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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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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The Next Last 10 Movies

This time I got a head start and got more diligent about this. Well, I did at the start anyway. So here's the last 10 movies I watched:

  1. The Internship at the Cinema, July 10: A very peculiar movie that takes the topic of job obsolescence, overlays it on a "plucky-underdogs" story, and sets it almost exclusively on the Google campus, and ends up making a reasonably believable argument for diversity in the workplace (not without flaws) that is actually rather funny.
  2. Fast & Furious 6 at the Cinema, July 10: The second half of the double feature was also a surprisingly adequate film. It's what you'd expect: incredibly elaborate car chases loosely stitched together with an absurd plot. Although I give it points for ethnic diversity, I take some away for failing the Bechdel/Wallace test (The Internship, too) since never do two women speak with one another about anything but men. Also, I thought it dumb that the women never fight the men in hand-to-hand combat; rather the few female characters are always paired up. Oh, and I also caught a couple references to Raiders of the Lost Ark of all things: a jeep plummeting into a ravine, and someone getting killed by airplane engine.
  3. Go West at the Dryden, July 17: A very funny silent film by Buster Keaton about a hapless guy who goes west to try and make a life for himself — and to earn the love of a cow. I was really impressed at the ingenuity and comedy that is still interesting and fresh after almost 90 years.
  4. The Magnificent Ambersons at the Dryden, July 31: Orson Welles wrote and directed this after Citizen Kane, although it was dramatically shortened by the studio. Nonetheless, it is a potent tale of greed overshadowing the love of life. Welles camera work and the complex set design left me exhausted at the end of it — there is so much information being shown that it's quite exhausting … but worth it.
  5. Bert Stern: Original Mad Man at the Dryden, August 1: A so-so documentary about an interesting guy. Self-deferential Bert Stern is one of the pioneers of advertising photography as we know it today: a vehicle for directed creativity tapping into dreams and fabricating desire. The documentary is uneven with a lot of rough edges, but the dynamic subject largely makes up for it. Museum director Bruce Barnes introduced the film: filmmaker Shannon Laumeister and her husband Bert Stern were scheduled to appear, but Stern passed away about a month ago.
  6. 20 Feet From Stardom at the Little, August 5: An intriguing documentary about the voices behind our favorite music — specifically, the girl-groups of the 1960's. It's a look at how talent is not what drives stardom, but, perhaps the ability to tolerate stardom.
  7. Forty Guns at the Dryden, August 13: An amazing film about a powerful woman who uses all her strengths — including her sexuality — to run a western town. But more than that, it's a condemnation of guns and killing. Barbara Stanwyck knocks it out of the park with her performance. I don't recall a more fully-formed powerful female lead in any other film. This is one I'll be talking about for years to come.
  8. Fruitvale Station at the Little, August 14: An incredibly powerful and moving portrait of the events leading up to the early morning of January 1, 2009 in Fruitvale Station, San Francisco, California. It reaffirmed my belief that all people are more complex than anyone can imagine. And it reaffirmed my belief that no good comes from the end of a gun.
  9. Mystery Science Theater 3000: Bride of the Monster at the Dryden, August 17: It was a little odd watching a DVD of a TV show that pokes fun at movies at the Dryden Theatre at the George Eastman House, but there you go. I remember watching these back when they were on cable and had the same uncanny experience: I had a great time for about the first 50 minutes, then felt as though I was trudging to the end for the remainder. Jenn said something similar. In any case, the episode was one of the better ones, highlighting a weird Chevrolet short called Hired before the infamous Ed Wood's film (which, in turn, was the centerpiece of the Ed Wood movie which, in turn, caused me pause when they innocuously quipped of a character on screen, "it's Johnny Depp" — the episode aired in early 1993 and the movie, starring Depp, was released in late 1994.) In any case, the musical reenactment of the entirety of "Hired" was a charming and funny sketch.
  10. 3.14… at the Cinema, August 19: Ok, this really should count as a half since it's not actually a released movie. It's the second edit of a film by some Rochester locals and an odd and ambitious one at that: exploring repetition, infinity, coincidences, and magic donkeys. This cut had its share of good and bad, but overall I liked it and look forward to its eventual release.

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