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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