Wed

06

Mar

2013

A Hit

Searching for Sugar Man
Searching for Sugar Man

While I take some time to reflect on the meaning Holy Motors, allow me to praise the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences for giving the 2013 Oscar for Best Documentary to Searching for Sugar Man. Seldom has a documentary served so well as storytelling. 

 

This movie has as many twist and turns as the best of Hitchcock's films and, if anything, is even more emotionally riveting. Without giving away any spoilers, Rodriguez, an incredibly talented folk singer from Detroit, recorded two fantastic albums in the early 1970's that went ... nowhere. Nowhere, that is, except for South Africa, where the albums became huge hits.

 

Twenty years later, some of his now middle aged South African fans set out to solve the mystery of the life and death of Rodriguez. The story of his suicide is a tragedy of Greek proportions. And yet, this documentary proves to be one of the most life affirming narratives to emerge from the Motor City in recent times.

 

If you like music or documentaries, you must see Searching for Sugarman. If you think documentaries are too political or preachy, you must see Searching Sugar Man. All great stories are true. Searching for Sugar Man actually happened.

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Sat

15

Dec

2012

Lincoln

Lincoln
Lincoln

Rebecca and I went to see Steven Spielberg's remarkable new movie, Lincoln. Remarkable, in fact, is an understatement. Much of this film is what a very different American President said of a very different American Civil War movie, "like writing history with lightning."

 

The casting of Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln was truly inspired. This gifted actor portrays Lincoln as close to fully human as probably anyone can. And Spielberg has not lost the capacity shown Saving Private Ryan for portraying war as a horrifying regardless of the nobility of its causes or the bravery of its soldiers.

 

For the most part, this is not a movie about heroes, but about ordinary politicians who by playing ordinary political games make possible a truly herioc achievement, the Thirteenth Amendment. This movie works as history, as drama, and as civics lesson because Spielberg does not shy away from showing Lincoln getting his hands dirty, deceiving friends and foes alike, and engaging in petty corrupution to achieve his goals. Perhaps, modern Americans would do well to remember this when judging another lanky, previously obscure president who hailed from Illinois.

 

Only in the final moments of the film does Spielberg engage in sentimentality and hagiography. How can he not? For we all know how the movie ends. Yet Spielberg's brilliance at telling an old tale in a new light shines through even in that shocking moment in the theater on Good Friday 1864 when John Wilkes Booth forced America to confront its first presidential assassination.

 

I imagine I will see Lincoln many times again. I know I shall never forgot what I saw.

 

 

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Sun

26

Aug

2012

Take Shelter

Take Shelter
Take Shelter

A year and a half has passed since the release of Jeff Nichols' extraordinary film, Take Shelter. Having missed it in the theatres, I finally got to see what caused such a stir among the critics when the film arrived at the top of my Netflix queue. 

 

Take Shelter tells the story of Curtis LaForche, masterfully played by Michael Shannon, a man who is frightened by increasingly urgent signs of an impending catastrophe. At the same time, and with equal intensity and justification, Curtis fears that his concerns are paranoid delusions. Half science fiction and half psychological thriller, Nichols and Shannon succeed in exploring the difficult territory of the line between madness and sanity. Barbara Striesand's effort to deal similar themes in Nuts pales by comparison.

 

Two comparatively minor themes, however, stood out for me. First, the movie portrayed the blue collar working class of my generation with startling reality. The day-to-day lives, values, and concerns of the men and women in this film differ very little from many of my high school friends who did not go to college. For roughly the past 30 years, they have born the brunt of the hollowing out of the middle class by forces they can feel but cannot see.

 

While one can see Curtis' predicament as a metaphor for his class, the movie does not attempt to make this connection. There is no class conflict. Indeed, the movie shows no other class than that of Curtis and his friends and family. The film's unsentimental and nonjudgmental portrayal of the lives of ordinary, midwestern Americans, the flyover people, has rarely been so well done.

 

Second, and most surprisingly, Take Shelter is a love story. I don't mean to suggest that it is a romantic drama about middle aged adults suffering from bouts of teenage infatuation. Some, perhaps confusing infatuation with romantic love, have argued that we do not need to love and be loved, that our contrary perception results from social conditioning, not our innate humaness. But I could not help but be moved by Jessica Chastain's subtle and complex portrayal of the deep love that Curtis' wife, Samantha, had for him, and the limits of that love of as she was forced to deal with the consquences of Curtis' obssession. 

 

If you haven't seen Take Shelter yet, do yourself a favor and move it to the very top of your Netflix list.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Mon

20

Aug

2012

ParaNorman

It's not often that I see my name in the title of movie, let alone in one of my favorite genres, stopmotion animation. So I jumped at my daughter's invitation to see ParaNorman with her and her boyfriend this weekend. Little did I know I was in for such a cinematic treat.

 

The story centers around Norman, a boy who would probably hang out in the middle ground between the popular kids and the outcasts save for one problem. He sees dead people. This is not some hidden talent that gradually comes to light. Rather, in the opening scene we see Norman watching a horror film on TV with his deceased grandmother. While this peculiar talent annoys his family, that it renders him near pariah status with his peers becomes evident as Norman cheerfully greets a variety of ghosts on his way to school the next morning.

 

Norman's home town, however, suffers from a curse dating back to a 17th Century witch trial. Norman's tormentors consider the curse something of a tourist attraction, that is, until the only person keeping the curse at bay, Norman's oddball uncle, dies. When the crisis hits, it falls to Norman to rescue the town. 

 

Our culture has long felt a certain ambivalence toward empathy, especially as a masculine trait. Consider the spate of superhero movies over the past several summers. While not devoid of empathy, courage, intelligence, physical strengths, not empathy or compassion, make these otherwise troubled souls into superheros.

 

Not so with Norman. He is smart, but not brilliant. He is courageous, but not anymore so than his friends. He is no weakling, but the brother of his best friend, not Norman, is the paragon of physical strength. Norman's singular virtue, his superhero power that enables him to communicate with the dead and save the town is his extraordinary capacity for empathy. Perhaps, there is hope for our culture after all.

 

Not too scary for most children, ParaNorman deftly weaves the conventions of horror (as opposed to slasher) movies into a fine family feature. My only question is why did Hollywood drop this Halloween treat into our cinematic goodie bag in August?

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Sun

22

Jul

2012

Moonrise Kingdom

Wes Anderson's stories border on the absurd. The acting can be over the top. Yet his movies are wonderful, often poignant.

 

Moonrise Kingdom is no different. The sets, the acting, the cinematography are highly stylized, right down to the perfect Hank Williams songs that always play whenever someone turns on the radio. And yet it all works to produce an endearing, wonderful movie with each piece seamlessly, magically fitting together.

 

On one level, Moonrise Kingdom tells a conventional boy meets girl story about two star crossed lovers who must overcome obstacles, including the objections of their peers, family and the authorities, in their quest to be together.

 

Yet there is nothing conventional about Sam or Suzy. Not merely misfists among their peers, they are deeply troubled outcasts who, although extremely talented and precocious, appear threatening to the adults around them, a point driven home by the refusal of Sam's foster parents to let him return to them at the end of summer camp. They are not so much Romeo and Juliet as superhero mutants from X-Men.

 

Sam and Suzy run away and, unlike the mutuants who find refuge in the haven created for them by Dr. Xavier, these two young lovers carve a new world for themselves out of the wilderness. Despite their heroic efforts to ellude capture, their bliss inevitably proves short lived, and they are not only returned to the "real world," but also forbidden to see each other.

 

Yet Sam and Suzy do not give up. Sam and Suzy must contend with flawed individuals who make horrendous mistakes, including one that causes a tragic death, but Sam and Suzy do not defeat evil villians so much as they bring out their nemeses' own repressed heroic qualities. Nowhere is this more true than with the police officer who captures them, Captain Sharp, and the Khaki Scouts who intially tormented Sam.

 

Should you see this movie? Absolutely. Be forewarned, however, that much like mixing M&Ms with your popcorn, you may find your life enriched as a result.

 

***

 

I am indebted to Amy Kerin Creagh for sharing her remarkable insights into this movie with me, most especially the superhero metaphor. Any errors in analysis or eloquence are, however, entirely my own.

 

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Sun

15

Jul

2012

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

After hearing so much about it from my friends who saw the movie in Kalamazoo, I caught a showing of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel at the Vickers Theatre in Three Oaks last night. Given Three Oaks' burgeoning status as a mini-cultural mecca, you might say I found a hidden gem, within a hidden gem, within, you guessed it, a hidden gem.

 

First, the movie. An odd assortment of British retirees, who have nothing in common except bad luck, set out for the supposedly resored Best Exotic Marigold Hotel in India. Not surprisingly, they arrive to discover the hotel in disrepair. Each retiree overcomes his or her own problems and makes peace with life, and along the way the retirees help two star crossed lovers overcome family opposition to their marriage. 

 

In many respects, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is an entirely conventional movie about redemption. Sure the protoganists are senior citizens, not teenagers, but a remake of The Breakfast Club starring the parents of the original cast would still be a remake.

 

Nonetheless, several things stand out about The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. There is something to be said about doing a formula well, and this movie does an excellent job of telling an oft-heard story. Even if the ending is entirely predictable, a number of the plot twists along the way are not. Most importantly, there is the quality of the acting. From the leads, including such greats of British cinema as Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, to the supporting characters, you believe in the truth of even the weakest scenes.

 

I highly recommend The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

 

Second, the theater.  The Vickers is a small, intimate really, movie theater. I've never experienced anything quite like it before. In some respects, it's a little bit like WMU's Little Theatre, except nicer seats and a cafe at the back where you can sit at a table while you watch the movie.

 

I highly recommend the Vickers Theatre.

 

Finally, Three Oaks. It first came on my radar with the opening of the Acorn Theater in 2003. Since then, the cultural attractions of the village have continued to expand, and yet it retains a genuine small town charm. For example, reFIND, "a local source for REispired home goods," was handing out homemade maps of the town.

 

I highly recommend Three Oaks.

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Fri

06

Jul

2012

Facts Are Stubborn Things

Are public employees paid more than their private sector counterparts? A friend who specializes in compensation pointed me to some data from the Congressional Budget Office published earlier this year in the New York Times.

 

Turns out that federal government employees without a college degree earn better wages and benefits than their private sector counterparts. It's just the opposite for employees with doctorates and professional degrees.

 

The janitors, secretaries, security guards, etc., who work the federal government that I have met are not making all that much money. So I hope the question becomes not how do we reduce public sector wages and benefits to near poverty levels, but how do we increase the wages and benefits of private sector employees.

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Norman Hawker

Portage, Michigan