Ex Libris (Directed by Frederick Wiseman). 2017.

title ex libris

The subject is libraries, NYPL and the title refers to books, but very few books appear in the movie.

The opening scenes show expert patron handlers answering the phone as questions come into the reference desk.  What books are out on my account right now?  Can I put a popular book on hold?  When did the unicorn first appear in print literature?  The indefatigable librarians answer every question with grace and poise and courtesy.  Other customer- librarian contact involve genealogy research and demonstrate the depth of knowledge librarians serve on a regular basis.

But mostly the movie shows the range of programming:

+author conversations

+musical conerts

+poetry readings

+conversations with the head of the Schomburg

+children building robots and learning how to code

And meetings!  So many meetings.  The management, and the executive director, Tony Marx, are filmed at least 10 times discussing internet access, ebooks budget, community planning, private/public funding, how to keep the city adminstration engaged, and the library staff cooperating with the city upon whom half of the budget depends.  Private donors continue to fund the massive group of buildings, teams of librarians, and collections that range from the giant main branch at 42nd St. and the dozens of branches around Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island.

Other programs that really stood out:

+the picture collection being described and used by art students

+students being tutored

+job seekers being counseled as they are looking for work

+blind readers finding books, and learning how to read Braille

+a book on tape being recorded.

One of my favorite scenes showed how the interlibrary loans get sorted and delivered.  I always wondered about that: it is automated!

ex libris sorting ill

Wiseman’s subject is how institutions work.  As in his movie about Jackson Heights, he never seems to tire of  meetings, of listening to people talk to each other at round tables, every day conversations that are innately uncinematic, but instrumental to our understanding of how things work, the slow pace at which progress is made.

More troubling of a flaw was the lack of identification of the people who were filmed.  Once in a while, you get lucky, and Elvis Costello’s book jacket appears with his name in large letters, and then the unnamed interviewer even speaks his name aloud, but mostly you just absorb the speeches and concerts and librarians without knowing who they are.    I know who Anthony Marx is, but who is Iris?  Is she an architect? The chief operating officer?  Who is the important woman in meetings who gets to speak most, the one with blond hair?

More interesting to Wiseman is the fabric of the streets of the metropolis, the context within which the library must survive: the homeless sleeping on benches, the fire engines bellowing to their assignment, the names of the branches and the neighborhoods they are in.  Many fond shots of the irresistible architecture of the 42nd St. branch appear, and the selfies taken with it as a backdrop.

ex libris

A major focus of NYPL when Wiseman filmed was how to reduce the divide between those who have access to the internet and those left out.  According to the website, “Parents and guardians of NYC public school kids can be eligible for FREE Wi-Fi at home through The New York Public Library’s Library HotSpot program, designed for patrons without home internet.” Another digital concern is how the library allocates funds for ebooks versus physical books.  As technology evolves, so do the library’s programs.  As one person remarked, whoever thought the library was going out of date because of technology did not know what they were talking about.

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Logan Lucky (Directed by Steven Soderbergh). 2017.

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With Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Katherine Waterston, Daniel Craig, and Hilary Swank.

People think that the Logan family carry a curse.  Two brothers are injured, one in the Iraq War, the other in a mining accident, leaving only the sister unscarred and whole.  This set of siblings together with another set, the Bangs, three brothers, all of them seeming exceedingly dim-witted, decide to work together and relieve the North Carolina NASCAR racetrack of its cash.

During the first half hour or so, the audience considers the whole plan unlikely to work.

Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum) has just been laid off as part of a construction crew at the track.  This experience gives him inside information to the inner workings of the business.  Jimmy and his adorable daughter have a close relationship which he protects.  Sadie Logan (Farrah Mackenzie) is preparing to compete in a kiddie pageant in the West Virginia town where they live.

the kid

Jimmy and Sadie Logan (Tatum and Mackenzie)

Clyde Logan (Adam Driver) is a one-handed  bartender. His face rarely changes expression and he takes an inordinate amount of time to respond to everything which gives you the impression that he is not very bright. All the brothers, including the Bangs whose oldest brother Joe (Daniel Craig), serving time in prison, the brains of the outfit, seem pretty slow.   I wonder how the folks who live in West Virginia with a high school education or less and who work in construction or in mining feel about this picture.  There is a certain amount of stereotyping of the working class.

As the plot cooks along, and more things happen, and surprises accumulate in a satisfying way, all of the characters grow on you.

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Daniel Craig

There is one part of the comedy that I did not like:  Seth Macfarlane’s imitation of a boorish English businessman.  None of what he did in the movie resonated, but I have never cared for Macfarlane’s style. That the brothers would get back at him seems like a very good idea.

The script is very smart.  Directing seems borrowed from the Oceans 11 series.  The acting is a pleasure, especially Daniel Craig, who we know is British, and best known for playing James Bond and here plays a West Virginian with a love of chemistry. But the actors who play the Bang brothers, and Channing Tatum, whose relationship with his brother, his ex wife, his sister, and his daughter are all carefully written and acted, make the movie a pleasure to watch.  The mousetrap of a plot is a bonus.  Here’s hoping for a sequel so that we can see more relationships blossom, such as Hillary Swank’s with Adam Driver, and Katherine Waterston’s with Channing Tatum’s.

Katherine Waterston

Katherine Waterston plays a physician assistant 

 

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The Big Sick

big-sick-movie

With Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano.

The Big Sick unfurls like a four act play.  First act: a standup comedian of Pakistani descent starts dating a white woman he meets at the club where he performs.  It turns out that she is also his Uber ride (he is a driver).    Even though they pretend to resist each other, they can’t.

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Act Two: Things start getting serious between Kumail and Emily.  The comedian’s career is improving.   But at weekly dinners with his family,  everyone expects him to marry one of the many Pakistani women thrown his way.  He is also supposed to pray but does not.  When Emily finds his cigar box full of pictures of beautiful Pakistani women he has turned down, a reckoning is at hand.  He reveals how much he stands to lose by not marrying according to his family’s plan,  and she breaks up with him.

Act Three : Emily’s roommate phones in the middle of night to reveal that Emily is in hospital with serious illness, leading to her being put into an induced coma.  Emily’s parents arrive.  Kumail and parents get acquainted and eventually work as a team at the hospital, though Emily’s mother has an attitude toward Kumail at first because she knows everything about the break up. Everyone waits in suspense to see how Emily fares.

Act Four: Emily wakes up, and is not thrilled to see Kumail who has just been invited to move to New York with two talented stand up friends.

All throughout are tensions of Pakistani immigrant family custom of arranged marriage in conflict with American way of falling in love and letting nature take its course.

mother

What endeared this movie to me: the complexity of the story, structured as a romantic comedy, but with emotions running the gamut from fear, to suspense, surprise, relief.  The mothers share their rigid behavior of relentlessly seeing the world through their own eyes until it is clear that that won’t help.

bigsick

The movie is a welcome change from the action fare that dominates summer screens.  Its characters and story have genuine complexity, the quality of the acting is very high, the minor characters are interesting, the point of view of the two principals seems true to life.   The movie is full of optimism.

 

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Dunkirk (directed by Christopher Nolan), 2017.

A pilot in World War II wore a mask that effectively obscured his face except for his eyes, making it difficult for the audience to differentiate / identify which pilot is which.  I imagine it makes it hard for the actor as well, reduced to his eyes, to act.

400,000 men were stranded on a beach in France, as Germans neatly picked these victims off a boatload at a time with falling bombs. Heroic civilians in pleasure craft, fishing boats, etc came to the rescue and evacuated the wounded and ferried the rest to England and home.

Whitehead

The anonymity and similar features of the cast must have been intentional, as well as the low profiles of the actors. Fionn Whitehead, a relative newcomer, plays Tommy, one of the ground troops.

The empathy for the characters has nothing to do with their story. I did not want to go through the dialogue, tell the story of my characters… The problem is not who they are, who they pretend to be or where they come from. The only question I was interested in was: Will they get out of it? Will they be killed by the next bomb while trying to join the mole? Or will they be crushed by a boat while crossing?

— Christopher Nolan on the main purpose of the film[ Premier magazine]

From land, sea and air the men were attacked.  So many were killed– yet Tomm uses quick thinking and strategic actions: as he runs from enemy fire and escapes to the jetty (called a mole); as he attempts to board the ship full of wounded by deftly picking up a stretcher with a dying man and forcing his way through an impossible crowd; as he detects that the ship will soon be sunk, and clings to the pier underneath; as he floats from the pier to the sea; as he drifts to an abandoned boat, until he is finally fished out of the oily sea by a brave merchant seaman played by Mark Rylance.

The intentional blurring of identities and lack of names works, as does the minimal dialogue, mostly spoken by commanders played by the better known actors, Branagh and Rylance.  All any of them want to do is get home, an ideal chalky cliff visible across the English Channel.

Rylance

Branagh

The movie made me want to learn more about the battle and evacuation, and in my probing I learned that three other movies had been made about Dunkirk, beginning in 1958.  One can see why the British are so proud of their actions those early days of the war: the war apparatus alone could not save so many young men about to be mown down.  It took a whole nation, pulling together.

 

 

 

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Baby Driver (Directed by Edgar Wright). 2017.

with Anselm Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm, and Lily James.

Baby_Driver_poster

I had often wondered what it would be like to live in the soundtrack inside your head as I passed people who never look up on the busy streets, their earbuds seeming to direct where they went.  Baby Driver seems to answer my questions about that — since the title character, a driver named Baby, never wants to take his ear buds out even when he is driving dangerously fast, even when he is driving in reverse, fleeing the police.

It seems that Baby is in debt to a man named Doc (Kevin Spacey) who commandeers heists never with the same crew except for Baby, an exceptionally skilled driver.  When he isn’t driving recklessly and effectively to carry the money away, and deliver it to Doc, Baby lives with his foster father, an elderly deaf black man who worries about the legality of Baby’s business.  The back story has to do with Baby’s parents fighting in a car at the moment of impact that killed them both, leaving the boy in the back seat slightly scarred, and perhaps brain damaged, or a little compromised in the hearing department.

Anselm Elgort played the sad tragic romantic lead in A Fault in Our Stars, and showed himself to be utterly charming, and captivating to the camera.  His simple deadpan straightforwardness as he faces us spectators is almost like a dare to the audience not to sympathize with him.  He brings us back to the importance of relating to characters who might be like us.  Surely, we can relate to a boy who lost his parents very young and then became beholden to a villain.

 

baby-driver-lily-james-ansel-elgort-670-380

Lily James and Anselm Elgort

 

But Baby Driver is not a character study so much as a series of excellent car chases, punctuated by a love story, and bordered with some excellent character acting by Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Eiza Gonzalez (looking like Salma Hayek did 20 years ago, and giving off the same wise ass attitude).  The heists are rarely believable, the car chases beyond brilliant, but the music that carries the movie along is the reason to go.  I think that Wright started out wanting an exciting video game like experience, then found the lovers irresistible, and finally had to give them a soundtrack worthy of them.

 

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Wonder Woman Directed Patty Jenkins

With Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Danny Huston, Elena Anaya, David Thewlis.

Image result for wonder woman movie

Wonder Woman is not exactly the movie I have been waiting for, but it will have to do.  Since superheroes are the only way Hollywood knows how to sell tickets, at least we have a woman superhero. And lots of tickets have been sold.   An Amazon princess, daughter of Zeus and Hyppolyta, Diana is raised at first not to become a warrior, but aunt Antiope makes it clear that she must be trained.  Antiope has a long scar running down her neck, and  wears the strange headdress that doesn’t really look as if it has a function except to frame her gorgeous face and that of her sister (Hippolyta and Antiope are played by Connie Nielsen and Robin Wright).

Connie Nielsen

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Robin Wright

It turns out that Diana is not just a great fighter, she has super powers, resting largely in her wrists which when lined by super metallic pads, can deflect bullets, bombs, and worst of all, the wrath of Aries.  But I am jumping ahead.  First she must deal with her introduction to a human man, one American soldier, posted as a spy by the British during World War I, the war to end all wars. Diana rescues Steve (Chris Pine) when he is shot down by enemy German sailors.  The photography of the water, Diana’s slicing through it, finding Steve, and bringing him to the surface, is exciting, as are all the scenes where Gal Gadot must move quickly and athletically through space doing her derring do turns.

Image result for wonder woman chris pine

The movie moves in and out of seriousness. There is a witty visual sight gag as Steve takes a bath. Steve’s mission is full of suspense.  He means to stop the dastardly duo of Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and Namu (Elena Ayana) as they prepare thousands of canisters of mustard gas to drop on unsuspecting populations just as the armistice is being drafted. Once  Dr. Namu, the mastermind behind the evil weapon, is quite fascinating, with half her face covered in a plastic mask since she was injured terribly in one presumes an accident resulting from something that she herself made.

With the penetration of the sacred space that is the island inhabited by the Amazons, Diana decides to go after the evil Aries who has brought on this war.  She brings with her a god- killer, a sacred sword, kept in a tower she must breach by climbing in a fantastic way, breaking the stone with her fists in order to create rungs for her to fasten onto.

Diana’s physical power and indignation at evil come together when she charges across No Man’s Land, a patch of trenches hopelessly caught in the cross fire of a nest of submachine gunning Germans.  Once Diana sees a woman with her baby, both of whom are starving,  she takes matters into her own hands or should I say wrists which deflect dozens of bullets as she braves all to get to her target and decimate the villains inside.  This scene has momentum, missing from some of the repetitive special effects and explosions that bog down the last third of the movie.

The framing device, of starting and ending in modern Paris, with Wonder Woman taking on her true shape and most comfortable costume, is a bit mysterious. I think it has to do with how Paris was attacked recently by terrorists, the new version of Aries.  We leave her in midair, presumably on her way to sequels.  Now, if only Hollywood would believe that women want to see more movies with themselves as the center of the action and not just the focus of the male gaze.  Please Patty Jenkins, will you make some more?

 

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Ready to Wear (Directed by Robert Altman). 1994.

Ready_to_wear_pret_a_porter_american_posterWith Anouk Aimée, Marcello Mastroianni, Sophia Loren, Kim Basinger, Stephen Rea, Lauren Bacall, Julia Roberts, Tim Robbins, Lili Taylor, Sally Kellerman, Tracey Ullman, Linda Hunt, Rupert Everett, Forest Whitaker, Richard E. Grant, Danny Aiello, Teri Garr, Lyle Lovett, Jean Rochefort, Michel Blanc, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Ute Lemper, Anne Canovas, and François Cluzet.

The cold war was still on, which may explain why this movie made in 1994 features a mysterious scene in Moscow where Marcello Mastraoianni buys not one but two hideous ties, and sends one to a fashion consultant in Paris where they eventually meet and recognize each other by their ties, and during a conversation in the hired car, the fashion consultant dies.

Robert Altman is good at many things, including assembling a huge talented cast, creating multiple levels of dialogue and sound that contribute to a feeling of busyness and real life as it is lived, but telling a story is not one of them. The thread that connects Marcello to Sophia Loren, who is soon seen wearing a big red celebratory hat right after her husband has died, is sort of herky jerky; the dots do not connect, even when Marcello must deliver  a long soliloquy which explains the back story of their relationship.

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What story there is centers on the three editors of fashion magazines, played by Linda Hunt, Sally Kellerman, and Tracy Ullman. They all want to poach the star photographer (Stephen Rea) who is as rotten a cad as seen on screen since Boris and Natasha were hoodwinked by Mr. Big. Besides his weakness for flimsy plots, Altman seems to enjoy humiliating Sally Kellerman by having her show her body when clearly she wished she hadn’t. What is surprising is how she agrees to this claptrap since its jokiness had grown stale in M*A*S*H twenty years before.  Kim Basinger gamely performs her journalist role with a Southern accent.

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But I confess that I enjoyed some of the scenes.  Anouk Aimee and Jean Rochefort are genuinely acting compared to the rest of the cast who seem to be mugging.  The subplot with Tim Robbins and Julia Roberts getting stuck in a room together because neither of them will yield has a certain charm until they get dressed and the movie looks impossibly dated.  Oh and the only way Julia relaxes is when she drinks which she does unconvincingly.  Richard E. Grant looks like something out of a Renaissance painting with his tiny curl over his forehead.

grant

The fashion shows have that ridiculous over the top quality that fashion shows do, as if what we wore could ever make a difference in the world.  And then you realize that it does, it really does matter.  And I wondered how much Altman got paid for all of the product placements…and if he thought he really was making a dazzling satirical statement in the closing scene when the models shed their clothes, and parade on the runway naked.

The movie was playing at the Walter Reade Theater who was celebrating Marcello Mastroianni. He made many movies better than this, but his charm and charisma come through and cannot be blamed for the smarmy tone of the director.

 

 

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