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1812 and All That

Wednesday, September 5th, 2012

I think we can safely say that watching any movie about historical events or people must be taken with a grain of salt in terms of its details. It simply goes with the territory that artistic license will be involved in spicing up a story in order to keep a large audience interested.

This was probably even more true in the studio era when The Buccaneer (1938), directed by the great Cecil B. DeMille, was made.  The story concerns the War of 1812 (as we mark its 200th anniversary) and the work that Jean Lafitte, “privateer” (aka pirate), did in helping the Americans at the Battle of New Orleans. In its general outline, the film is factual—see the entry for Lafitte in The Encyclopedia of the War of 1812—but beyond that, one must simply acknowledge that, on top of presenting an exciting and complicated historical event, DeMille wanted to give us a rousing good tale of pirates, war, integrity and romance. 

Frederic March plays Lafitte, and he’s surrounded by a whole bevy of colorful characters, real and imagined, from Dolly Madison saving George Washington’s portrait from British destruction, to Akim Tamiroff as the perfect pirate, to Walter Brennan as one of Andrew Jackson’s coon-skin capped fighters, to Hugh Sothern as the future President Jackson in all his earthiness and bravery.  While some of the more unpleasant pirating activities are taken out, the movie still makes clear that Lafitte, despite the offer of amnesty he receives from the Americans, has some unsavory things from his past that must be dealt with. This leads to a very satisfying conclusion of an already thrilling tale.

 


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Woody Allen: A Documentary

Wednesday, August 15th, 2012

When Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris was released last year, there were some critics who wondered if the long-time director/writer would ever be able to repeat the huge successes he’d had in the late 1970s with such great films as Annie Hall and Manhattan.  But he proved them wrong, and the film went on to make (as of this writing) over 56 million dollars in ticket sales — his highest grossing film ever.

That’s just one of the interesting points made in the new film, Woody Allen: A Documentary, a very long (195 minutes) and very interesting take on one of the most productive director/screenwriters this country has ever produced. (The only comparable person would be Sweden’s Ingmar Bergman, who is, of course, one of Allen’s heroes.) The film takes us back to the very beginning, where we learn that Allen, at the age of 17 and writing jokes for others, was already making more money than his parents. Amazingly, by the end of the 1960s he was offered a director’s position simply on the merits of his writing, and took off from there. 

While the film can’t possibly cover every movie Allen has made, there is much that is covered, and the information comes from a variety of sources — to start with, Allen himself, who appears in new footage and older interviews, but also Diane Keaton, Tony Roberts,  Martin Scorsese, and numerous stars who have appeared in different productions, such as Mira Sorvino, John Cusack and Owen Wilson.  Regarding Allen’s personal life — that is, the scandal involving Allen and Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter (whom he eventually married), this too is dealt with, though not with the sort of breast-beating many might like to see.  And, not surprisingly, Mia Farrow does not appear in the film, except for being in clips from Allen’s movies.

Overall, I found the documentary a fascinating gem — particularly when Allen shares with viewers some of his work habits. For one, he still uses an old manual typewriter he bought sometime in the 1950s, and he keeps a drawer full of paper scraps with ideas for stories that he saves and then goes through for inspiration.  This and many other details make this film worth your time. If you’d like, let me know what your favorite Woody Allen film is, and why.

 


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Beatty, Malden and Lansbury!

Thursday, July 26th, 2012

All Fall Down (1962) is yet another great movie the late director John Frankenheimer made in the first half of the 1960s (some of the others are The Train, Seven Days in May and the fantastic Manchurian Candidate). 

Unlike some works from this period though, this is a family drama starring the likes of Warren Beatty, Karl Malden and Angela Lansbury–there’s no politics here, no train wrecks, and no assassinations; rather, we watch the slow unraveling and awakening of a family that worships its eldest son—a prodigal whom they believe to be some kind of saint. Beatty plays the son, a wanderer and womanizer worshiped by his younger brother Clint (Brandon de Wilde) who still lives with his parents (Malden and Lansbury) in Cleveland.  As the film begins, de Wilde has tracked down Beatty in less than auspicious circumstances in Florida—and here we can see some of the frankness of the 1960s cropping up—but he refuses to face the facts. The story is complicated even more when Echo, played by Eva Marie Saint, arrives from Toledo for a visit to the family, and de Wilde falls hard for her, even though she, in her older, patronizing way, doesn’t take him very seriously. 

What’s partly interesting about this film from a different era is how non-conformist Beatty’s family is in the era of Leave it to Beaver: Clint decides not to finish high school, and his parents barely raise an eyebrow; Malden invites a group of homeless men in for a nightcap on Christmas Eve, and the family seemingly has no jobs to support their old and rambling house, while Clint hides around corners and writes down all the arguments his parents have. 

The denial and frustrated love must come to a head, of course, before the film is over, and it is up to each viewer to decide if the ending is a satisfying one or not. Whatever your opinion, you’ll have to admit that there is a certain catharsis by the end of this drama, and with actors of this stature, it’s certainly worth giving the film a try.


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Earn an Artist Badge!

Friday, June 22nd, 2012

Artist Badge

Earn an Artist badge during Summer Reading @ KDL!  As part of the Experience Summer program this year, KDL is asking participants to branch out into new areas of learning and experience. 

There are numerous ways the Artist badge can be earned. You can read a biography of an artist or attend an art-related event at one of our branches.  You can go to a local art museum or visit an art gallery or art exhibit. You can enjoy art programming for families at the Grand Rapids Art Museum during Saturday All Day with the Arts. Present your KDL library card from 10:00 AM – 3:00 PM every Saturday through August to receive $3 admission for each person in your group. (GRAM is also free of charge every Tuesday from 1:00 – 5:00 PM). Finally, you could do some original artwork of your own and show it to any one of our librarians–and as a librarian who has studied and done visual art, I’d really like to see these! You only have to do one of the suggested activities to earn the badge.

Other badges include Animal Lover, Dreamer, Entertainment, Foodie, Multicultural, Nature Lover, Reader, Sports Fan, and Traveler.

Once you’ve earned all ten badges associated with this program, you may print out your “Experience Summer @ KDL” certificate.


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“The Organizer”: An Italian Film on DVD

Tuesday, June 12th, 2012

Set in late 19th century Italy, “The Organizer”(1963) is a somewhat humorous, sometimes ironic movie about a serious topic. Imagine going to work at 6 AM and not being able to leave until 14 hours of work have been put in. This is the situation of a group of workers in a Turin cloth factory. They work hard, and then they get tired—accidents inevitably follow, but with very little sympathy from the factory owners. The workers select a group of leaders who consider striking, but they might need some help. Suddenly, sneaking off a train one night, the “professor” (played by the great Marcello Mastroianni) appears. He’s a mysterious figure, but is willing to help. 

With a good mix of tragedy and comedy, the movie explores and dramatizes the struggle to organize—but unlike some films made on this topic, it doesn’t demonize some and canonize others. The owners, for instance, don’t come off as monsters, and certainly the workers, including the professor, are not always heroic in the choices they make. The whole society, it seems, is bumbling and working its way through this struggle. Hence the ending is not what you might expect—but remember to keep an historical perspective on it, and to note that this is a European film that takes a slightly different tack than many American movies might with the same material.

Finally—and this seems to be a common factor in many Italian movies of the last 50 years—it’s great fun to watch so many people on the screen. The sense of a crowd, of people banding together (and disbanding) permeates the screen, which means that it’s taking full advantage of the medium itself—even if it isn’t the latest digital effects. (Not rated; adult material but nothing explicit. This movie is black and white with English subtitles.)

 


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Musical Nostalgia, With Pirates! Jeanette and Eddy Sing!

Saturday, May 5th, 2012

I am nowhere near in age to the generation that grew up hearing Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, but for those who are—and maybe even some who aren’t—you might enjoy the new-on-DVD copy of “Naughty Marietta.”

First released in 1935, this historical musical features MacDonald as a French princess who is being forced into a marriage she doesn’t want and who, by a bit of trickery, gets herself on a boat full of mail-order brides headed for New Orleans. The ladies make it across the ocean safely, but just as they are about to land, a band of pirates stop them with some very bad intentions. Fortunately—and I don’t think I’m spoiling much here—Nelson Eddy and his band of singing mercenaries swoop in, singing “Tramp, tramp, tramp.”  This, of course, is the beginning of romance, but it has a ways to go before everything turns out all right. The royal authorities from France soon appear (how this happens so quickly in that era is never explained, but remember, it’s a musical…), so Marietta has to run and hide some more, with the help of Eddy, who is still waiting for his affections to be reciprocated.

I’ve always liked musicals, and while this wouldn’t be at the top of my list, it is certainly an enjoyable film.  The music is more operatic than, say, jazzy—despite its New Orleans setting—and the singing is top-notch.  The ending is full of “frontier” optimism, a perfect way to wrap up a “riches-to-rags” story like this. (Rated G)

 


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A New Release of an Old Film

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2012

A Thousand Clowns, which was originally released in 1965, strikes me as a classic 1960s film. Why do I say that, given that it was released only half-way through the decade, and given that so much more happened in the next five years?  Because it is a drama about nerds versus free spirits. (That particular phrasing comes from financial guru Dave Ramsey, but I don’t know its full provenance.) 

Jason Robards plays Murray, a non-conformist former TV writer living in New York who has taken in his 12-year-old nephew, whose name for the moment (yes, that’s right) is Nick. Murray doesn’t want to get a job, but the “system” intervenes in the form of two child social workers who are concerned about Nick. William Daniels and Barbara Harris play them, and soon enough the drama is complicated further when we discover that one of the two is a closet “free spirit” as well.

So with that as the set-up, the viewer enjoys a lot of laughs on the way to the resolution of this comedy-drama. On the downside, this movie shows its origin in the theater by the fact that a good part of it takes place in Murray’s apartment—with some breaks given by wonderful street-level New York footage. On the plus side, we get to enjoy a number of great actors, including Robards and Daniels (who later appeared in The Graduate as Dustin Hoffman’s father.) Now, whether or not you’ll enjoy the conflict or find it simplistic (in a 1960s movie kind of way), is another matter. If you choose to watch it, feel free to leave an opinion! (Due to its age, this movie does not have a rating; it has one scene that might be inappropriate for younger viewers.)


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A New Foreign Film to Consider

Tuesday, March 13th, 2012

Tales from the Golden Age is a Romanian movie about the waning days of the Communist era in that country, a time that, according to some Communist leaders, was a “golden age” for its people.  The title, of course, is meant to be ironic, though in this case the irony is not a harsh irony that you might expect to see from a country known for its infamous orphanages and leader who was killed by his own people in 1989. In this case, the movie takes a mostly humorous approach to the ways people survived the everyday necessities and indignities of life under a repressive regime.

The film is a collection of “tales” — six in all — and some are longer than others, but all are enjoyable. Especially for an American, the details can be particularly interesting: the tiny, cramped apartment where a pig is secretly killed so the neighbors don’t find out; the teenagers pretending to be officials from some government department ”investigating” apartment air with old beer bottles; the fear ruling over a photographer and his co-worker as they work to manipulate a photo (in the pre-Photoshop days) so the government is not shown in a bad light. Certainly the most poignant story is the final one, about a lonely but married driver of a chicken truck who finds a way to secretly get eggs to a restauranter he has a crush on, knowing the whole time he is violating a government rule to get the eggs. Overall, a fascinating, funny and insightful look at the end of an era (and done by a variety of directors) that shouldn’t be missed by anyone who likes foreign films.


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Oscar Winners!

Monday, February 27th, 2012

The 2012 Oscars were announced last night. Probably the most interesting fact from this year’s list is that the Best Picture winner, “The Artist” (which is still running in the theater and is therefore not yet available for placing holds) is the first silent film to win best picture since, well, the silent picture era — 80 years ago, to be exact. To view the complete list, click here.

Although “The Artist” is not yet available for holds, all of the following winners are either already in our system (with a likely growing list of holds) or are “on order” and so can have a hold placed on them: (And we’ll be sure to get “The Artist” ordered as soon as it is available, so be on the lookout for it…)

Beginners (Best Supporting Actor Christopher Plummer)

The Descendants (Best Adapted Screenplay)

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Best Film Editing)

The Help (Best Supporting Actress Octavia Spencer)

Hugo (Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Visual Effects)

The Iron Lady (Best Actress Meryl Streep, Best Makeup)

Midnight in Paris (Best Original Screenplay)

The Muppets (Best Original Song)

Rango (Best Animated Feature Film)


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“Win Win” is a Winner

Monday, February 13th, 2012

I first saw Paul Giamatti, as far as I recall, in the wonderful film about cartoonist Harvey Pekar called American Splendor. In that movie, he played a grumpy file clerk turned cartoonist obsessed with jazz and comics who learns to love some other people as much as he loves jazz and comics.

In Win Win he also plays someone who learns to love a bit more, but in this case, he’s not a grumpy Harvey Pekar, but a lawyer in New Jersey.  Giamatti plays Mike, who lives with his wife and two young daughters. His legal work is not what it should be, and he and his law partner do everything they can (including ignoring a banging furnace) to cut costs to stay in business. In a moment of weakness during a hearing with a judge, he does something that could cost him dearly later on. This leads to his encounter with Kyle, a semi-homeless teen from Ohio in need of some direction and care, who is related to one of Mike’s clients. Kyle also happens to be a great wrestler and Mike is a wrestling coach at the local high school.

But before you think this is another feel good sports movie, stop yourself. This is a movie with a real heart that does feature sports, but it goes in a different direction than you might expect, which is one reason I liked it so much. Perhaps it’s too obvious to say that wrestling is an apt metaphor for most people’s lives (remember Jacob?), but whatever the case, this is a wonderfully low-key movie about people learning to expand the goodness that’s already in their hearts. (Rated R for language)


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