Movies in December, 2015 featuring The Armor Of Light, Spring Night, Summer Night, and Slapstick of Another Kind

  1. Show People at the Dryden, December 1: Jenn and I wanted to check out this playful comedy from 1928. It was definitely a fun film, and had some clever slapstick comedy as well.
  2. Blood Simple. at home on DVD, December 4: I had never seen this first picture by Coen brothers Joel and Ethan. It's a brilliant, dark tale of infidelity and murder. I liked it quite a lot, and it was interesting to see some of the Coens' favorites so young (I didn't even recognize 27-year-old Frances McDormand at first.)
  3. Top Secret! at home on DVD, December 6: A long time ago I saw this Abrahams, Zucker, and Zucker comedy about a rock star sent on to perform a diplomatic show in East Germany only to become embroiled in the French resistance. It's a shredded, paper-thin plot that's only function is to introduce the next gag. But the gags are indeed very clever and funny. A young Val Kilmer holds his deadpan together, and even (bizarrely) actually sings many of his character's songs. Overall I'd say it's a good film only if you'd like to understand how to execute on-screen comedy.
  4. The Armor Of Light at the Little, December 8: I was curious about this documentary that follows pro-life evangelical minister Reverend Rob Schenck's path exploring the hypocrisy of his pro-gun stance. Schenck is rather amiable on screen—to me, a "non-threatening" religious person who really thinks about his faith (contrasted with the culture of fear that pervades his religious-right brethren, driving them to see the world in terms solely of "innocent" and "evil".) But I was kind of confused about the documentary as it often seemed like a clever reenactment: that Schenck was approached after he "came out" as a purely pro-life Christian but was asked to recreate pivotal events. Likewise, the documentary follows Lucy McBath whose son was killed in Florida—yet so presciently selects her that she eventually meets Schenck. Also, late in the film, there was a scene where he met in a bar room (a room literally labeled "Bar Room" on the glass of the door) with three other religious leaders and started what turned into a heated argument about gun control. During that scene, Schenck opens up the discussion, and the view switches to a camera between the two people in front of him, to a camera over his shoulder, and a camera off to the side. All this happens without audio transition nor cuts to hide missing video, yet none of the other camera operators are visible, so either special effects were use to hide the other cameras, or the scene was shot in multiple takes and spliced together, defying the implied objectivity. Overall I found the story a little saddening since Reverend Schenck will likely be ousted from his prominence (accused of "going liberal"), thereby losing any sway he might have had to bring respectability to Christianity. And that whole weirdness with how the film was made makes me suspect it's not very honest in a journalistic sense—and hence not really a documentary so much as a kind of essay-film/biopic/reenactment using the real parties involved. Interestingly, in an interview in Vanity Fair, Abigail Disney says she thought "someone 'over there,' where we don’t talk to each other, had to be feeling funky about the connection between [guns and Christianity]." As she talked with people, most agreed that guns and Christianity don't mix but to say so would end their religious careers, but said with Shenck, she "sort of set him in motion in the sense that [she] made him itch in a way that he couldn’t resist scratching." While I support the message of the film—to question the hypocrisy—I'm compelled to mention there's a bit of bias going on as well.
  5. Spring Night, Summer Night at the Dryden, December 10: Jenn and I wanted to see this UCLA Festival of Preservation entry: the first of only two films made by J.L. Anderson. The story follows a family in a rural, former mining town in southeastern Ohio, now descending into poverty. The central plot revolves around the brother and sister having a relationship that develops sexually. By that description you might think it's an exploitative tale of incestuous hillbillies, it actually deeply respects its characters. One would expect a screenwriter to make one of the kids secretly brilliant, but they are all simple folk—only the eldest son wants to leave for a better life, but like his siblings, he has no particularly unique skills or education. And one might expect the parents drinking to make them belligerent and abusive, but they want what's best for their family without having any idea how to accomplish that. The cinematography is just as honest, following the kids playing in the fields, crossing through the woods, and playing in streams—all the while taking for granted the beautiful natural world they're inhabiting. And while the sound quality was sometimes lacking, the use of field recordings of day and night lent an organic music to the soundtrack. Finally, the place feels completely out-of-time, and the film gives no indications it was made in 1967.
  6. Snow White at the Dryden, December 15: Jenn and I saw this very early film version of the classic fairy-tale. It's fun and amusing, and Marguerite Clark's endearing portrayal of the titular princess makes it a joy to watch.
  7. Une Danse des Bouffons (A Jester's Dance) at the Memorial Art Gallery, December 20: This short, basically silent, modern Dadaist tale that dabbles in birth and death along with the internal turmoil of Marcel Duchamp. It's engaging enough through an illusory plot that even those with only a curious interest in surrealism could find it worthwhile.
  8. White Zombie at the Dryden, December 18: Jenn very much wanted to see this strange film with Bela Lugosi as a Haitian witch-doctor who turns people into zombies. He's employed by a man who wants to find a way to lure a the woman he loves away from her fiancée, but the sinister doctor has other plans … It's not a great film, but it's interesting enough.
  9. The Crime of Doctor Crespi at the Dryden, December 18: Staying for the second short feature, it wasn't nearly as good. It's a schlocky tale of a doctor who invents a sleep serum that he uses to bury his victims alive. Like White Zombie, his target is a woman in love with another man.
  10. The Manchurian Candidate at home on LaserDisc, December 20: I'm no fan of Frank Sinatra—particularly his smarmy playboy-thug persona—but I found him tolerable, if a bit out-classed in this. It's about a group of soldiers in Korea who are captured and cleverly brainwashed by The Communists. When they finally return to the U.S., they are unknowingly part of a tense plot. Laurence Harvey as Ray shines here as the centerpiece of the plot, but the knockout performance comes from Angela Lansbury as Ray's devious mother, Eleanor. Overall the movie kept me guessing—at least as far as the particulars—but I was a bit distracted by the absurd implausibility of it all.
  11. The Unholy Three at the Dryden, December 22: Jenn and I went to see this film with Lon Chaney as a ventriloquist, joining forces with a midget and a strongman to commit crimes. The plot was interesting and at least passingly plausible, if a bit convoluted. I did find it very funny that Chaney plays a ventriloquist in a silent film—how easy to seem so incredibly talented! There is, however, also bit of pitch-dark humor spread throughout in what is ultimately a morality tale.
  12. Burn After Reading at home on DVD, December 25: Relaxing after Christmas, Jenn and I decided to watch one of the movies she bought me at my request since I hadn't seen it. I thought it should be subtitled "Scenery Chewing" since that's what the myriad of powerhouse stars did: ham it up. The central plot is about a couple workers at a gym who bumble into trying to sell government secrets for money. The secondary plots revolve largely around a polygon of infidelity that further confounds the main story. The storyline ends up pretty flavorless, dosed in spices by the actors.
  13. Slapstick of Another Kind at home on Laserdisc, December 27: The cover of this disc made the movie look terrible and, well, it was. It's ostensibly based on a novel called Slapstick: or, Lonesome No More!: A Novel by Kurt Vonnegut. While I've only read a couple summaries of the source material, it's clear the best parts of the film are from it. It's about a pair of twins who, while born to well-off American parents, are actually beings from a hyper-intelligent race somewhere else in the universe. Presumably through that race's needs, they are also hyper-intelligent when in close physical contact, but become astonishingly stupid when separated. As I'd expect from Vonnegut, the twins are separated because of ignorant cultural reasons, and the boy is sent to military academy and the girl left at home, each wallowing alone in stupidity. Ordinarily I'd care about spoilers, but as spoilt as it already is, let me just say they are eventually reunited and escape to live with their otherworldly kin. Jerry Lewis and Madeline Kahn play dual-roles as the parents and as the children, and numerous comics make appearances as well in the cast. The humor is as broad and lifeless as possible, and the plot is terribly boring. But I came to conclude it may be a perfect telling of a story about humankind being unable and incapable of anything but mediocre intelligence: while the book comes from one of the most highly regarded authors of all time, the movie is the product of average people who couldn't help but drag the quality to one of lackluster banality.
  14. Lies & Alibis at home on DVD, December 31: Jenn and I spent New Year's Eve watching this passably entertaining movie (which I think was released as "The Alibi" if I remember correctly). Steve Coogan plays a guy who runs a company that specializes in plausible stories to cover for people's infidelities. The pace was quick and kept our attention, but the screenwriting was a bit lackluster … why are people in movies so cavalier about killing a pretty woman? Why do all rich people drive fast cars? Why is romantic chemistry defined only by the fact that two characters' names appear next to one another on the poster? Every bit of the film cannot weather the most minor inquisition, but if you can refrain, it's rather entertaining.

507 total views, 2 views today

Getting Back to Emerging Filmmakers at the Little

It's been a long time, but I got a note about The Emerging Filmmakers Series at The Little (240 East Ave.) so I decided to go check it out.

Starting out was With Love, Marty by Jack Kyser in which Kyser plays the central character: a college-age man desperate for the affection of a specific woman. I found his presentation to be brutally honest from all angles — I know from experience how it is to desperately desire someone, and to resort to honest, direct means that work only to sabotage any possible relationship. It touches on the way you can fool yourself into thinking the mental picture you have of someone is the true picture of jem (when, in fact, all representations of other people in your mind are simply reflections of yourself — they are, ultimately, you.)

61 Years by Holly Rodricks is a documentary about her grandmother and grandfather's tumultuous relationship at the end of his life. It was a beautiful and moving piece about life and death, wishes and realities. It starts out with Rodrick's grandmother insisting that her grandfather has been punishing her for her entire life for marrying against their parents wishes (they are Indian, and got married in defiance of their destined, prearranged marriage). Meanwhile, her grandfather is quietly dying — the fragile shell of a once brash and bold man. But under all the outward complaints, and aside from the dutiful commitment to one another, lies real compassion and tenderness.

The Breakfast by Tanya Schiller was a curious, subtly humorous piece that simply followed the interactions of four people eating breakfast at a bed-and-breakfast.

Closing out was American Bomber: The John William Hidell Story by Eric Trenkamp. It's a faux-documentary about the "first American suicide bomber" — it uses the talking-heads model of documentary making to create a story about a man who lashes out — literally self-destructively — at those he feels are a threat. It works nearly perfectly with only a few minor problems that tip off that it can't possibly be for real. But interestingly, in being so near perfect, what would it take to make a perfect fake documentary?

571 total views, 1 views today

Watching Leonard Cohen: Songs from the Road at the Little

As a fan, I looked forward to seeing Leonard Cohen: Songs from the Road so I headed out to The Little (240 East Ave.) to see it tonight. I had a decent, light dinner at the cafe beforehand and was generally having a good night. I spoke with a woman who encouraged me to become a member of The Little — I often consider it, but my first step is always to go see a film.

So I settled in to watch. I was astonished at the dreadfully poor quality of this concert documentary. Edits were out of the 1970's "variety hour" playbook — I was fully expecting a pan to the overhead lights so the camera's Orthicon tube would render its unnatural flare. The cinematography looked like someone's uncle's wedding footage, albeit physically stable.  But the images often drifted in-and-out of focus, had copious electrically-powered zooms, terrible framing, and many camera-related glitches from the low-light situation. Editing was even worse as it was choppy like a kid with A.D.D. The editors also frequently switched between a right-facing wide shot to a left-facing close-up and back, requiring the viewer to constantly reorient themselves. The only good of it all were a few longer-than-average shots tightly highlighting Cohen's age-weathered face.

The music (and sound, thankfully) were excellent. I'm always amazed that the man is still playing music, but he is — and looks to have no intention of stopping. His singing retains a depth of emotion often lost after the thousandth rendition. So save your $10 and instead go to buy a couple used CD's that you don't already have. And go find a picture of the man and look at that while you listen.

Toward the end of the movie I had to resort to earplugs — not because the music was loud, but to drown out the quiet, constant chatter from (you guessed it!) the woman who wanted me to become a member. As someone who loves movies, I'm enamored of the Dryden with its excellent projection, and sound, and spoiled by my fellow cinephiles' respectful silence. If the Little skimps on anything it's the quality of the projection and sound (with tonight being a rare exception) and the patrons are self-absorbed jerks who can't keep their mouths shut for a measly 90 minutes.

Although, I must admit, membership is tempting in the sense that it's like paying for prisons. For if it weren't for the Little, the gentrifying class would certainly migrate to my precious Dryden and begin ruining it. So perhaps I will join — and maybe someday I'll have the opportunity to have my explanation of why I'm a member printed on one of their posters.

515 total views, 1 views today

L'enfer De Henri-George Clouzot (Clouzot's Inferno) and Gone With the Pope at the Dryden

Although I didn't bother with a pass this year, I did head out to two films I wanted to see at The 360|365 Film Festival (formerly the Rochester High Falls International Film Festival): L'enfer De Henri-George Clouzot (Clouzot's Inferno) and Gone With the Pope, screening in sequence at the Dryden Theatre at George Eastman House (900 East Ave.)

The former is a quasi-documentary about the respected French director Henri-George Clouzot and how he failed to complete L'enfer in 1964.  It's also sort-of a completion of that film.  The gist is that it was to be a film about jealousy and obsession. Serge Reggiani plays an older man married to the much younger Romy Schneider. They buy a small hotel together, yet whenever the train rumbles across the trellis bridge high above, Reggiani's character grows insane with jealousy. The physical world distorts and all he sees is his the parts of his wife's actions that suggest infidelity. It may be all in his head; it may be true; it may be both.

Clouzot began some experimentation with visual effects for the distortions. When the studio saw his work, the gave him literally a blank check, so he continued experimenting — creating some astonishing effects in the process. He was late to start actual shooting, and despite his insomnia, was unable to keep the three film crews shooting efficiently. He pushed them and his actors beyond their limits. Some walked off — Reggiani eventually did. Even worse: there was a physical deadline because the lake adjacent to the location was to feed a soon-to-be operational hydroelectric dam and essentially disappear.

So he became obsessed. He tried pushing things further. He shot scenes that were already complete. He essentially drove the production full-speed into the impending deadline. But once he had his heart attack on set, that was pretty much the end. Although he survived, he never finished the picture.

The documentary explains all this, and is fully worthwhile to see even if only for the sampling of brilliant effects shots (or, if you prefer, images of the adorable Romy Schneider and her gorgeous co-star Dany Carrel mostly wearing bikinis). Clouzot's goal was to create a film like none other — an entirely new kind of film-making. And I think he succeed perfectly. He made a film about obsession, and it was never to be completed. And by presenting it in titillating bits and pieces through the documentary filter, the obsessive feeling is perfectly achieved. I desperately want to see the finished product, but I know that any real version of the film would absolutely fail to be perfect enough — the very definition of obsession. If Clouzot wasn't consciously aware of it, his artist's heart certainly was: I believe some part of him certainly knew that not completing the film was the only way to properly obey the art.

After a brief intermission, I was back to see Duke Mitchell's Gone With the Pope. In some ways it was similar to L'enfer De Henri-George Clouzot (Clouzot's Inferno) in that it was a labor of love, created only when the conditions were right. It's different in that it's a raunchy exploitation film from the 1970's and shot on a very limited budget. Apparently Mitchell was a lounge performer in Las Vegas, and used his connections with casino operators to get permission to shoot his film on weekends. Using amateur actors, a fresh-out-of-film-school talented cinematographer, and the passionate performance of Mitchell himself, he set out to make a film about mob hits and, apparently, a loving criticism of the Catholic church — nearly a prayer to God in fact.

So once he got the film shot, he edited a rough cut but eventually stopped working on it. His son Jeffrey Mitchell (who also wrote and performed several songs for the film) became caretaker when his father died in 1981. Bob Murawski of Grindhouse Releasing liked Duke Mitchell's earlier film Massacre Mafia Style and tracked down Jeffrey Mitchell. Mitchell mentioned to Murawski that he had a bunch of material from his father's incomplete film and offered it to see what Murawski could do with it.

So Murawski, being an established editor in Hollywood (editing Spider-Man, for instance) decided to tinker with editing Mitchell's unfinished film in his spare time. The result is Gone With the Pope. I think it got finished perfectly in exactly the right way. Mitchell started it as a labor of love in the 1970's — finding the best people he could to do the task. You could say that he never found a suitable editor — at least one who would work for cheap and do a good job — until years after his own death when Murawski picked it up and did exactly that.

Murawski and executive-producer Chris Innis were on hand to answer questions and provide a lot of the background story I told about the film. One last bit of trivia: Murawski surmised that Mitchell would do exactly one take for every shot, sometimes writing the dialog in marker on a legal pad for his actors to read. As such, almost every shot was included in the resulting film.

In all it's a wonderful cinematic experience, so long as you can stomach the frequent bad acting, several scenes of over-the-top exploitation of women, and quite a lot of astoundingly politically incorrect language directed at blacks.

795 total views, 2 views today

Emerging Filmmakers Program #43

Ali and I went to The Little (240 East Ave.) for The Emerging Filmmakers Series. I got confirmation that The High Falls Film Festival is taking over The Rochester/High Falls International Film Festival, "Movies on a Shoestring", giving the amalgam festival a suitably clumsy title and changing from the November dates of High Falls to the May dates of the Shoestring festival. I'm concerned that the short films will get sidelined just as they are at High Falls even though I gather that this would have been Shoestring's 50th year. It would be nice if High Falls at least kept the short film screenings donations-only in the spirit of Shoestring.

Anyway, the short films tonight were quite good. It's too bad the Little puts so little effort into promoting the shows … there were barely 10 people in attendance.

A couple documentaries stood out this month. First, The Sacred Food by Jack Pettibone Riccobono was a well-done documentary about (quoting from the flyer) "the Ojibwe tribe in Northern Minnesota and the wild rice, manoomin, that they consider a sacred gift from the Creator and are trying to keep wild". It was interesting to see the response of tradition to modern issues like genetic modification. Scorza Bros by M. P. Mann was a fascinating documentary about a man who works in East Rochester as a taxidermist — for the last 60-some years — and how he accepts but can't quite reconcile that he's unwilling to kill an animal on his own.

Among the narratives, You Can Run by Jason J. CrossMySpace link was a good (althought — at times — it was poorly acted, filmed, directed, and audio-recorded) albeit a heavy-handed film about alcoholism and the dangers in ignoring your heart about it.

The show concluded with "Three Short Stories" by Sean Mullin. In the first, The 14th Morning, a soldier tries to reconcile an error in judgment on the battlefield. Next was Man is a Bridge where "a National Guard Captain spends his days guarding Manhattan's 59th Street Bridge from terrorist attacks and his nights performing stand-up comedy." It was a powerful look at a man who could easily be superficially dismissed by everyone he knows, but our god's-eye view gives us the full picture. Finally, Sadiq is about a couple American soldiers trying to transport a detainee, but one of them is trying to be fight his need to care and the other is fighting his frustration. In the end, tensions build to a head and the one soldiers tries to get the prisoner to confess to his crime — but neither understand the other's language.

All three were particularly excellent films. They were gritty, lifelike, and empathetic. Ali said that she was once again glad she came.

527 total views, 1 views today