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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Watching Jeff, Who Lives at Home, and Bully at the Little

I headed out to The Little (240 East Ave.) to check out a couple movies. On Mondays, they have been running a $5/movie promotion, and since the George Eastman House (900 East Ave.) is closed, there is no film at the Dryden. Too often I let the Little's schedule slip through my fingers and I miss out on things I wanted to see.

I was tempted to see Jiro Dreams of Sushi as I heard good things about it (and I missed it at the Dryden last month.) But, since I was running a little late, I opted instead to see Jeff, Who Lives at Home and then Bully.

I remembered that Dayna Papaleo gave "Jeff" a lukewarm-positive review in the City Paper so I gave it a shot with relatively low expectations. I found it a bit rough around the edges. As I told a friend later, it tends to really shove hard on suspension of disbelief which did not quite break me out of the movie: my advice is to stick with it and let it flow because there's a multi-layered story going on that's worth examining. I'll also warn that I found Ed Helms acting to be a bit too broad … at least at first: I often suspect that shooting schedules for movies tend to be set up by location, but also loosely in script-order, so his earlier scenes in the film seem like a caricature portrait, but he does improve as the film goes on.

At the surface, the film is about an easily-dismissed stoner, Jeff (Jason Segel) who believes that the underlying nature of the universe is revealed through subtle messages that he believes he is tuning himself to see. Meanwhile, his brother Pat (Ed Helms) leads a much more conventional life, suppressing any belief in a purposeful world by focusing on the minutia of day-to-day life. Jeff lives in their mother Sharon's (Susan Sarandon) basement — who is struggling to find meaning in her own life as a widow, unsatisfied with her sons. Oh, and it's designed as a comedy with a lot of really quite funny moments.

But take away the mechanicals of the plot ("a stoner goes on a wacky adventure struggling to complete a simple task") and what's left is a painting of the way family is inexorably connected; how they are similar in deep, subtle ways that transcend their outwardly tremendous differences. Without giving away too much, I found it unexpectedly tender when Jeff is sitting the basement watching TV listlessly eating an uncooked PopTart.

With just a short break, I stuck around to see Bully. In case you didn't know, it's a documentary about bullying in primary schools in the United States … sort-of. Its candid portrayal of day-to-day school life resonated with me, and made me wonder if I'm repressing some memories of being bullied — I vividly remember moments that echoed Alex's dialog with his mother and with school administrators. I suspect that some part will resonate with everyone.

By my interpretation, in American society, it is considered normal for kids to establish their individuality by saying cruel things to one another. Most form a callous that protects and strengthens from each cruel remark. But some do not, and the cruelty strikes their heart each time. And because it hurts so very much, it's not something they wish to inflict on others, so they never become adept at cruelty. And then their unwillingness to be cruel becomes itself another difference that is attacked, and the pain just builds and builds.

The movie paints the picture of this seemingly unavoidable torture and then finds hope in things that parents and children are doing to turn the tide. But in my gut, I knew the speeches, the discussions, and the rallies would handily be derided by any half-clever fourth-grader — and much to the amusement of jeir peers, continuing to feed the cycle.

In one scene, Alex is talking with his assistant principal, he doesn't believe her actions will help. He cites a previous case where he was bullied by getting stuffed into the seat cushions of the bus and her actions failed to stop the bullying. She has the audacity to bully him to reinforce her belief in the petty authority she holds: she begs the question by asking if that specific circumstance ever happened again, knowing that she'll be able to steamroll poor Alex who doesn't have the skills to call her on her bullshit.

That, and the principal of the same school's reprehensible reaction to Alex's poor parents led me to think of Ferris Bueller's Day Off. A common criticism of the film is that Ferris is an anti-hero because he fails to respect the authority of Principal Ed Rooney who is played to be a petty dictator — and an incompetent one at that. But watching Bully, I can't help but believe Rooney's portrayal may be less of an exaggeration than it seems. As an adult, thinking of the advice given by my own guidance counselors, teachers, principals, and any other "school authority" seems, at best, to be the good-and-bad mix of advice you can get from anybody over the age of 21, and downright buffoonish at worst.

But when I said the film is about bullying "sort of", I meant that there's an undercurrent of hope from people doing things they never thought possible. And in a way, the bullying and attempts to stop bullying seem trite compared to the profound personal changes in the lives of people confronting adversity.

I was talking with a friend the other week and we were commenting on how the lilacs seem more fragrant this year, probably because of the stresses of the weather. She commented that stress makes things beautiful. I thought it wasn't quite right — I've seen people who are stressed and they're not pretty — so I said it's adapting to stress that is beautiful.

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