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Chris, Standley Lake Library

People of a certain age cannot help but love Robert Redford.  Like many others, I first encountered him in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), alongside the equally entrancing Paul Newman.  Ever the impresario, Redford segued from leading man to director to founder of the Sundance Institute, which holds an annual film festival that has grown into something of a prestige event for emerging and established filmmakers.

Every once in a while, Redford still takes on an acting role, and this past weekend, I was eager to see him star in The Company You Keep (2012), based on the novel by Neil Gordon.  For me, the film’s title is telling, because Redford is only a small part of the film’s appeal.  The cast consists of a veritable who’s-who of accomplished actors, including Brendan Gleeson, Susan Sarandon, Stanley Tucci, Terrence Howard, Nick Nolte and Chris Cooper.  With all of that world-class talent, the movie can’t possibly suck, I thought to myself.

The first ninety minutes are promising.  Redford stars as Jim Grant, an Albany lawyer whose true identity as a fugitive member of the Weather Underground—and if you’re old enough to know Redford, you don’t need a history lesson on the Weathermen—is exposed by a newspaper reporter played by Shia LeBeouf, who looks less like a journalist and more like he should be worrying about who to take to junior prom.  For those who object to my characterization of young Shia, I have but one word: Transformers.

Once uncovered, Redford’s character goes on the lam.  Having spent thirty years as a fugitive, he stays one step ahead of the feds, who seem forever on the verge of nabbing their man, only to be outsmarted by wily Sundance.  Everything proceeds swimmingly until the screenwriters get lost on their way to the ending.  It’s almost like they made aesthetic choices that they couldn’t retract, and decided that rather than backtracking, they’d just press on to the end.  You know, like the Donner Party

I don’t want to give too much away, but the ending of The Company You Keep requires some suspension of disbelief.  I’m hard-pressed to think that other members of the cast didn’t have the same reservations about the script as I did, but maybe that’s the Power of Bob.  You’ve certainly arrived when actors of note will drop whatever they’re doing to act in a mediocre film with you.  Just ask Woody Allen.

The saddest part of this film is that it’s easy to see how it might have been good.  A plot twist here, a meaningful supporting role there.  But this one’s in the can, and as much as we might like to, there’s no taking it back.  If indeed we’re judged by the company we keep, then a great cast was diminished by devoting their considerable talents to something that didn’t measure up.  When one person makes a bad choice, it’s poor judgment; but when a whole group does it, you suspect there’s something in the water.
In Hollywood, the best way to wash off the stink of a bad film is to make a great one.  And while I don’t doubt that Redford still has the capacity to do great work, I hope he has the good sense to invite back the cast of The Company You Keep, so that those who shared in his mistakes can also bask in his glory.  But maybe I should be more magnanimous: after all, nobody’s perfect.  But when choosing scripts, I think it’s good to ask yourself: what would Sundance do? 

The Company You Keep. (2012). Starring Robert Redford, Shia LeBeouf, Chris Cooper, Nick Nolte, et al.  Rated R.


*Photo of Robert Redford by Jemal Countess, cc2012.

Chris, Standley Lake Library

There’s no denying that time is an odd thing.   I’ve had time on my mind this week, and the increment I’ve been thinking about is twelve years.   Twelve years, even for the elderly among us, is no short stretch: it’s three presidential administrations, almost an entire K-12 education.  Twelve years is the difference between adolescence and adulthood, or between middle-age and dotage.  It’s the better part of a generation.

But for Solomon Northup, twelve years is the length of time he spent in captivity, playing the role of another person, afraid of being discovered for who he was.  Born free in New York state, Northup was drugged and kidnapped by two men who lured him to Washington, DC under the pretense of offering him a job.  He awoke in chains, on a steamship headed south, eventually winding up in Louisiana, where he was sold into slavery.  When asked by another man if he could read and write, Northup was strongly advised to keep his literacy and status as a freeman to himself, lest he wind up dead.  The key to survival, he was told, was to say and do as little as possible.

The year was 1841, exactly twenty years before the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War. This fateful period serves as the setting for Steve McQueen’s most recent film, 12 Years A Slave.  Based on an autobiography of the same name, the film tells the true story of a man sold into slavery and later freed, but only after suffering a dozen years of unspeakable brutality.

For that interminable period, Solomon Northup was not only a slave, but a first-rate actor, posing as uneducated and docile even as he tried to fashion paper and pen so that he could get word to his unsuspecting family in New York.  He took the name Platt, given him by his plantation owner, and created a backstory for the man he now was.  He lived as Platt for twelve years, rarely breaking character.  As the years passed, his role was one in which acting became life itself.  But even as he acted, Northup never abandoned hope for a return to his previous life.

It’s said that a human being will do almost anything to survive, and during those twelve years, we see Northup endure and inflict inhumane treatment.  He is beaten when he doesn’t pick his quota of cotton, but is also made to wield the whip against fellow slaves at the insistence of his capricious master, played with gleeful abandon by Michael Fassbender, whose character divests himself of all humanity right before our eyes, using scientific racism, property rights, and a wilful misreading of Scripture as rationales for his sadism and cruelty.

There are a host of strong supporting performances, mostly by solid character actors like Lupita Nyong'o, Sarah Paulson and Paul Dano.  Brad Pitt makes a brief appearance as Samuel Bass, a Canadian carpenter come to live in the South.  Pitt, as a native Missourian, should be able to manage a more convincing drawl than he gives us as Bass, but I guess you can’t have everything.

I’ll leave out any spoilers except the big one suggested by the movie’s title.  But ultimately, 12 Years A Slave is more than a fine piece of cinema: it’s a civics lesson that makes us claim a part of our collective history that most would sooner forget.  Just as slavery did not end with the Civil War, neither did racism end with the Civil Rights movement or the subsequent election of a black president.  The 12-year role played by Samuel Northup is emblematic of roles played each day by oppressed peoples the world over.  But perhaps most importantly, McQueen and his cast do not permit a happy ending to whitewash the fact that the way of life we enjoy today was built on just such “peculiar institutions.”

(MOVIE) 12 Years A Slave.  Directed by Steve McQueen, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Paul Giamatti, et al.  Rated R.

(BOOK) 12 Years A Slave by Solomon Northup, general editor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.  New York: Penguin, 2013 (reprint of 1853 edition).

Sean, Standley Lake Library

Some children aspire to be astronauts or doctors (or even librarians), but to me the video store clerk reigned supreme among all professions. Those dudes with their long hair, scraggly beards, unkempt clothes and Pigpen clouds of Patchouli oil screamed freedom to my 13-year-old self. I loved the elitism when they mentioned obscure films like intimations of holy writ.

They also never minded having a chubby, annoying adolescent such as me hassling them like a cross between a kid step-brother and a manager-in-training. Sometimes they had me watch the store during their smoke breaks. They made me feel Large and In Charge!

I’d have taken a bullet for those guys.

In most places these days, video stores and their clerks are relics supplanted by the impersonal likes of Netflix and Red Box. That’s evolution, my lovelies. I’d mourn the loss, except I see their disappearance as a big potential gain for libraries. After all, our eclectic DVD collection (including almost 9,000 feature films) remains the closest thing many folks have to those old rental shops.

I guess that sort of makes librarians into video store clerks. My grubby teenaged dream came true after all!

But do people consult librarians about films to watch? We’re joyfully mobbed for reading recommendations, but comparatively few patrons pick our brains about movies. Maybe that’s our fault. We offer Personalized Reading Recommendations, for example, but not Personalized Movie Recommendations. We have Summer Reading Club but not Summer Viewing Club. We just don’t seem as interested in promoting our knowledge of movies the way we promote our knowledge of books. Two years ago, for instance, I attended a seminar on film advisory in libraries that consisted of little more than having staff memorize the AFI Top 100.

What a dreadful strategy. Would a teen boy looking for movies like Superbad take me seriously if I gave him Some Like It Hot? He might never visit the library again.

Readers advisory dabbles in psychology, trust and competence. Librarians go through a lot of training to help people find their next book, training that easily translates to finding films. Just as we do with your favorite novels, we’ll help you break down what you liked about a movie so you can better choose your next one. Let’s say you tell me you want another movie like Inception. What did you enjoy about it? Was there something specific? Was it the mind-bending virtual reality aspect? Maybe you’d like Dark City. Was it the heist plotline and watching a diverse team coming together through adversity? Maybe you should try Ocean’s Eleven next. From plot and character to directorial styles, there are so many possibilities and thousands of films ready to be discovered—just stop by and ask us. We’re always here to help.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I've got to get this Patchouli oil out of my clothes.

Chris, Standley Lake

Because beginnings are for declarations, let me start out with something self-evident: the world is full of bad books.  By bad, I mean not worth your time, much less the paper they’re printed on.  It might seem like heresy for librarians to say such things, because for us, the important thing isn’t supposed to be what a person reads, but the fact that he reads at all.  And while that thought is floating through your head, I’ll see your astonishment and raise you an eyebrow by adding that the ratio of bad books to good is not even close.   If it were, good recommendations wouldn’t be so important.
And it’s not just books.  The world is awash in hi-fi escapism: there’s bad music, worse film, and unspeakably wretched television everywhere you look.  In fact, I’ll bet you ten bucks that right now, as you’re reading this, you’re within arm’s length of a crap book, crap film or crap television show.  I’m within easy reach of a dozen or more myself.

My purpose here is not to slag off bad entertainment.  Instead, I’d like to sing the praises of a particular subset of crap that is actually good entertainment disguised as bad.  Some call them guilty pleasures, although I’ve never understood why pleasure must involve so much guilt.  I prefer to think of works like these as redemptively bad—those that are so memorably awful that they transcend their flaws and convert them to goodness.  Think of it as cultural alchemy.

One of my favorite examples is Paul Verhoeven’s remake of Robert Heinlein’s classic sci-fi novel Starship Troopers.  It’s always dangerous to make films based on books, but that’s nothing to Verhoeven, who brought us such bad classics as Total Recall, and my personal favorite, Showgirls, which featured some of the worst dialogue ever spoken.  If you can imagine your cheeks aching from two hours of continuous grimacing, then you’re halfway to empathizing with me.

Starship Troopers features a no-name cast of beautiful twentysomethings who are charged with defending Earth against malign insects from an adjoining galaxy.  Following an unprovoked attack on their home planet, our heroes join the armed forces and go forth to do battle with the bugs.  The cast travels through interstellar space in futuristic warships, goes head-to-head with murderous vermin and eventually emerges victorious.  All of the usual sci-fi themes are present: humans vs. aliens, copious fight scenes, a diabolically happy ending.  There’s even a love triangle.

Verhoeven’s key is excess: the bombastic dialogue, the vacant expressions of the actors, the absurd plot, even the bloody battle scenes, which are at once so graphic and so humorous that you sometimes forget what you’re watching.  Excess offends the senses, but humor dispels that tension, and this is Verhoeven’s saving grace: at just the point when the movie risks becoming too serious for its own good, Verhoeven is there with some droll quip, some overacted sequence, to remind you that this is Hollywood, and of all the ridiculous things in the world, none are more ridiculous than Hollywood.  Again and again, he's on the verge of turning serious, slowly building tension, only to deflate it with humor.

Who knew that humor could be so transformative?  Maybe all this redemptive badness is little more than a change of perspective, like reading a Harlequin romance as if it were a book of humor rather than a bodice ripper.  Even if you wouldn't use a romance as a blueprint for your love life, that doesn't mean it's not good for a laugh.  So I hope you’ll enjoy a good bad classic of your own over the weekend.  Me, I’m going to watch an old favorite of mine: one set in space, with a no-name cast, and just the proper amount of excess.

(MOVIE) Starship Troopers (1997). Directed by Paul Verhoeven.  Starring Casper Van Diem, Denise Richards and Neil Patrick Harris.

(BOOK) Starship Troopers (1959). By Robert A Heinlein.

Chris, Standley Lake

Sometimes, a movie trailer tells you everything you need to know about a film.  When I saw the promo reel for Rush, it was jam-packed with sleek automobiles, intimations of wrecks and rivalries, and more than one shot of grown men chugging champagne from a trophy cup.  As the trailer cut away to whatever I’d been watching before, I knew I’d seen enough.  After all, what’s not to like about guys in flimsy metal boxes orbiting a racetrack at high speed?  That alone makes it worth the price of admission.

The brainchild of famed director Ron Howard, Rush depicts the real-life racing rivalry between British playboy James Hunt and his more cerebral opponent Niki Lauder.  As the film opens, Hunt is driving for a barely-sponsored team in Formula Three (which is to racing what Triple-A clubs are to professional baseball), drinking and carousing until the small hours of morning and racing on third-rate provincial tracks throughout Europe during the day; at the same time, an equally unknown Niki Lauder is rejecting his wealthy father’s overtures that he must grow up, quit racing cars and join the family business.

As you probably guessed, hijinks ensue.  And beautifully photographed hijinks at that.  One thing you have to give Ron Howard: his movies are visually sumptuous.  Usually, a reviewer will call something beautifully photographed when he can’t think of anything else to say about it, but this reviewer actually puts a lot of stock in movies being well-shot.   And why shouldn’t they be?  More cash goes into making Hollywood films than was used to bail out the financial sector.  If you can’t get something visually pleasing from all those millions, then capitalism has truly failed.

But in all seriousness (ahem), there’s actually some good acting in Rush.  Nobody who looks like Chris Hemsworth could do badly as self-centered James Hunt, radiating false confidence while ducking into the pit just before every race to throw up, sick from worry.  For my money, Daniel Brühl turned in the best performance as the brooding Niki Lauder, whose high seriousness served as the perfect counterpoint to Hunt’s devil-may-care demeanor.

Even if you’re not nostalgic for the days when cars were big and men were macho, you’ll find Rush a good afternoon’s diversion.  In fact, it may make you want to run out and buy a new car, preferably a red one, with all the whistles.   I’ll leave any additional playacting to you.

Rush.  (2013). Directed by Ron Howard, starring Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Brühl, and Olivia Wilde.  Rated R.

Chris, Standley Lake

Typecasting is a curious thing.  For actors with limited talent, it’s the gift that keeps on giving, one that allows them to go on working long after they’ve overstayed their welcome.  But for versatile actors who become known for a single kind of role and are forced to go on repeating it, typecasting can be tragic. 

Andy Griffith, best-remembered as the grinning and wholesome Sheriff Andy Taylor of Mayberry, is one of the latter.  One of his earliest and finest roles was as Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes in Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd (1957).  Shot in the years before cinema switched to Technicolor, this film tells the story of a fast-talking country boy found in the drunk tank of the city jail by local radio reporter Marcia Jeffries (played by Patricia Neal at her droll best).  Never without his trusty guitar, Rhodes improvises songs and humorous stories that touch a nerve with the local radio audience, and seemingly overnight, he goes from being a provincial curiosity to a national sensation.

With the help of a genteel businessman, Rhodes makes the transition to television and becomes something more than an entertainer.  Immensely popular, he’s tapped by politicians and captains of industry to back a candidate for president.  In a relatively short time, he undergoes a startling transformation from indigent to kingmaker.

But Rhodes’s story is not your typical rags-to-riches story: it is an analysis of power itself.  Having decided to back Senator Worthington Fuller for president, Rhodes tells Marcia Jefferies that his audience is nothing more than a bunch of

 "…rednecks, crackers, hillbillies, hausfraus, shut-ins, pea-pickers - everybody that's got to jump when somebody else blows the whistle.  They don't know it, yet, but they're all gonna be 'Fighters for Fuller'. They're mine!  I own 'em!  They think like I do.  Only they're even more stupid than I am, so I gotta think for 'em.”

While he achieves fame by becoming a comical parody of the everyman, Lonesome Rhodes also feels out of place in the world of penthouses and cocktail parties.  After a night on the town, he walks onto the terrace of his expensive apartment overlooking New York’s Central Park.  In his anguish, he fingers the shriveled frond of a potted plant and says “Can’t keep anything alive up here.  Dust in this city kills everything.”  It’s then that the viewer realizes that Rhodes is not a character – he’s a caricature, and that by converting himself into a parody of homespun wisdom, he’s neither hobo nor power broker.  He’s a figment of the imagination conjured by the very audience he despises, and without their validation, without their love and approval, he’s nothing.

This weekend, take a look at A Face in the Crowd.  It’s a film at once humorous and sad, light and complex – one that has survived the test of time remarkably well.  After laying eyes on the calculated shenanigans of Lonesome Rhodes, you’ll never be able to look at Opie’s dad in the same way again.

Ros, Evergreen Library

Evergreen Library presents a series of Westerns for our Sunday Matinees. Coming up... 

The Searchers - Sept. 8, 2 p.m.
A classic John Wayne movie and arguably the actor’s best performance.  He plays Ethan Edwards, a Confederate soldier. Returning home to Texas after the Civil War, Edwards finds that Comanches have captured his nieces and killed their parents. He embarks on a quest for revenge. Directed by John Ford, the movie is both a big screen adventure and an examination of bigotry and hatred.

Silverado - Sept. 22, 2 p.m. 
Stars a young Kevin Costner as well as Kevin Kline, Linda Hunt, Jeff Goldblum, John Cleese, Danny Glover and others. In this modern classic, four unwitting heroes cross paths on their journey to the sleepy town of Silverado. It's up to the sharp-shooting foursome to save the day, but first they have to break each other out of jail and learn who their real friends are. A good plot, humor, action and romance make this movie a thoroughly enjoyable film while looking back to the glory days of westerns.

Refreshments provided.

Chris, Belmar Library

Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present by Marina Abramović, Music Box Films, 2012.

I’ll begin this review by mentioning what it won’t address: I won’t talk about Marina Abramović’s long career of performance or about how she’s often referred to as “the grandmother of performance art;” I won’t discuss my reservations about the less savory aspects of her personality, such as the pathological need to be loved and her rather unabashed fascination with fame.  I won’t raise her famous collaborations with her former partner, Ulay, nor will I frame her (as so many others do), as a simple provocateur, because to do so is to diminish the real importance of her work.

I won’t do this because the documentary does a far superior job of providing the necessary context.  What I will discuss is the performance from which the documentary takes its name: The Artist Is Present, which was recently unveiled as part of a retrospective exhibition of Abramović’s work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, is a deceptively simple, yet unexpectedly complex piece.  On the surface, the premise of The Artist Is Present is absurdly simple: Abramović sits in the main exhibition gallery opposite an empty chair for all the museum’s opening hours (about eight hours per day), for the entire length of the exhibition, which runs a total of three months.  Patrons of the museum can sit opposite her and look at her.  People line up by the thousands, with many camping out overnight for the chance to sit in the chair across from her.  There is no time limit: people can sit for as long as they’re able.  Some sit for hours, others for only a few minutes.  There are other guidelines: no one can speak to or touch Abramović – they can only look at her, and have her look at them.  One participant says that Abramović slows down people’s minds, and in doing so, transforms them.

The second half of the documentary (which, to my mind, is the most interesting part of the film), shows Abramović struggling with the physical demands of sitting completely still, for hours each day and for months on end, yet still having the presence of mind to give her full, undivided attention to each of the thousands of people who came to sit before her.  In the documentary, she says that attentiveness is one thing you can’t fake: “people know if you’re not paying attention,” she says at one point.

The reactions of the audience (all of whom are also participants) are equally fascinating.  Some appear angry or intense; many others (an astonishing number, in fact) weep.  “So many of the people carry around so much pain,” says Abramović at one point in the film.  During the exhibition, there was actually a Tumblr page called Marina Abramović Made Me Cry, in which people who had very emotional reactions to the performance would discuss their experiences.

Even patrons who don’t sit opposite Abramović are shown staring from the boundaries of the room, often for long periods, at her and others as they search one another’s faces.  As months pass, and the exhibit goes on, there is a real question whether Abramović’s body will tolerate the strain of sitting for so long and even MOMA’s curatorial staff and security guards begin to worry that she won’t be able to finish the performance.  Says one curator: "The Artist Is Present is revolutionary precisely because it could fail.”  And risk, as anyone will tell you, is central to any successful artistic endeavor.  If the viewer is able to risk a bit themselves, they’ll find The Artist Is Present more than repays their attention.

Sunshine, Columbine Library

Hot Coffee examines the effects tort reform is having on the average American’s right to access the U.S. Civil court system.  The documentary is named Hot Coffee after the infamous case Stella Liebeck brought against McDonald’s.  Although the media reported the outcome of the case, they never reported the facts of it.  Here they are:

Stella Liebeck sustained burns while she was the passenger in a stopped car after lifting the lid on her coffee to add cream and sugar.  Liebeck was then hospitalized for eight days with third-degree burns on six percent of her body and needed reconstructive surgery.  Liebeck asked McDonald’s to cover her medical bills; they refused.  Liebeck sued McDonald’s.  During the trial, the jury learned there were over 700 claims against McDonald’s prior to Liebeck’s accident – they learned this from McDonald’s own records.  In other words, McDonald’s knew their coffee was sending hundreds of people to the ER and they did nothing to prevent it from continuing to happen.  The jury awarded Liebeck $2.7 million in punitive damages to punish McDonald’s.  The jury chose $2.7 million because it equaled two days of McDonald’s coffee sales.  However, the trial court judge reduced the punitive damages from $2.7 million to $480,000 and Liebeck settled for an undisclosed sum.   

Hot Coffee looks at how sensationalized court cases, like Liebeck’s, were used by tort reform advocates to push forward regulations and laws restricting everyday people’s ability to access the courts.  One result has been the rise of mandatory or forced arbitration clauses, which cut off an individual’s access to a jury trial.  Arbitration clauses are now found in the fine print of many contracts you sign: bank accounts, credit cards, gym memberships, leases, employment contracts, etc.  If you want to understand what this means for you, watch Hot Coffee.

Sunshine, Columbine Library

Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working with Time
Andy Goldsworthy is a sculptor, photographer, and environmentalist.  Rivers and Tides looks at this amazing artist’s work, which is highly unique and stunning.  It shows him in action, building art pieces in the wild with nothing but nature as his materials and canvas.  Goldsworthy’s art is so fragile he cannot always finish it before it is destroyed by the natural elements.  I highly recommend this DVD for anyone who likes art and/or the outdoors. 

As Seen Through These Eyes 
As Seen Through These Eyes is a moving DVD about artists who survived the Holocaust.  It is narrated by Maya Angelou and it looks at individuals who were spared from the gas chambers because their artistic talents were needed by the Nazis.  Many of these artists drew realistic depictions of the Holocaust, while in the death camps, knowing that if their work was found it would mean death.  The DVD includes interviews with the survivors, personal stories, and lots of art. 

Simon Schama's Power of Art
Dramatic, engaging and informative, Simon Schama’s Power of Art examines eight works of art and the artists who made them.  Schama does not break down each piece from a solely aesthetic perspective, he also looks at the life of the artist and how their prior work feeds into the work he is examining.  The artists are: Caravaggio, Bernini, Rembrandt, David, Turner, Van Gogh, Picasso, and Rothko.  Enjoy!

Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Take a trip back in time to see what might be the oldest human drawings ever discovered.  Werner Herzog and his camera crew gained access to the Chauvet Cave in France, where the cave drawings are located.  The result is striking.  Cave of Forgotten Dreams interviews scientists and historians who talk about the drawings and what they mean and what it took, and will take, to preserve them.

Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock?
Meet Teri Horton, a truck driver who bought a painting at a garage sale.  She later finds out it might be an original Jackson Pollock.  The problem is no one is 100% sure it is a Pollock.  Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock? looks at Teri’s struggle to have the painting authenticated, particularly by forensic science and the art world.  


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