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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Ten More Movies: May 2014 to June 2014

So here's the last 10 movies I watched …

  1. Godzilla at Zurich Cinemas Pittsford 9 on May 16: Jenn wanted to go see this and I figured, "what the heck?" We haven't been to a mainstream movie-house in a while, so why not jump right in on a Friday night with the masses? The monsters that appear first—the MUTAs—represent the U.S. and its insatiable military-industrial complex. They have squared beaks much like stylized eagles and literally feed on the U.S. weaponry. Godzilla, the monster representing the natural world, appears in order to stop the MUTAs: a thinly-veiled allegory for the climate change that will disrupt the food and water supply, revealing the solely profit-centric Americans to be wholly unable to care for themselves. As far as the movie for entertainment sake, if you can get past the un-enumerable technical flaws and errors, and avoid thinking about September 11, it's pretty cool to see the monsters rip up major cities.
  2. Yoidore tenshi (Drunken Angel) at the Dryden on May 22: Jenn and I went to see this film by Akira Kurosawa. It's about a Japanese guy who, after World War II, clings to his bravado by siding with the gangs that formed. It would be easy to make an argument that it's an allegory for Japan itself clinging to bravado in the face of the devastation after the war. The film is heartbreaking to watch—whether through Matsunaga's descent, Japan's allegorical descent, or actual footage of bombed-out Japan.
  3. Fargo at the Dryden on May 31: Jenn and I revisited this favorite of ours. It's been a while since I've seen it on the big screen, and doing so was a rewarding experience. Curiously, I don't feel like it loses much watching at home, but sitting with a group of strangers in a darkened room is rewarding enough. The story (for those who don't know) is a crime of extortion gone wrong. The unique twist is it involves very human-like characters getting in deeper than they can handle, making reasonable mistakes, and having reasonable twists of luck. The other unique aspect is it's set in North Dakota and Minnesota in winter, and nearly all the characters speak with a strong regional Minnesota accent. Anyway, it still holds up: its biggest flaw may be that it was shot in a far milder winter than it was set, so characters appear overdressed to one who has a keen sense of what a cold winter looks like. Also, I still like my favorite short scene: when Jerry Lundegaard has a setback, his frustration is revealed as he tries to scrape impenetrable ice off a windshield. Perhaps it's because I've both experienced that particular challenge and have never seen it utilized in a film to such great effect.
  4. Cold in July at the Little, June 1: Jenn and I got a chance to see this as it was the most promising in the Little's line-up. The gist is a guy kills an intruder in his house and the father of the murdered man returns for revenge. Up to this point, it's about a man's internal conflict about life, death, and killing, and whether redemption and forgiveness can be found. But then the the second-act conflict hits and it felt more like the screenwriter was out of his depth than a legitimate course of events (and, since based on a novel, it may very well have been the novelist was out of his depth, but I hadn't read it so I can't say for sure.) There's a few loose ends that go unexplained, but I was more disappointed that the interesting psychological exploration trail goes dead.
  5. Chef at the Little, June 4: Jenn, Chris, and I went to see this and it was better than I expected. I also expected a standard 3-act structure, but it's a feel-good movie and lacks any conflict throughout. Nonetheless, it's a great movie to watch if you like fine food, and it's just a nice movie. I wonder if the Twitter elements will seem absurd or dated (and it was bordering on a big advertisement for Twitter—at least as much as The Internship was an ad for Google.)
  6. Urgh! A Music War at the Dryden, June 7: I really had no idea what to expect of this film; it is entirely footage of 1980's punk and (truly) alternative acts performing in front of audiences. It's not bad for a concert-footage film, and the acts are very varied and some almost never filmed. Toward the end of the film—about midway through the performance by "X"—I realized I was having an emotional reaction to a recording and got kind of irritated about that. I was experiencing a false nostalgia for events I never witnessed. And then I had the experience of the projection being seen as a series of flashing images in a darkened room: a painfully Allegory-of-the-Cave moment.
  7. The Big Lebowski at the Dryden, June 8: Maybe I've seen this too much and maybe I was just tired, but I was not nearly as amused by this quirky comedic noir this time around. It's still a lot of fun, but I may have seen it too much.
  8. Le Week-End at the Cinema, June 10: I was curious to check this one out. In the film, a couple revisits Paris for their anniversary and it shakes the very existence of their relationship. I thought it was rather astute in observing how we grow so much yet change so little at the same time. I found it unfortunate that the filmmakers chose to have some scenes' dialog so quiet as to be inaudible (especially, dare I say, a film about older people—and therefore viewed by people with less-than-cat-like hearing.)
  9. The Other Woman at the Cinema, June 10: I figured with the double-feature, I'd at least give this a shot. The gist is a guy cheats on his wife with another woman, but they get together and find out he's cheating on them both, and then the trio gets together and gives him his comeuppance. I expected an awful romantic comedy that I'd walk out of in a few minutes. But I actually laughed out loud at Leslie Mann's genius portrayal of ditzy wife Kate as she delivered a line that could have so easily fallen flat: when it's revealed to her that her husband is having sex without her, she somehow grand-slams the line, "you mean he's not training for a marathon?" Mann's performance saves it, and Cameron Diaz pulls off the high-power lawyer in as much as the script allows, but Kate Upton can't quite manage to make funny the beaten-to-death "pretty girl is dumb" routine (who could pull off the "pretend to look the wrong way through the binoculars" bit?), and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau likewise can't wring much out of the dirt-bag spoiled-rich husband routine. And tread very lightly with the suspension of disbelief: the story is held together with a tenuously thin veneer.
  10. Desperately Seeking Susan at the Dryden, June 11: After having seen a modern romantic comedy, I thought I'd check one out from 30 years ago. (Well, it's kind of an unfair comparison as it's a movie that was remembered.) It's about a woman bored in her marriage who is intrigued by a woman being sought by her boyfriend (desperately, apparently) via personal ads. It's a clever and funny movie with Rosanna Arquette as Roberta (the wife) and Madonna as Susan, a self-empowered petty thief with a wild and nomadic lifestyle that is the polar opposite of Roberta's. I did have to simply accept the huge contrived cliché (amnesia through a blow to the head with no other ill effects) as it was central to the plot. Per the introduction to the film, I hadn't realized it was not only starring two women, but the director (Susan Seidelman), writer (Leora Barish), and two of three producers (Sarah Pillsbury, and Midge Sanford) were women. In fact, I believe it wouldn't pass a reverse-gender Bechdel/Wallace test: although there is more than one male character, when two men speak, they only talk about women. But rather than expend any effort defending a feminist viewpoint, it simply presents a wholly entertaining vision of a female-friendly reality.

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Thoughts on Ruby Sparks …

With the Dryden closed on Mondays, I have been making a habit of going to the Little for their $5 Monday movies — often to see two films. Tonight I went to see Ruby Sparks. I had seen the trailer and had written it off, but I read an interview with writer-and-star Zoe Kazan which sold the movie on me (but be warned it’s full of spoilers.) In short, consider what happens if a woman writes a role for herself as if she were a male writer creating a manic pixie dream girl (MPDG)? It all seems a little more self-aware to me, and I’m interested to see if all that works out. Alternatively, what if a movie centered on a MPDG were able to pass the Bechdel/Wallace test?

The introductory first act introduces us to Calvin, a young writer who met with massive success in his first novel. He lives alone in a fancy house and is trying to follow up with a second work. But it's not going so well. His only company is a scruffy dog who (as he reveals to his therapist) he got as a way to try and meet women, but it's not working. So his therapist suggests he try writing a few paragraphs about meeting a woman who adores his dog. And later while dreaming, he finds such a woman, albeit imaginary.

Enamored by his fantasy, he sets to frantically writing. He confides in his therapist that he's worried that he's falling in love with the character. And then all hell breaks loose when he thinks she's living in his house. She believes fully that the history defined by his writing is her actual life. And then worse: everyone else thinks she's there too, presumably because, well, she is.

But rather than turn into a rehash of Mannequin or Weird Science (yikes: dating myself seriously!) it steers more toward what it's like to be a being who has no idea she was just a fictional construct, centering on the differences with a real person.

And this is what the trailer completely misses: it's sort of a multi-layered writer's movie. I mean, all the characters are fictional constructs, but one is also a fiction-in-a-fiction. And then, while Calvin and Ruby are the most fully-realized characters, how can they coexist with others who are absurdly broad? For instance, when I saw Antonio Banderas as Calvin's stepdad Mort playing the stereotypically over-the-top artist, I thought, "oh my god, it's like he's made of ham." It's interesting to consider how all the characters exist and why they're there, and how fully formed the would believe they are.

The film gets me thinking, what if it were possible to buy, say, a robot girlfriend? What if I could make someone who is exactly what I think I want? Would I even come close to anything desirable? And then I also know it's necessarily a paradox to have free will (a.k.a. intelligence, artificial-or-not) and be manipulable or programmable.

Writing offers an outlet for those dreams of Pygmalion — a way to literally (and literarily) make friends. And Ruby Sparks touches on all the ramifications of that.

So I guess I'd recommend it if you're wanting for that kind of film. I find expectations to be extremely important when it comes to viewing a film, and the trailer does such a poor job of setting those expectations in the "right" direction that I don't recommend the trailer or any single-paragraph summary. And it certainly helps if you also like looking at Zoe Kazan.

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Seeing Alison Bechdel Speak at RIT

Although I also wanted to go see Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars at the Dryden, I opted for the irreproducible Caroline Werner Gannett Project lecture at RIT (One Lomb Memorial Dr., campus map) with Alison Bechdel. In all honesty, I know practically nothing about Bechdel, instead relying on my faith that the lecture series draws interesting people (perhaps TEDx Rochester could learn a few things.)

Anyway, she's a cartoonist — a self-described not-very-good writer and not-very-good artist that combine to form a rather excellent cartoonist. Her lecture was titled Drawing Words, Reading Pictures. If you had heard of her before, it's likely as a "lesbian cartoonist" with a long-running strip called Dykes to Watch Out For, or perhaps the misattributed Bechdel test for movies (conceived by her friend Liz Wallace and documented in a strip in 1985 … or so Wikipedia says).

She went into great detail about how she constructed one strip and quipped that you just need to repeat that a thousand times or so to make a book. She spoke a lot about her childhood, dovetailing into her most recent book, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. She spoke about her journal as a child where she began to realize that words alone were not adequate to relate an idea, adding small "I think" bubbles in sentences wherever meaning could be ambiguous. Later she started using a large caret-like gesture (^ only bigger) through words, and eventually discovered she could "protect a whole page" with one overlying notation. This eventually led her to using the comic form as a way to reduce ambiguity.

I was thoroughly excited by this notation. A growing panic and frustration develops inside me whenever I begin to discuss the utter inadequateness stemming from the bleeding ambiguity in language. I mean, "the sky is blue" makes perfect sense even though there are clouds that are part of the sky, or it might be the night sky, and blue … wow … I assure you it's not blue like my old Ford Escort which was also blue. So, stealing Bechdel's notation in typographic form, "the ^sky^ is ^blue^" makes much more sense to me. I had to ask if she finds that ambiguity relieved by cartooning (which she did) but I was more surprised at her surprise that I felt that way too. They had microphones up front, and when I was addressing her she probably took two steps back when I relayed essentially what I just wrote.

As such, I felt a kindred connection. I deduced who she was prior to the lecture (an easy task even though I'd never seen her photograph) and had felt that a bit already. I was warmed by the way she stepped partway up the auditorium to observe how the stage and computer projector were set up. And I was amused at a male crew-member gingerly adjusting her lapel microphone as if he were defusing a bomb.

In any case, I bought her book and had a chance to meet her and have her sign it. She even "^" notated my name and sketched her face with a cartoon bubble, "what is Jason really saying?", then with a wry smile added below, "we might never know." [Curiously, I recalled it from memory as "what is Jason saying really?", and "we may never know."]

I'm thoroughly enjoying the book. What I'm finding is that the cartoon format doesn't resolve ambiguity as much as it amplifies the ambiguous parts of the text. So like that "^" notation, it's another way to say, "this is how I think it happened, but you're never going to get it."

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