Author Archive

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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Michigan Notable Books for 2012

Friday, January 20th, 2012

Michigan Notable Books

The Michigan Department of Education has released its list of “Michigan Notable Books” for 2012. The topics covered in these titles are wonderfully varied, covering everything from “a collection of Michigan ghost stories,”  “a biography of one of the most recognized women in the Republican Party” and a “history of the role Jacobson’s department stores played in Michigan communities,” among others on the list.

Twenty titles were named; the list originates from a program that began in 1991 as part of a Michigan Week celebration. According to the press release, “Each title on the 2012 list gives readers insight into what it means to make your home in Michigan and proves some of the greatest stories are indeed found in the Great Lakes region.” 

The authors of two books — D.E. Johnson and Christine Byron and Tom Wilson — will take part in KDL’s “Celebrate The Mitten” Michigan Authors Series happening March through May at select branches.

Request any of these great books by clicking on its title below. Enjoy!

 


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Comparing the Book and the Movie…

Thursday, December 15th, 2011

Now that I’ve finally seen The Magnificent Ambersons on its new (albeit no-frills) DVD release, I decided to go back to its source, the 1918 novel by Booth Tarkington, to compare the two. (Full confession: I’ve actually seen the movie more times than I can recall, so it was about time I read the source novel for one of my favorite films.)

Orson Welles directed the movie,  right after his epic “greatest movie ever made,” Citizen Kane. Now, while anyone who has a serious interest in movies has seen the latter, probably less have seen “Ambersons.” That’s too bad, because while the movie did suffer some horrible editing by its studio, RKO (documented in numerous books on Welles), it still is really wonderful. And part of that must be the fact that Welles honored so well the spirit of Tarkington’s Pulitzer-winning novel, helped in some degree, no doubt, by the Midwest pedigree of both author and director.

The book’s plot, simply put, is a riches-to-rags tale of a late-19th century “Midland” family whose most offensive characteristics are embodied in the character of George, only child of Isabel Amberson. George, you see, is a tad bit proud of his wealth, and his status, and likes to use the word “riffraff” around people he deems inferior. Everyone wants to see him get his “comeuppance” sooner rather than later.

George meets Lucy, whose father Eugene is an inventor of despicable (to George) “horseless carriages.”  As George begins to have feelings for Lucy, Eugene begins to remember his old love for Isabel, whose ailing husband Wilbur will soon depart the scene. But George will not stand to have his mother courted by anyone like Eugene (or maybe anyone else, for that matter). The tale plays itself out, and this resolution, though very much abbreviated in Welles’ film, stays very close to that of the book.

One of the outstanding features of the movie is its cinematography, full of rich black shadows and deep focus, perhaps most famously shown in the ballroom sequence near the beginning of the film—a part of the movie that, tragically, should have been longer but was cut by the studio. Also, Welles uses voice-over narration to wonderful effect, capturing Tarkington’s text in his rich, immortal voice. My conclusion: read the book AND watch the movie, in whatever order you feel like!


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Another Film Review: “Sanctum”

Tuesday, November 29th, 2011

Sanctum Poster

Sanctum“, directed by Alister Grierson and having James Cameron as executive producer, is a thriller (“based on a true story”) that takes place almost entirely underground, in a complex of water and air-filled caverns somewhere in New Guinea. Frank and Josh, father and son, are part of an expedition to explore and map the huge system that is entered through a magnificent, wide and deep hole in the middle of the jungle. 

Everything seems well-accounted for technologically speaking, with laptops and even a robotic diver that follows the humans as they plunge into utterly unknown spaces deep under the ground.  But as with any good adventure tale, something has to go wrong, and it does, in the form of a typhoon that brings in huge amounts of rain through the hole in the ground. (Why they haven’t planned better for this disaster — with a phone system that goes dead — is never fully explained, but I digress.)   This means that our spelunkers are suddenly in a very tight spot, both literally and figuratively.  Finding their normal way out blocked, they must plunge deeper into the cave — with no maps — and hope to escape that way instead. 

If you’re looking for emotional resonance here, it’s not abundant, though the script does try and give us some insight into the problems and development of Frank and Josh’s relationship.  But what really drives the story, naturally, is the courage, fear and obstacles that make their appearance as the explorers do everything they can to get out. If you’re driven into claustrophobia by seeing people stuck in caves, then skip this film. However, if you, like me, like caves — or just a very visceral adventure that doesn’t have giant alien robots — give this movie a try. I think you’ll find it a pleasant and sometimes disturbing distraction.
(Rated R for language and some disturbing violent images.) 


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A Brief Movie Review…

Thursday, November 10th, 2011

The movie “Sorry, Haters” will certainly not be to everyone’s liking. I viewed it recently on the recommendation of one of our regular patrons who watches a lot of movies, and whose taste I trust. 

The rather cryptic title refers to the title of a TV show that is mentioned in the course of the movie—a reality show about celebrities reveling in their materialism. Robin Wright plays Phoebe and Abdellatif  Kechiche plays Ashade, a Syrian taxi driver in New York who takes Wright on a very long ride to New Jersey at the beginning of the movie. Wright’s Phoebe is a mysterious character carrying a lot of cash, and as the movie progresses we don’t get the chance to fully understand her but certainly know that she is not a nice person. 

In the course of the movie—which uses the fears of post-9/11 New York as a strong plot device—events are not always what they seem, and I don’t think I’m giving too much away to say that the story goes out of its way to be unconventional and shocking in keeping the viewer’s attention. I’m always one for well-crafted endings (which are not always the same as happy endings, which are fine as long as they’re not forced or phony), but this one may not be to everyone’s liking. I’ll leave it at that, since I don’t want to be a spoiler. But if you like independent movies—and this is certainly that, including the graininess of the film (video?) it was shot on, you should give it a try. Feel free to leave a comment if you do!


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Online Movie Information

Tuesday, August 16th, 2011

If you have children (especially of the younger variety), you’ve probably found yourself concerned from time to time about the content of a movie they or the whole family might watch. Or even as an adult, you might want to have a more detailed description of why a particular movie is rated “R” or “PG-13” or even “PG.” If you’ve been watching movies for at least a few years, you know that sometimes ratings can be misleading: they simply don’t give the viewer enough information to go on.

Given that dilemma, I’ve found a very handy source that can help immensely in this regard. In fact, I’ve found it so helpful I decided to become a contributor myself. I refer to the website called imdb (http://www.imdb.com), which is used quite often at the library for any number of movie-related questions. Amongst many other features, it has one called the “Parents Guide” which has a link titled “View content advisory.” Clicking on this will take you to a separate page that lists five categories: Sex & Nudity; Violence & Gore; Profanity; Alcohol/Drugs/Smoking; Frightening/Intense scenes. The idea is that people who have seen the movie give an objective description of things that fit into the aforementioned areas. They are not supposed to editorialize but simply state the content. If this is done well, it can be a great help. And that’s the only rub here: because this is user-generated content, it’s not necessarily reliable—some people are sloppy in their descriptions, others simply forget what they saw, and so on. So, as with much on the internet, the user must maintain a certain amount of skepticism. But with that caveat, the feature is nonetheless helpful if you’re not getting enough information from that little box underneath the rating letter. Additionally, if like me you like the idea of the Parents Guide, you can become a contributor yourself simply by creating an account on imdb.

(Note: it’s probably best, if you do decide to contribute, to go back and check at least some of your entries from time to time to make sure they haven’t been changed too much. If they have been changed, and you think it was wrong, you can always re-edit the entry.)


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Classic Movies and Studios

Tuesday, November 30th, 2010

As an old movie fan—and I’m sure I’m not the only one in that category who also loves the older titles we can get in the library—I’ve decided to read a book titled The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era by film historian Thomas Schatz.

One reason the book got my interest was due to a number of discussions I’ve been having with one of our patrons at the Plainfield branch. He and I recommend movies to each other on a regular basis, and in the context of those talks we’ve noted what Schatz calls a “house style” for the various studios, particularly in the “golden era” that lasted from approximately the 1920s to the 1950s. This style showed not only in the actors that were under contract with the studios (for instance, Bette Davis was with Warner Bros. for many rather tempestuous years, until she ended her contract) but, more importantly, in the kind of films they actually produced. Hence we see beginning in the early 1930s, Universal Studios made a series of horror films such as “Dracula,” starring Bela Lugosi, a whole slew of Frankenstein pictures (including the “Bride of…” which I just watched and really enjoyed) and others such as the Wolf Man and the Mummy.

This approach was very different from MGM, a studio that prided itself on its glossy, often romantic pictures that could include everything from “Grand Hotel” (1932) to the ever-popular Judy Garland vehicle “Meet Me in St. Louis” (1944). As a final example, who could forget all those great crime dramas starring the ever lively Jimmy Cagney (not to mention Bogart or Edward G Robinson)? Many of those were made by Warner Bros., who specialized in hard-hitting, in-your-face stories of crime and (sometimes) redemption. A great film in that vein is 1938’s “Angels with Dirty Faces” starring Cagney, Bogart, Pat O’Brien and the amazing “Dead End Kids.”  

It might seem a rather obscure point to talk about the various films made by various studios, but I bring it up because it’s another way of finding more movies of a kind you like. So, for instance, if you loved “Meet Me in St. Louis” you could go on the library catalog and, in the Keyword field, try “Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer” and “musicals.” The results should be good (mine was close to 50). Or simply do “horror” and “Universal” and see what comes up.

David


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