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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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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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