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Staff Picks: Movies

Fuzzy Memories

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

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

Wings of Desire

I haven’t watched Wings of Desire in quite some time but it’s a film that crossed my mind this afternoon after reading a news article about the singer Nick Cave (he makes a cameo late in the film). It’s a wonderful film directed by the German Wim Wenders and starring a fantastic Bruno Ganz, the American actor Peter Falk and Otto Sander. Hailed by critics upon its release in 1987, it’s a story about two angels (Damiel and Cassiel) stuck inside of a kind of purgatorial state, neither heaven nor hell, where angels are continuously present but without the benefit of the senses. The two of them wander the streets and drift about the West Berlin citizenry, unseen by everyone but children. They provide solace to the suffering and observe the human condition in all of its messy beauty, cruelty and chance. Ganz’s Damiel grows increasingly frustrated with this kind of aloof, calcified perfection. His wanting to know and to feel the emotional rawness of the human experience positions him in opposition to his duties. The desire to love and be loved, to taste both joy and pain begins to out weight the promise of an immortal yet detached life (one born before there were humans) of angelic service. Wenders has constructed a poetic fable about the embrace of life without the trappings of sentimentality.

White God

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

Let the Fright One In

I am a fan of good horror, though good horror can be hard to find. If you’re looking to settle down with a top-notch scary movie for Halloween, here are some recommendations for you:

It Follows  – Hailed as an instant classic upon its release earlier this year, this unnerving, Detroit-based film centers around a curse that passes from person to person in which a terrifying, body-jumping entity pursues the victim ceaselessly—and you don’t want to be caught by it!

The Babadook  – Imagine Tim Burton wanted to use his storybook style to make you soil your pants. That’s what the titular creature in this Australian thriller feels like. Top it off with an unhealthy dose of the parental stress that comes with being a single parent raising a child with severe emotional problems, and you’ve got an intense, teeth-grinding thriller!

Let the Right One In  – When an emotionally-abused boy befriends the strange new girl next door, who happens to be a vampire subsisting off blood reaped in a most unseemly manner, the two socially isolated creatures form a relationship that leads to both brutal vengeance and unnerving consequences.

28 Days Later/28 Weeks Later – Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle kicked the (then un-played out) zombie genre into high gear by making his rage virus-infected undead fast! Both the original and the sequel provided plenty of both scares and social commentary.

The Cabin in the Woods  – This horror-comedy is at once an homage to popular genre tropes throughout the ages, and a gory, twisty, laugh-out-loud thriller in and of itself. From producer, co-writer, and all-around geek guru Joss Whedon, this is one scary Cabin you want to visit!

Tucker & Dale vs. Evil – A couple of bumbling rednecks attempt to have relaxing vacation at a cabin out in the woods, but are mistaken for murderous lunatics by a gang of college kids who keep dying off through gory-yet-hilarious accidents.


Varda in California

Legendary French director Agnes Varda has made several groundbreaking features that have stood the test of time (La Pointe Courte, Cleo from 5 to 7 and Vagabond). During the late 1960's and early 1980's, while residing in California she produced a handful of poetically rendered slice of life documentaries that range in subject from a portrait of The Black Panther Party to Los Angeles mural culture. The recently released and fully restored Agnes Varda in California shows that she's always had an interest in integrating elements of real life into her fictionalized films and vice versa. Her sweet portrait of an old family relative (Uncle Yanco) perfectly captures the colorful vibe of late 1960's counter culture.

Liked This, Try That

And we come to another installment of Liked This, Try That…our imperfect but always enthusiastically crafted form of cinema advisory. 

Liked Jauja, try Meek's Cutoff 

Liked Harry and Tonto, try Next Stop, Greenwich Village

Liked The Imitation Game, try A Beautiful Mind

Liked Frances Ha, try Damsels in Distress

Liked The Fault in Our Stars, try Me, Earl and the Dying Girl

Liked Ida, try Au Hasard Balthazar

Liked Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, try Taste of Cherry

Liked The Lives of Others, try Goodbye Lenin

Liked The Third Man, try The Complete Mr. Arkadin a.k.a. Confidential Report


Top 5 Directors

Inspired by a recent filmspotting podcast (highly recommended for movie fans) episode where the two hosts asked their listeners to choose the five directors (and their films) they’d take with them to a deserted island, I thought I'd mull it over. Here’s who I would take with me, keeping in mind that this is not a list of my "favorite" directors but just those whose work I'd want access to while passing the time.

1. Wes Anderson—a great mixture of comedy and melancholia would keep my island dwelling emotional state evenly balanced.
2. Coen Brothers—the storytelling virtuoso of their genre films would fill in for an absence of books.
3. Martin Scorsese—For both the variety and quality of his oeuvre.
4. Ingmar Bergman—Bergman’s films have the excellence, the quantity and the kind of philosophical depth that would keep me ruminating on the big questions while stranded.
5. Stanley Kubrick—If he had only made Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick’s film making flair would be enough to keep my isolation bearable, but throw in The Killing, Paths of Glory, The Shining2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clock Work Orange, and Full Metal Jacket and you have more than enough masterworks to choose from. 

Honorable Mention Includes: Louis Malle, Jean-Luc Godard, Paul Thomas Anderson, Robert Bresson and Terence Malick.

Election Season

With another presidential election cycle upon us, I noticed the documentary Please Vote For Me on display in the lower level.  The office open is class monitor for a 3rd grade class in a school in Wuhan, China, having its first democratic election.  

As they navigate the challenge of giving speeches, sharing a talent, participating in debates, and other activities to win votes; there are plenty of laughs, a lot of tears and occasionally some shouting.    

I found the interactions with the parents to be the most fascinating parts as they often gave advice that I was not expecting.  Also, when their children were ridiculed or treated poorly, they usually coached them on being tougher and shrugging it off, rather than going to the school to ask them to not allow such behavior.  

Who will win?  Cheng Cheng with charisma to spare, strict Luo Lei with powerful parents, or Xu Xiaofei the courageous underdog candidate.  

I watched this with my 10 year old daughter and 12 year old son and they really enjoyed it and it led to some good conversation about election tactics and cultural differences.  

The Score, the Color, the Romance

While it was his inspired Chungking Express that put the career of Wong Kar-wai on the cultural map, it was his masterful work In the Mood for Love (2000) that cemented his reputation as a major director. The film tells the story of a repressed romance between two married neighbors who discover a secret about their spouses. Visually sumptuous in its use of costume, lighting and color, the style and setting of early 1960’s Hong Kong is perfectly expressed. Never has the unspoken feelings of characters burdened by desire and longing been so poetically depicted. Propelled onward by a reoccurring musical score that encapsulates the film’s themes and images, In the Mood for Love has been deemed one of the 50 best films ever made by Sight and Sound magazine.

IRL PT.1: A Wretch Retches

We are living in a golden age of documentary filmmaking. Just in the last couple of years alone, I’ve seen several nonfiction works that have transcended what the medium has heretofore accomplished. I intend to highlight some of these films over my next several recommendations.

The first of the films I want to promote, The Act of Killing, was a contender* for Best Documentary Feature at last year’s Academy Awards. Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer and executive produced by two of the greatest documentarians of all time, Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, Killing examines the Indonesian killings of the mid-1960s through the eyes of several of the perpetrators. A handful of these mass murderers are invited by the filmmakers to recreate and film scenes about their experiences during the genocide. Disturbing and harrowing, Killing asks these decidedly evil humans—who have never faced any punishment for their crimes against humanity—to put themselves in the shoes of the hundreds of thousands of victims who suffered and died at their very hands. By the end, guilt will manifest itself in a very real, physiological way. The Act of Killing is not easy to watch, but it is an important and unique film—there has undoubtedly never been a film like it before**.

*Tragically, The Act of Killing did not win the Best Documentary Oscar that year; the winner instead was the very nice and not-at-all challenging film 20 Feet from Stardom, a film about back-up singers. Sometimes the Academy gets it wrong.

**But now this unique film has a critically-acclaimed companion piece, The Look of Silence, which examines the Indonesian genocide from the perspective of the victims. As of this writing, Silence is now in theaters and is playing at our very own Alamo Drafthouse Kalamazoo. Please watch and support these very important movies.