Movies in December 2014 including Twenties, The Homesman, Big Eyes, Gone Girl, and more.

  1. Twenties at the Little, December 2: I didn't really know what to expect in the Rochester premiere of this locally-produced comedy—and I'm pleased to say that overall I was rather impressed. Initially I was distracted by the low-budget quality of the cinematography, what with looking like it was shot on a cell phone. But once James Battaglia's Jake and Zac Hobert Thompson's Luke got to interact, I started to understand better. The gist of the story is that these two mid-twenty-somethings are listlessly adrift in their post-college years until they get a windfall of a bag full of $20 bills … which turns out to be counterfeit. The film is entirely carried by the very funny interactions between Jake and Luke. But more importantly, I think the filmmakers have successfully and comprehensively captured the zeitgeist of their generation: from the defeatist apathy toward employment, to the powerful platonic love they have for one another, to the way their emotional range is invisibly bounded to prevent any real harm. And up until now, cinema has based its visual style on the 35mm film camera with a 50mm lens and careful composition to not waste expensive film, but this generation was raised on smart phones with wide-angle lenses and zero-cost images, and Boris Sapozhnikov's camera work exactly captures that aesthetic.
  2. The Homesman at the Little, December 13: I didn't know exactly what to expect of this, only knowing it was a modern western by Tommy Lee Jones (who I know more as an actor, but has directed a few films as well), and Jenn joined me. I was rather surprised at how coldly brutal it started out, and how that brutality merely ebbs and flows throughout the story. It's bracketed by incredible beauty, lending a bit of rationale for why anyone would bother to stay—aside, perhaps, from a desperation to find a place to be in the then-modern world. Finally, it's a fascinating tale of a woman who does her best to keep her strength and sanity viable through a long and (you guessed it) brutal journey. Jones acts in the picture as a bumbling outlaw with a coldly self-serving streak. In all it's a rather potent film that I may not seek out for a long while to revisit.
  3. Side by Side at the Dryden, December 16: Keanu Reeves is a surprisingly amiable host (given his typically … umm … stoic acting performances) as he interviews the titans of modern cinema to discuss the recent birth of digital filmmaking, its incredibly rapid adoption, and how it compares to film filmmaking. I was personally saddened that film has been ousted by the most advanced digital cameras today since they are capable of more dynamic range and resolution than any chemical film (even though digital projection is still lacking in that same digital range.) (And, oddly, even though the film was a special 35mm transfer made specifically for exhibition at the George Eastman House, most of the dark areas of the recording were completely obliterated black, lacking any shadow-detail that film could very well have provided.) But I lament the (largely) collective ignorance of "what is lost"—a common issue I have when new ideas oust old. For film specifically, it is the fact that film has proven itself a worthy archival candidate whereas there continues to be no way to archive digital data. Even the first films ever made have usable visual data today after 120 years or more with a carefully-controlled environment extending that by many more decades, but digital recordings made on now-outdated technology are lost after as short as 10 years (e.g. DV tape). And worse, the only way to retain digital data is with regularly-operated and regularly-replaced hard drives, making for an expensive, labor-intensive process that depends on continuous plentiful funding of such an archive—a very necessary feature that has proven to be impossible in the long-term.
  4. The Searchers at the Dryden, December 17: I returned to the Dryden for a taste of Western's roots with one of the best-known and highly-rated such films in history. Like the much more recent Homesman earlier this month, I was struck by the beauty of the vistas and the interesting story. But I was also shocked by the presumption that Native Americans were the brutal enemy. The whole idea that the white man went into a populated country, overran the existing economy, trampled the ecosystem, slaughtered the people who lived there, and then had the stunning audacity to consider the brutal retaliation "wrong" is preposterous to me. In the end I found it quite hard to separate myself from that mindset and just enjoy the damn movie.
  5. The 78 Movie Project at the Little, December 19: As an aficionado of 78s, Jenn encouraged me to go see this documentary of a project to recording artists around the country using an antique record cutting machine. As a documentary it's not that great—lacking in a lot of areas including sound quality (at least at the beginning few artists). But the subject is interesting on a number of levels. First, it was fascinating to see the surprised reactions of musicians listen to the freshly-cut recording, even though they had presumably been recorded before and heard their own voices immediately … there was something apparently quite special about this device. Second, the interludes at the Library of Congress' collection of prior incarnations of this project were fascinating, if a little disappointing in the lack of any playback. And third, the idea of recording sound for the longest-term storage (much like I said about film in Side by Side, above) is best done with records.
  6. Big Eyes at the Little, December 27: Having both been aware of the "big-eyed" pictures of children painted in the 1960's and 1970's, Jenn and I were curious to see this fictionalized account of the lives of the artist Margaret Keane and her husband Walter Keane. And although we were also interested in Tim Burton's take on it (along with music by his long-time collaborator Danny Elfman), I was somewhat relieved that it was not a typical Burton & Elfman partnership but a traditional narrative with a straightforward plot and characterization. The story goes that Margaret met Walter after she had established her "big-eyed child" style, they married and he took credit for her work after which the paintings skyrocketed in popularity. She eventually left him and abandoned the charade, winning a court case to prove herself the rightful artist. The movie does little more than tell this story, and since it's basically a 1960's gregarious white male versus a 1960's desperate and reserved single mother, the emotional notes are pretty narrow in range and what you expect. Despite this, somehow the movie works, though, if in its own subdued way. One thing I thought I noticed that I imagine nobody else did was the way the digital effects—to make outdoor scenes look like the 1960s—were a little off and kind of intrusive. Faraway scenes of San Francisco looked to have some digital jittery edges, scenes on the open road (presumably to remove cell towers and add old-style telephone poles) made the road look sort-of flat and animated, and the teal 1950's car (a Mercury Montclair, maybe?) sometimes looked like its color was out-of-gamut—an unnatural teal that would have been impossible for the camera to capture (but that a computer could generate).
  7. Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown) at the Dryden, December 30: Jenn was especially interested in this Pedro Almodóvar film from 1988 and I was merely curious about it. It's about … well, it's a tangled tale of a woman whose boyfriend is leaving her and she is subletting their apartment, coincidentally, to his son (played by a young Antonio Banderas) and his son's fiancée; meanwhile her friend thinks the police are after her because she met some terrorists, and the lot of them end up in the apartment. I couldn't tell if there were aspirations for the film to be a social or political commentary—perhaps from my lack of knowledge of Spain and 1988 Spain—but the film is engaging and entertaining for certain.
  8. Gone Girl at the Cinema, December 31: Having seen the second feature (St. Vincent) already, Jenn and I spent our New Year's Eve at the South Wedge Diner and with this film. It's ostensibly about a woman who goes missing and her husband trying to figure out what happened, but it delves into a much more complex story and a commentary on the sensationalist media's portrayal of people in crisis. It's definitely a good thriller—if not a great one—although I do want to check out Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl: a novel to fill in the details that seemed to be missing from the film.

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