Cozy up with a leopard skin Snuggie and warm glass of egg nog and put in a dvd of one of these critically acclaimed films.
Ever since I stumbled across the Autobiography of Malcolm X as a high school senior, I’ve been interested in the Civil Rights Movement. There is no better way to understand this rich and important part of United States history than by watching the PBS documentary Eyes on the Prize. Recently converted to DVD, this award-winning series explores this fascinating history from the 1950’s through the 1970’s. The visceral images of brave civil rights leaders, the inspirational mass marches, and the violent brutality that sought to continue Jim Crow will shock many of those born after much of the civil rights movement had ended. This is a must see for anyone interested in the history of the United States.
Eyes on the prize [videorecording] : America's civil rights movement
The animated film Waltz With Bashir is a magnificent film that reminded me of the recently adapted graphic novel Persepolis, especially the way in which memoir, history and social turmoil are woven together not only as a compelling narrative form but also because in both works, the primary characters struggle for certainty, meaning and peace in a world of war, conflict and confusion.
The main plot takes place in contemporary Israel, where a man who was an Israeli soldier during the Lebanon/Israel War of the early 1980's sets out on a journey to rediscover his lost memories of the war and to determine what role, if any, he played in the Sabra and Shatila massacres. The film's director and protagonist Ari Folman depicts the war as a horrorific act against humanity, where neither side was innocent of committing atrocities. Winner of many awards in 2008 and nominated for a Best Foreign Film Academy Award, Waltz With Bashir is a haunting and visually rich meditation on memory, war and healing.
Learn more about this piece of history by accessing the library's information databases. They can put you in touch with the information you need to understand today's vital issues.
Waltz with Bashir [videorecording]
Two of the best films from the 1990’s, both of which were adapted from well known literary sources, present very different views of the City of Angels yet both explore the often sinister contradictions between image and reality that simmer under Los Angeles’ landscape of broken dreams and superficial glamour. Robert Altman’s loosely adapted Short Cuts threads together several of Raymond Carver’s short fiction into a dynamic tableau of everyday people behaving like…well…everyday people. With a star studded cast that includes Tim Robbins, Jack Lemon, Tom Waits, Robert Downey Jr., Lilly Tomlin, and Jennifer Jason Leigh but to name a few, Short Cuts effortlessly weaves together the lives of these wonderfully drawn characters in ways both surprisingly humane and hilariously blemished. For those new to Altman’s classic, do not expect a linear or simulated rendering of Carver’s stories. Altman draws from Carver’s tones and themes of people living on the social edges to masterfully depict modern life in all its garish comedy rather than replicate the stories verbatim. Carver’s vision is still there, albeit mashed up and re-imagined through the optics of a gifted auteur.
The beautifully detailed and soundly acted crime thriller L.A. Confidential also looks toward Los Angeles for its backdrop. A stylish and taut take on James Ellroy’s noir classic, director Curtis Hanson, unlike the mundane city of ineffectual Angelinos portrayed by Altman, delivers a cool Hollywood with a 1950’s sheen and Chandleresque heart. Like Short Cuts, a great deal of L.A. Confidential’s strength as a film stems from a strong cast including Aussies Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe as well as Kevin Spacey, James Cromwell and Kim Basinger. This a wonderfully paced detective thriller with strong performances from everyone involved. Hanson’s subsequent work has never quite lived up to the expectations that L.A. Confidential brought with it.
Gregory Nava’s masterpiece El Norte, often cited as an updated and re-imagined “Grapes of Wrath”, is one of the most hailed and accomplished films of the 1980’s, yet has largely gone unnoticed by the film-viewing public since it was first produced in 1983. Now, a distinguished addition to the must-see Criterion Collection, I hope that this groundbreaking film will find its way into the hands of more viewers and be recognized for its rich and powerful depiction of two young Guatemalan teenagers journeying northward to escape injustice while encountering both personal triumph and heart wrenching tragedy along the way.
El norte [videorecording] = The north
I love films that often appear at first glance to be very simple in form or plot yet possess a profound range of emotional depth and suggestive weight that when perfectly pitched with gorgeous cinematography and credible acting, lays bare the lyricism of the human condition even as characters struggle with loss and grief. In short, the film Cherry Blossoms conjures such a description. One of the best films I’ve seen all year.
What happens when a wife discovers that her husband is dying of a terminal illness but who then dies herself before telling him or their family? Subtle and yet packing an emotional punch, this film is a modern day love story that is heartbreaking yet poetic in its life affirming tone.
Cherry blossoms - Hanami [videorecording]
The new HBO drama In Treatment reflects how a simple premise, primarily driven by dialogue between a therapist and his patients, can produce a tremendous range of dramatic depth. Starring Irish actor Gabriel Byrne, In Treatment will not appeal to those who require stupefying “reality” show gimmicks or cliché ridden plots from their television viewing experience. This is a stylistically pared down and deliberate show with minimal settings and new characters each week. In fact, most of the show’s half hour format draws its power to intrigue from the silent glares between listener and confessor, the intentional absence of closure and the indeterminate struggles of both patient and therapist to come to grips (or not) with their troublesome queries. Sometimes the most simple of plots can be wildly entertaining for the oppositional tension that quality writing can create.
The documentary film Bergman Island is an intimate portrait of one of the most influential, post-war film directors. Swedish auteur, Ingmar Bergman, known for his revolutionary work in cinema, television and theater created some of cinema’s most recognizable and enduring images over a long career, ending with his death in 2007. Known as a reclusive, solitary figure (he lived alone on an island off the coast of Sweden for many years) who rarely spoke about his life or the details of his creative achievements, Bergman Island explores the enigmatic director’s relationship with his parents and those he collaborated with on films, raises questions about his turbulent personal life and bares new insights about the muses, themes and inspirations behind his work. Bergman is best known for his films and television programs, The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, Through a Glass Darkly, Persona, Fanny and Alexander, and Saraband.
Well it’s that time again to remind lovers of books that their favorite characters and stories are never safe from the evil hands of casting directors, screenwriters and corporate honchos who are ruthless in their cinematic destruction of a good book. How many times have you burdened with guilt and cynicism peaked your head into a theater to see the bloody carnage and the two hour dismantling of every thing you ever loved about a book’s power to move you with its words, images and literary prowess? Well, for those of you who glance from time to time on Youtube or IMDB for the latest trailers associated with film adaptions, you know that in the near future that Cormac McCarthy’s award winning The Road and Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife will soon hit the multiplex. From my vantage point, both films look as though their producers never quite got around to reading the books. Maybe I’ll be wrong about the movies but c’mon, Eric Bana as Henry the librarian and hammy explosions and action movie tropes. Puleeese. And least we not let HBO off the hook with their soon to ruin everything great about Raymond Chandler series Bored to Death. I hope that I'm wrong but there exists a long history of very bad adaptations in the dustbin filed away under "bad idea."
The time traveler's wife : a novel
There are times where days saunter along, one into the other, with few distinguishing characteristics and where inspirational interactions with the world are either muted or altogether absent. But then comes along a work of art, a photograph, a film, a poem that strikes you dead in your tracks and summons your mind, heart and attention to its power. For me, this is what life is about, the continuity of learning, where if one chooses to open themselves up to new experiences and previously unknown data, one will always find a kind of psychic renewal in such discoveries.
I was unaware of the work of photographer Sally Mann up until several days ago but on a whim, I checked out a documentary film about her life, family and work from the library. Mann’s photography has been largely hailed by art critics as some of the best photography in the nation. Time Magazine dubbed her “America’s Best Photographer in 2001.” What the documentary does so well is bring her family life into the frame so that we have a broader, more nuanced understanding of her creative influences, philosophical concerns and goals as an artist. Mann’s photography centers on both universal themes (life, mortality, family, love, hope) as well as regional specificities (Southern motifs, landscapes e.g.). Her work has been described as moody, ethereal, haunting, preternatural, and dream-like.
Once again, sometimes the rewards of learning derive rather simply by taking a chance, picking up a book or film that you know nothing about and finding along the way that life continues to surprise and inspire. This to me is what libraries are all about.
Ingmar Bergman’s classic Wild Strawberries is an affectionately drawn portrait of nostalgic pining as the regrets of an aged doctor are exorcised through stark flashbacks and ominous dreams that force the film’s protagonist to rethink his life. Dr. Isak Borg sets out to trek across pastoral Sweden for the city of Lund, where he is to accept an honorary degree for his longtime commitment to medicine. Along the way, the doctor mines the psychic territory of his past by visiting seminal scenes of his life, many of which are painful recollections of regret and missed opportunity. By the end of the trip, Dr. Borg rediscovers a more meaningful sense of who he is as his inevitable death approaches. He will learn that the complicated paths of life are wrought with both beauty and disappointment. The final scene is art house cinema at its finest. Bergman’s other notable films are The Seventh Seal, Fanny and Alexander, and one of his most enigmatic films, Persona.
Essential art house. Wild strawberries [videorecording]
Not quite cinema verite of old, but with the obligatory shakiness of a hand-held camera, Rachel Getting Married feels as though the film’s director (Jonathan Demme of Silence of the Lambs, Beloved, Philadelphia ) was provided unfiltered access to capture the intimate conversations, tragedies and joys of a dysfunctional family brought together to celebrate Rachel’s big day. What makes this film so visceral in its immediacy and kinetic energy is in large part due to how the film was shot and the way in which many of the scenes feel as though they were improvised or at the very least, minimally scripted and choreographed to allow the actors freedom to embody the naturalism of the moment. Though I would have preferred another actress as the rehab-prone enfant terrible (sorry Anne Hathaway fans), Rachel Getting Married’s strength as a film comes from the strong ensemble cast who did well to transform a rather stale plotline into a well-mannered and passable drama.
Rachel Getting Married
Roses in December is the heartbreaking tale of the murder of a young woman (Jean Donovan) who gave up her privilege, educational opportunities and a high paying job so as to serve the violently oppressed people of El Salvador during that nation's civil war of the 1970’s. It is also a film about the redemptive quality in serving a higher purpose beyond our inclination toward navel gazing and the struggle to locate both lasting peace within ourselves and the world afar by giving assistance to those denied vital resources, political power or access to justice. Also, learn how the Reagan Administration, staunch supporters of the brutal El Salvadoran military, worked to obstruct justice for the families of those murdered. A somber film but one that affirms the humanity of those who give of themselves to advance peace and justice.
Roses in December
Tender, sweet, hilariously self-deprecating, and semi-disturbing are all legitimate ways one might describe Woody Allen’s romantic comedy masterpiece--Manhattan. In addition to being all of those things, Allen’s 1979 film about two couples (one involving a teenager), a snarky yet “But I'm from Philadelphia” paramour (the brilliant Diane Keaton), an ex-wife turned memoirist (Meryl Streep), and the ways in which love is found, lost, found again...maybe...and probably altogether ill advised locates Allen at his film-making peak. Beautifully shot in black and white, this charming little tour de force probably does more for New York City tourism than anything else. Allen parodies and pokes fun at everyone, including himself in this great movie that compliments his other celluloid classic, Annie Hall. If you’ve never indulged in the Woody Allen brand of humor, start with these two films.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, based on the French memoir Scaphandre et le papillon, is a poetically filmed story that forces the audience to see life through the one-eyed lens of its protagonist, a fashion magazine editor who has been paralyzed by a stroke and left with only the use of one eye and without the ability to speak. For example, early in the film, the cinematographer situates the viewer behind the main character’s eye as a doctor sews the eye shut so that infection does not set in. One sees the actual stitching as it is woven through the flesh around the eyelid. Friends and family speak into the camera as though they are bending down to converse with the main character as he sits in his wheelchair, evoking a feeling within the viewer that his physical limitations are their own. The viewer begins to quickly sympathize with his constrained life as he battles to remain positive and live life under these new conditions. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a lush work of lyric beauty that touchingly grapples with the torturous predicament of a man “locked in” by his injuries. The painter Julian Schnabel directed the film, adding to his already strong body of work that includes Before Night Falls and Basquiat.
The diving bell and the butterfly
Whether you like him or his films is one matter but there is little debate over the influence that Michael Moore’s gadfly-style and provocative documentaries have had in helping to reestablish the documentary film as both a socially relevant means of inquiry and as a big money generator for Hollywood studios. He also can be credited with both raising the awareness of those who were already working in this area (Errol Morris e.g.) and for convincing Hollywood studios that quality documentaries neither have to be boring and didactic affairs nor box office busts.
The library collects a wide and diverse array of documentaries that cover the topical gamut, including art, politics, nature, religion, popular culture, history and sports. Those films that have struck a chord with me over the past several years are too numerous to mention but here is a brief list of those that stand out.
The Kid Stays in the Picture (The rise and fall and rise again of Hollywood producer Robert Evans)
Born Into Brothels (A heart wrenching examination of Indian children caught up within a vicious cycle of poverty and exploitation)
The Cool School: How L.A. Learned to Love Modern Art (a look back at a closely knit group of artists who played a large role in the making of the post-war, Los Angeles art scene)
The Fog of War (Academy Award Winner follows the life of former Secretary of Defense, Robert S. McNamara as he opines about the lessons he’s learned about war, diplomacy and foreign relations)
American Hardcore: The History of American Punk Rock 1980-1986 (Examines the cultural and historical roots of this seldom chronicled style of music)
The 50 Years War: Israel and the Arabs (An excellent historical introduction to many of the topics central to Middle Eastern conflicts that still persist today)
Riding Giants (Everything you ever wanted to know about the history of big wave surfing is here with panache and style)
An Inconvenient Truth (Global warming has never been so stylishly presented for the masses)
The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition (Few stories are as compelling and unbelievable as this one)
The Devil and Daniel Johnston (More than just a biography of the cult singer/songwriter but also a tender portrayal of someone who suffers from schizophrenia and depression)
The Bridge (A difficult film to watch but one that humanely grapples with the subject of suicide)
Rivers and Tides (Chronicles the way in which the artist Andy Goldsworthy goes about working on one of his earth sculptures)
Kid Stays in the Picture
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.
Kolya is an affecting, feel-good drama set in pre-Velvet Revolution Prague. The winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1996, this Czech film introduces us to a talented but emotionally disconnected musician who has no interest in monogamy or family, whose primary vehicle for employment is playing dirges at funerals, and who has a scam-artist friend that suggests that he marry a Soviet woman for money. What our protagonist doesn’t know is that after he becomes involved in the fake marriage scheme is that he will be saddled with the responsibility of raising his Russian wife’s child without her. From committed bachelor to doting “dad”, Kolya is the kind of film that tugs at the heart strings but never crosses over into shameless Hollywood sentimentality.
Persepolis is a beautifully crafted black and white film about the coming of age story of an Iranian girl named Marji. Marji's life is stock full of conflict, both as a young woman growing up within an Iranian society that she finds to be overwhelmingly oppressive and as a cultural outsider navigating the complexities of cultural identification while living in Europe. This is a stunning film from a visual standpoint, a pithy yet telling history of Iranian society and a tenderly wrought memoir adapted from the original graphic novel. The dialogue is in French. Highly recommended.
One of the most emotionally moving and powerful documentaries you will ever see is Taxi to the Dark Side, the 2008 Academy Award winner for Best Documentary. Framed around the heartbreaking story of how an innocent Afghani citizen was swept away by U.S. military forces, detained without ever being charged with a crime, never given access to an attorney, tortured over the course of several days, and then beaten to death. This is a profoundly important film that explores the way in which torture became codified by law and then institutionally practiced within the military prisons of Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo Bay following September 11th, 2001 attacks. Told from the point of view of those who were accused and convicted of killing the taxi driver, civilian and military interrogators, CIA officials, torture experts and journalists, viewers will learn about the kinds of torture methods that are being used against civilians rounded up without lawyers or charges against them and how the Geneva Convention and habeas corpus have been consciously ignored by both top political leaders and high-ranking military soldiers for the purpose of extracting intelligence. A graphically disturbing yet important film for citizens from every political persuasion to see.
Taxi to the dark side
Screen legend Paul Newman had a very successful career as an award-winning actor but was widely known also for his charitable work as a philanthropist, a champion for civil rights during the 1960’s, and all around stand up guy by all accounts. If you’ve never had the pleasure of watching one of the great many films in his oeuvre, let me recommend several that are big screen classics certain to leave you smiling, crying or maybe even both. “The Hustler”, “Hud”, “Cat On a Hot Tin Roof”, “Cool Hand Luke”, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”, “The Sting”, and “Nobody’s Fool”. Newman passed away over the weekend at age 83.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
"Walk Hard, the Dewey Cox Story" is a cleverly written and acted send-up that pokes fun at recently produced musical biopics like "Ray" and "Walk the Line". This humorous tale is a comedic reframing of many of the well worn tropes and biographical clichés so prevalent within these kinds of rags to riches narratives (think: "Coal Miner’s Daughter", "Buddy Holly Story"). With hilarious parodies and a fantastic soundtrack of original music, Dewey Cox’s rocky road to redemption is a better than average spoof movie that will appeal to both music buffs and fans of comedy alike.
Walk Hard, the Dewey Cox Story
Mad Men is my newest television pleasure. Written and directed by a former Sopranos contributor, Mad Men’s depiction of a bustling New York advertising agency in 1960 is just as stylish and focused on probing the mythologies and contradictions of American consumer culture as Tony and his “made” buddies yet without the ubiquitous violence and criminal activity. Swinging back and forth between the bruising chauvinism of the male-dominated work place and the pre-Feminine Mystique suburbia, the characters of Mad Men are consumed with angst-filled feelings of inadequacy and personal demons yet smile through such inconvenient truths in order to conform to the social and cultural norms of the day.