About Alan

I read omnivorously, leaning toward quirky literary fiction, classic genres like the roman noir, and meaty contemporary nonfiction. I also dip into young adult and children’s lit from time to time. Check out my feed at Goodreads my feed at Goodreads here . I have a long and sordid history of DJ’ing and love music; my favorite gigs were friends’ weddings. I have taught Film History at the college level and lead the monthly Evergreen Cinema Society film screening and discussion series for the library.

Kanopy for the Holidays

Logging into Kanopy is like going to the coolest video store on the planet. You remember those, right? You’d walk in and the place was curated with a cineaste’s top picks. You were absolutely guaranteed a serendipitous encounter with the sublime, strange, or some combination therein. Kanopy allows anyone to catch anything: from contemporary hits & classics to documentaries, including The Great Courses (there are 3,124 courses from Learning Spanish to Music as a Mirror of History), to world cinema including classics by the likes of Fellini & Bergman, to obscure & wonderful Films Noir like Lured and Sudden Fear, to utter schlock that may shock…

But just in time for the holidays, Kanopy has something for you. And it’s all free!

From contemporary classics like We Need to Talk about Kevin to Christopher Nolan’s Memento, Kanopy stocks a wonderful collection of new movies. But last year’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople is really very special. The film is as wild as the title may suggest. From New Zealand and the director of the also-recommended vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows, Wilderpeople is the story of perpetual foster child Ricky Baker. Ricky has finally found his dream family…or the family that has the patience and kindness to handle this violent, clumsy, arson-prone problem child with a heart of gold. Unfortunately, his foster-mother quickly dies. Her husband, played by the great Sam Neill, goes walkabout to grieve her. Ricky runs away, but bumps into him in the process. They become fugitives, which is even crazier…and funnier than it sounds. Critics called it: “Deeply delightful,” “Infectiously entertaining adventure,” and “a deliciously good time.” If this sounds like what you’re hunting for, hunt no further than New Zealand’s biggest hit film of all time, Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Echoes of Moonrise Kingdom and great buddy pictures abound. Watch it.

And I also mentioned Film Noir, everyone’s favorite Classical Hollywood genre (really a style) of film, so named by the French when our films flooded their country post-World War II. Because, well, they were really dark or black (as you’d imagine, noir is the French word for that). The cycle of films (roughly 1941-1959) are paranoid and filled with beautiful shadows, tough, fast-talking characters, and some of the wildest angles and deepest meaning of any American films you’ll see. The director of Lured, Douglas Sirk, is renowned for incredibly rich and evocative 50’s melodramas like Imitation of Life, but in 1947 he directed a young Lucille Ball as a dance hall girl in danger of falling prey to a serial killer on the foggy London streets. If Ball wasn’t enough, we also are treated to the suave George Sanders and the inimitable Boris Karloff as a crazed fashion designer. This lovely film is restored so you can enjoy what Entertainment Weekly calls “an atmospheric sensual pleasure.” And you can’t find it in any local library’s DVD collection…only on Kanopy!

If you’re dreaming of a…weird Christmas, you will want to check out our Christmas in Connecticut or Remember the Night DVD’s. Both are bizarre: they’re timely treats that are salty, yet sweet. But, why wait? Sidle over to Kanopy where you can stream the darkest, and perhaps strangest, of Christmas films. Alongside Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Black Christmas is notorious as the first modern slasher film. It stands alone as the first “seasonal slasher,” arriving in 1974, four years before John Carpenter’s Halloween. But what I really like about the film is its inventive cinematography that helps to convey its utter creepiness. This psychological horror, rather than visceral  terror (meaning: not much of a body count), is conveyed by the use of a special harness Bob Clark (who would later direct Christmas Story) devised and attached to the killer. We experience much of the film from the killer’s point of view, implicating us in his spine-chilling misdeeds. And don’t miss out on the killer performances! A young Margot Kidder is the cynical sister in this sorority alongside former Juliet (of 1968’s Romeo and Juliet fame) Olivia Hussey’s sweetly sentimental side. SCTV personality Andrea Martin and John Saxon also make appearances.

So, get over to Kanopy to experience the finest in streaming video content. All free! All you need is your library card!! What? Don’t have one of those? Just sign up at epls.org and start streaming great content right away!

The Best Under-seen Films of 2015

The 85th Academy Awards® will air live on Oscar® Sunday, February 24, 2013.

We’re knee-deep in awards season. The Oscar nominations have been announced. We will showcase 3 of those films at our Oscar Fest just one day before the big event. We love spectacle as much as the next library.

But we celebrate the underdog, the minor key, the off beat…those the big awards neglect. What follows are films that Oscar is not going to hip you to. In other words, great movies that have a bit of an independent feel — much like our Sunday Films we show at 2 p. m. at the Main Library every month. Or what we delve deep into the last Wednesday of every month at 1:30 p. m. in our Independent Spirits Film Series.

Drum roll, please: some of the best under-seen under-awarded films of 2015. All available from your library (suggested award category precedes title in bold):

Love & MercyBest Picture, Acting: Love & Mercy
In 1966, Brian Wilson broke away from the Beach Boys surfin’ image to create one of the true masterpieces of recorded music, the deeply-personal Pet Sounds. How this album came to be as well as Wilson’s struggles with mental illness are explored in perhaps the best film of the year. John Cusak’s work as the older recluse Wilson is every bit as compelling as Paul Dano’s portrayal of the sensitive genius in his youth. Paul Giamatti plays the hiss-worthy psychiatrist that tried to lock Wilson away while Elizabeth Banks plays his savior. All handled with sensitivity and class, you don’t see the Mansons, nor do you see Brian gutturally screaming as he hurls tape against the wall. One masterpiece deserves another. Love & Mercy is it. If you want to delve deeper, listen to my podcast on the subject.

me-earl-dying-girlBest Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Editing: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
Adapted from the book of the same name, this punchy, stylish film retains the humor of the book while wisely excising the self-deprecating “this book sucks” self-referentiality. A high school senior has learned to survive under the radar and get along with everyone by becoming friends with no one, aside from his “colleague” Earl, with whom he makes hilarious remakes of classic films…all until his mother tasks him with befriending a dying girl. The authenticity of the teen voice is dead-on. The soundtrack is carefully chosen and deployed (mostly Brian Eno’s 70’s work). The cinematography is breathtaking and expressive. The editing is sharp and fun. A thriller in a much different way than 7 Minutes is, this is the kind of movie that crackles with such energy that it reminds you what you like about the movies. And why you love them.

D TrainBest Original Screenplay: D Train
James Marsden and Jack Black star in this bizarro buddy comedy whose sweetness handily sets off its few disturbing scenes. Black plays a lovable loser in a quiet, frustrated life whose existence seems to hang on collecting RSVP’s at his high school reunion. If he can bag Marsden, the former class king….who is a comparative big-shot (in his eyes anyway) due to a Banana Boat ad, the rest of the class will be there. The lengths Black goes to do this are sad, sweet, and disturbing. All leading to believable, relatable character development, very human comedy, and an extremely satisfying ending.

mississippi_grindBest Acting: Mississippi Grind
In a very different buddy movie, Ryan Reynolds plays a young, charismatic gambler to Ben Mendelsohn’s desperate, haggard gambling addict. Both performances are surprisingly deep in an old-fashioned film (think 70’s buddy pictures) filled with as many twists and turns as the trip down the Mississippi River they take to try and change their luck.

 

End of the TourAdapted screenplay, acting: The End of the Tour
Yet another buddy movie, but a real meeting of the minds. Jason Segal deserves recognition as disturbed genius author David Foster Wallace. Jesse Eisenberg is very solid as the aspiring novelist interviewing him for Rolling Stone. Similar to The Clouds of Sils Maria, we see Eisenberg and Segal merge and separate in fascinating (and very believable) ways. The film offers few clichés and many genuine, tender, and troubling moments. James Ponsoldt is a director with a soft, evocative touch. And he’s one to watch; Ponsoldt also directed Smashed, a compelling film about alcoholism. And one of the best films of 2013, in The Spectacular Now.

7 minutesEditing, Visual Effects: 7 Minutes
Shot right here in Everett, featuring many local residents (including some police as themselves) and local sights — including the neighborhood around both library locations, civic pride is not the only reason to see this movie. Loaded with likable character actors, a creative flashback structure, and dripping with style, 7 Minutes is a tense, thrilling, heist-gone-bad film that will keep you guessing until the very end. For more on 7 Minutes, listen to my recent podcast.

Mistress AmericaScreenplay, Actress:     Mistress America
In 2005, Noah Baumbach won dozens of awards for his breakout film The Squid and the WhaleChecking in with him ten years later, Baumbach has been quietly and consistently making some of the most affecting portrayals of modern, young thinking people. Last year’s While We’re Young pondered that aging process via two couples at different ends of the spectrum. This year’s entry is just as warm and witty an adventure into the thoughts of striving, thinking people. Since Baumbach connected with screenwriter, actress, and muse Greta Gerwig (above left), he’s been cranking out stories like this sweetly sensitive coming-of-age tale centering around a young woman (above right) and her desire to become somebody…perhaps even the person to her right.

Call Me LuckyDocumentary: Call Me Lucky
A very compellingly crafted documentary about angry political stand-up comic Barry Crimmins carries a whiplash twist. We begin with great contemporary comics from David Cross to Margaret Cho lionizing Crimmins for not only his quality of material, but for also helping them get a start in the business. This amusing portrait of a great funny man then develops to the not-so-funny. Exploring Crimmins’ anger at the Catholic church, we also come to learn his impact on outlawing online child pornography. A funny, fascinating, disturbing portrait of a film, Call Me Lucky should be recognized widely, but won’t. But that’s what this list is all about, isn’t it?

And the obligatory it-was-new-to-me / very close to 2015 / they had me fooled, in ascending silliness of award order: Production Design, Kids’ Movie Adults Could Enjoy: Paddington, Acting, Extreme Twisty-ness: The Guest, Screenplay, Utter Creepiness: Ex Machina, Acting, Perhaps Creepier: Prisoners, Local: Laggies, Best use of James Franco: True Story, Peerless Brilliance: Mr. Turner, Best use of Bill Murray: St. Vincent

Your turn: what are some of your recent favorites?

Movie’s Better IX: Rebecca

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rebecca book“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again… I came upon it suddenly; the approach masked by the unnatural growth of a vast shrub that spread in all directions… There was Manderley, our Manderley, secretive and silent as it had always been, the gray stone shining in the moonlight of my dream, the mullioned windows reflecting the green lawns and terrace. Time could not wreck the perfect symmetry of those walls, nor the site itself, a jewel in the hollow of a hand.”

Opening lines from a much-beloved text & instant classic when it was released in 1938, Daphne du Maurier‘s Rebecca is a favorite of many and considered one of the finer Gothic romances. But this was Alfred Hitchcock’s second du Maurier adaptation in a row.

Hitchcock had just cranked out Jamaica Inn to disappointing effect, even though it featured the powerhouse actor Charles Laughton, of whom he had famously said “You can’t direct a Laughton picture. The best you can hope for is to referee.” The reason this is forgettable, though still worth seeing (even his flops are fun), is that Hitch was busy shopping himself to Hollywood. Tired of a crumbling British film industry, he wanted to work at a major studio with all the modern tools at hand. The only one of those who’d hire him was the famously fussy perfectionist David O Selznick. So 1939 sees Hitchcock fulfilling his contract with this quickie.

affiche-rebecca-hitchcockSelznick green lights Rebecca, but rejects Hitchcock’s adaptation outright, preferring more of a straight adaptation, and a long battle begins where Hitchcock is forced to rewrite the screenplay and learn how to shoot and produce in a more modern studio style. Selznick was exacting. Selznick and Hitchcock would butt heads.

Trouble was, Selznick was busy with exactly adapting a little picture called Gone with the Wind. So, the rascal Hitchcock decides to merge his style (setting up each shot exactingly, shooting with one camera, moving on) with the studios’ (shooting “master shot” style, with several cameras, getting different angles and distance of framing, then sorting it out in the editing room later). Our favorite director gets to play with alternate takes and different outcomes to elements in the story. In other words, rather than shooting one scene from several cameras, he shoots one scene different ways several times. Selznick’s too busy pouring all of his efforts into his reputation-making adaptation across the lot to notice.

The end result? When it premiered, Frank Nugent of the New York Times enthused that Hitchcock’s “famous ‘touch’ seems to have developed into a firm, enveloping grasp of Daphne du Maurier’s popular novel.” Later on, Donald Spoto said that Hitchcock worked closely with the screenwriters to “fashion a script with breadth and nuance, with wit and universality beyond the straightforwardness of du Maurier’s plot.” Better than? You be the judge.

The Evergreen Branch Library screens and discusses our latest installment in the Dial H for Hitchcock series, Rebecca, this Wednesday at 1:30. At 6:30 we repeat the screening.

Movie’s Better VIII: The Lady Vanishes

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Back again for another adaptation argument! This one conveniently coincides with The Evergreen Branch Library’s screening and discussion of our latest installment in the Dial H for Hitchcock series, The Lady Vanishes, this Wednesday at 1:30. At 6:30 we repeat the screening.

wheel spinsI have to level with you, dear library readers: I haven’t had the opportunity to read the original source material, mostly known by the movie’s title, but originally called The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White (1936). Few have read this incredibly hard to find book, which is not in the public domain due to the movie (which is in the public domain, ironically). As I checked review sources, found none, and eventually ended up trolling the Internet, I decided to go with a clever blogger’s description of the book as “vintage crime at its best.”

LadyVanishesLobbyCardBThere ara a couple reasons I (maybe, incredibly) contend Hitchcock’s adaptation to be an improvement over an original I haven’t read:

1.) Hitchcock’s track record. Psycho, Rear Window, Rebecca (which we’re showing March 26th), and on and on, all terrific improvements over thier source material.

2.) Alma Reville. We all know his wife served as go-between, edited the films, and still cooked the big man dinner. But she was also a terrific screenwriter and script doctor, immeasurably improving his many adaptations.

3.) I’ll add a third. Frank Launder joined forces with Sidney Gilliat here, and together they wrote, directed and produced over 40 terrific British films, but this is one of their best.

Also, two poor adaptation/updates stand in instructive contrast. The Lady Vanishes (1979), starring Cybill Shepherd and The Lady Vanishes (2013), starring Tuppence Middleton continued to hold onto Hitchcock’s title while apparently ruining the core story. Lastly, The Lady was also serialized in six weekly 15 minute parts on BBC Radio 2, which is supposed to be OK, but no match for the original…film that is, which was a favorite of both Orson Welles and Francois Truffaut.

Will it be a favorite of yours? Come see for yourself this Wednesday! And check out the rest of our film series, Dial H for Hitchcock.

Movie’s Better VII: The 39 Steps

books_arrow_film_reelOn Wednesday, January 29th, we screen and discuss Alfred Hitchcock’s terrific thriller The 39 Steps here at the Evergreen Branch Library, at 1:30. At 6:30, we repeat the screening.

For Hitchcock, books were simply a basis for the film; and his adaptations usually wildly changed (and often far surpassed) the source material. Psycho is one of many examples. Hitchcock: “Well, for me, it all starts with the basic material first…you may have a novel, a play, an original idea, a couple of sentences, and from that the film begins.”

buchan-thirty-nine-steps-bookcover

It all began in  1915, when John Buchan wrote the book on vacation, the steps down to the beach inspiring the title to this classic British thriller. The plot concerns a man in London who tries to help a counterespionage agent. But when the agent is killed and he stands accused, he must go on the run to both save himself and also stop a spy ring trying to steal top-secret information.

Is the movie better? Total Film calls it the second best 39_stepsadaptation ever, period. How are they different? The 39 Steps refers to the clandestine organization, whereas in the book and the other film versions it refers to physical steps. By having Annabella tell Hannay she is travelling to meet a man in Scotland (and produce a map with the town circled) Hitchcock avoids the plot hole in Buchan’s book where Hannay, with the whole country in which to hide, chances to walk into the one house where the spy ringleader lives.

Hitchcock made his best films from pulp or mediocre works: “I have always maintained that it is supreme foolishness to take any book and film the whole of it, just because one angle of it is really worth screening.”

So, the film closes a plot hole and certainly isn’t one of his usual pulp derivations. But is Hitchcock’s first masterpiece better than this classic British novel? Too close to call, but you can make you own judgment when you attend our screening this Wednesday at 1:30 (we repeat it at 6:30) at the Evergreen Branch Library. Be sure to check out our yearlong series Dial H for Hitchcock as well.

Movie’s Better VI: the No-Need-for-a-Book Edition

Rocky PosterIn the column thus far, we’ve explored adaptations that surpass their source material. This month’s screening (October 23rd at the branch) of Rocky got me thinking of movies that came out of nowhere. It has been estimated that between a third and 65% of all films came from a book of some sort. But some of the most important films ever made came from the creator’s heart, soul, and, in the case of Rocky, guts.

An underdog film made with pure heart about that very subject. Sylvester Stallone did not see success quickly. Sly cleaned a lion’s cage, was cast in roles like “subway thug #3,” and even appeared in an adult film to make ends meet. Inspiration struck and he hammered out a screenplay in 3 days after he saw Chuck Wepner knock down the invincible (and 40-1 favored) Muhammed Ali and then go 15 rounds until his triumphant loss. Stallone fought to get the film started and then made, trimming and rewriting scenes to work with the non-existent budget. Hunger makes for inspiration; it also was the only way Stallone could afford extras for the fight scenes–they were there for a chicken dinner. There’s so much more to this linchpin underdog story and we’ll discuss it all on Wednesday at 1:30.

For more evidence to support the “no need for a book” argument (though I wouldn’t be much of a librarian if I didn’t truly love them), I shall list a few more sterling examples, without even mentioning the most important movie ever made:

ModerntimesCharles Chaplin: He directed (and scored, his music is underrated because every other aspect of his films is so brilliant) his original screenplays. They’re all worth seeking out, with special mention to  Modern Times & City Lights.

sullivans-travels-banner

Preston Sturges: The man who birthed the modern romantic comedy with his terrific screwball comedies, where every laugh is intelligent and earned. They’re all brutally funny and clever, but especially Sullivan’s Travels & Palm Beach Story

the_artist_poster

Modern Times: The list goes on and on and suggesting no chronological end. And we’re not just talking about Oscar-winning throwback The Artist. 

But a few more: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Pan’s Labyrinth. the work Pan's Labyrinthof British master Mike Leighthe list goes on and on and on… 

…and  I’m still not mentioning the 
citizen-kanemost critical artistic statement in the history of film, but I would be remiss (and not much of a librarian) not to include a poster with a link to our catalog.

Movie’s Better V: Noir Edition

Double I stillOften, when I’m in the right (or wrong) mood, I’ll raise some Cain…James M, that is. He perfected the hard-boiled literary style: books about crime & criminals written with precision, brutality, and distance.The adaptation of one of his masterpieces, Double Indemnity, however is an improvement. This would be a pretty short blog post if it wasn’t, wouldn’t it?

After World War Two, we lifted an embargo and our books and movies flooded into France. Perceptive, they sensed trends in theme and style and labeled the books a “serie noir” and the movies “film noir.” The books, by authors like Raymond Chandler, Cornell Woolrich, and Horace McCoy, are considered classics of the hard-boiled style. The films comprise a movement that is considered the most artistically important in American film history.

Double I CoverIn 1939, James M. Cain wrote Double Indemnity, a novel as elegant and brutal as a rusty nail about an insurance cheat perpetrated by a wife, with help of a clever, but weak-kneed insurance man. Like the film, it’s told from the perspective of our doomed anti-hero.
The 1944 adaptation is considered the most important film in the film noir style. Not only was it directed by one of cinema’s greats, Billy Wilder. But he and his writing partner Brackett had none other than Raymond Chandler to improve the story and add his inkily cynical humor to a story that richly benefits from it.

A line from the novel: “Maybe that don’t mean to you what it meant to me. Well, in the first place, accident insurance is sold, not bought. You get calls for other kinds, for fire, for burglary, even for life, but never accident. That stuff moves when agents move it, and it sounds funny to be asked about it.”

Double I Movie PosterAn exchange from the film: “Walter Neff: You’ll be here too? Phyllis: I guess so, I usually am. Walter Neff: Same chair, same perfume, same anklet? Phyllis: I wonder if I know what you mean. Walter Neff: I wonder if you wonder.”

It’s easy to see that the film greatly improves the verbal style. But what of the visual style? Roger Ebert lauds: “The photography by John F. Seitz helped develop the noir style of sharp-edged shadows and shots, strange angles and lonely Edward Hopper settings.”

And we know it’s a classic, but how was it received in 1944? Alfred Hitchcock (yeah, him): “Since Double Indemnity, the two most important words in motion pictures are ‘Billy’ and ‘Wilder.'”

Come see what they were (and what we will be) talking about in our “Best of the Best” film series, as we screen and discuss Double Indemnity on Wednesday, September 25th at 1:30 PM. A repeat screening at 6:30. See what’s playing and cast your vote today at http://www.epls.org/films/.