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Staff Picks Category: Drama

Ball of Fire by Howard Hawks []

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In this delightful romantic comedy Gary Cooper plays Bertram Potts, the youngest of eight professors who have lived together for years, devoting their time to the production of a new encyclopedia. When a trash collector asks the professors for help answering questions for a trivia contestd Bertram is baffled by the garbageman’s language and realizes his article on American on slang is badly out of date. In order to correct this he must leave his reference books behind in order to do some research in the field.

Bertram’s field research brings him in contact with Sugarpuss O’Shea, a witty and jocular nightclub performer portrayed by Barbara Stanwyck. Sugarpuss has no interest in helping Bertram with his research until her mob-boss boyfriend gets in trouble and she needs a place to hide from the police. What better place to hide than among these quiet and respectable professors?

Having taken refuge with the encyclopedists, Sugarpuss delights in teasing the stodgy Bertram and soon makes friends with the other professors (who, unlike Bertram, enjoy her company from the beginning). Bertram, however, worries that her presence will interfere with progress on the encyclopedia. “Now, when the Foundation launched our vessel”, he proclaims, “it very wisely followed an old rule of the sea, no women aboard. It chose a crew of single men with nothing to distract them from the course they were to sail.” Sugarpuss recognizes this as nonsense, but can’t risk a fight under the circumstances. Still, it is with evident sarcasm that she offers “to sit on her legs”.

Bertram almost redeems himself when he replies, “Make no mistake, I shall regret the absence of your keen mind”. However, he continues with, “unfortunately, it is inseparable from an extremely disturbing body.”, a statement which comes across as almost redeeming—Bertram wasn’t concerned for the sake of the other professors, but for himself. Fate will, however, keep Sugarpuss and the professor together, and despite flying wisecracks and bullets (remember the mob-boss boyfriend?) they soon grow to enjoy each other’s company.

Stanwyck’s Sugarpuss is refreshingly strong, independent, and easily the most complex character in the film. Gary Cooper’s Bertram is understated and reserved. Many of the characters come across as cartoonish, which is just what you want from the supporting characters in a screwball comedy. The dialogue is fast and witty and, of course, full of period slang, familiar and not.

By the way, Ball of FIre would later be remade as the musical A Song is Born starring Danny Kaye. The dialogue in the two films is in large parts identical, despite the different scenario and very different portrayals. Folks who have seen A Song is Born will be relieved to know that in Ball of Fire the dialogue actually makes sense!

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The Last Days of Disco by Whit Stillman []

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Whit Stillman’s third feature, The Last Days of Disco, is set in New York City the early 1980’s. Here we find a group of young professionals who are all, whether they are aware or not, in a period of transition. This moment of change also mirrors the current stage of the popular music (please see the title!).

Alice (Chloë Sevigny) and Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale), somewhat recent graduates of Hampshire College, are working in the lower echelons of the publishing industry. Despite having not much in common (and they can readily admit that they may not be ideal candidates for friendship), the duo decides to share a railroad style apartment with another young woman.

The tight living quarters teamed with Charlotte’s persistent insensitivity create a great deal of tension and bickering. Furthermore, there’s also tussling over potential/previous love interests. An escape from this turmoil is the local hot spot; it’s a fashionable discotheque possibly modeled in Stillman’s memory from his days hanging out at the famed Studio 54. Chris Eigeman, a Stillman mainstay, is cast as Des McGrath. McGrath is a sardonic manager at the said Manhattan club and he ultimately realizes that the owner has some sort of a shady operation going on.

When viewing The Last Days of Disco, one can’t help appreciating the dedication in creating such memorable characters and the overall writing in general. The film is filled with quick and witty dialog… most of which you cannot imagine being spoken by actual people. In one instance, Eigeman’s character begs the question, “do yuppies even exist? No one says, ‘I am a yuppie,’ it’s always the other guy who’s a yuppie. I think for a group to exist, somebody has to admit to be part of it.”

The struggle of social identity and finding one’s general placement in society underlie this brilliant comedic drama.

P.S. After a viewing, one may discover that disco does not suck!

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Last Picture Show by Peter Bogdanovich []

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In keeping with the “New Hollywood” theme, I thought we’d take a look at another Roger Corman student and another film in the Criterion Collection’s America Lost & Found series. Following his directorial debut Targets (a brilliant “Frankensteining” of Corman stock footage of Boris Karloff and a completely new script about a local assassin), Peter Bogdanovich adapted Last Picture Show with the book’s author Larry McMurthy.

The film is set in a transitional period, both for the landscape and members of the graduating high school class, in a rural north Texas town in the early 1950’s. Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shephard and Randy Quaid play the local teenagers who are thinking about their futures outside of their small home town. Relationships, the military, money and taking care of family members all play important roles on these characters’ decisions. Two adult figures, Cloris Leachman and Ben Johnson, both won Oscars for their performances in supporting roles.

Robert Surtees’s soft black and white cinematography over the dusty roads and old shop signs hang a general feeling of loneliness over Last Picture Show. Bogdanvoich’s subtle humor, rich character drama and calculated pace, earn him comparison to the French master François Truffaut. He would also continue to look to the past, mostly filming in black and white, in years to come with films like Paper Moon, What’s Up Doc? and Nickelodeon.

In The Last Picture Show, we can feel that change will come in this part of Texas and that Red River shall inevitably have its final curtain.

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California Split []

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George Segal and Elliott Gould star in California Split, my all time favorite Robert Altman film and one of the best from the 1970’s. This dark, buddy comedy is centered around Bill Denny & Charlie Waters, two men who get sucked into the world of gambling. After Bill falls deep in debt to his bookie, he sells off several possessions so he and Charlie can make an all-in trek to Reno.  They eventually find themselves in a tacky casino and in a dramatic, high stakes poker match.

Segal and Gould are the ultimate on screen duo with a perfect comedic volley and excellent chemistry. Additionally, this 1974 movie comes in when Altman was on top of his creative game. The director’s signature usage of wide range audio recording gives the picture an incredible depth and a real sense of place. The conversations from the extras and bit characters are always audible and usually rather interesting.

Ultimately, the story of California Split asks, does money really equal happiness?

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F for Fake []

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Join Orson Welles in a one of a kind cinematic experience that examines many shades of the truth. 1973’s F for Fake is presented as an essay film; most definitely the first of its kind. Welles narrates the documentary often on camera with the appearance of a worldly travel host. While delivering literary quotations in a Brechtian style, interviewing subjects and delivering personal tales in his larger than life/life of the party personality, he incorporates a wide range of footage (including bit-lits from his recently abandoned projects) and edits various film formats in dramatic fashion.

At the heart of the movie, Welles discusses the parallels between notorious art forger Elmyr de Hory and the biographer Clifford Irving. Irving who settled in Ibiza working on the de Hory tale, later went on to create a fake of his own: a false biography of Hollywood tycoon Howard Hughes. The director weaves these and other scandals and also shines the light on his infamous War of the Worlds radio broadcast.

Though the content in F for Fake is presented as fact, the masterful Welles, a fan of the slight of hand, cannot resist the urge to play with his audience.

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Moonstruck []

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Norman Jewison’s Moonstruck is a film that’s been on cable television throughout much of my life, sitting on the shelves of various video stores and more recently, hanging out in the Forbes Library.  The box artwork featuring Cher with her outstretched arms has always rubbed me the wrong way, perhaps signalling some sort of a cheeseball factor.
Recently I read an interview with director Wes Anderson where he discussed his favorite New York films and to my surprise Moonstruck made the cut.  Jewison, who was a mentor to Hal Ashby, directs a delightful, modern day fairy tale filled with comedy, romance, beautiful and subtle camera work, brilliant character actor performances and just the right amount of nostalgia.  Also standing out is the pitch-perfect dialog.  John Patrick Shanley (other credits include Joe Vs. the Volcano and Doubt) creates a somewhat realistic family unit that is forever bickering with one another.
The story: Loretta (Cher), who has recently agreed to marry Johnny (Danny Aielo), is asked to track down her fiance’s estranged brother Ronny (Nicholas Cage) and invite him to their upcoming wedding.  While Johnny is in Italy tending to his ailing mother, Loretta and Ronny wind up having an intense love affair.  Chaos ensues!!!  We also have Olympia Dukakis, Vincent Gardenia and John Mahoney in memorable supporting roles.
They say you can’t judge a book by its cover… and I think I’m now learning that you also shouldn’t judge a film by it’s DVD or VHS artwork!

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Kes []

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Film recommendations certainly play a role in a day’s work at the Arts & Music department.  It’s often my favorite task to help someone find a film that fits their taste and am always flattered when a patron asks for me to select something that I enjoyed.  Recently, the favor was reciprocated.  A regular patron suggested, based on our many movie conversations, that I might enjoy the film Kes.  He was correct and to continue the dialog, here’s my take:
Kes is a story that I consider the Northern England equivalent of Truffaut’s 400 Blows.  Made a decade later, director Ken Loach, who certainly chooses not to glamorize youth or pander to children, creates a nearly bleak portrait of childhood.  His central character, Billy Casper, lives in a poor, working class mining community and seems to have his future decided for him at 15 years of age.  While not absolutely going for the heavy handed approach, Loach is suggesting flaws in, what he considers, the still existing English class system.
Billy eventually finds an escape from the constant bullying from adult figures (his headmaster, classmates, older brother, gym teacher, etc.) when he notices a nest on a neighbor’s property.  He studies the science of training birds and eventually develops trust with a kestrel he appropriately christens “Kes”.  His dedication and care earns him the respect from a group of classmates and a caring English teacher (who is possibly the only kind adult in the film).
Kes, which is heartbreaking and desolate feeling at times, is a remarkable work.  Loach’s nonjudgmental camera style, the simple and lyrical imagery, the falconry scenes with young Billy’s textbook narration and soft English landscape gives the film a quality not unlike a documentary.

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Tap []

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Have you ever seen the Nicholas Brothers dance? If you haven’t, take a look at some of their clips on YouTube. You might want to start with their famous performance in Stormy Weather (of course, you can borrow Stormy Weather from the library and watch the whole film). I’m also quite fond of Lucky Number, a charming song and dance routine performed by a younger Fayard and Harold. That’s some fine dancing.

Tap is a 1989 film that celebrates the kind of syncopated, jazz dancing practiced by the Nicholas Brothers. Gregory Hines stars as Max Washington, a talented tap dancer who gave up dance for what he saw as a more profitable life as a burglar, got caught and went to prison, and then rediscovered dancing as a way to cope with his solitary confinement. The story follows Max after his release, and as he is reunited with old friends, all of whom seem to have an opinion on how he should live his life.

There is some great dancing in Tap. This is hardly surprising given the cast. In addition to the talented Gregory Hines, we also find a number of old tap greats, including Harold Nicholas (of the Nicholas Brothers!), Jimmy Slyde (of the Slyde Brothers), and most recognizably, Sammy Davis Junior of Rat Pack fame, in his last film role. Representing a younger generation, we also see a young Savion Glover. (Glover would eventually do the choreography for the the dancing penguins in Happy Feet, a fact that is hard to forget, though it is insignificant compared to his other accomplishments.)

Tap isn’t a great film. It too often falls into cinematic cliches, and its final scene, which is supposed to be an inspiring combination of rock and tap, is a disappointment. Still, it is an enjoyable film, worth watching if you love dance, and a wonderful reminder of the great tradition of jazz tap, which has, sadly, fallen out of cinematic favor.

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Submarine by Richard Ayoade []

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Olivier Tate (played by young actor Craig Roberts), the protagonist in Richard Adoaye’s quiet, quirky, charming, dark and thoroughly enjoyable film Submarine is a likeable precocious Welsh boy searching for an identity and direction in the stifling climate of small town coastal Southern Wales. He tries on affectations:”I’ve tried smoking a pipe, flipping coins – listening exclusively to French crooners, I’ve even had a hat phase”. This quote is immediately followed of course, with a shot of him at the family dinner table, wearing a Blue Stetson, looking fairly ridiculous. His teenage flailing about for identity finds its focus when he discovers the dark and indifferent charms of classmate Jordana (Yasmin Paige), who lures him into more and more morally reprehensible schoolyard acts. She is outwardly resistant to his charms except when he is misbehaving, and seems most allured by his taking part in the bullying of a fellow school girl. The cast is fantastic, both Paige and Roberts inhabit their roles fully and believably, while the adult characters (Sally Hawkins and Noah Taylor as Olivier’s parents), are comically stuck in their own lazy unspoken despair, too wrapped up in their own ridiculous melodramas to offer guidance to Olivier. Paddy Considine appears as an almost incongruously broad comic foil and rival to both Olivier Tate and his father. Adoaye, most famous for his work on the UK sitcom “The IT Crowd”, who adapted the script from a novel by Joe Dunthorne, directs the film with care and fills it with beautiful shots of the beaches, woods and amusement parks of the Welsh Coast. There are aspects of the film’s plot, details and cinematic style which will appeal to fans of many other refreshingly offbeat comic films (Wes Anderson’s films in particular) but the unique characters, acting performances and Welsh character give it a charm all its own.

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Winter in Wartime [, ]

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This beautifully shot period film follows 13 year old Michiel, a small town boy in Nazi-occupied Holland in the Winter of 1945.  Michiel’s childhood innocence and restless desire for adventure lead him into increasingly dark and morally ambiguous territories when the realities of war,  resistance and adulthood collide and converge upon his small town life. He is apprehensive about his father’s uneasy cooperation with their German occupiers and looks up to his uncle Ben, a resistance fighter whose connections, gifts and attitude intrigue Michiel. When an allied fighter pilot crashes near the village, Michiel and his sister, a young nurse, are drawn into the search for the pilot and must debate whether to take action or remain silent, and question who they can truly trust. The film, while somewhat conventional in some of its WWII era plotlines, offers enough twists and intrigue to keep the viewer’s attention, but its real appeal is grounded heavily in the films setting. The scenes are filmed beautifully and the village, woods, snow, bicycles, knitwear and natural light combine to give the film an enchanting sense of place, and ground the viewer in Michiel’s conflicted world, caught between action and fear, occupation and resistance and childhood innocence and the risks of adult responsibilities. This film is one of several Forbes films now added in Blu-Ray and DVD (both discs are included in one case, so patrons will not mistakenly get home and find the film unplayable), and the Blu-Ray is especially recommended for its crisp picture, which captures the film’s setting wonderfully.

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Kansas City by Robert Altman []

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It’s 1934 and on the eve of a local election in Kansas City, Missouri.

Jennifer Jason Leigh stars as Blondie, a comically fast talking wife of a petty thief. When her husband gets picked up by an intimidating local jazz and gambling club owner stroke gangster named Seldom Seen (played by the great musician and activist Harry Belafonte), Blondie hatches a kidnapping scheme of her own. At gunpoint she drags Carolyn Stilton, the opium addicted wife of a local senator, along through the city in an attempt to free her husband. Miranda Richardson and Altman mainstay Michael Murphy are cast as the seemingly loveless Stilton couple.

Tension enters the film only moments after it begins and it continues to build and build throughout. The backdrop of this chilling drama is the soulful and swinging jazz music that pulsates from Seldom Seen’s Hey Hey Club. In addition, Steve Buscemi, in a role that seems to have served as a warm up for his stint on Boardwalk Empire, is one of the many actors who appear in memorable smaller parts.

Kansas City, though not as loose and off the cuff as many classic Altman movies of the 1970’s, is possibly the director’s most suspenseful.

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Day For Night []

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La Nuit Américaine, or Day for Night, is one of my favorite films. This 1973 film by French director François Truffaut shows the cast and crew of a dramatic film on and off the set. In addition to the obvious work necessarily to make a film—selecting costumes and props, learning lines, building sets, performing for the camera, adjusting lights, etc.—we also see these men and women as they make friends, suffer nervous breakdowns, fall in love, gossip, run away, return, and otherwise live rather complicated lives.

The film stars Jacqueline Bisset and Jean-Pierre Léaud as the film within the film’s young stars, but the film truly has an ensemble cast, with many talented actors portraying a wide array of interesting and memorable characters. Truffaut himself is part of the cast, as he not only directs the film, but also plays the director of film within the film. The music is by Georges Delerue, who also worked with Truffaut on a number of other films.

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