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.

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The King of Comedy at the Dryden

Christina and I headed to the Dryden Theater at George Eastman House (900 East Ave.) to see Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy. Jim Healy gave the introduction and said he had seen this film probably the most number of times of any film he's seen (and I fully believe he has seen a great number of films). The gist is that Rupert Pupkin played by Robert De Niro plays a stand-up comic who attempts to get the fame he thinks he deserves by kidnapping a TV host Jerry Langford played by Jerry Lewis.

The beauty of the film is in its portrayal of Pupkin as the fanboy inside me (and presumably most people) that just goes too far. For the sake of filmmaking and the story, Pupkin's fantasies intermingle with reality — disastrously. For instance, he has a fantasy of having dinner with Langford where the star begs him to take over the talk show — despite that Langford actually does not see any refined talent in Pupkin, and far from the degree that Pupkin's fantasy lays out.

When I set my mind adrift and daydream of an encounter with some famous person — be it a consistent legend like Randy Newman or a cute-girl-du-jour like Kate Micucci — some event happens where I get to meet them by chance, and for some reason they are interested in me or thankful for something … basically, what Pupkin does. Only in his world, this is the way things actually happen: these absurd, unlikely, coincidences are believed to play out because the fantasy person does not have a real existence. In other words, I realize that famous-person-in-fantasy has, in real life, their own existence that simply does not include me whereas Pupkin does not have such a realization. He fully believes that fame makes the real person disappear — that the celebrity is no longer real, or that celebrity can completely obscure that reality.

The movie asks, in part, how do you handle a person like Pupkin? How do you handle someone who has disposed of your value as a human being? I believe it is the same haunting psychology that leads to stalking, rape, genocide, and any human-on-human atrocity: if you can convince yourself that another person is not a human being (or that they are simply a thing) then your mind is freed to do anything to them without remorse. And if you are on the receiving end of such behavior, all you can do is either change your mind so they are no longer human and you can do what you want with them, or save your own humanity, do what you can to educate them, and wait for them to realize that you are a valuable person too.

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