Movies in August, 2015 including The Weather Underground, Christo's Valley Curtain, Spy, The Devil-Doll, and The End of the Tour

  1. The Weather Underground at the Flying Squirrel, August 3: Born in 1970, I was barely aware of the Weather Underground when they were active from the tail end of the U.S.–Vietnam War through the early 1980s. They were a radical group most notorious for bombing U.S. targets in retaliation for injustices, starting with the "Days of Rage" designed to "bring the [Vietnam] war home". The film gives voice to the core members alive today. In general, their tone was remorseful about their actions but unashamed of their ideology. Watching it, I observed a couple things. First, when one's country's military is constantly murdering people for political and ideological reasons, it stands to reason that that rationale will steep in the minds of the citizenry—and that is just what happened with the Weather Underground. They felt that the only option was to murder their enemies as that had become the law of the land (much like it is in today's state of constant warfare.) Second, it underscored the absolute lack of a political "far left" (or even a "left" for that matter) today. I could at least look at the actions of the Weather Underground and say, "whoa—those people are way too radical for me." Instead, I am the radical in the room when I say things like, "maybe we should share our wealth instead of hoarding it"—and, call me crazy, but that is not "radical" or "far left" at all.
  2. Christo's Valley Curtain at the Dryden, August 5: I had have been curious about conceptual artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude for some time—especially since visiting The Gates in NYC in 2005. This film is the Maysles' first in of many collaborations with Christo and Jeanne-Claude and I thought it quite exemplary. Its design is an inspiration to many modern documentarians today, splitting between a design timeline, and the days of the installation. The project itself was fascinating, and there are two standout people—both construction workers. One is flabbergasted that someone could conceive of such a project and is amazed by its immense beauty. Another, an iron worker operating the rigging to unfurl the curtain from its suspension cabling, is giddily nervous and waxes poetic, "I'm as nervous as a whore in a field of peckers."
  3. Running Fence at the Dryden, August 5: In some ways I thought this was not as good as "Valley Curtain" but the topic is much more complex. This time the central conflict is getting the legal approval to install a 18-foot-high, 25-mile-long fabric fence across two counties in California and display it for two weeks. I thought the film took some liberties with the timeline to make for a better story as Christo and Jeanne-Claude are initially rebuffed only to convince the effected ranchers individually in a montage, then be approved. However, I think the film is an excellent document of the collaborative and community nature of the duo's work.
  4. Spy at the Cinema, August 9: I read a positive review and convinced Jenn to go too. Indeed, Melissa McCarthy's performance was perfect and the whole film quite hilarious. The story goes that after the identities of their active agents are compromised, a "behind the earpiece" CIA agent Susan (McCarthy) volunteers to go into active duty to thwart an (admittedly ludicrous) plot. I also appreciated that the supporting characters were generally strong, particularly Allison Janney as Susan's wry boss Elaine, and Jason Statham as the ridiculously inappropriate agent Rick Ford. And while there were a few gags that played off McCarthy's average appearance, there were many more that made use of her quick wit and comedic timing.
  5. Terminator: Genisys at the Cinema, August 9: I figured I'd give this a shot although Jenn left after just a few minutes. I've seen the "Terminator" films so this one seemed like a kind of boring rehash … and it's full of flaws … but it was entertaining enough that I stayed to the end. I thought it rather funny that, with The Terminator being released in 1984, I remember thinking Linda Hamilton's Sarah Connor was an adult woman, while in this 2015 film, Emilia Clarke's Sarah Connor was just a girl even though both actors were 28 years old as of each film's release date. (And funny enough, Clarke was born exactly 2 years after the release of the earlier film.) It also kind of bugged me that Hamilton's feathered 1980s hairdo wasn't replicated, but I guess it would have been kind of distracting. Umm, yeah, anyway, the film is kind of meh. Stuff happens … there's inexplicable time travel … there's an inexplicable countdown … there's an inexplicably powerful enemy … a whole lot of inexplicable stuff, actually.
  6. The Devil-Doll at the Dryden, August 18: Jenn had already seen this, although not on the big screen in a long time. I admired the commitment to special effects of dogs and people shrunk to doll-size, and to be honest, the plot was rather tense (if flawed and absurd—science fiction aside.) Although characters and goals get dumped along the way, the central plot is that of Paul (played perfectly by Lionel Barrymore) who escapes from prison to exact revenge on his former partners who set him up 17 years prior.
  7. Islands at the Dryden, August 19: Jenn and I went to see these further collaborations between filmmaking brothers Albert Maysles and David Maysles, and artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Islands documents the "Surrounded Islands" project around six islands in the Biscayne Bay near Miami, Florida in 1983. With nearly the same structure as Running Fence, the artists are met with resistance, then acceptance following a montage of community outreach. I thought the resulting project was the least interesting I had seen, and long shots of its completion were made less appealing by a banal soundtrack.
  8. Christo in Paris at the Dryden, August 19: Although tired, Jenn stayed through this—partly because of better music. It documents the intertwined lives of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, and "The Pont Neuf Wrapped" project, surrounding the oldest and most famous bridge in Paris. This later film recycles a fair amount of footage from Islands as it had meandered into this concurrent project as well. Perhaps most fascinating was the opinionated French debates of artistic merit on the pedestrian ways across the bridge at the completion of the project. And the politicking of then-mayor Jacques Chirac.
  9. The End of the Tour at the Little, August 23: Neither Jenn nor I knew much about author David Foster Wallace aside from an excerpt from a commencement speech on BrainPickings. Jason Segel admirably plays the part of Wallace (or at least makes for a character that embodies every letter of the script) and comes off as a likable misfit, too beautiful for this world. Jesse Eisenberg, meanwhile, fills the role of Rolling Stone interviewer as an everyman, clumsily hiding his jealousy.
  10. Umbrellas at the Dryden, August 26: I convinced Jenn to see this Maysles brothers film again showing the work of Christo and Jean-Claude. The artists installed thousands of large umbrellas—yellow ones in California and blue ones in Japan—for a temporary exhibition. I guess I continue to be fascinated by these artists as their work stands in such contrast to nearly any other artist I've heard of—both in scale and in its temporary nature.
  11. People Places Things at the Cinema, August 28: Jenn and I skipped the first feature and caught this film we had a passing interest in seeing. It's about a man who is shocked by the breakup with his longtime girlfriend and how he deals with it. Unfortunately he's a bit of a Mary Sue as he's got a consistently well-meaning, kind, and naïve perspective throughout, played against a half-dozen comparatively undeveloped characters—mostly women, although "Gary" is the biggest milquetoast pushover of them all. In all it's got a fair number of amusing moments, so it was mildly entertaining to watch.

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Movies in July, 2015 including The Wicker Man, Me & Earl & the Dying Girl, and Amy

  1. Me & Earl & the Dying Girl at the Little, July 1: Jenn, Ali, and I thought this would be an okay film to check out. It's a smart teen movie (that is, quite enjoyable by adults too) about Greg, whose mother forces him to visit a dying classmate, Rachel, but all he really wants to do is to make short films with his friend Earl. The thing I think was most pleasing is that Greg is a clumsy teen who makes painful-to-watch mistakes. The relationships between the three seem pretty organic and natural and the story is interesting enough. Oh yeah, the beginning … with its Greg-centered exposition, is not so hot … but it gets much better after that.
  2. Shorts Made for the Theaters at the Dryden, July 15: Jenn and I both enjoy short films. This program was treasures from the Eastman House archives which were designed for a cinema audience. Kicking off, Popeye Makes a Movie was quite hilarious. Then Paramount News Review 1938: A Year of Contrast was a laden with U.S. nationalism as WWII began. This Theatre and You, the later Let's Go to the Movies, and History Brought to Life were each slightly boring essays on how movies work and are made—the latter being borderline offensive in its claim to historical realism in fictional films.  The History and Development of the 35mm Projector was an interesting history lesson on early 35mm projector development.  The Film That Was Lost was an interesting early film promoting motion picture preservation—I'm still not clear on the 20-year lifespan of cellulose-based film and how we have originals from way more than 20 years ago. Finally, Dancing in the Street was a production made by Kodak that was a cringe-worthy 1980s music video for the version of that song done by Mick Jagger and David Bowie for the Live Aid benefit concert.
  3. Trudno byt bogom (Hard to Be a God) at the Dryden, July 14: Jenn and I were both interested in this film touted as being made by "legendary Russian auteur Aleksej German". It's ostensibly about an Earthling scientist who lives on the planet Arkanar, stuck in a parallel to Earth's middle ages except without the benefit of a Renaissance on the horizon. As Jurij Meden noted in his introduction, the film is a parable for life under communism in the Soviet Union, and, lacking a linear story, it is more of an experience. Once Jenn and I had enough of the experience—a mere hour into its 170 minute runtime—we left. It was indeed an impressive work but we didn't feel the need to stay for the whole thing.
  4. Mad Max: Fury Road at the Cinema, July 20: I kept hearing good things about this so I figured I'd hit up the double feature. It's an entertaining action movie with lots and lots of driving going on. What I found most impressive was its ability to handily pass the Bechdel/Wallace Test as even the somewhat minor "damsels in distress" characters are well thought-out and not simply interchangeable trophies as is too often the case.
  5. Lambert and Stamp at the Cinema, July 20: Following that, I stayed for the documentary about the managers for The Who, Kit Lambert and Christopher Stamp. As I'm not a huge Who fan, the documentary seemed to ramble a lot, especially toward the end. And it probably could have been better called "Kit Lambert and the Who" as it was largely about Lambert (who died in 1981). Unfortunately, the archival footage seemed to be rather sparse, so lots of reminiscing filled the bloated 117 minute running time.
  6. The Wicker Man—Final Cut at the Dryden, July 25: Jenn went to revisit, and I to see for the first time this genre-improving horror film. It's about a devoutly Christian police officer investigating the reported disappearance of a 12-year-old girl on a remote island inhabited exclusively by Pagans. The officer tries to retain his composure but is horrified by the nudity and sexuality of the islanders, and especially their willingness to allow children to witness their natural lives. The film's conclusion is a potent capstone to an amazingly interesting story. I got the impression that we were to strongly empathize (er … empathise as this is a British film) with the Christian morals of the cop. The 1973 original date could be rooted in conservatism or in hippie liberation, and a bit of searching the Internet didn't reveal any original critics' reactions so I'm not sure.
  7. Amy at the Little, July 28: Jenn and I went to see this because it looked kind of interesting. I knew very little of Amy Winehouse save for the mocking she received from comedians in the early 2000s for her drug and alcohol abuse. The film offers a heaping of empathy through the spectral glimpse we can see in archival and personal footage. Her singing style was unique, and her commitment to music was unparalleled, making her seem like one of those people who are just ablaze with talent. I got the impression she tried to show a composed, controlled demeanor, but the veneer was particularly thin and her opinions easily punched through it. She was also not quite ready to be in the spotlight; the hounding by paparazzi was disheartening, especially the glimpses of the worst of a thousand photoflashes rendering the night a stroboscopic minefield. In the end, I guess the film reminded me to never make fun of people you know nothing about.
  8. Grey Gardens at the Dryden, July 29. Jenn had already seen this so I went by myself … it's about aging Edie Bouvier Beale, and her elderly mother Edith Bouvier Beale who live in a mansion in East Hampton. Albert Maysles, and David Maysles were to make a documentary about their wealthy relatives, but when they found the two during research, they changed plans. The most common and roughly-fitting adjective is "eccentric" as the mansion is in a decades-long state of disrepair and the two appear to solely live on the property along with numerous cats. Despite outward appearances, they seem to be content with their lifestyle. As documentary subjects, they didn't have much to say—but that didn't stop their domestic banter, making for a virtually surreal viewing experience.

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Movies in May, 2015

  1. Portrait of Jennie at the Dryden, May 2: Jenn and I went to see this as part of the Eastman House's Nitrate Picture Show. It's an well-written tale of star-crossed lovers—or perhaps just an artist's delusion.
  2. Salad Days: A Decade of Punk in Washington, DC (1980-90) at the Cinema, May 4: I got to see this very good documentary about—well, just look at the title. I found it quite inspiring because it defies the American experience that making art/things/a difference is only for exceptional people—punk lets people know that creativity is natural and available to anyone. Plus, it reminded me of my days seeing bands at the Bug Jar.
  3. The Clouds of Sils Maria at the Little, May 6: Jenn and I weren't sure about this one based on what we saw about the reviews. Fortunately, we both found it to be an engaging and interesting movie. realistic characters, good depth. It follows an actress, Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) and her young assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) as they travel to an awards ceremony, and then how Maria gets involved with a remake of a film that launched her career except she would now be playing the older woman who's driven to suicide by he younger peer. The methodical pacing and fair treatment of all characters was well executed and worthwhile. And I'm sufficiently out of touch to have not noticed numerous pop-culture references and jokes that seem to have annoyed other reviewers.
  4. Wall Street at the Dryden, May 7: Apparently, when the film opened in 1987, audiences were drawn to the charismatic Gordon Gekko played by Michael Douglas even though it was clear we were supposed to sympathize with Martin Sheen's level-headed salt-of-the-earth Carl Fox (father of Charlie Sheen and character Bud Fox, respectively.) Today's sociopolitical climate is a bit different, though, and Gekko seemed more like the arrogant sociopath hedonist he was intended to be. In all it was an interesting movie of the 1980s that encapsulates the mood of the era quite well.
  5. Avengers: The Age of Ultron at Regal Cinema Culver Ridge, May 9: Jenn wanted to go see this and I figured I'd give it a shot. It was my first modern 3D movie and the effect was as good as I think is possible, but I still didn't feel like if I had seen the movie in 2D that I would have regretted it. Probably because I'm not a Marvel aficionado, I found a lot of the film to be quite boring. I felt like I was being lackadaisically and mechanically dragged through a story solely to get to the next dazzling special effects showcase. The effects were kind of cool, I guess, but they're still there as demonstration rather than by necessity.
  6. An Honest Liar at the Little, May 12: James "The Amazing" Randi is a magician and an evangelist against charlatanism. His fundamental belief is that magic and trickery are wonderful for entertainment, but vile when used to trick people into falsehoods. The documentary, interestingly, revealed more about Randi's life than I knew before, but then again, all I knew him as was a master debunker. During the videoconference question-and-answer, I asked Randi if there was danger in relying too much on science, intending to key in on the notion of "true believers" who reflexively shut out all opposing viewpoints. He certainly missed that point and unfortunately responded as a true-believer in science. Then again, he's well into his 80s and it was rather late, so I can imagine he might not have been at his sharpest.
  7. The Trespasser at the Dryden, May 15: Jenn and I got a chance to see this very early "talkie". I found the camera work—particularly its sweeping camera moves—to be excellent and with a modern feel. The characters were deep and their relationships were very natural and honest-seeming. An early scene had two waking lovers lounging together in the most natural way—and a way that would soon be banned by the Hays censorship codes just a year later.
  8. Félix and Meira at the Little, May 16: Jenn and I saw the preview for this and thought it looked pretty good. I appreciated the gentle, metered pacing more than Jenn although both of us liked the movie overall. Félix is a man adrift at life, dealing with the impending death of his father; Meira is a married woman in a devout Jewish household who longs to express herself. They meet serendipitously and are immediately intrigued by one another. I think the thing I appreciated most was, as the story unfolds, each of the main characters is revealed to be not as simple as they first appear. And I was able to let the overarching story rise above my disdain for the religious misogyny—I'm sure if it concerned me I could equally forgive Félix's slacker lifestyle, or Meira's childlike naïveté.
  9. Rocks in my Pockets at the Cinema, May 19: I got a chance to see this animated feature from the charming Latvian/American filmmaker Signe Baumane. It is nearly a documentary about Baumane's family's history of mental illness—particularly suicidal depression, but told in a remarkably frank and surprisingly humorous way. Her accounts of her own depression and the personal, details of the experiences of her family are very honest and interesting. The remainder of the film, though, is somewhat uneven, spending a lot of time on seemingly inconsequential family history and on her eldest kin's stonewalling that haunts more recent generations. Nonetheless, in totality, it paints a remarkable picture. Plus, Baumane herself was vivacious and engaged the audience with a few of her paper mâche rocks and a movie-quiz contest for several of the 30,000 hand-drawn frames.
  10. Night Nurse at the Dryden, May 22: Jenn and I got to see this early Barbara Stanwyck film made before the Hays censorship codes were enforced. Karen Noske introduced the film and mentioned how shocking some of the the scenes were (even to modern audiences), and how many double entendres they used. Unfortunately, I missed all the double entendres and didn't really find it "shocking". Nonetheless, it's kind of an odd movie and worth checking out. Stanwyck plays a newly hired night-nurse at a hospital where she sees disturbing injuries and is under constant scrutiny by the head nurse. She gets an assignment taking care of a couple sick children but discovers something amiss. I say the film is kind of odd because the whole central plot about the children felt like it was added on in the middle; as if the writers suddenly learned that a story works better if there's some kind of conflict. In any case, there's a scene where Stanwyck shows her power, ferociously standing up to a man (an early role by Clark Gable of all people). The thing that I thought special was she never flinched and it seemed like Gable was genuinely afraid, having a hard time not backing down—most actors I've seen tend to flinch in deference, if only for a split second.
  11. Iris at the Little, May 27: Jenn mentioned this film and wanted to see it so I went along with virtually no information beforehand. It's an expertly shot documentary by Albert Maysles about octogenarian fashion designer Iris Apfel—the "rare bird of fashion" and self-described "geriatric starlet." As would be obvious to anyone who's seen me, fashion is not something I aspire towards, so it takes a lot for me to notice. While I found Apfel's designs interesting, I'm not grabbed by them; her personal style, though, would certainly draw my attention and earns my respect. Overall it's nice to find someone whose vibrancy and grace is a model for drinking deeply from life.
  12. Occupy the Farm at the Little, May 28: I wanted to see this documentary about people in a fairly poor neighborhood in San Francisco who attempt to claim designated agricultural land before it was ruined and turned into commercial development. I think I was the only one in the audience who was not inspired. Rather than see hope in the "regular people valiantly take on the aristocracy" story, I could see clearly the fact that three old, rich white guys were equal to a community of 10,000 people, and that industry, police, the government, places of higher learning—every pillar of hierarchical authority—have been gleefully conquered by the ideology of greed. So aside from that kind of cynical diatribe, I prefer to wallow in my pit of gloom and quietly offer whatever support I can from the sidelines, hoping to not derail the optimism and strength that is the only possibility for a better world.
  13. Furious Seven at the Cinema, May 30: I was looking for something to do and thought I'd be as amused by this car-chase installment as I was the last one. I was a bit bored at times between car chases, but overall entertained—I will freely admit my standards are extremely low for this kind of film, so I forgive a whole lot of inanity. When I wasn't watching the ridiculously contrived scenes of automotive trickery, I amused myself trying to imagine how this could be written as satire. Unable to improve upon the mind-numbing dialog, I wondered if the Furious films are actually self-contained satire: I laughed out loud at least twice at the absurd events that transpired in the form of a "plot", and at one point out-loud asked for more car chases when I was bored with the dragging interpersonal developments. And aside from the comically sexist presentation of women (although admittedly some of the men are exceptional physical specimens), this film would pass the Bechdel/Wallace Test.
  14. Insurgent at the Cinema, May 30: I knew nothing of this film until I started watching and swear I saw a parody trailer or scathing review but just can't find it. It didn't bother me that this is the sequel to Divergent since the simple storyline was pretty easy to pick up. What did bother me was the "young adult" writing style which is basically "this makes no sense but instead of fixing it we'll call it 'young adult'". I gather in the film you get a personality test that fits you into one of five kinds of people unless, you know, you're human and actually are not a perfect fit into any one group—but that makes you "divergent" which means that you are special and a hunted underdog. Oooh! Just like, you know, everybody watching the film. Seriously: young adult does not need to mean "garbage"—please! After I ran out of popcorn, I decided that anything else was better to do so I left. Not even Shailene Woodley's short haircut I adore so much could keep me in that theater.

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