Staff Picks: Movies
Staff-recommended viewing from the KPL catalog.
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
I should warn you that this blog post is not actually about cats, despite the titular tease of feline tomfoolery. So if you were lured in with the promise of kitties doing adorable things, well then, you probably haven’t even bothered to read to the end of this sentence. I only mention cat videos because they are, as we all know, The Reason the Internet Was Invented. Who doesn’t love to watch cute, playful creatures getting themselves into all sorts of mischievous situations? And it doesn’t stop with our solitary enjoyment; once we catch a kitty giving a dog a back massage or playing the keyboard or flushing the toilet ad infinitum, we have to make sure everyone else we know and love sees that video too. We share it on Facebook, we Tweet about it, and we talk about it in our daily conversations. The next thing you know, somebody’s puddy tat has been seen by millions of people virtually overnight. Of course, these memes don’t have to be about cats. They can be music videos, famous quotes, photographs, articles, or any other sort of thing that makes you laugh, think, dance or feel inspired. My point (which I am somewhat habitually and infamously taking my sweet time to get to) is that—before the Internet gave us YouTube and other social media outlets—it used to be a lot harder to create “viral” pop culture sensations.
That’s right, kids. As recently as the late 90s, someone would have to resort to compact discs or—gasp!—VHS cassettes to spread sound or video recordings to their friends. Today, I can give hundreds of my Facebook friends the opportunity to laugh at Rebecca Black’s “Friday” video or the strategic ineptitudes of Leeroy Jenkins with just a few clicks of the mouse. 15 years ago I would have needed a VCR and some gas money to get them to just a few dozen. Fortunately for us, there are two great documentaries that you can check out chronicling the Dark Ages of viral recordings with a couple of infamous examples that you may have missed.
The recently-released documentary Shut Up Little Man: An Audio Misadventure tells the story of two young guys named Eddie and Mitch who, in the late 80s, created a pop culture sensation after recording the nightly screaming matches coming from the apartment next door. Their neighbors were an odd couple; a pair of older, anger-filled alcoholics who fought loudly and incessantly, and their profanity-laced, often nonsensical arguments were so jaw-droppingly shocking (and yet darkly hilarious) that Eddie and Mitch decided to record them lest no one believe the stories. Those sound recordings would be passed from friend to friend until, years later, they would be the source of inspiration for comic books, movies, a play and other culturally-inspired art.
Another documentary—this one from 2010—is called Winnebago Man,and it’s about a former RV salesman named Jack Rebney who, in the 80s, became infamous when the outtakes of a commercial he was filming were passed around, catching him in some notably cantankerous and (again) profanity-filled behavior. Still alive, Rebney is now a bit of a hermit but just as crotchety as ever, and the filmmakers’ interviews and Rebney’s subsequent confrontation with his cult popularity make for a wholly enjoyable look at an early viral phenomenon.
So, dear patrons, what are some of your favorite viral videos? What is it about these kinds of videos that make you want to share them with your family and friends? Curious minds want to know…
And now, a trailer for Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure…
…and a trailer for Winnebago Man…
…and for those who stuck around even after finding out I wasn’t writing about kitties, I’ll throw in a cat video just for you.
Shut Up Little Man: An Audio Misadventure
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
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]
Every summer, several of my friends and I travel up north for the annual Traverse City Film Festival. Founded by Michigan native Michael Moore and co-chaired by Hollywood folk like Curb Your Enthusiasm star Jeff Garlin and Borat director Larry Charles, this cinema-stuffed week gives us a chance to soak in all the indie and foreign films, incisive documentaries and beloved classics that our increasingly sore posteriors can handle. (We also find time to relax and simply enjoy the beautiful T.C. area when we’re not staring at the silver screen.) One of our most beloved rituals is getting the whole gang together for a midnight movie of choice; these usually consist of foreign or indie horror films that will never see a wide release in the United States. Several of the ones we have screened have gone on to achieve cult-classic status: brilliant Swedish vampire hit Let the Right One In; Norwegian Nazi-zombie gore-fest Dead Snow; South Korean rampaging-monster movie The Host. In the summer of 2010, we had the opportunity to screen another such instant gem—one that, until recently, had bafflingly avoided a distribution deal: the top-notch horror-comedy Tucker & Dale vs. Evil.
T&DvE is the kind of tongue-in-cheek splatter flick that offers as much joy from satire and humor as it does from excessive carnage. The story follows the two titular hapless hillbillies as they set off for their dilapidated vacation home out in the woods. On their way, they have an unfortunate run-in with a gaggle of snobby college kids who mistake their curiosity for threatening redneck menace. Tensions mount when one of the girls, Allison, has a swimming accident and winds up in the care of a love-struck Dale and an inconvenienced Tucker. The guys try to let the kids know they’ve rescued Allison, but their methods—which include shouting through the woods, “Hey college kids! We’ve got your friend!”—lead the suspicious youth to believe she’s been kidnapped. The college kids mount an assault on Tucker and Dale, but a series of very unfortunate and very bloody accidents (let’s just say bees and chainsaws don’t mix, nor do wood chippers and lunging) result in a body count that only reinforces Tucker’s and Dale’s images as crazed murderous lunatics, while convincing them that the college kids have some sort of suicide pact.
Credit for the success of this film certainly belongs, in part, to first-time feature director and co-writer Eli Craig. But the lead cast for this film cannot be more perfect: 30 Rock’s Katrina Bowden gets to expand her comedy chops as Allison; Dale is played by Tyler Labine, best known for TV’s short-lived Reaper and the recent Rise of the Planet of the Apes. But best of all is Firefly/Serenity MVP Alan Tudyk, a talented movie and TV actor whose comedic timing is unparalleled in Hollywood. He’s simply one of the funniest guys working today.
So if you are in the mood for a great horror-comedy in the tradition of the Evil Dead franchise or Shaun of the Dead, check out Tucker & Dale vs. Evil. And then, maybe, rethink that backwoods camping trip you were planning for next summer, and come spend your late-July inside a movie theater in Traverse City with me.
Tucker & Dale vs. Evil
For many Pixar fans, the original Cars was the least interesting addition to the studio's impeccable feature film canon on its initial release. At over two hours, its length may be a factor in viewers’ disdain, but I’d also guess that prejudices against NASCAR and Larry the Cable Guy play a part. Circle racing’s not for everyone (though neither is French cuisine cooked up by rats – the overwhelming praise for Ratatouille still perplexes me).
No circle racing in Cars’ sequel – it’s been ditched for the fictional World Grand Prix road race, moving the action to some of the world's great cities and their frantic pace, and away from Radiator Springs and most of its inhabitants (and the small-town ideals of the original film’s storyline). The main Cars characters found here – race car sensation Lightning McQueen and his trusty, rusty sidekick Mater – get tangled up in an international espionage plot worthy of the James Bond franchise (Mater’s mistaken for a spy, which causes trouble on and off the track between him and Lightning, until… well, like Bond films, do the plot details really matter?).
Ultimately, Cars 2’s returning characters suffer the same fate as the Beatles in Help! – they end up as extras in their own movie. The similarities between the films is striking – the goofy protagonist (Ringo, Mater) works and plays with friends in exotic locales (the Beatles’ proto-video performances, Lightning and Mater’s racing set-pieces) while unwittingly being pursued by a variety of good and bad guys led by award-winning actors (Leo McKern, Michael Caine). The results are similar as well – anyone not having seen the previous film (A Hard Day’s Night, Cars) may have no emotional attachment to the characters on-screen.
Cars 2 isn’t really a bad film – animation is top-notch as always, and if you’re really into spy flicks loaded with action, you may enjoy it without ever having watched the original. Still, since strong emotional attachment to characters in Pixar films is a primary source of those films’ greatness, Cars 2’s inability to sustain that attachment makes it the least of the studio’s feature film efforts to date.
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
Produced by Nickelodeon studios – which gave the world SpongeBob and slime – Rango was heavily promoted on Nick’s cable channel (and elsewhere) just prior to its theatrical release last March. Why not? The film is populated by talking animals, its lead character (voiced by Johnny Depp, star of Rango director Gore Verbinski’s Pirates of the Caribbean series) is naively charming and quirky, and, hey, it’s animated! Must be a kids’ flick.
Not so fast. It’s not that kids won’t enjoy Rango – my first-grader did – it’s just that Rango may really be a cult film for adults disguised as a kids’ flick. (Yes, my kid enjoyed it, but didn’t talk about it much past the day we saw it.) While most decent kids’ films in the last decade have plenty of references kids may not get, the entirety of Rango will make the most sense to adults who have grown up with, well, films for grown-ups.
Our hapless title hero, a domesticated lizard who, like Bolt and so many other animated big-screen pets, gets separated from his cushy lifestyle in the film’s opening moments, is thrown into a gritty western scenario more evocative of Anthony Mann than Woody’s Roundup. Townspeople are terrorized by villains who control the town’s water supply (shades of Chinatown), so when the goofy stranger arrives on the scene, they look to him as their last great hope (echoes of High Noon). Nothing here the kids can’t enjoy, but what’s up with that Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas reference?
Rango’s classic western types are thoroughly engaging characters that should have their audience really caring about their fates, whether or not it cares about westerns. That said, familiarity with the western genre should make the film even more enjoyable. If that sounds like your kind of film, then don’t wait for the kids to pick it up from our collection.
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.