Movies in March, 2015

  1. 20,000 Days on Earth at the Dryden, March 4: Jenn and I caught this quasi-documentary. It's a fascinating film that ostensibly documents a "day in the life" of musician Nick Cave. However, it is fiction-within-a-fiction in that it actually documents Nick Cave's public persona, and as such is a fake documentary. Regardless, it's a unique and wonderful method of storytelling.
  2. A Year Along the Abandoned Road at the Dryden, March 5: I was thrilled to get to this first of two short films. This one is an unbelievable time-lapse film shot in motion along a road in a Norwegian lakeside village. It must have been a strange and unique experience to shoot—apparently taking one image each day, moving the camera a few inches, then waiting to take the next image the next day, and repeating for a whole year. It's an eerie and beautiful experience to watch, making one feel like an otherworldly being floating through the world unseen.
  3. An Injury to One at the Dryden, March 5: The title is taken from the Union phrase, "an injury to one is an injury to all", and the film documents the relationship of business and labor in the mining town of Butte, Montana in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It's a haunting and evocative film that highlights the philosophy that winners write history. In this case, the winners were the lucrative mining companies; the biggest loser being International Workers of the World (IWW) organizer Frank Little who was murdered by mining company goons parties unknown.
  4. Whiplash at the Little, March 7: Jenn, Chris, and I went to see this together, although I was leaning toward another movie. The first thing I noticed was the dark and muddy digital recording—in attempting to capture the early morning of New York like an homage to Taxi Driver, it only succeeds in making itself look like a 1970's horror movie with inky blacks and dingy colors. Fortunately, I got over that. The movie moves along well and pits two passionate characters against one another: one a driven, aspiring drummer, and the other a abusive music professor obsessed with perfection in his collegiate ensemble. I assure this is no spoiler: the moment of divining greatness is not something that can be found through calculation, but rather through passionate happenstance.
  5. The Gang's All Here at the Dryden, March 16: I went to the Senior Matinee today … I guess to feel even younger than at an average Dryden screening. I guess set in mid-war America, it makes sense, but otherwise it's about a reprehensible man who stalks and rapes a dancer (née "uses his soldier's bravado to win the heart of a dancer"), all the while stringing along his soon-to-be fiancée. Fortunately it works out in the end because the girlfriend knew all along it was just a relationship based on familial ties just like the rapist believes, and the dancer loves the rapist, so it wasn't rape after all! Howeverrr … it is worth seeing two rather unbelievable Carmen Miranda-centered Busby Berkeley dance numbers that push the boundaries of cinema and clearly pushed the limits of Technicolor filming (just watch those giant cameras shake as they are rapidly hoisted into the air—yikes!)
  6. Cotton Road at the Little, March 21?: Jenn and I caught just one of the films at the Greentopia Film Festival this year. It's the story of how cotton is grown in South Carolina, shipped all over the world (particularly China) where it is made into fabric and clothing, then shipped back to South Carolina. Notable to me was how the manual laborers—the American cotton farmers and the Chinese clothing makers—existed in insufferable conditions while each step removed lived in more comfort: the American industrial cotton gin, the refined cotton warehouses, and the Chinese warehouses for fabrics faring better; the shipping companies in both nations and the American retailers faring best of all. Jenn and I both found the music to be cloying and melancholic (revealing the only evidence of the filmmaker's bias), but many other people liked it. While the Rochester audience lobbed lackluster questions at director Laura Kissel, she revealed at one point that the hardest place to film was not in China but in American retail stores. One final note: the Greentopia Film Festival asked us to fill out a survey online for a chance to win an Apple iPad—without a lick of irony—despite the widespread knowledge that Apple's products are made in Chinese factories with working conditions as bad or worse than depicted in the film.
  7. What We Do in the Shadows at the Little, March 22: Jenn and I went to this hilarious mockumentary about a group of vampires living in New Zealand in modern times. I didn't know exactly what to expect, but I was pleased that I found it extremely funny. Perhaps it was from bottling up all my criticisms after my recent indoctrination into the Cult of Buffy, but the juxtaposition humor was plentiful.
  8. The Red Shoes at the Dryden, March 27: Jenn and I went to this Technicolor classic featuring the revered camerawork of Jack Cardiff—which was, sadly, projected from a restored 35mm print that itself did not use the Technicolor 3-layer process. It's that 3-layer process with its imperfect color registration and the impossibility of perfect focus (since each color is a different distance from the lens) that gives it its nearly imperceptible shimmer whereas the modern color emulsion made from digitally-scanned 3-strip negatives has perfect registration and a single focal plane that affords razor-sharp perfection, as undesirable as it is in this particular case. Anyway, the movie itself is quite good: music student Julian and ballerina Victoria join a ballet troupe with a hard-nosed director (making the later Whiplash comparable in subject-matter). As both rise to stardom, the latest production is The Red Shoes, based on the Hans Christian Andersen story in which a dancer wishes for red shoes which happen to be cursed and she can't stop dancing until she finally dies. Both get intertwined in one another as they are central to the ballet.
  9. Relatos Salvajes (Wild Tales) at the Little, March 29: Jenn was excited to see this after seeing the name Agustín Almodóvar, thinking he directed it, but it was actually Damián Szifrón and Almodóvar produced it. It's a series of 6 short stories of vengeance. And as is the case with successfully-executed vengeance: it's always and already gone wrong. The tales are told as black comedy and largely succeed … I thought the more-petty violations made for funnier stories. In the end, it all felt kind of repetitive, and I was reminded how much I liked the similarly revenge-themed black-comedy, God Bless America, which I wrote about.
  10. OnFilm Shorts by Karpo Godina and Davorin Marc at the University of Rochester Hoyt Auditorium, March 30: I go to see this fantastic program—check out the blog post for the complete review.

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A Fistful of Movie Moments

Bumbling around the various movie blogs I read regularly, I found A Fistful of Moments Blogathon! on A Fistful of Films blog (which I just started reading). The gist is this:

We all have them in the back of our minds; those moments that make us think "man, this is what the movies are all about". We relive those moments in our mind's eye, remembering them and dissecting them and adoring them. They come in all shapes and sizes, from all types of films, and yet they all share one very important aspect; they define why we love the movies. It could be the way that the moment is cut; the way it's edited together. It could be the way the moment uses it's actors to evoke a powerful emotion from us. It could be the way that music floods the scene and draws us even closer to the moment in question. It could be a grand climax, a breathtaking introduction or a simple interchange. It could be any and all things, because for every film lover, the list is different.

At first I thought I'd start by skipping the most famous, obvious examples—the opening of Citizen Kane, for instance—but then I found so many well-received movies in my own list that I couldn't resist including them. I'm also going to go ahead and mention these scene descriptions almost always contain spoilers—there's just no way around it. I'll vaguely sort them from more subtle to more bold.

So to continue to the spoiler-riddled list, please continue reading.
Continue reading

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OnFilm Shorts by Karpo Godina and Davorin Marc

The University of Rochester OnFilm group organized a screening of short films by Karpo Godina and Davorin Marc. I was very pleased to notice that the group was still vibrant despite having a complete (or nearly complete) change of guard.

Anyway, the Dryden's new film programmer, Jurij Meden, did an excellent job giving context to each of the five six films. Meden originates from Yugoslavia along with Godina, and he spent quite a while studying film in Marc's home country of Slovenia.

First up were two films from Karpo Godina. In the early 1970s he was interested in filming motion from a fixed camera position. His films of this era are fast-paced 8mm films. They screened Gratinirani Mozak Pupilije Ferkeverk (The gratinated brains of Pupilija Ferkeverk, Karpo Godina, Yugoslavia, 1970, 15 mins, Color, 35mm) first—a very odd film in which five people dance around abandoned natural salt evaporation ponds (I guess). (As a side note, I was scribbling notes into my Palm Pilot [Samsung Galaxy Player] but I couldn't transcribe fast enough so all I got was "Graduated brains of… P… Browned brains?" Thankfully, an obscure blog post led me to the complete title posted at The Northwest Film Forum; and that obscure blog has the translated title cards and scenes from this film.) Anyway, Meden said—I'm fairly certain this is the gist of his wild anecdote—the filmmaker and theater troupe Pupilije Ferkeverk went there and ingested a lot of drugs, filmed for a week, and had no recollection of the events save for the exposed film. It was produced by then-generous funding from the communist state, but was an indictment of the obedience-centric government, ultimately concluding that the only thing to do is to take LSD.

A year later, Godina produced 14441 kvadrat (About the Art of Love or a Film with 14441 Frames, Karpo Godina, Yugoslavia 1972, 11 min., 16mm). This time funded through the military, it was destined to be a propaganda film to glorify the army and military service. Godina was assigned an artificial rank to command a division of troops, alone, in a remote area. He made a rather humorous film centered on a folk song about having the men and women so close but never actually together. The centerpiece is the beautiful rolling hills with scattered soldiers running about in formations (and notably never using a weapon). Godina's recollection was that it was nothing like what they expected, so they destroyed all but one print which he personally smuggled out. However, Meden met with the army a few years back, and an aging officer told him revealed they kept the negatives—"we knew he was a national treasure!"

Davorin Marc was considerably different. He lives in a small fishing village and created over 200 films in his spare time. According to Meden, every single one is a completely different experimental style. Having little contact with the outside world, he thought what he was doing was entirely new and unique although worldwide, others had used similar techniques much earlier. First up was Ugrizni me. Ze enkrat (Bite Me. Once Already, Davorin Marc, Yugoslavia, 1978/80, 1:35 mins, Silent, Color, Super 8mm). It is a cameraless film where Marc bit the 8mm film stock. His unique biological imprint flutters by on the screen and it's actually quite fascinating.

Next was Ej klanje (Slaughter Ahoy, Davorin Marc, Yugoslavia, 1981, 16 mins @ 18 fps, Silent with separate sound on CD, Color, Super 8mm). In this, he uses several fixed-camera shots to show the slaughter (perhaps) and butchering of an animal (a pig, I surmised) as well as his own soundtrack. We watched the sole original copy which starts showing only the boots of a few people at the legs of a small table—the blood-slicked ground reveals ghostly reflections of people working at the table. A second shot reveals the splitting of the animal's head with a hatchet to retrieve its tongue and brain.

The official final film was Paura in città (1181 dni pozneje ali vonj po podganah) (Fear In The City (1181 Days Later or Smell of Rats), Davorin Marc, Yugoslavia, 1984, 21 mins, Color, Super 8mm transferred to 35mm). (I had managed to transcribe Parada on città? Fear of rats? which was enough to stumble on another Northwest Film Forum post.) It's split into two parts: the first being a sort-of "video diary" and the second a sort of "found footage." Both are filmed with a quick succession between starts and stops (presumably by the remote control you can see Marc holding in some shots) which gives the whole thing a fantastic frenetic pace with its quasi-timelapse technique, enhanced by Marc's staccato soundtrack. And since there was no footage to be found, Marc resorted to filming the television, sometimes adding motion to the quasi-timelapse technique. This was a 35mm restoration from the 8mm originals and it looked fantastic.

The unofficial final film was one Marc gave Meden recently. If I remember correctly, while "Fear In The City" was being restored, they sent samples of the 35mm stock to Marc to review. Marc sliced the film into strips the same width as 8mm film, creating Perf form me for Meden. As he noted, the projector will likely add sprocket holes and the film will be destroyed while playing, perhaps destroying the projector as well. As such, it was screened on a "less valuable" projector and the film just moved slowly through the projector, melting as it went through, and we never did arrive at a scene containing any images.

Interestingly, the American promise was always that filmmakers should leave their communist countries so they could make films without censorship. But as often happened, those who took the offer found there were no public funds like there were under communism so—just as both filmmakers more or less stopped in about 1991 when communism fell—immigrants also could not afford to make such artistic works. The heyday of the 1960s Black Wave political films followed by the Pink Wave of the early 1970s when the government changed were both generously state-funded.

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Movies in February, 2015

  1. The Babadook at the Little, February 4: While it's not my usual style, I was inspired by the positive review by charming (and apparently relatively private—what is this guy's name?) YouTuber Horrible Reviews. It's a film about a woman, Amelia, and her son Samuel—he was born the night his father was killed in a car accident. Clearly this thoroughly disturbed Amelia, and her sudden role as a single mother didn't allow her to take necessary time-off to properly mourn, so those feelings festered within her psyche. As such, she's generally quite unhinged throughout the film and only manages to muster glimmers of normalcy. The Babadook begins in the form of a children's book that horrifies Samuel. The first half of the film is quite tense and terrifying, but the gradual physical and supernatural appearance of the Babadook character tends to seem unbelievable, and as such, tends to spoil the tension. Worst, though, is the incredibly absurd resolution. In the end, the Horrible Reviews' review mirrored my own experience pretty much perfectly—although he favors horror, I was finding the things he liked and disliked about movies seemed agreeable to me, and this first test of that impression appears to confirm that belief.
  2. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night at the Little, February 20: Jenn was excited to see this film once it was described as a "feminist Iranian vampire Western film". It's about a woman who's a vampire trying to keep some semblance of a code-of-ethics for herself. After a little post-film discussion, I guess I could call it a "feminist Iranian vampire Western film," but only if I must shoe-horn it into categories. But I think a better way to look at it is to take your expectations of a film called "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night"—with all its cautionary-tale baggage of helpless women—and gender-flip it so you have a powerful and complex female vampire who preys upon weak-willed men until she's surprised to find herself attracted to one of them. To me, her hesitant capitulation to that situation (and her overall resigned demeanor) seemed to show a deep understanding of the likely outcome from a long-line of past experiences that belie her youthful appearance. It's a very-well made film all around—directing, plot, acting, cinematography, sound-design, and music are all excellent. And I guess it's about a group of people who are, for the most part neither saints nor sinners, but who tend to boldly live on the sinner side of the line. And of them all, the vampire almost seems the most saintly. (And one final note: the Little's projection marred the film with terrible judder, so boo to the Little and boo to digital.)
  3. Red Hollywood at the Dryden, February 21: Having heard of Senator Joseph McCarthy's state-sponsored murders in the 1950's, I was curious to hear the "other" side. Basically this is Thom Andersen's essay highlighting the horrors and failures of the push to rid America of members of the Communist Party. It is a dense and thick film, and I was lacking two important pieces of information: what exactly is communism in that era—and in terms of "members of the Communist Party"—and how did the example film clips act as subversive messages. As such, I spent much of the film trying to articulate my questions, and then to answer them. For instance, I thought "helping people when they were out-of-luck" was a genuinely good trait, so to see it framed as communist propaganda was thoroughly puzzling. Nonetheless, I guess it ended up making me pretty sad as—my beliefs aside—it is well-known that the fleecing of the worker for the benefit of the business owner is celebrated dogma in America, and more prevalent than ever.
  4. Wild at the Cinema, February 28: Sneaking a double-feature in before the wire, there were these two films I thought looked interesting. I heard mixed but overall good things about Wild, but I was immediately put off. As soon as it started, I came up with this synopsis: "a moron tries to walk the Pacific Crest Trail." We're introduced to Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon) who shows up to a hotel with a giant backpack and begins to prepare for a 1,100 mile journey. I'm admittedly an extreme planner, so when I see someone attempt something new without so much as asking a single human being for advice, or consulting a book, I'm already not with them. Thankfully, the PCT in the film is the easiest hike in the world. We're told through flashback that despite having the most caring mother in the world (Laura Dern as Bobbi), she was blindsided by some terrible personal events. So this journey is one of personal discovery that, by sheer luck, does not end in the death of the main character. Now to be frank, this is not a terrible movie, it's just that it's, well, mediocre. And since it's supposed to be realistic, the non-realistic moments are glaring. Like how can a Minnesotan not know how to deal with snow?, how are lodges along the way full of people despite an absolutely desolate trail?, or why would a trail guide fail to mention the lack of water up ahead? If you can get into the personal story and don't tend to worry about realism in a realistic movie, then yeah, this would be a very good film for you. I'm betting the book is better.
  5. Cake at the Cinema, February 28: I'm like, "okay, Jennifer Aniston as Claire, a woman in a chronic-pain support group who becomes obsessed with the suicide of a fellow member … yeah, I can get into that". Only again, the non-realisim in the realistic movie gets to me right away. Claire has some unspecified chronic pain, but it's so unspecified that the pain apparently shifts around so she can only lay down when in a car, but can easily sit for in chairs just fine, and she aches and groans in bed, but can get out of bed with only the apparent achiness of an average 45-year-old. And, like Wild, this is a personal journey story, but I will say this and spoil the movie a little: she doesn't go from a quasi-crippled curmudgeon to a happy, healthy hero, so there's that bit of realism. She does grow a bit … I guess … but it's so slow and subtle that I wonder if I wasn't simply mistaken.

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Movies in Janaury, 2015

  1. Horrible Bosses 2 at the Cinema, January 3: Jenn and I headed out to see the double feature at the Cinema although we weren't too sure about this film. I had very very low expectations and it thankfully exceeded those expectations—funny but not amazingly funny. It's about three guys who invent a silly device, and when they can't be bosses themselves, they resort to crime. One of my rules about mediocre movies is to skip the first half-hour or so which generally just contains the character introductions. In this case, skipping the entire first movie was fruitful in that respect and let us figure out who the players were and what their motivations are (not that it was anything but very very obvious.) In fairness, the writing is exceedingly clever with a lot of silly jokes, but none that are really really big. In fact, I laughed hardest at the last out-take over the credits where Jason Bateman and Jason Sudeikis share a scene and Bateman says, "it smells like dog shit in here" and Sudeikis plainly replies, "maybe it's your acting" followed by a one-second pause before both actors start laughing.
  2. Art and Craft at the Cinema, January 3: I had much higher expectations for this positively-reviewed documentary about an art forger. As documentaries go, I think it was quite a success … if a little rough around the edges. It's about Mark Landis who To has been copying art for decades, but set his sights on "philanthropy" and began donating forgeries to art museums. His undoing was curator Matthew Leininger who became obsessed with outing Landis' fraud to all other art museums. Landis is a frail, soft-spoken Mississippian whose mental health is not so hot, particularly after the recent loss of his beloved mother. If the documentary is to be believed, he would be a shut-in if not for his visits to a mental hospital and his escapades to art museums. Leininger, meanwhile, seemed more like a police officer than an art curator (again if the documentary is to be believed) with his matter-of-fact demeanor and the pride he takes in his daughter's ability to identify images of Landis. His pursuit of Landis was a catalyst for him losing is curatorial job, leading him to take on the task as a hobby while being a stay-at-home dad. I say it's a successful documentary because it lets us say, "how strange" (to both principals) without mockery or hostility, and it honestly asks, "what's the problem, exactly?" in an equally neutral way.
  3. To Have and Have Not at the Dryden, January 6: Jenn and I went out to see this earliest of pairings between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Indeed, the relationship that builds between them is easily believable—even though their snarky dialog could so easily have derailed the whole thing with anything but this perfect pairing of actors. The film is about an expatriated American boat captain (Bogart) in Martinique during World War II who tries to make a living in uncertain times. He meets a young American (Bacall) trying to make her way back to the States. It's a suspenseful and interesting tale well worth checking out.
  4. Don't Look Now at the Dryden, January 10: I asked Jenn what Donald Sutherland is doing now and laughed since I've not been privy to his role in the Hunger Games. (Julie Christie, meanwhile seems to have kept steadily busy with 52 titles over the past 57 years.) Anyway, the film is an adeptly stylized supernatural thriller about a couple reeling from the death of their daughter. I was really quite impressed by all elements of it. The story is excellent, and the way it is presented as film is as perfect as I could imagine: the relationship seems strained but loving (the sex scene is astonishingly believable in spite of the now-cheesy music), the supernatural elements are as otherworldly as they are explainable, and the final chapter of the film is pitch-perfect disorienting.
  5. The Interview at the Cinema, January 12: I didn't have much of any interest in seeing this, and my expectations were fairly low. It's a comedy about an assassination attempt on Kim Jong Un, but it doesn't take either facet serious enough. Too much of the comedy is lazy writing, like how the film can't seem to come out and say that James Franco's Dave Skylark is bisexual, so he's gay when that would make for a lazy gay joke and he's straight when that would make for a lazy straight joke. And the mechanics of the assassination attempt are moronic. A better writer would make both a cunning comedy and a clever caper. Instead, it's a comedy ruined by a muddled caper and a caper ruined by forced comedy. A superior film is Ishtar (really: despite its continuity and editing issues, it's both funnier and caperier.)
  6. Dear White People at the Cinema, January 12: This second part of the double-feature was what I was hoping to see, and my expectations were much higher. Alas, while The Interview barely exceeded my moderately low expectations, Dear White People failed to meet my moderately high expectations. My biggest complaint is that the central promise of the movie—that of a witty radio show called "Dear White People"—failed to materialize. There was nothing more than the few lines presented in the trailer, so I never got the impression it was anything of a "show" as much as some pithy remarks between songs, yet it is a lightning rod for white backlash. I mean, come on … I can rattle off a few more kernels off the cuff (e.g. "Dear white people, why do you feel the need to 'come out' to realizing you are talking with a black person halfway through a conversation", "DWP, apologizing for a racist's behavior implicates you as a racist," "DWP, there is no moment in your daily life that is 'just like' my experience") Second, it borrows heavily from the Spike Lee school of characterizations (in which every character has one dominant personality trait that drives jeir behavior) but misses the mark because the mix of characters is unbalanced and incomplete. OK, I spent some time complaining, but I did, for the most part, enjoy the film. I thought all the characters were reasonable, realistic, and charismatic. The story is plausible and full of realistic examples of modern relations between blacks and whites. And, between the lines, it pointed out a fascinating idea: for most college students this is the first taste of independence they have seen, so their behavior exposes their upbringing—especially in their first year or two. It reminded me of the changes I went through, learning the error of my intolerance in a number of ways. But then when I visited some students 10 years later, I discovered their prejudices were exactly like mine were. And now this film, 10 years after that, reveal that those same prejudices are alive and well. It all made me kind of sad.
  7. Stella Dallas at the Dryden, January 15: Jenn and I headed out to see this great picture with another knockout performance by the great Barbara Stanwyck. Stanwyck plays Stella, the daughter of a working family in 1919. She wishes to mingle among the rich and famous, and wrangles her way there through Stephen Dallas. Unfortunately, her working-class roots are unforgivingly obvious, but Stanwyck draws out empathy for her pathetic, sad-sack character.
  8. Top Five at the Cinema, January 17: Jenn and I skipped a second viewing of Big Eyes and showed up for this Chris Rock film. It was, well, okay. It appears to be a semi-autobiographical account of the life of Chris Rock in the form of comedic film star Andre Allen, played by Rock. Allen is about to release his personal project film—a fictionalized account of the 18th century Haitian Revolution—but all eyes are on his reality-TV marriage to Erica Long (Gabrielle Union) and whether he'll do another "Hammy" movie (Allen's comedic, sass-talking cop-in-a-bear-suit). The plot is lazily driven by an ongoing interview with New York Times writer Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) and the relationship that builds between Allen and Brown. Unfortunately, it's not particularly funny nor is it particularly interesting, although I must admit that a lot of the references are lost on me—the "Top Five", for instance, is a list of favorite rappers as both a kind of point-of-comparison and test of knowledge, yet my knowledge of rappers is only a tiny fraction of my practically nonexistent knowledge of pop culture, so I felt a little left out. And although I knew all three, I barely recognized cameos of Whoopi Goldberg, Adam Sandler, and Jerry Seinfeld as they all appeared considerably aged (although I swear I saw comic Bobby Slater as the bouncer to a small New York comedy club where Allen visits.) But its unfunnyness may also stem from lackluster homosexuality jokes and a healthy dose of misogyny (sparing only Dawson's writer, Brown). Thankfully for all its faults, I'd still go to the next Chris Rock film.
  9. Designing Woman at the Dryden, January 20: Jenn, Mo, and I went to see this Cary Grant / Lauren Bacall comedy about a couple who get married but realize they have virtually nothing in common. I had high hopes for a screwball comedy, but it was much more subdued and realistic, so I was disappointed to only chuckle quite a few times. The chemistry is pretty good between the two leads, but the story was a bit rambling at times. The climactic brawl was quite hilarious, though.
  10. The Imitation Game at the Little, January 29: I was already aware of Alan Turing (from that pesky degree in Computer Science) and I had heard of his code-breaking contributions in World War II through a Numberphile video blog with Dr. James Grimes (my top boy-crush with his adorable smile and mild British lisp) titled 158,962,555,217,826,360,000, the number of combinations of rotors and plugs possible in Germany's Enigma machine. I'll omit the history lesson—however fascinating—and just say that the movie was quite good although I think it was a little to simplistic when it tied early childhood events to Turing's later life. To give away the ending title card, Turing (and the other 9,000 or so people—in reality—who did the code-breaking) was estimated by historians to shorten World War II by about 2 years and saved over 13,000,000 lives, but instead of being celebrated as the world's greatest peace hero—more spoilers ahead—the full breadth of his contributions were classified until the mid-1990's and he committed suicide in 1954 after serving part of a sentence of "chemical castration"—a psychologically-devastating oestrogen treatment—for the crime of "gross indecency"—1950's British speak for "being a homosexual". I'm sure his 42-year-old corpse was relieved that Queen Elizabeth II granted him a posthumous pardon in 2013.

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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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Movies in November, 2014

  1. The Phantom of the Opera in Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre on November 1: Jenn and I went to see this presentation with live accompaniment by the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. During the introduction, guest conductor Donald Hunsberger mentioned that the Kodak Hall theater was originally designed to project movies, and that the cheapest seats were 20¢ (which, according to this US Inflation Calculator is $2.72 in 2014 dollars—a far cry from the $25 cheap seats at tonight's performance, and even farther from the more expensive ones we bought). Also, rather than projecting the film from film, it was a digital projection with a lot of issues (the numerous digital compression artifacts were probably due to a cheap DVD, but the lack of image contrast was as much the fault of the projection as it was the orchestral lighting.) The only thing that was exemplary was the music, although, admittedly, I've been spoiled by the overarching perfectionism demonstrated at  Eastman School of Music student performances. Anyway, the film was still quite good and disturbing.
  2. The Skeleton Twins at the Cinema on November 4: Ever since I saw the trailer at the Little, I had a lukewarm interest in seeing this. Jenn and I finally got to go and it was generally quite good. There's a lot of humor and camaraderie interspersed with incredibly dark imagery. Brother and sister Maggie and Milo, estranged for ten years, are reunited as both their lives are not going as well as they had hoped. Plagued with depression and thoughts of suicide, the two do their best to reconnect. For those who have seen it, I argue that the ending is false since it's so inconceivable, but Jenn felt it was true—and depending on who you believe, it really changes the film.
  3. Guardians of the Galaxy at the Cinema on November 8: Jenn and I caught the matinee and, well, it's a good, entertaining film. I'm having a hard time with recent audience reaction sending it into many "top-100 films of all time" as it's not really "better" than, say, Taxi Driver. Sure it's competently made, rather amusing, and no more unbelievable than any other comic-book film, but it's not that good. The basic plot is that a modern-day human becomes a space pirate and teams up with an unlikely group to stop a Big Bad.
  4. Rebecca at the Dryden on November 8: Jenn and I went to see this film by Alfred Hitchcock in his American debut. I was suitably impressed—it's a tense, cruel story of a woman who marries an older widower only to live in the shadow of his former wife.
  5. St. Vincent at the Little on November 9: Knowing only that Bill Murray plays the lead, I headed to this with Jenn to finish up our trifecta of local movie houses for the weekend. The story is warm and engaging and Murray does a fine job as an aged curmudgeon shut-in who's coerced to take care of a young boy next door. I was a bit annoyed at the unrealistic cinematic construct that the boy was consistently perfect, spouting pithy wisdom beyond his years and never acting like a child. Although I was impressed that the script called for Vincent to only be a more-or-less average guy to earn his premortem canonization.
  6. Sorcerer at the Dryden on November 22: I was curious about this film solely for the dramatic poster shot, and thankfully not distracted by the digital projection (except the very first scene—of all things). The film is based on the book The Wages of Fear which is the source material for Henri-Georges Clouzot's Le salaire de la peur (The Wages of Fear) from 1953. Anyway, it's about a group of expatriates from various countries who, desperate for a way out of their inhospitable work conditions, take on the task of transporting unstable explosives through rough terrain. While the dehumanizing nature of capitalism is used only as a setup, the actual journey is incredibly tense. And indeed the dramatic poster shot is the pinnacle of tension and certainly worth seeing.

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Most Thankful

I saw an incredible sunset yesterday, occurring as the weather was changing and the low clouds were clearing far to the west, allowing the sun to accent the dark gray with bright orange.

I've heard songs that moved me and continue to stir emotions even on hearing recordings many times over. I have wonderful friends whom I care about and who care about me. I have food and shelter better than what kings had 300 years ago. I live in a world where clean water runs from taps on demand. Reliably. Every single day.

But I also live in a world where one man can kill another and be exempt from facing a jury of his peers. A world where many many people live without the shelter and food, security and friendship that I often take for granted. Where the richest people extort the poorest. Where we are changing the world's climate for the worse and, collectively, ignoring it. And we are poisoning our water supplies so we can have more fuel to burn.

I watched it grow this way. Coming of age in the late 1980's, I embraced the flashy world of limitless riches. I foolishly thought Jimmy Carter and his ilk were fools for being such a failure in the face of the anti-environment, pro-business world of Ronald Reagan. As I grew I knew something was amiss, but I did like everyone else did: I had a good job. I drove to work each day. I bought lots of stuff.

But now it's really starting to look bleak—the end of the party is at hand. We have tremendous social inertia to continue to get high-paying jobs, drive to work each day, and buy lots of stuff. But all that excess is from checks cashed from the Earth. As climate change wreaks havoc on our crops, the last survivors will surely be the genetically modified purebreds of the giant corporations. And when they fail, there won't be enough seeds of adaptable varieties remaining to save us. And as we continue to drill wells that pollute the huge aquifers and lakes we get our drinking water from, again it will be the giant corporations surviving last—selling water at prices that would make an oil-baron blush. But when they fail, there won't be any way to get clean water.

"But technology will save us!" Yeah … up to a point.

We'll make electric cars that let us keep the exact same standard of living—but at all new expenses of obtaining elements like lithium through mountaintop mining … perhaps we can grind down Everest. And we'll keep making more and more that will keep the economy chugging along full-throttle ensuring more money and more jobs (well, more money at least, as technology makes more workers obsolete and the money flows into fewer and fewer hands.)

But making food out of nothing?: can't be done. Clean water from dirty water?: very expensive and very energy-intensive (only exacerbating the problem.)

The wisest, smartest people have spoken, and the message is: stop. Stop using more energy. Stop making more stuff. Stop driving everywhere. Stop flying everywhere. Stop polluting water. Stop polluting the air.

But that message isn't as alluring as a flashy world of limitless riches. So this is the start of a very long, very dark time—for humankind, especially.

Fortunately for me, I never wanted children of my own. In 2008 I had a vasectomy and made that decision permanent. I consider myself lucky that I will never have to watch as my children suffer an awful world.

I am so thankful.

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Movies in October 2014

So here's the movies I watched in October:

  1. The Dog at the Little, October 11: This was the first of two movies I was able to see at this year's ImageOut Film Festival. It's a documentary about John Wojtowicz who became famous for robbing a bank to pay for his lover's sex-change operation in 1975—the basis for the film Dog Day Afternoon. Wojtowicz was an affable and funny guy, although with a fierce and gender-ambivalent sex drive. I tend to believe what he says as true (embellishments aside), and through that I learned he was quite the ally of the gay movement in the 1970's. It's a documentary deserving of a look.
  2. A Trip to Italy at the Cinema, October 16: Jenn and I caught this just before it closed at the Cinema. I didn't have high expectations as I had heard it described as "Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon have fancy meals in Italy together." Their chemistry and apparent improvisation that begins the film lulled me in to believing it as an ostensibly true document (although, to be completely honest, I was a bit surprised by some fancy camera work while they were driving.) But as the plot thickens, so-to-speak, a heartfelt pathos is revealed and it becomes a bit of a document of "playboys past their prime". I found it especially poignant as they observed some pretty young women and one quips that "now they just look through us […] we are no longer a threat"—I had observed how I can become a ghost at bars these days, floating through without being so much as looked at.
  3. The Drop at the Cinema, October 11: We both stayed for the second feature about a bartender lured in to the illegal side of the bar where he works. Given the fluidity and chemistry displayed in A Trip to Italy, the wordsmithy script was readily apparent. The barely likeable Bob was matched to even less likeable characters. I found myself way too ahead of the film, or at least clued-in to the key points long before they were revealed as a surprise. Contrived situations aside, the wordsmithiness makes for a perfectly acceptable story and an interesting movie to watch. It just has its weaknesses. Jenn had further noticed that Tom Hardy played Bob and Coogan and Brydon relentlessly and hilariously mocked Hardy's mumbling speaking style.
  4. Appropriate Behavior at the Little, October 17: Jenn and I went to the other ImageOut Film Festival film festival tonight. It's the tale of falling in and out of love too fast and maintains a cunning and funny wit all throughout. Our only complaint is that the lead character Shirin's love interest Maxine seemed kind of cruel and unlikeable, so it was hard to believe in any severity to the breakup, and although real love is strange, movie love needs to be believable.
  5. Little Accidents at the Little, October 25: Jenn and I went to see this as part of the High Falls Film Festival. It's about the people in a mining town where one man survives a major mining accident. Jenn thought it was quite good but I found it contrived. It was as if I could feel the writer's backspace key: "… his younger brother saw [backspace][backspace][backspace] who had Down's syndrome saw …" (at least the actor really did have Down's, so kudos to that.) Unlikely people pair up solely because it's convenient to the plot. The pedant in me had some fits as well, like when talking to the police about a child gone missing, the mother doesn't bother mentioning a substantial event until she's about to leave, again solely for the sake of the writing but wholly incongruous with reality.
  6. The Shining in Hoyt Auditorium on the UofR Campus, October 31: Despite an astonishingly bad digital projection (did Kubrick really intend for a lot of saturated fuchsia, muddy contrast, and a clunky judder on every panning shot?), this film sure stands the test of time. It's about a couple with a young boy who act as caretakers of a huge, desolate resort through the winter. Most people already know the basic plot, but I'm giving the benefit of the doubt since this is the first time I ever saw it—despite being quite a film buff. I was stunned at how gripping the tension was, and how amazing all the performances were. And despite the lousy projection and sound (making it seem like the videotape of a community theater production), the story was thoroughly disturbing. I also appreciated the brilliant methodical pacing which was spot-on perfect—a lesser film would have seemed draining and insufferably long by comparison.

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Approximately Ten Movies: August 2014 to October 2014

So here's the last 11 movies I watched …

  1. A Most Wanted Man at the Little, August 3: Jenn and I went to see this last film starring Philip Seymour Hoffman. I found it fascinating how, despite Hoffman's central character, the social and political views of all parties involved was respectfully maintained. It's basically the story of a man who methodically hunts down terrorists. And, of course, the bleakly lonely existence he has because of it.
  2. 25th Hour at the Dryden, August 6: Neither Jenn nor I had so much as heard of this film by Spike Lee. Per the introduction, it's because it was released about a year after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001—and (unlike other films of that era) the World Trade Center site is centrally and prominently displayed. Jenn didn't like it as much as I did right away, and I'm finding I like the film more after I let it sit. In some ways it felt like a cobbled-together plot, but in retrospect, it really did exude raw emotion. It's about a man's last days before beginning a long prison sentence, so it's understandably a mishmash of dissonant emotions. Plus, with 9/11 as a lightning rod, it's kind of about the raw emotion felt in those years shortly after the attacks. And in the end, I theorize that it kind of gives a big hug to all that is the positives and negatives of New York City—kind of Spike Lee's answer to Woody Allen's Manhattan.
  3. Oldeuboi (Oldboy) at the Dryden, August 8: I had heard about this film for a while and finally got a chance to see it. The plot is relatively simple: a drunk is imprisoned for no apparent reason, only to be released 15 years later with equally no reason, giving him the fuel for an undying wish for vengeance. It's a violent and bizarre film about trust and perception. Overall I think it's quite excellent, if equally disturbing.
  4. Ivory Tower at the Little, August 12: I was curious about this film about how the cost of college has inordinately increased since about 1978. Although it seems to paint a complete picture of college—visiting everything from Harvard to the tiny Deep Springs all-male college in California—it misses two huge points. First is that the mantra of the film—whether college is any longer a "good investment" in dollar-terms—is solely the work of Reagan-era free-market capitalism since that was the watershed moment when everything began to have a dollar value, including former-intangibles like a good education. While it does make a hint at the influence of Reagan (who considered education a "private improvement" which therefore should not be provided through public funds) it fails to address the sweeping changes to socioeconomic conditions ushered in by that administration. The second, and more egregious, is that it never looks outside the United States for guidance or suggestions. Rather, it essentially concludes that nothing can be done. The discussion group was extraordinarily not insightful, consisting of D&C higher-education staff-writer James Goodman (who had apparently never used a microphone before), UofR Assistant Dean of Diversity and Outreach Joe Latimer (who spent most of his time defending UofR's exorbitant spending habits), and a young man named Jerome who is personally struggling with how to pay back over $50,000 in debt working a social-service job (who was as helpful as any of the other audience members.)
  5. The Day the Earth Stood Still at the Dryden, August 14: Jenn and I went to see this classic. Boy what a great film. Despite its 1951 vintage, the effects and alien design don't seem stupid. Plus, the frankness of Klaatu's message—be peaceful … or else—was so brilliantly and realistically played against humanity's resistance to that idea that I can't help but think of this as one of the best movies ever. Perhaps telling of its vintage, though, was the lack of interaction with anybody but white people (which one could contrive as a strength, given the subject matter). But there is also a hilarious interaction of doctors sharing a smoke …
  6. Boyhood at the Little, September 1: Jenn and I went to see this Richard Linklater film that's basically about a boy growing up with his sister through divorced parents, following him as he begins college. The unique aspect is Linklater used the same actors over a 12-year period, so they actually really age. It's such an incredible piece of cinema that I liken it to Jacques Tati's Playtime as a film so perfect that there's really no need to watch any more movies … even though I will.
  7. Surf Nazis Must Die at the Little, September 12: For Strange Disc Records' premiere album, they released the soundtrack of this long-forgotten film—as a record no-less. The film itself is really quite bad. I kept nodding off at the incredibly slow and rambling pace. I can't really say much redeeming about it … well, except the soundtrack which is really good.
  8. David Bowie Is Happening Now at the Little, September 23: Jenn, Sarah, Karen, and I went to see this together. The film is basically a document of a traveling art show with works by David Bowie, collected and created throughout his life. It's also, in a way, a commercial for that show, so it has a bit of a tarnished luster. That said, it's also a rather complete biography of David Bowie and leads the viewer to understand that a superstar like him was born and lived like any of us—except that he ended up exceptional through hard work, an internal drive, and seizing opportunity as it came.
  9. The Zero Theorem at the Little, September 25: Jenn backed out at the last minute, haunted by the specter of a low Rotten Tomatoes rating. Terry Gilliam created this film and, like one could expect from his work, it's about a dystopian future with one man who makes a difference. I don't know … it was okay, I guess. It succeeds in being a more described world that Brazil, but it fails in that more explanation is not what Brazil needed. Knowing what exactly the toil, or how advertising works just makes it look cheesy and fake. Leaving the detail to our imagination really is the only way to go.
  10. Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago at the Dryden, September 27: I went mostly because my friend Jeff Stanin was to speak about his own experience with it. I was surprised that he is now married and took the journey with his soon-to-be wife Elizabeth to determine if the relationship would work. Anyway, the film is about the Camino de Santiago which starts just over the border in France and runs some 800 kilometers (500 miles) to Santiago, then through to the Atlantic Ocean. It originated as a religious pilgrimage—often as penance—but has grown to be a modern challenge. As a documentary, it was pretty good … letting us watch a half-dozen or so people try to make it, interspersed with the stupefyingly beautiful vistas along the way.
  11. This Last Lonely Place at the Little, October 1: Steve Anderson created this low-budget narrative in Los Angeles. He's a former Rochesterarian who came back a few years ago to screen The Big Empty, a film I also liked (although this time we were spared the Curse of the Little and the film ran fine.) Anyway, the film is about a guy who tries to do good but gets mixed up in a complicated caper. I was surprised at one character's motives since I had expectations built up by the film until then, but aside from that, it's a clever story and an interesting film to seek out.

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