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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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The Deanna Durbin Sweetheart Collection

Thursday, March 13th, 2014

Who was Deanna Durbin? Chances are her name is not as familiar to you as, say, Judy Garland. Though Deanna and Judy started their careers in film at the same time, Deanna, after about 10 years as a major singing and acting star, suddenly called it quits in 1948 and went to France, where she married her third husband. But she left behind a number of light comedies and musicals featuring her classically-trained voice and spunky acting style. The Deanna Durbin Sweetheart Collection puts together a sampling of her work, with six titles released between 1936 and 1947. I didn’t view all the films here, but based on the three I did watch, I can heartily recommend the set.

A great place to start is Three Smart Girls, which was nominated for three Oscars in 1936. Durbin plays one of the “smart girls” of the title, who, along with her two sisters, have to rush from their Swiss chalet to New York in order to prevent their divorced, wealthy father from remarrying. As with numerous other ’30s comedies, the action is swift and the comedy sharp, and never is a bread line seen.

First Love, a retelling of the Cinderella story in a modern setting, has Durbin playing the poor girl against snobby rich relatives who only want her to stay in her room. Keeping its (not quite glass) slipper as part of the story, the movie is great fun, even if we do know how it’s going to end.  None other than the writer Graham Greene said it was “admirably directed, amusingly written, and acted with immense virtuosity…”

It Started with Eve hinges on the comedy of misunderstanding and deception: Robert Cummings, playing a dying tycoon’s son, can’t find his fiancée in the hotel where she’s staying with her mother and, in a panic because his father wants to meet her (and thinking that dad will be dead before morning) he plucks Durbin, the coat check girl, from the hotel and brings her instead. Of course dad likes Deanna—she sings great and is wonderfully down-to-earth—but Cummings isn’t so sure, and has to stay one step ahead of the deception in order to keep his fiancée in the dark and his father happy. As with the other two movies seen here, the world shown is one of penthouses and gilded mansions, butlers and soaring songs—all the things that continued to comfort a nation beaten down by a depression and getting ready for a world war.

 


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“To the Wonder”

Friday, January 31st, 2014

Terence Malick’s “To the Wonder,” released on DVD last year, is only the director’s sixth feature film since his first—“Badlands”—was released in the early 1970s. He is a director who obviously takes his time, and who is also notoriously shy of interviews, choosing instead to let his films—beautiful, mysterious, elliptical and spiritual—to speak for him. For the sake of full disclosure, I admit that his second film, “Days of Heaven” (1978), is one of my favorites (I’ve lost count on how many times I’ve watched it), so I always approach a new film by him with a great deal of excitement, and, for the most part, I have not been let down by his subsequent work. (His previous, “The Tree of Life,” was stunning to some, baffling to others, but everyone had to agree it was original in its approach to its story.)

“To the Wonder,” like its predecessors, uses voice-over narration and beautiful imagery to tell the story of a man and woman in and out of love. It begins in Paris but soon shifts from that classic locale to Oklahoma (it was filmed in Bartelsville, but this is not mentioned in the film), where the landscape, though present-day, reminds one of “Days of Heaven” and “The Tree of Life” (Malick was born and raised in nearby Texas). What’s particularly fascinating about the storytelling here is that it defies the usual expectations about narrative. We’re used to characters being explained–by themselves or by other means– as a way of moving the story forward, but here we learn as much from (sometimes cryptic) visuals cues, voiceover, and snippets of dialogue as anything else. This can take some getting used to, but once the viewer understands this, the story does move forward. Another thing to understand is that increasingly, Malick has been more explicit about religion, which here takes the form, at least in the context of the film, of Christian faith, albeit one rooted less in creed than in mystery. This is shown most explicitly through Javier Bardem’s character, a Catholic priest who, though only briefly involved with the main characters, plays a sort of counterpoint or complementary role to their search for human love, while he seeks to find God more fully in the faces of the poor around him. Finally, there is the ever-present use of natural and man-made imagery that Malick continues to revel in, and that serves to show us in sometimes unexpected places the beauty of the world around us.

“To the Wonder” will test the patience of some, and annoy others with what at least appears as pretentiousness; to this viewer, whatever problems there might be with the film, they are offset by the conviction that here we are confronted with a unique artistic sensibility in the world of contemporary filmmaking, a sensibility on good display in “To the Wonder.”

(This film is rated R.)

 


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Golden Globe Winners for 2014

Wednesday, January 15th, 2014

The Golden Globe Awards were announced earlier this week and, since they come before the Oscars, can sometimes give a clue to what the latter might be awarding (though of course the voting is coming from a different group of people). Kent District Library does its best to put new movies on order so you can place holds before they are released, and a number of the award winners are currently available to hold.  The historical “Twelve Years a Slave” won best picture in the drama category. Cate Blanchett, starring in Woody Allen’s latest comedy-drama “Blue Jasmine” won best actress for a drama, while Matthew McConaughey won the male award for the same category for “Dallas Buyers Club.” “American Hustle” was awarded best picture in the comedy/musical category.  For best director overall, Alfonso Cuaron won for “Gravity,” starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, while “Breaking Bad” was awarded best television series. For a complete listing of the winners — and what films they were competing against – go here.

 


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“Neighboring Sounds” of Fear and Suspicion

Wednesday, November 20th, 2013

Neighboring Sounds is a fascinating, sometimes frustrating, sometimes humorous  Brazilian film about things that are hidden, and about the fear the haves sometimes harbor about the have-nots (or have-less). Set in the sun-filled coastal  town of Recife, its cast of characters almost all inhabit a single building—a high-rise—that, like other high-rises in the city, is also near some much less-prosperous favelas (or shantytowns) that happen to supply some of the domestic help employed in said high-rises. On one level this is a movie about class and wealth differences in a modern South American setting, but the director, Kleber Mendonça Filho (directing his first fiction feature film), chooses a subtle, mysterious approach here—though it’s possible as an American there are parts that simply went under my radar. That said, the engine that moves the plot forward involves an increasing crime rate near the high-rise, and the consequent concern of its residents. Suddenly a man in a brown vest with a business card appears, offering some private security—a 7pm to 7am watch. Some people are more interested than others—one, a mother of two children, has as much interest in getting rid of a noisy dog than anything else, while the wealthy patriarch of the building and his son have a greater desire than ever to keep safe—especially when they suspect they have someone in their own family who is skirting the edge of the law.

Without giving too much away, it’s important to note a couple things: one, “Neighboring Sounds” is not a traditional thriller in any sense of the word, though it does keep us tense and guessing at times, wondering what a scene might mean without being fully informed, even at the end. Second, the theme—and this is merely one possibility among others—is wrapped up in its structure, which is one of closed doors, fences, fears and the indestructibility of a traumatic past. A final note (unless you’re already familiar with the recent history of Brazil):  it’s important and helpful to know that around 1984, the military regime in Brazil ended its twenty year reign, leading to a more open and democratic era.  Keep this in mind as you get close to the end of the film.

Not rated, but is the equivalent of an R movie.

 


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“The Locket”: An Intriguing New DVD

Wednesday, October 16th, 2013

I was going to review a couple movies for this new entry, but having seen “The Locket,” I decided there was more than enough to write about with this one movie. Not to be confused with another “Locket” of the same name, this 1946 noir thriller has one of the most deliciously complicated plot structures I have seen in a long time. For those familiar with this genre, you’ll know that flashbacks are not unusual as a means of storytelling (check out, for instance, “Out of the Past” or “Mildred Pierce,” movies made around the same time). But “The Locket” takes this device and raises it to new heights.

It begins with a wedding which is about to take place at the house of a wealthy family. We see the bride and groom, and just before the ceremony is to begin, a stranger summons the groom for a private conversation about the woman the latter is about to marry. The news from the stranger is not good—in fact, it’s downright disturbing.  Naturally, the groom is suspicious—who is this guy barging into my house?—but soon finds out that the stranger does know something about the bride. He tells his story, and thus begins the first of three flashbacks, each one inside the previous one, as if each story is a box with a smaller one inside it. This structure works in tandem with the psychological aspect of the film, in which the main character, Nancy (played by Lorraine Day), who had a traumatic experience as a child, is covering up this trauma and its aftereffects for the sake of her relationship with three different men. Robert Mitchum is outstanding as an artist who falls for Day, and it’s fascinating to watch his transformation from bohemian painter to someone who’ll hobnob with the wealthy in order to sell his work. Brian Aherne is also great as the somewhat haughty, but well-intentioned Dr. Blair. And of course Day carries the movie as the girl who lost her locket.

“The Locket” pulls us in by its deft use of flashback to keep us guessing about what will happen next, and in the same way, it ends without compromising what has been told up till then. The final scenes give us answers but also questions, questions that the viewer will have to provide for himself—a certain amount of open-endedness that I found immensely satisfying.  And while its psychological underpinnings are certainly speculative at best, it also presents us with a world of uncertainty, in which the narrators pass on a chain of information that the viewer must be willing to believe in order for the story to continue to be believed. Without getting too philosophical about it all (for more of that, see this article, for which I am indebted for the previous statement), I want to recommend “The Locket” for its rich visual look, its complex plotting involving a femme fatale, and its economy of storytelling that packs so much in a mere 86 minutes of film.

 


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It’s Classical Music Month!

Thursday, September 5th, 2013

Since September is “Classical Music month,” I thought it’d be good to spread the news about some of the great classical CDs that are available through KDL, and do that by listing some of the pieces that have become my favorites over the years. I started listening to this music about 35 years ago, going to my hometown (and quite small) library to check out the classical LPs that intrigued me.  I’ve never really stopped listening either, though my tastes have broadened to include a number of other genres. The following recommendations are of course purely personal, and if you are a lover of classical music, feel free to add a comment about what you like that I may have left out.

No list could be complete without the works of J.S. Bach, and one of his most beloved and well-known are the Brandenburg Concertos, whose vitality and loveliness never die.  I don’t know how one could grow tired of these pieces, but if by chance you did, there are always Bach’s works for keyboard, including those insomniac-inspired pieces for solo piano known as the Goldberg Variations. So much variety in one piece! Moving ahead in time, we come to the many symphonies of Haydn, one of which, “Farewell,” has the musicians leaving one by one at the end of the piece—yes, the Master did have a sense of humor, though he was also sending a message. (You’ll have to look it up.)  Beethoven is probably the most well known of the composers on this list, and of all his symphonies, I’ve always loved the 6th the most. Also known as the Pastoral, its lyricism and emotion always get me. (You may recall its use in the Disney feature Fantasia.)  While we’re on symphonies (and the 19th century), Dvorak, who actually lived in the Midwest for part of his life, wrote a wonderful (and justly well-known) symphony inspired by the United States, its people and its music. Popularly known as “From the New World,” it is well worth seeking out.  Dvorak’s string quartets are also a must-listen. Heading to France, there’s Claude Debussy, whose series of piano pieces called simply “Images,” despite their “modern” sound, have delighted with their dreamy, poetic compositions.  Finally—and to show that classical is not dead—I wanted to mention Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3.  Though written in 1976, this piece is not the dissonant, difficult work you might expect from that era. Instead, Gorecki gives us an incredibly moving work with some singing parts by the great Dawn Upshaw.

This is just a sampling, of course, of what’s out there, and if I had more space, I’d write about many more. And don’t forget to check out Freegal, available for KDL cardholders, that has a number of classical pieces available for downloading that might not be available on CD.

 


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“Four Daughters”: A Gem

Friday, July 26th, 2013

I wasn’t planning on writing a review of Four Daughters (1938), but after watching the DVD (I had seen the movie on VHS a long time ago), I changed my mind.  It’s simply too interesting to not write about it, even if in the brief format of this blog.

The star that most will recognize is Claude Rains, who plays Adam Lemp, a musician raising four very musical daughters in a small town somewhere in New York.  Also present is Aunt Etta in place of the girls’ mother, who is unexplainably missing. As the movie opens, a beautiful recital is going on at home, with father directing and playing the flute, looking like he just stepped out of Beethoven’s Vienna. Father doesn’t like “modern” music like jazz, and his daughters seem to (more or less) agree with this, but soon a dissonant note is heard over the classical kind, and it turns out to be the squeaking of the front gate—a wonderful motif, both aural and visual for the change that is soon to come to the house of the four daughters, where music and men will be mixing in unexpected ways. This change is most represented by the two composers who enter the family’s life, both of them lovers of that modern music that Adam so dislikes. The director, Michael Curtiz (remember Casablanca? He directed that too…) used the windows of the house as a way to show the daughters finding new men in their lives, coming through that gate in particular. But lest you think this is another purely sentimental old movie about romance, be warned: it’s not all sweetness and light. Before the film is over, there will be some dark notes struck as well, ones that I found curious given the Production Code then in force. Watch it and decide for yourself.

This was the first film for John Garfield, who, with his unshaved face and loose tie, looks like he stepped out of a movie made ten years later. Three of the four sisters were played by sisters in real life, and the one who wasn’t related fit in so well I couldn’t tell her apart. All are in great form, which explains why Four Daughters was nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director.

 


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“Intruder in the Dust” — A New DVD

Thursday, July 11th, 2013

Before “To Kill a Mockingbird” there was “Intruder in the Dust,” a story similar in theme to the former movie starring Gregory Peck,  and, in my opinion, just as good a film about the deep South in the middle of the last century. Released by MGM in 1949, and based on a William Faulkner novel of the same name, this modest picture has no major stars in it—which is just fine. It was actually shot in and around Faulkner’s hometown of Oxford, Mississippi, and this gives the film a wonderfully authentic look that lends even more credibility to its themes of courage, prejudice and routine violence.

The story centers on a black man accused of the murder of a white man in a small unnamed southern town.  Young Chick Mallison (played by Claude Jarman, who also starred in The Yearling) who is white, was treated with kindness by the accused while out hunting in the recent past,  and decides to return the favor and goes hunting for clues. Encouraged by his uncle, a lawyer, and helped along the way by an elderly lady with a stubborn streak (and going behind his father’s back, who has gone off to Memphis for business), he does his best to see that justice is done.

In addition to the aforementioned on-site background, there is something just as powerful, and more disturbing, about the film, in its portrayal of the possible violence of a lynching taking place in the town. This is treated with such matter-of-factness it becomes even more chilling—witness the almost silent way that people come in droves to the lovely town square and wait near the old jail and hope for a view of what may or may not be a horrific event.  Faulkner, of course, knew all this first hand as a son of the South, and through the script, written by Ben Maddow, we see both the good and the bad of that time and place—its communal ties, its racial divides and the way people sometimes showed grace under the pressure of a turbulent history.

 


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