Better late than never … I finally finished up June's movies halfway through July. Yeesh! Here we go:
Pack Up Your Sorrows at the Cinema, June 2: I saw this as part of the Reel Reel Mind Film Festival this year. It's an essay film about depression and bipolar disorder centering on the personal journey of folk singer Meg Hutchinson. I found Hutchinson to be an engaging subject, and her interviews with friends, family, and medical professionals were well-executed and often filled with beautifully poignant honesty. As a film I thought it was rather lackluster: I tired of voice-overs and musical interludes as Hutchinson walked alone on woodsy paths, and I found the use of no fewer than three cameras—each with different frame-rates and lenses—to be highly distracting (particularly the judder introduced either by a frame-rate mismatch or just low-quality equipment.) Thankfully the audio synchronization was only occasionally an issue, unlike the painful-to-watch/hear trailer on Vimeo.
Lies I Told My Little Sister at the Little, June 4: This was part of the "Best of the Fests" series and I figured I'd give it a shot. I paid little heed to anything about it, pretty much knowing only that it was one of the top two films in one of the three festivals in town (so they're showing 6 films total.) It's about two adult sisters (including the family of one) and their mother after the death of their eldest sister. The film attempted to tell a story of growth and forgiveness and of the randomness of living and of dying. Unfortunately the script—while far better than average—wasn't adequately honed. From little things like a new puppy that just disappears for the rest of the film to bigger things like dialog between characters being obviously written from one writer's perspective (where dialog is basically just two people expressing the solitary viewpoint of the author.) As for the rest of the cinematic experience, everything else was professionally done with just a few exceptions. In all it was a pretty good film.
Love & Mercy at the Little, June 9: Neither Jenn nor I knew much of the life of Brian Wilson save for the fact that The Beach Boys seemed to be a popular 1960s group that vanished, and the Barenaked Ladies' name-titled song that mentions Wilson's breakdown. Wilson suffered from mental illness that both assisted his musical genius, but ultimately overwhelmed his ability to deal with reality. Paul Dano did an outstanding job as the younger Wilson, demonstrating a range from subtle social awkwardness to fits of creative mania, but Paul Giamatti nearly steals the show as an oppressive therapist. And the story is just fascinating—although both of us are fully aware that it's just a story that took numerous liberties with the real-life of Brian Wilson to fit into a 2-hour movie.
I'll See You in My Dreams at the Little, June 12: Jenn and I picked this one on a whim as it looked fairly good out of the Little's line-up. It's about an older, retired woman whose life gets shaken after her aging dog passes away, and two new men enter her life. I found the writing to be outstanding as the themes of the randomness of life and death permeated throughout.
Angst vor der Angst (Fear of Fear) at the Dryden, June 18: I don't think I ever saw a Rainer Werner Fassbinder film, so I figured I'd give this one a shot. It was very good—about a woman who suffers from anxiety with no obvious source. Margit Carstensen's portrayal of Margot was spot-on: neither too subdued nor too overt, but clearly the character had deep-seated issues. The only visual clue was her point-of-view shots with a watery distortion, but the unusual camerawork put the audience at unease with bizarre motions between characters, split faces, and copious mirrors on set.
The Wolfpack at the Little, June 26: Jenn and I didn't even realize this was a documentary, although it's so incredible that we have our doubts afterward. It's about 6 brothers (and one sister who's not really included in the film) who were secluded by their parents (but mostly their father) in a Manhattan apartment for their entire lives, save for up to several days each year for very limited excursions. As the film's descriptions often mention, the kids design elaborate costumes and make their own video versions of their favorite movies. Apparently the seclusion was dictated by their father, Oscar Angulo, a Peruvian immigrant, who had a fiercely humanist lifestyle that was the antithesis of the work-centric ethics of his adopted country. I found it very fascinating for a couple reasons. First is how Oscar Angulo built what is effectively a small cult and managed to keep it intact for over ten years—perhaps his secret lies in its inherently family-based size, and in the anonymity of New York City apartment buildings. The other thing was how some elements of his philosophy—for instance that people aren't meant to toil frivolously to survive—are really quite true. And I think through the truths imbedded in his astonishingly strange lifestyle, he managed to create an environment for his children that made them all rather well-adjusted and reasonably prepared to deal with life in the world around them. All that said, he was not shown as a positive figure—rather, he was a quietly domineering father whose alcohol abuse and deep-seated laziness resulted in his wife, Susanne Angulo, carrying the burden of all the home-schooling and household maintenance (although the kids seemed eager and able to prepare their own meals.) The whole thing seemed like a real version of the fictional Kynodontas (Dogtooth).
The Babadook at the Little, February 4: While it's not my usual style, I was inspired by the positive review by charming (and apparently relatively private—what is this guy's name?) YouTuber Horrible Reviews. It's a film about a woman, Amelia, and her son Samuel—he was born the night his father was killed in a car accident. Clearly this thoroughly disturbed Amelia, and her sudden role as a single mother didn't allow her to take necessary time-off to properly mourn, so those feelings festered within her psyche. As such, she's generally quite unhinged throughout the film and only manages to muster glimmers of normalcy. The Babadook begins in the form of a children's book that horrifies Samuel. The first half of the film is quite tense and terrifying, but the gradual physical and supernatural appearance of the Babadook character tends to seem unbelievable, and as such, tends to spoil the tension. Worst, though, is the incredibly absurd resolution. In the end, the Horrible Reviews' review mirrored my own experience pretty much perfectly—although he favors horror, I was finding the things he liked and disliked about movies seemed agreeable to me, and this first test of that impression appears to confirm that belief.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night at the Little, February 20: Jenn was excited to see this film once it was described as a "feminist Iranian vampire Western film". It's about a woman who's a vampire trying to keep some semblance of a code-of-ethics for herself. After a little post-film discussion, I guess I could call it a "feminist Iranian vampire Western film," but only if I must shoe-horn it into categories. But I think a better way to look at it is to take your expectations of a film called "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night"—with all its cautionary-tale baggage of helpless women—and gender-flip it so you have a powerful and complex female vampire who preys upon weak-willed men until she's surprised to find herself attracted to one of them. To me, her hesitant capitulation to that situation (and her overall resigned demeanor) seemed to show a deep understanding of the likely outcome from a long-line of past experiences that belie her youthful appearance. It's a very-well made film all around—directing, plot, acting, cinematography, sound-design, and music are all excellent. And I guess it's about a group of people who are, for the most part neither saints nor sinners, but who tend to boldly live on the sinner side of the line. And of them all, the vampire almost seems the most saintly. (And one final note: the Little's projection marred the film with terrible judder, so boo to the Little and boo to digital.)
Red Hollywood at the Dryden, February 21: Having heard of Senator Joseph McCarthy's state-sponsored murders in the 1950's, I was curious to hear the "other" side. Basically this is Thom Andersen's essay highlighting the horrors and failures of the push to rid America of members of the Communist Party. It is a dense and thick film, and I was lacking two important pieces of information: what exactly is communism in that era—and in terms of "members of the Communist Party"—and how did the example film clips act as subversive messages. As such, I spent much of the film trying to articulate my questions, and then to answer them. For instance, I thought "helping people when they were out-of-luck" was a genuinely good trait, so to see it framed as communist propaganda was thoroughly puzzling. Nonetheless, I guess it ended up making me pretty sad as—my beliefs aside—it is well-known that the fleecing of the worker for the benefit of the business owner is celebrated dogma in America, and more prevalent than ever.
Wild at the Cinema, February 28: Sneaking a double-feature in before the wire, there were these two films I thought looked interesting. I heard mixed but overall good things about Wild, but I was immediately put off. As soon as it started, I came up with this synopsis: "a moron tries to walk the Pacific Crest Trail." We're introduced to Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon) who shows up to a hotel with a giant backpack and begins to prepare for a 1,100 mile journey. I'm admittedly an extreme planner, so when I see someone attempt something new without so much as asking a single human being for advice, or consulting a book, I'm already not with them. Thankfully, the PCT in the film is the easiest hike in the world. We're told through flashback that despite having the most caring mother in the world (Laura Dern as Bobbi), she was blindsided by some terrible personal events. So this journey is one of personal discovery that, by sheer luck, does not end in the death of the main character. Now to be frank, this is not a terrible movie, it's just that it's, well, mediocre. And since it's supposed to be realistic, the non-realistic moments are glaring. Like how can a Minnesotan not know how to deal with snow?, how are lodges along the way full of people despite an absolutely desolate trail?, or why would a trail guide fail to mention the lack of water up ahead? If you can get into the personal story and don't tend to worry about realism in a realistic movie, then yeah, this would be a very good film for you. I'm betting the book is better.
Cake at the Cinema, February 28: I'm like, "okay, Jennifer Aniston as Claire, a woman in a chronic-pain support group who becomes obsessed with the suicide of a fellow member … yeah, I can get into that". Only again, the non-realisim in the realistic movie gets to me right away. Claire has some unspecified chronic pain, but it's so unspecified that the pain apparently shifts around so she can only lay down when in a car, but can easily sit for in chairs just fine, and she aches and groans in bed, but can get out of bed with only the apparent achiness of an average 45-year-old. And, like Wild, this is a personal journey story, but I will say this and spoil the movie a little: she doesn't go from a quasi-crippled curmudgeon to a happy, healthy hero, so there's that bit of realism. She does grow a bit … I guess … but it's so slow and subtle that I wonder if I wasn't simply mistaken.