Author Archive

“Tanner ’88” and American politics

Wednesday, April 29th, 2015


Though “Tanner ‘88” is not a brand-new release, and first appeared on cable TV (HBO, to be exact) over 25 years ago, the Criterion Collection edition at Kent District Library is new to our collection, and so merits a review in this space. Directed by Robert Altman, and written by Gary Trudeau of “Doonesbury” fame, “Tanner ‘88” strikes just the right tone of satire and seriousness, and there’s no doubt this is due to Altman and Trudeau’s collaboration.  As anyone who has watched even a handful of Altman’s films would know, his approach was almost always one that didn’t shy away from humor, but that at the same time grappled with serious underlying issues. The “issue” in this case is the nature of the system that produces our American president.  Though filmed (on videotape, thus giving it an even more news-like quality) during the 1988 campaign—ancient history for many people nowadays—the series, produced in 11 half-hour episodes, seamlessly melds footage of real candidates—Bruce Babbitt, Bob Dole and Jesse Jackson–with that of Jack Tanner, a fictional Democratic Congressman from Michigan who is running on a liberal political ticket and juggling numerous crises as he begins in snowy New Hampshire and finishes at the August Democratic convention in Atlanta. Using a documentary approach (there’s even a man with a video camera hovering around the main characters), Altman’s world of primaries and politics is rich in layers, particularly in his typical use of multiple conversations on the soundtrack and his revealing look into the back room maneuvers of political campaigns, including the serendipitous origin of Tanner’s campaign TV ad, shot through the top of a glass coffee table. Ending with the Democratic convention gives the series a thrilling but doomed sense of how things work at such events, and wraps it up in a thoroughly believable, though perhaps heightened, way.

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Two New Foreign War-Era DVDs

Friday, March 20th, 2015

The after-effects of a war can be as powerful and decisive as a war itself—it may be won, but the battle for other things, such as the ideas that spawned it in the first place, may continue to live on and manifest themselves in ways subtle or not so subtle.

Such is the case with two new DVD releases of foreign films, both based on true stories, one from the Czech Republic, the other from Argentina. “Burning Bush” shows how ordinary Czechoslovakians reacted to the trauma of Soviet and Warsaw Pact troops invading their country in August 1968, thus ending the period of greater freedom known as the Prague Spring. The decision of a young man, a college student, to douse himself in gas and set himself on fire—an event apparently meant to mirror the end of political freedom brought about by the Soviet Union—is the opening scene for this long, but nevertheless riveting drama that was originally shown on Czech television. The self-immolation, which takes place in a public square in Prague, naturally sends officials into a panic, knowing as they do that this suicide, like the one done by a Buddhist monk in Vietnam several years earlier, is meant to show the grief of many over having their country invaded. Enter Dagmar, a lawyer, who is asked by the mother of the young man to make sure her son’s name is not dishonored by the lies she knows the government is using against his memory. Dagmar does her best, but her work is also being actively opposed and monitored by a government that can no longer tolerate the freedoms it once allowed. Highly recommended.

The German Doctor” is about Joseph Mengele, that most infamous of Nazi doctors, who escaped along with a number of his compatriots to South America in the immediate aftermath of World War II. The state of Israel is hunting for these men, and Mengele is hiding out in rural Argentina under another name, but he soon ends up in a German school far from the city that is clearly an enclave of Nazi sympathizers. He has also befriended a family, and one of the children, a daughter named Lilith, catches his eye as a potential patient. Lilith is somewhat small for her age (she is 12), and the doctor has a potential solution, a growth hormone he’s been working on. Lilith’s mother is also pregnant, with twins. (Those who know anything about Mengele will find that frightening in itself.) Set in 1960, in a world unto itself (both culturally and geographically), the film has a slow, ominous build-up to a scarily atmospheric ending. Though occasionally lacking in its use of suspense, the film nevertheless delivers a potent dramatization of how long justice can be delayed, and evil lingers on long after it has supposedly been defeated.

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“The Trip” Goes On…

Friday, February 20th, 2015

The Trip to Italy,” like its predecessor “The Trip,” is a hilarious, meandering, essentially plotless movie that nevertheless captivates simply by the skill of its lead players. Starring two British actors (Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan) who are nowhere near as famous here as they are in the UK, the second movie simply takes the format of the first and transplants it to Italy.

For those who haven’t seen the first movie, here’s the set-up: Steve calls Rob at the last minute to accompany him on a trip to the north of England for a series of restaurant reviews he’s been hired to write. Rob agrees to go along. They are friends, but there is also enough tension in their relationship — Steve is sometimes annoyed by Rob’s endless impersonations of famous people, which seem to be a cover for a superficial personality — to give the story a thin, but substantial enough, basis to develop from.  And so the second movie simply moves our characters (if that’s the right word; they almost seem to be playing themselves) from England to Italy. Again, Steve has been hired to write, and Rob agrees to go along. Who could refuse free Italian cuisine and the most beautiful coastal cities of Italy?

That may sound boring, but the reason it’s great watching is simply that the verbal repartee between the two actors is very funny. Coogan plays (more or less) the straight man to Brydon’s goofball, as the latter veers from one famous person’s voice to another (Hugh Grant, Michael Caine, Clint Eastwood, Woody Allen). This is interwoven with discussions of a more personal nature, especially when women are involved, and questions of family and marriage arise. Finally, these are complemented by their continuing obsession with English Romantic poets — Wordsworth when they were in England, Shelley and Lord Byron while in Italy — and those poets’ haunts. A great sequel, well worth the time, especially in the depths of a Michigan winter.

(This film is not rated; it has some strong language and one brief violent scene.)


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The Muscle Shoals Story

Monday, January 19th, 2015

If you are a fan of the classic rock or R & B music of the last 50 years or more, there’s a good chance you will love the new documentary Muscle Shoals: The Incredible True Story of a Small Town with a Big Sound. Centering on a town—Muscle Shoals, Alabama—and a man—producer Rick Hall—the movie takes us through the golden years of music that was, incredibly, recorded in a small town, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, but, to be more exact, the far northwest corner of Alabama, a place unto itself but in the same region as those famous centers of music, Nashville and Memphis.

That sense of place is important, as the film makes clear, and it has no doubt contributed, in some mysterious way, to the amazing production of music there, with artists ranging from Wilson Pickett to Aretha Franklin to Alicia Keys. Director Greg Camalier uses archival footage and photos and a wide gamut of music to tell us how Rick Hall (see photo), overcoming several tragedies in his personal life, including poverty and death and, starting humbly with a small studio, went on to record the giants of popular music. But he didn’t do it alone—he had the amazing help of The Swampers, a group of white, Alabama-born musicians who very often surprised the African-American singers they were backing with the talent and harmony they found with the singers. We learn all this through the words of Hall and his musicians, but also through interviews with a number of the great singers who recorded there, including Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Aretha Franklin, Etta James and Clarence Carter, as well as Steve Winwood and Bono.

“Muscle Shoals” inspires the viewer both in the presentation of some great music, but also in its celebration of how that music, in many different ways, can bring people together, can chase away sorrows and even bridge long-held racial divides. It shines a bright light on yet another hidden corner of the cultural landscape of America.


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World War II from the Other Side

Thursday, December 11th, 2014

The back of the box for “Generation War” calls it a “German ‘Band of Brothers.’” Starting in 1941 and ending with the war itself in 1945, “Generation War” in its scope—Germany, Russia, Poland—and cast of characters is certainly worth comparing with that epic HBO mini-series originally broadcast in 2001. The most important difference is the fact that this three-part series—each a feature-length movie—is purely from the German point of view. To be specific, two brothers, both soldiers; a nurse working behind the front lines, an aspiring singer, and a tailor who also happens to be Jewish. Believing the war will be over by Christmas (of 1941), these five young people are of course unaware of the horrors they are going to encounter. As viewers we watch them lose their innocence as the nightmare of Nazism and the world war envelope them.

There are a couple reasons I found this series compelling. For one, watching the story of the war in Europe from the German side rather than the American is powerful, giving us faces and voices that we wouldn’t normally encounter in a drama set in this era. Beyond that. though, the story gives us fully human characters—characters who start out agreeing with Hitler’s cause (or at least sympathetic to it) but, over the course of four brutal years, see its costs both in personal and national terms. These people draw our sympathy rather than our ire, and that of course makes us care for them, despite (or because of) their predicaments. The second reason “Generation War” (originally titled in German “Our Mothers, Our Fathers”—an apt title for younger generations to think about) works so well is its use of parallel stories—moving us from the Russian front to Berlin and occupied Poland, each character’s fate different than the other but united by the fact that these five were and are friends who ultimately want nothing more than to be reunited with each other and get on with their lives. I won’t give away the ending, other than to say that in its sadness and joy it brings us to a conclusion that is both sobering and believable.


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Talking in Fast Cars

Tuesday, September 23rd, 2014

Certainly one of the signs of the modern age is the speed with which we travel. Add to that the speed of our communications, especially with cell phones now, and we can see that all the drama and complications of life are that much more amplified. Two movies—one from 50 years ago, the other brand new—exemplify this tendency in both fascinating and distressing ways.

Il Sorpasso” (1962), an Italian film directed by Dino Risi just recently released on DVD by the Criterion Collection, is a simple story: it’s a hot summer day, and a hyperactive young man, Bruno, in a slightly beat-up sports car, sees Roberto, a law student, in his apartment window. Bruno needs to call his friends, whom he’s missed. He asks Roberto, a somewhat timid and quiet fellow who isn’t quite sure how to handle this whirlwind character, who says yes. Before either of them know it, they are on the open road and leaving Rome—the Italian countryside beckons, and Bruno, who refuses to be stuck behind any vehicle, uses his rather musical (and obnoxious) horn, and his engine, to get his way. Stops pile on stops, with a gas station, German women, priests and nuns, fish soup, relatives and an ex-wife all part of the quickly moving plot. Roberto, who keeps wanting to go home to study, nevertheless can’t help but enjoy himself with this man who never stops going. The film will strike some as tonally shocking—what starts out as light-hearted turns into something else before the end comes, and that change certainly makes “Il Sorpasso” stand out—especially when one compares it to most mainstream American movies.

Locke,” a new film from England by director Steven Knight, is a simply situated, but not simplistic, drama, entirely set in the interior of a car at night. Lest you think that sounds mind-numbing—or at least more appropriate for a radio drama or a play—think again. The movie works, carried by one actor who drives the car, and helped hugely by the voices of those he loves and works with as they call him and he calls them on his very sophisticated dashboard cell phone system. The driver is Ivan, a family man, a construction manager (he builds skyscrapers), driving from somewhere in the north of England to London. He is going to a hospital there to be with a woman not his wife. He is also facing huge pressures from his employer, because the next day there will converge an armada of cement trucks on the site he’s been managing, one of the biggest projects of its kind in Europe, and he won’t be there. And because he is “connected” so completely with everyone in his life, everyone has a (disembodied) voice to scream at him, plead with him, argue with him, and maybe even console him before the end of the movie. On top of all that, there is also the (unseen and unheard) ghost of his father, who was less than stellar in that role for Ivan. As he navigates his vehicle through the night, Ivan controls access to himself, through his car and his phone, but that doesn’t mean he is free from the consequences of his actions. “Locke” takes a perfectly modern situation and runs with it—a wonderfully balanced tale about choices that, despite the trappings of its modern technology, never loses its human touch.

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Movie and Discussion Time!

Wednesday, September 3rd, 2014

The Plainfield Township Branch would like to invite all interested adults to come to a special screening of the film “Friday Night Lights” on Saturday, October 4, with pizza served at 12:30 PM and the film beginning at 1:00 PM. After our viewing, we will hold a discussion of the film and some of the themes explored. The movie, originally released in 2004, is based on the nonfiction book by H.G. Bissinger that was published in 1990. The story centers on a small town in Texas where high school football is the reigning passion, and the players are the heroes of the town. Here is a description:

Odessa is an oil town in the western part of Texas that is home to the Permian High School Panthers, the football team with the best winning record. The city’s economy is in a tailspin, but football is the one thing that brings all the people of Odessa together, and on Friday nights, as many as 20,000 people fill Permian’s football stadium to watch Coach Gary Gaines lead the team to victory. And in Odessa, a football victory is prized above all else. The players ponder the fact that a championship season can be as much a burden as a triumph.

The movie also spawned a popular television series, which ran for five seasons.

Though we will be discussing the movie and not the book (or the TV series), we encourage anyone attending to read the book ahead of time if they’d like and bring whatever questions or comments they’ve gleaned from it to our discussion.


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Franco-American Noir

Monday, July 28th, 2014

Two Men in Manhattan” is French film noir, which is a wonderful confluence, since the term noir — in honor of a particular kind of American movie — was given to us by French film critics in the first place. In this case, director Jean-Pierre Melville pulls off a rather fascinating bit of movie-making: he combines an American setting and style — New York noir, in the 50s — with a very French post-war theme. To explain that too much might spoil the movie for the viewer, though. You’ll have to watch it to find out.

The story concerns a disappearance — a classic mystery set-up — of a French UN official. But instead of the police doing the investigating, it’s French reporters who are on the trail, one a womanizing photographer, the other (played by the director himself) more of a straight arrow. Together they journey through an unsavory world of New York vice, and more rarified theaters and recording studios, always missing their man, but continuing to pick up clues. According to the DVD’s extra — an interview between film critics Jonathan Rosenbaum and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky — only the exterior shots were done in New York itself, while the rest was done in France, on sound stages. This makes for an interesting contrast, given that many movies of this type at that time were done on numerous on-site locations. Additionally, the powerful jazz score used in the film is a great accompaniment to the editing, which pulls us from place to place throughout the city, conveying the disorientation that these foreigners must sometimes feel in their adopted city. As the reporters continue their prowl throughout the December night, they eventually get their scoop, though not without some depressing revelations, brought to them partially through their own ambiguous choices — a plot twist doubtless important to this story of darkness both literal and figurative.

(This film is not rated, but does have some brief nudity in it. Dialogue is primarily in French, with some English as well.)


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Three New DVDs

Friday, May 23rd, 2014

Three new DVDs that have been added to our system recently come from three different countries and represent a wide range of serious storytelling. Here’s a brief rundown on them:

William Faulkner is widely regarded as one of the great American writers of the 20th century, and his books have often proven difficult to adapt to the screen, owing to his sometimes modernist and difficult writing style. “As I Lay Dying,” directed by the actor and director James Franco, tackles this issue head on in his adaptation of Faulkner’s 1930 novel about a family in the rural South taking their mother’s body to be buried in another town. Employing a split screen at times, Franco tries to approximate the original text of the novel, which is told not by a single narrator, but by all the characters involved in the story. And the story is a dramatic one—some might even say melodramatic. A flooded bridge, a severely broken leg, fire and a decaying body are among the many terrors encountered on the way to the wife and mother’s grave. Full of black humor and some strange incidents, the movie won’t be to everyone’s liking, but is certainly worth checking out if you are at all interested in American literature. Franco has also adapted another Faulkner novel, “The Sound and the Fury,” which will be released later this year. (Rated R)

A Touch of Sin” comes from the Chinese director Zhangke Jia and tells four intense stories of modern China, all of them involving anger and the loss of dignity that can come to the fore when corruption and immorality stretch ordinary people to their breaking point. All the stories involve violence of some kind (sometimes explicitly so), and, despite the foreign setting, will ring as sadly familiar to Americans who pay any attention to the news in this country. The director pulls no punches in his bravura presentation here, and, thankfully for this viewer, presents an ever so slight spot of brightness at the end. (Unrated, but the equivalent of an R rating.)

Letters to Father Jacob,” running at only about 75 minutes, is the story of a blind priest in Finland and a woman named Leila who has been pardoned for a crime the nature of which we only find out at the end of the film. In this lovely and touching story of a deeply spiritual man and a troubled woman, we follow Leila as she is hired to transcribe replies to the many letters that Father Jacob receives at his remote rectory. Suspicious at first of his piety, she nevertheless chooses to stay, and the story, with all the elegance of an old tale, takes us to a satisfying conclusion without the maudlin manipulation you might find in some other films that seek to tell a life-affirming story. (Unrated but equivalent of a PG rating.)


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“The Great Beauty”

Tuesday, April 15th, 2014

The Great BeautyThe Great Beauty,” which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film for 2013, has been compared favorably to a classic Italian film, Fellini’s “8 ½,” made decades before, and the comparison shows how well-received this film has been and how Italian film continues to dazzle and intrigue viewers from around the world. Directed and co-written by Paolo Sorrentino, The Great Beauty, like Fellini’s earlier masterpiece, centers on a man (“Jep” played by Toni Servillo) who is trying to find his way in a world that has been good to him (he’s a writer) but that doesn’t seem to be very good itself.  Blessed with an apartment in Rome overlooking the Coliseum, he throws lavish parties, sleeps in late, and seemingly has the world as his oyster. To try and describe the plot of this film would be pointless though, since rather than engaging in a traditional narrative arc, Sorrentino gives us an episodic structure  showing numerous facets of the world Jep is living in—a world of beautiful women who offer themselves to him, (but that he walks away from), of mentally ill children of friends  lost in their own literary worlds, of avant-garde artists and writers and magicians, of a man grieving over his dead wife (and the diary she wrote), of a cardinal alleged to be a great exorcist but who wants to talk about cooking, and, finally, in the closing scenes of the film, a nun (or “future saint” as some call her) who barely talks yet embodies more discipline and insight than almost anyone else in the story.

At 142 minutes, the film takes its time with all these characters and episodes, but the story is helped immensely by the beauty of its cinematography and the feeling that Sorrentino will eventually take us beyond the conventional wisdom that the rich and socially elite of Rome (as elsewhere) are vapid party-goers interested only in the tiny world of their set.  That set of people has access to much of the “great beauty,” but whether they appreciate it in its deepest forms or not is another matter, and by the end of the film we can at least say we know some of that beauty exists, some of it in the present, but some of it in the past, living on in memories as simple and humble as that of a first kiss.

(This film is not rated, but does contain some nudity)


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