Friday, May 30, 2008

Sydney Pollack

Last Monday, May 26th, was a sad day for the world of film. Director, producer, actor Sydney Pollack died. He was truly one of the best director’s working in Hollywood today: he could make a mainstream film with big stars that had meaning and purpose for today’s audiences. He began his career as an actor and an acting teacher and was known for his ability to get the best performances out of his actors because of this background. He also had broadly commercial instincts and a perception and understanding of the world that allowed him to make successful and important films. Film critic Jeanine Basinger says, "Sydney Pollack has made some of the most influential and best-remembered films of the last three decades.” He won 2 Oscars for directing and producing the film Out of Africa which also won the best picture award. He won again for directing Tootsie. Pollack directed 20 films and produced and acted in many others. To see some samples of Pollacks’ work check out some these titles:

Jeremiah Johnson (1972) A western starring Robert Redford (with whom Pollack collaborated on 6 films) as a mountain man in a battle with the Crow Indians who murdered his wife and child. “…moments of great beauty and terror and deeply earned pathos”—NYT
The Firm (1993) A fast-paced, edge-of-your-seat thriller with Tom Cruise, this is one of the best of the Grisham films.
The Interpreter (2005) An exciting, touching and thoughtful thriller with Nicole Kidman as an interpreter who has overheard an assassination plot and Sean Penn as the Federal Agent assigned to investigate.

The Library also own the following films in which Sydney Pollack acts:
Eyes Wide Shut (1999) Stanley Kubrick’s final film, with Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman and Pollack. Roger Ebert calls the film “…an erotic daydream about chances missed and opportunities avoided.”
Avenue Montaigne (2006) Pollack has a small part in this cheerful French film.
Michael Clayton (2007) In this legal/business thriller, Pollack plays the head of the law firm that employs the title character, played by George Clooney. He also produced the film.

I for one always looked forward to any film which had connections with Pollack. He always struck me as a down-to-earth likeable guy. Plus his movies were great. The films he directed have stayed in my memory long after the final credits and his acting…well, he was great as a good guy or a bad guy. Roger Ebert says of his performance in Michael Clayton “it's one of those Pollack performances that embodies authority, masculinity, intelligence and knowing the score.” Pollack never played down to the audience. His films and his performances were intelligent, straightforward and something to savor. I will miss him but he left us with a great legacy. I look forward to going back and watching his films all over again.
For more information on Pollack see :

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

American Classic Cinema

Because this is a library blog I am going to explain some library rules here. There is one big advantage to being a part of a library system and that is, you can borrow any item your library doesn’t own. It is for this reason that I have not bought a lot of classic films. I love them dearly but most people want to see the new movies. But if you get tired of the new films and want to see a guaranteed winner, go back and take a look at the classics. Last week I watched a couple of oldies: Casablanca (1942) and Sunset Boulevard (1950). I was struck again by the beauty of black and white film, and the use of shadows is wonderful. I would guess that Casablanca is the more beloved of these two films so I thought it was interesting that my college age son preferred Sunset Boulevard. It was less of a love story and more of a mystery (my son has yet to develop a fondness for love stories). Both of these films have familiar scenes and lines:
Casablanca: Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Sunset Boulevard: All right, Mr DeMille, I'm ready for my close up.
It’s fun to go back and see them again, to anticipate the famous scenes/lines. Neither of these movies is owned by VPL but both are available in the system. Stop by the reference desk and we’ll show you how to request items from another library. But if you don’t want to wait, VPL does own the following:
The Pride of the Yankees (1942) Gary Cooper won an Oscar for playing Lou Gehrig in this classic baseball film.
Notorious (1946) Directed by the great Alfred Hitchcock, this is one of his very best.
Johnny Belinda (1948) Starring Jane Wyman as a deaf mute, this film helped to change the way people with disabilities were treated.
In a Lonely Place (1950) Bogart’s worth watching in anything. He’s the ultimate tough-talking man.
Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957) Robert Mitchum is a personal favorite of mine. He makes a great villain but in this one he’s a good guy.
Rio Bravo (1959) John Wayne, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson…can you beat the cast? Remade as Assault on Precinct 13, the original is lots of fun. It has Walter Brennan in a classic Walter Brennan role. He’s super and so is the film!
So give yourself a treat and go back and take a look at the classics. I guarantee you’ll have a good time!

Friday, May 23, 2008

Into the Wild

I read the book by Jon Krakauer when it first came out and I found it to be very disturbing. It is the true story of Christopher Johnson McCandless, a promising young college graduate, who, instead of going to Harvard Law School as he suggested he might to his parents, heads West, with his ultimate goal being to live off the land in Alaska. The movie is very like the book: at least as much as a movie can be without running 12 hours. Emile Hirsch is great as McCandless. He has a friendliness and innocence about him that is necessary for this role. After leaving home and surviving a flash flood he destroys all identifying objects, i.e. driver’s license, social security card, license plate, family pictures, thereby destroying Christopher Johnson McCandless. He then adopts the name Alexander Supertramp. As Alex, he sets out on his journey meeting odd and interesting characters along the way. This portion of the story is very picaresque, reminding me of Huckleberry Finn. Alex is someone whom you can’t have as an acquaintance; he is someone whom people bond to automatically. He becomes quite close to everyone he meets and they all attempt to take care of him in their own way, but they also recognize that they have no claim on him and must let him continue his quest to reach Alaska. (***spoiler***don’t read on if you haven’t already seen the movie!) Although he is very bright, an avid reader, and has picked up some tips along the way, he is no match for nature. As a city kid, he just doesn’t have the skills he needs to survive in the wilderness and therefore his dream ends badly.
I responded to this film, this story, in a very personal way. Being the mother of a new college grad I look on McCandless’ story with horror. The scene where his father sits down in the middle of the street completely overcome with sadness touched me deeply. But then I think: how is what McCandless did different from those kids who drown themselves in alcohol and drugs? Those stories are much more familiar to me, much more common but equally as sad. I know that Krakauer writes about adventure and the people who crave adventure, but I didn’t see McCandless as an adventure seeker. I saw him as a na├»ve idealist wanting to simplify life, get back to the basics and mostly to separate him from society and what it represented to him:
“Society, man! You know, society! Cause, you know what I don't understand? I don't understand why people, why every fucking person is so bad to each other so fucking often. It doesn't make sense to me. Judgment. Control. All that, the whole spectrum. Well, it just...”
Maybe his quest was a better solution than to lose oneself in drugs and alcohol, maybe it is nobler, but for a city kid it is equally as dangerous. I suppose there was a chance that he could have survived in the wilderness. Maybe he could have survived, matured and gone on to be a healthy, functioning adult who may or may not have elected to participate in society. But he didn’t. This is the source of my trouble with the story. I want a happy ending. I don’t want to be reminded that even noble choices can be so wrong they are fatal. I don’t want to be reminded that we are so removed from nature that we can’t survive outside of the society we may despise. I don’t like facing the truth. It’s hard and it hurts. Of course that doesn’t mean that this is a bad story and it sure doesn’t mean it’s a bad film—it’s a great film! It’s just not a happy one.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Young @ Heart

I’m getting behind in my film reporting. I start up a film blog and now all I want to do is watch movies so that I can write in my blog. Trouble is I’m watching them faster than I’m writing. Last Thursday I went to the theater to see Young @ Heart. I went with a couple of my young at heart friends, one of whom hadn’t been to a movie theater in years. Young @ Heart is a documentary film about a senior citizen singing group in Northampton, Mass. who sings rock music, gives concerts and in fact travels the world. This is a wonderfully inspirational group. In spite of various health issues and failing memories these people have such a joy for life. They may grumble, they may complain but they never miss a rehearsal. The 3 of us left happy and inspired. My one friend even decided she’d like to go to more movies. I wish the group would give a concert in Albany. I for one would be there cheering!
For other films about senior citizens see the DVDs Schultze Gets the Blues (German; a retired polka playing musician discovers Zydeco music which changes his life) and Boynton Beach Club (romantic comedy in an "active adult" community).

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Two DVDs: The Orphanage & American Gangster

I now own a portable DVD player with a 5" screen. It's not the best way to see a movie but I can use it whenever I want and don't have to fight with the family for the big TV. So I've watched a couple of DVDs lately. First, The Orphanage, a Spanish horror film/ghost story. It's about a woman who returns with her husband and adopted son to the orphanage where she lived as a child. They have purchased the building hoping to set up a home for "special" children. Early on, her son, who already has some imaginary friends, insists that he has met another child on the nearby beach. The new "friend" is not visible to the mother but the little boy insists that he exists and in fact, this "friend" sends the mother and son on a treasure hunt which ends with the boy yelling at his mother because the new "friend" had told him that he was adopted and that he was going to die (he has AIDS) and the parents hadn't told him this before. Later, at the opening party for the new home, the son goes missing. So begins the mother's quest to find her son and to save him from the ghosts that inhabit the old house. What I liked about the film is that it attempts to do more than provide cheap thrills. The connection between the mother and the ghost inhabitants was touching. The acting is good. The setting is beautiful, both the house and the beach. At one point they bring in a psychic played by Geraldine Chaplin. I haven't seen her in anything in a long time and it was nice to see her again. She looks so much like her father! But, what I didn't like about the film is that they didn't, or if they did I missed it, tell us what happened to the orphans that caused them to continue to haunt the orphanage. I watched the special features and in those they told what had become of the orphans, but I don't remember that scene being in the movie. For whatever reason, for me to believe in a ghost story I want to know what terrible thing happened to make the ghosts return to their place of death. Without this vital piece of information the film was a letdown to me. It just failed to draw me in to the story.
The second film I've watched lately was American Gangster. Yes, Denzel and Russell gave flawless performances but did that save the film for me? No. I looked at my watch 15 minutes into the movie and I'm still amazed that I made it to the end. Yes, it was a very well made movie but no, I just didn't care about any of the characters. I did enjoy seeing some familiar faces though. The wonderful Clarence Williams III (best known to me as Linc in the old Mod Squad TV show) played a short but key role in the film. I've always felt CWIII was an underutilised actor so it was great seeing him again. He has such a good face: strong and intelligent. The film also had the great Ruby Dee, Joe Morton, Josh Brolin, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Cuba Gooding Jr. and one of my personal favorites Kevin Corrigan (he's always such a good sleazeball!). I've never been a fan of gangster films and this didn't change my mind about them at all. For me, the film didn't have the suspense that Ridley Scott's films usually have. I was disappointed.
Both of these films get high marks in but for me they just didn't do anything. So tell me what you think. Let's talk.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Cannes film festival May 14-25, 2008

"So where's the Cannes Film Festival being held this year?"
-- Christina Aguilera

This year the Cannes Film Festival is being held from May 14th to the 25th and American actor/director Sean Penn has been named as President of the Jury of the 61st annual festival. Following in the recent tradition of opening the festival with a blockbuster film, rumor has it that the new Indiana Jones movie will be the opener this year. Cannes is one of the biggest film festivals and is of utmost importance in marketing and distribution, especially for foreign films. Of course, it is also an elegant and star-studded affair which many of us secretly wish we could be a part of. It may not have the importance to Americans as the Oscars, but for those of us who love foreign films, it is interesting to take a look at the world of recent films from an international point of view. For an excellent overview of the film festival now and then see the article “Twenty-one years in the Midday Sun : Revisiting Roger Ebert’s Cannes” by Kenneth T. Rivers at

The library owns only a few of the Palm D’Or prize winners but even from this short list the variety and changing interests of the judging is apparent and you can be sure that these films are well worth watching. So grab yourself a bottle of French wine, sit back, put on one of these films, and let's pretend...

2006 Wind that shakes the barley (Driven by a deep sense of duty and a love for his country, Damien abandons his burgeoning career as a doctor and joins his brother, Teddy in a dangerous and violent fight for freedom. As the Irish freedom fighters bold tactics bring the British to a breaking point, both sides finally agree to a treaty to end the bloodshed. But, despite the apparent victory, civil war erupts and families who fought side by side, find themselves pitted against one another, putting their loyalties to the ultimate test.)
2005 L’enfant (Fr.) (When a small-time crook and his young girlfriend have a child, he decides to sell the baby for money. When his girlfriend finds out, she goes into shock. While she recovers in the hospital, he tries to get their son back and redeem himself.)
2004 Fahrenheit 9/11 (Through actual footage, interviews, and declassified documents, Michael Moore illustrates the connections President Bush has to the royal house of Saud of Saudia Arabia and the bin Laden's, how the president got elected on fraudulent circumstances and then proceeded to blunder through his duties while ignoring warnings of the looming betrayal by his foreign partners. When the treachery hits with the 9/11 attacks, Moore explains how Bush failed to take immediate action to defend the nation.)
2003 Elephant (A realistic drama that takes the viewer inside an American high school on one single, ordinary day that very rapidly turns tragic. It observes the comings and goings of its characters from a safe distance. The experiences of each student range from friendly and innocent to traumatic and deeply disturbing.)
2001 The Son’s room (It.) (A family struggles to go on after a devastating loss. Giovanni (Moretti) is a psychiatrist with a successful practice. He has a warm relationship with his wife, Paola (Morante), and they have a daughter, Irene (Trinca) and a son, Andrea (Sanfelice). The family's calm is shattered when Andrea is unexpectedly killed in an accident.)
1974 The Conversation (A provoking mystery-suspense drama explores the morality of privacy in the story of Harry Caul, a surveillance expert, who conducts a routine surveillance job only to later find himself suspicious that he has become an unwitting player in murder scheme.)
1949 The Third Man (Murder thriller set in post-World War II Vienna during the four-power occupation of the city. A famous American writer comes to Vienna to visit an old friend and finds that he is too late - his friend has been hit and killed by a car. The writer sets out to discover whether it was an accident or murder because of the mysterious circumstances surrounding his friend's death.)

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

An Outstanding Film... The Visitor

I saw a great movie at the theater this weekend: The Visitor. ( The star is Richard Jenkins whose face you know even if you don't know his name. But the real star of the show is the script. What a great story! Jenkins plays a U. of Conn. college professor who returns to his NYC apartment for a conference only to find that it has been inhabited by a young couple, illegal aliens both. He quickly develops a friendship with the young man, Tarek, centered around their love of playing African drums. During one of their drum-playing outings, Tarek, a Syrian, is arrested. At this point, the focus changes from the friendship between the two men to the relationship between Tareks' mother and Jenkins, and their attempts to keep Tarek from being deported. This is a quiet, personal film. Jenkins is so natural as a burnt-out professor who comes back to life thanks to his new friends that he truly deserves an award. His characters' willingness to accept people from a different culture, a different lifestyle, to almost eagerly become a participant in their lives, clearly gaining more from these new relationships than he had from the stolid life he was living is remarkable, refreshing and oh so believable. The three other main characters are played by unfamiliar actors but they were all superb, especially Hiam Abbass who played the mother. She was beautiful and fascinating: you never wanted to take your eyes off of her. Obviously, I will be buying this DVD for the library when it becomes available. Until then, if you want to see some other great films involving illegal immigrants check out The Terminal with Tom Hanks, Maria Full of Grace, a wonderful Spanish film about drug smuggling, and Dirty Pretty Things, an English film dealing with the very seedy, criminal side of the life of illegal aliens.