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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I saw quite a few movies this month, partly because I added in some of the movies watched at home. In any case, here we go!:
Nine to Five on DVD at home, November 3: Although I saw this at the Dryden a few years ago, I never reviewed it, so here's that review of when Jenn and I settled in to watch it. In short, it's a hilarious comedy that brilliantly lays out the benefits of workplace equality and workers rights. Lily Tomlin plays Violet, a secretary at Consolidated Companies who's assigned a new hire, Judy (Jane Fonda). Most of the women in the office despise their boss, Franklin—brilliantly played by Dabney Coleman to be a humorous, cartoonish exaggeration of a "sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot". And they sneer at the apparent affair he's having with his busty secretary Doralee (Dolly Parton). When Violet is passed up for a long-deserved promotion, she, Judy, and Doralee half-hatch, half-stumble into a bizarre plot to turn the office around. It's all a wild and fun ride that has all the comeuppance one could want.
Wait Until Dark on DVD at home, November 6: Jenn and I revisited this popular old film. It's still tense and interesting, but neither of us could quite get over the extraordinarily convoluted plot by the bad guys. It's almost plausible that Alan Arkin's bizarre sadist Roat would have been amused by it, but even he was too practical.
Lime Kiln Club Field Day at the Dryden, November 10: I was quite amazed and impressed by this presentation of 1913 footage of "the earliest known surviving feature with a cast of black actors" (according to the Dryden calendar). Since it was incomplete, the story had some gaps, but the gist was there and it was rather amusing. I'd like to draw attention to Bert Williams—the star of the film (in black-face among his unadulterated costars, ostensibly to make the film amenable to white audiences of the time)—who was as much a multidisciplinary virtuoso as the more well-known Duke Ellington. (And I can't omit a mention of the dazzling beauty Odessa Warren Grey, capably playing his love interest.) The film was reconstructed by MoMA Associate Curator Ron Magliozzi, and Preservation Officer Peter Williamson from seven untitled reels of unassembled negative footage from a 1939 acquisition from the Biograph studio upon its closure. Although a print was struck in 1976, it wasn't until 2014 that the footage was analyzed and assembled into a sort-of working print.
The Bad News Bears on DVD at home, November 12: I didn't sell the film well enough, but Jenn agreed to watch. We both enjoyed it a lot—both of us under the mistaken belief that it's film for kids. It's actually more of a tale of redemption for the drunk, washed up, ex-baseball-player coach Butterworth, played perfectly by Walter Matthau. And it's funny. And the kids are all great—a rare treat in a movie with a lot of them.
Tea & Cake (Kirsty Robinson, U.K. 2015, 92 min.) at the Little, November 13: Jenn and I stopped by this film at the High Falls Film Festival. I thought it was overall good, but quite uneven. Some of the color correction and cinematography were lacking, and the film was full of way too many ideas at once. Generations, friends, coming-of-age, growing up, moving out, the reality of one's dream job, one's visible life versus their internal life, tragedies, aging parents, and self-image all crammed into one movie.
Odd Brodsky at the Little, November 14: Jenn liked this selection from the High Falls Film Festival more than I did. While I couldn't fault it for having a good heart—the story of trying, failing, and flailing in L.A.'s entertainment mecca—I didn't care for the bland characters and underwhelming story. On the technical side, while production values were generally quite high (especially in cinematography), much of the audio was ADR with the distracting artificiality of a studio recording.
Bob Roberts at home on DVD, November 15: It was hard for me to watch this as its a little to close to reality … in it, a slick politician wins the hearts of voters through a campaign that celebrates greed and disparity. Written, directed by, and starting Tim Robbins, his political leanings antithetical to his character were glaringly obvious.
The Lennon Report at the Little, November 16: Select as the winning narrative of the High Falls Film Festival, I decided to check it out. Its a great film that documents in near-real-time the sad and solitary events as John Lennon died from the gunshot wounds that cut his life short. When I heard about it at the festival, I thought it was a documentary as the filmmakers did extensive research into the events, interviewing everyone involved. As such, it's got a procedural feel to it, but somehow the lives of everyone involved make for compelling, rich characters.
Underground at the Dryden, November 18: Having seen the recent documentary about the Weather Underground, I was curious to see what the members had to say at (what was to be) toward the end of their active period. The five interviewees formed what was the bulk of the most radical arm of a progressive organization, active in the early 1970s. After three of their friends were killed making bombs, they rethought their actions and decided to destroy property while (successfully) not injuring or killing anyone. Their ideas—that human beings have right to their lives, that the imperialist stance of America was wrong, and that the capitalist system that forced people to wallow in poverty was wrong—still ring true today. And that's when I realized I had lost hope. Here were these young people, fully believing in the possibility of revolution in America, had no idea that the election of Ronald Regan just five years out would result in inequalities and injustices for the next 35 years and counting. All they had worked for was for naught as it would be swept away in the coming decades.
Smokey and the Bandit at home on DVD, November 19: I've been curious to revisit this odd film from the 1970s that was one of a couple of films at the center of the CB craze. Burt Reynolds plays The Bandit alongside his buddy Snowman played by country music star Jerry Reed, and against Jackie Gleason's hilariously over-the-top racist sheriff. The story is ridiculously simple—written by stuntman friend of Reynolds Hal Needham—The Bandit is bet he can't bootleg 800 cases of beer across state lines in under 28 hours. He and Snowman barrel through the highway and meet a young woman on the run from her planned marriage (Sally Field). As simple as it is, it's actually a goofy fun little movie.
Sliding Doors on DVD at home, November 20: I saw this many years ago and remembered it was fairly good (according to IMDb's oddly detailed ratings, I gave it a 5/10 on May 22, 1999), but I have a "policy" that all reviews older than 10 years are invalid and this is no exception. The premise is fascinating: imagine if we could see what happens when some inconsequential event causes a major change in one's life? The execution, however, is severely lacking. Gwyneth Paltrow plays Helen who, after getting fired from her job, just misses a subway train / just catches a subway train home. As such, she is unaware / finds out about an affair her boyfriend is having (a discount Hugh Grant) and her life is suddenly changed. The rest of the film follows both lives until eventually reverting back to one story. The problem is the story is rather inane. Her boyfriend has no redeeming qualities yet inexplicably earns the undying love of two very attractive women; and although the other woman's story is unexplored, Helen is at least also successful. And both Helen and her boyfriend each have best friends whose functions are as sounding boards for their lives. So unfortunately most of the movie both Jenn and I were left wondering, "who cares?" and "why wasn't Paltrow's character just made an American so she could avoid that embarrassing fake accent?"
A Manly Man and My Best Girl at the Dryden, November 24: The short "A Manly Man" was terrible, albeit only shown as an example of Mary Pickford's earliest work. My Best Girl was much better. Pickford was introduced by her carrying pots from a stockroom. As she walked, she dropped some and kept bending and picking them up—all the while a don't see her face … a clever and amusing way to introduce the star. The story was refreshingly mature and Pickford's love interest was well defined. I really did understand her appeal … at one point I found myself reading her lips and suddenly confronted by the reality of her having been alive and vibrant. It was kind of a weird, brief moment of pseudo connection.
Loin du Vietnam (Far From Vietnam) at the Dryden, November 25: A very difficult movie for me to watch, it's a film showing the tumultuous opinions about the Vietnam War at its height. Although there were a few disturbing images, the most challenging parts had to do with the absolute futility of changing the minds of people who support war. One segment was basically a frustrated monologue, centering on the duality of living a privileged life that is predicated on the spills of past war that rang painfully true.
Pulp Fiction at the Dryden, November 28: What a treat for Jenn and I to see a nice clean 35mm print of this defining Quentin Tarantino classic. I remember when I saw this (I think when it came out) and I had a hard time with the then-new-to-me non-linear, interrelated storylines involving a couple hitmen, their boss, a boxer, and a couple petty thieves. It really deserves its praise as all facets of the viewing experience are top notch, making the 2½ hour run-time paced perfectly.
Bridge of Spies at the Cinema, November 30: I headed out to see the biopic double-feature starting with one about a New York lawyer who's selected to defend an unpopular, captured Soviet spy during the heart of the Cold War. With affable Tom Hanks as the lawyer, our affection for him is automatically assured (although I'm sure there are some Hanks haters out there who'd disagree). And Steven Spielberg gives a light touch to his trademark style, allowing the story to speak for itself with only a few heavy-handed metaphors. It turns out this real-life lawyer has a knack for negotiations and diplomacy and is invited to negotiate a spy-for-spy trade which he tries to leverage into a 2-for-1 deal. Overall it's an enjoyable movie to watch and offers a view of someone I never knew existed.
Steve Jobs at the Cinema, November 30: In the second film, Michael Fassbender does his best to emulate Steve Jobs—the founder of Apple Computers who was infamously difficult to work with—but doesn't manage to convey the depth and totality of thought that I've come to understand Jobs had. Unfortunately, the meticulous reconstruction of Apple product releases overshadows the flimsy three-act story. In other words, if you had no idea of the cultural significance of Apple, Macintosh, and NeXT, the film would seem like a flat "so what?" Yeah, Jobs is an incessant jerk to the talented people all around him. So what? He had a challenging relationship with his oldest ally Steve Wozniak (underwhelmingly played by Seth Rogen). So what? Product launches are stressful. So what? And he was a lousy family man, treating his daughter and her mother like nuisances. So what? The whole thing really failed to come together.
Mission Impossible – Rogue Nation at the Cinema, October 6: Jenn opted out on this excursion, so I went to the double-feature myself. This first film was … okay. It's a very long commercial for BMW … er … I mean, a by-the-book action movie. Who's on whose side? Meh … who cares. The impossible passes for merely implausible, and it's entertainment.
Trainwreck at the Cinema, October 6: I didn't know if I'd like this, as I couldn't avoid noticing comic Amy Schumer's name tossed around the Internet. The writing, while not great from a story perspective, is full of funny lines. And not just from Schumer's on-screen doppelganger. (Although she inserted herself as a bit of a Mary Sue, her weightlifter boyfriend is a bit of a dud with a hilariously executed scene where she tries to get him to talk more during sex.) The humor lands more on crude than sophisticated, but there's good on both sides, and even the homosexual jokes are not as much homophobic as they are validly humorous observations. So the story is about Amy, a charmingly likable party-girl who stumbles into her first true love only to screw it up by stubbornly holding onto her commitment-averse beliefs. In the end it's one of the funniest comedies I've seen in a while, and one I'd like to revisit.
The Walk at the Little, October 9: I had a passing curiosity about this fictional film documenting Philippe Petit's 1974 high-wire walk between the newly completed towers of the World Trade Center. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Petit as both narrator and character, and right from the outset, the film's computer-effects-heavy visuals set the fairy-tale tone. It's mostly a procedural film, showing Petit's early life as a street-performing wire-walker that led to his unquenchable desire to perform his most famous feat. Levitt instills so much charm and drive into the fictional Petit that I found him very likable. Of course, having a palpable fear of heights, most of the very lengthy finale was cringeworthy. But I also realized that, in a way, this is Robert Zemeckis' love story to the towers that once were, and to the America they once inhabited.
Only Lovers Left Alive on DVD at Jenn's house, October 10: Well I finally decided to include non-cinematic movies on this list: solely because of this movie. Jenn and I noted this flick open at the Little on May 9, 2014. Confident that indie-cinema darling Jim Jarmusch's name alone would keep it in Rochester's indie-cinema showcase, we traveled over the weekend and managed to skip the screenings all week only to discover that it's run ended on the 15th. If it weren't for other plans, we would have gone to Cornell to see it in September 2014, but there haven't been any other screenings in 150 miles since then. So DVD it was from the library. Aaaanyway … the film centers on two vampires named *sigh* Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) who are living on opposite sides of the world. They are reunited in person when Eve's immature sister Ava arrives and destroys their temporarily stable niche in the world. I enjoyed the valiant attempt to make the duo appear wise beyond their years, playing off how the few human adults they interact with are so comparatively childish. It's a steadily paced study of the two characters and one I was very glad to have finally seen.
Guidance at the Little, October 15: I picked this comedy to see as part of the ImageOut Film Festival this year. Written, directed, and starring Pat Mills, it's a "satirical spin on his own history as a child actor" since he last worked 10 years prior on the TV show, "You Can't Do That on Television." Clearly exaggerating his own experiences, the film's quick wit can't quite hide the terrible decisions David makes by taking a job as a high-school guidance counselor under astonishingly false pretenses. It's definitely an entertaining movie while simultaneously being quite odd as real-world repercussions of his actions just slide off him with no impact whatsoever.
Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films at the Little, October 17: I knew a little bit about Cannon Films as I was a fan of the cheesy, often direct-to-video action films of the 1980s and 1990s. But I found this documentary lacking. The biggest sin is the failure to secure interviews with the Israeli cousins Menahem Golan, and Yoram Globus who bought the struggling studio in 1979. The problem, revealed in a tongue-in-cheek note at the end of the movie, is that the cousins had cranked out their own documentary of the studio titled The Go-Go Boys: The Inside Story of Cannon Films. Despite a few witty talking heads, the documentary slogs through the critically ill-received output of the studio, save for the occasional gem like Breakin', and never manages to make it particularly entertaining. All it really wanted me to do was to seek out Go-Go Boys.
Nightcrawler on Netflix at home, October 18: I somewhat wanted to see this when it was at the Little but passed it up. It's the story of Louis Bloom who breaks out of his impoverished thievery by becoming a Los Angeles stringer—filming graphic scenes and selling them to television news organizations. Jake Gyllenhaal captures Bloom's dangerously sociopathic and methodical ability to aggressively win—a combination of skills well-suited to the coldly profiteering nature of the job. He quickly proves himself and breaks a huge story for a last-place news station, only to insert himself into the action without remorse. I found it to be a perfect encapsulation of free-market Capitalism where the most ruthless sociopaths are the most successful as they are unencumbered by the morality and ethics that prevent everyday people from criminal profiteering.
99 Homes at the Little, October 21: Jenn and I decided to catch this before it left the Little. Dennis (Andrew Garfield), after losing the family home he shared with his mother Lynn (Laura Dern) and son, takes a job with Rick (Michael Shannon) the man who evicted him on behalf of the bank. The movie strives to be the Wall Street of the 2010s but fails to make the conflicts relatable. Dennis ends up an impotent pawn in a systemic game much larger than he, making the resolution largely unsatisfying. I could feel the seething rage in Ramin Bahrani's script and direction, but he was unable to bring the story to anything but a realistic conclusion in which wealth, power, and exploitation are indistinguishable.
Phoenix at the Cinema, October 24: Although I watched Mr. Holmes with Jenn, I already reviewed it and don't have anything to add, so I'll just skip right to the second feature. In it, a concentration-camp survivor tries to piece together a life in post-war Berlin—albeit with a surgically-reconstructed face that makes her former self unrecognizable (although fortunately without any scars or physical deformities.) She eventually finds her husband but he doesn't recognize her and has become something between a numbly desperate opportunist and a traitor. Perhaps both. The film has quite a bit of depth, and writing now—several weeks later—I'm still realizing new ways these individuals were so cruelly damaged.
Keisatsukan (Policeman) at the Dryden, October 27: I went with Jenn and her friends Lindsay and Whitney. It's the story of a policeman getting reacquainted with a childhood friend who is revealed to be involved with the criminal underworld. Although methodically paced, the audience is way ahead of the characters, so it seems rather slow. That aside, it's a very watchable piece of cinematic history.
Strange Brew on DVD at home, October 28: I picked this up along with a couple dozen other flicks at the Record Archive's sale over the weekend—a few years ago I was under the delusion that online movie distribution would make every movie available, but between pathetically small selections and lousy video quality, I'm trying to buy up as many movies I like so I'll at least have access to them. In any case, Jenn didn't show any interest in this oddly popular Canadian film from the 1980s that centered on the fictional MacKenzie brothers played by SCTV alums Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas. The film starts with a quite clever film-within-a-film structure where the disastrous presentation finds the brothers desperate for cash for beer. It's basically a "stoner comedy" but with beer substituted for marijuana in which the two brothers discover a plot at the brewery to drug the world for profit. Despite absurd developments like a ghost-haunted computer, musically-controlled hockey players, and a heroic flying dog, the movie manages to keep perfect balance to maintain its humorous plausibility.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari at the Little, October 31: Although Jenn had seen it before, I hadn't. This particular screening was with the Andrew Alden Ensemble who did an okay job of scoring the film—sometimes their music was too far from the mood of the film, and other times the music drew too much attention to the performance, but mostly it worked well. The movie unfortunately started with an image quality that rivaled a badly done animated GIF with digital artifacts and brutal contrast. Although it improved, I was critical of the oversaturation of the film's tinting, the slapdash feel of the video transfer, and the digitally-added English intertitles that mimicked the peculiar style of the originals but whose slow scroll terribly interrupted the pacing. The film itself is about a street-festival attraction of a psychic somnambulist and his sinister handler, Dr. Caligari. The sets and visual design are uniquely brilliant, and I only wish I had seen a worthy rendition.
Mr. Holmes at the Little, September 3: I was going to see A Walk in the Woods which was actually at the theaters in the back, so since I was already at Little 1, I saw Mr. Holmes instead. It's about Sherlock Holmes, now in retirement, piecing together the circumstances of his last case—which he can't quite remember. It's a pretty good story and a pretty good mystery, and Ian McKellen was excellent. I liked that although thematically different, it was still a Sherlock-Holmes-style mystery at its core. (And the Little once again tried its best to ruin the filmgoing experience: the second fifth of the screen from the left had a darkened band running vertically—thank goodness they saved all that money getting rid of their real projectionists—grrrr!)
The Hand that Feeds at the Dryden, September 4: Kicking off this year's Labor Film Series is a documentary about the workers at a popular (profitable) bagel shop in New York's Upper East Side. The majority of them are "undocumented"—having entered the United States without acquiring citizenship or work visas. As such, their employers abuse them: not only through a lack of human respect, but also by shortchanging them on their pay and threatening deportation if they even attempt to do something as radical as taking a sick day. The workers organize under the reluctant and soft-spoken Mahoma López. They are assisted by the Laundry Workers Center to bring their desire to unionize to a vote, to organize a strike, and to demand to be paid minimum wage while the Occupy Wall Street protesters also assist by occupying the store. The investment group that owns the store decides to shut it down to bust the union, so they must scramble to eek out their meager existence without any chance of employment. In all it's a solid documentary and tells a moving and inspiring story.
Irrational Man at the Cinema, September 5: Woody Allen's films have always been hit-or-miss with me. Thankfully this one hit … although I wasn't sure at first as the characters are introduced through inner monologue. Abe (Joaquin Phoenix) is a despondent, alcoholic philosophy professor who's taking up teaching at a new college. His rogue reputation precedes him and the school is abuzz, particularly with his student Jill (Emma Stone), and Abe's adult fling Rita (Parker Posey). Abe protests Emma's advances, citing her long-term relationship with Roy (Jamie Blackley). In Woody Allen fashion, Abe's depression stems from his relationship with philosophy offering only more questions about life. But a chance overheard conversation leads Abe to find purpose and put those philosophical musings to practical use. What I thought worked very well was the way Abe's deep expertise and mental maturity play against Jill's respectable but comparatively shallow and immature view of the world, yet how neither can find an adequate answer. Also, the movie is Cinema—the characters live in a fantastic perfection of our own world. When they dine at a fancy restaurant, it's an amazing fancy restaurant—perfect exactly because it's stripped to its essentials and wholly fake. Even the weather is commanded by the moment, although you'd never even bother to notice. It was a "real" movie.
Infinitely Polar Bear at the Cinema, September 5: I figured I'd catch the second feature in which Cameron (Mark Ruffalo) is a man whose bipolar disorder complicates the life of his daughters and their mother (who I never quite knew if they were formally married so I phrased that awkwardly.) The slice-of-life was somewhat interesting but since it takes place over several years, I was disappointed that there wasn't more of a character arc for Cameron. I guess it was okay enough—the daughters adapted to their fathers quirks living in Boston while their mother had a tougher time trying to keep things together while she worked on a masters degree in New York.
The Look of Silence at the Little, September 7: I don't know where to begin with this one … it's a documentary that follows Adi, an optometrist in Indonesia who lives in the same small village as the people who brutally murdered his brother two years before he was born. This situation is not uncommon in Indonesia where over half a million people were killed from 1965 to 1966 in the name of ridding the country of communists, and where the killers are now the leading party in the country. The American-supported genocide was orchestrated with copious propaganda to convince the citizens to rise up against their neighbors. In all it added another underscore to my firm belief that all murder is done for false reasons. (As a comparatively inconsequential side note, the Little once again marred the screening by running the projector on the wrong aspect ratio so the subtitles were cropped off screen until another patron and myself complained.)
A Walk in the Woods at the Little, September 7: To follow up, I decided to take on a poorly-rated, but hopefully fluffy comedy. Despite Robert Redford and Nick Nolte only half-phoning in their performances, the movie is just banal. Redford plays real-life author Bill Bryson whose book is the basis for the movie, but what works well in literature fails horribly in cinema. First is that in a movie, there needs to be a setup—you can't just show up at the first day of a hike (or, see Prince Avalanche) and the story leading to the first day of hiking is painfully amateurish. Second—by example—an early character is an annoying know-it-all who's humorously portrayed way over-the-top which works fine as a vignette in quasi-non-fiction literary humor, but seems suddenly unrealistic in film. Third—by the same example—when you introduce a character that interacts with your protagonists for a while, there either needs to be a conclusive divergence from that character or else the audience expects her to appear later—yet in this case, she just goes away. Which is basically the final problem with the film overall: whenever there's a hint of conflict, it's immediately dropped, and I gather from the film as a whole and a few reviews of the book I read that this is a reflection of Bill Bryson's modus operandi.
Cops at the Dryden, September 8: The Dryden screened three Buster Keaton films on the night Jenn returned home. In this first one, I was kind of annoyed by the lack of a plot—it's basically a bunch of implausibly stitched-together vignettes to highlight a bunch of quite funny gags.
The Balloonatic at the Dryden, September 8: Next up is more of the same, this time with the addition of a hot-air balloon and some high-wire stunts.
Sherlock Jr. at the Dryden, September 8: This final early Keaton classic has more of a plot, although the ambiguity between real, dream, and film would be an inspiration for animated comedies like Looney Tunes. It's essentially about a projectionist who tries to figure out who framed him for the theft of a pocket watch. But as he dozes off at one point, he jumps into the on-screen action only to be confounded by cuts to different scenes—executed absolutely perfectly by this master of physical comedy. And perhaps the cleverest of all the gags involves doing a quick-change jumping through a window that you can't help believing is real … at least on first viewing.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl at the Cinema, September 14: Jenn and I were both wanting to see this and were disappointed that it left the Little after just a week … I even flaked on seeing it on Saturday evening when we were looking for something to do. Anyway, it's a movie that focuses on a 15-year-old girl in San Francisco losing her virginity—with her mother's 35-year-old boyfriend. It focuses on Minnie's understanding of the situation (her character is wise beyond her years helping us see what a teen likely wouldn't know) and how she leaps into casual sex, alcohol, and drug use in a misguided attempt at adulthood. The adults are refreshingly painted from a teen's limited perspective with just enough background for the viewer to fill in the obvious-from-an-adult-perspective situation. And the film doesn't shy away from Minnie's nudity, resulting an intimate and personal—but ultimately more clinical than titillating experience. (And for any busybodies clucking their tongues, Bel Powley, playing Minnie, actually turned 23 in 2015.)
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. at the Cinema, September 19: Jenn and I saw the trailer for this and it seemed like fun. And, well, it was. It was clever, entertaining, and action-filled … just what you'd expect. Oddly, though, it was a remarkably similar plot to the superior Spy we saw last month.
Cyrano de Bergerac at the Dryden, September 22: Jenn and I went to this screening of the unique stencil-colored print of an entertaining tale. The charming hero has a huge nose and this, he feels, repels any woman he'd desire. So when his crush is smitten by another, he helps the fellow with his eloquent words only—but will she fall for his dashing looks or our hero's words? The film's appearance is unique because of its coloration that gives it a dappled watercolor look. Some scenes are rendered startlingly realistic while others take on an impressionistic aura as the colors dance around their borders.
Pawn Sacrifice at the Little, September 25: I was curious about this biopic about chess wizard Bobby Fischer played by Tobey Maguire. I only knew fleeting bits about Fischer's chess skills as he ostensibly fought the cold war by being America's (and the world's) only significant threat against Russia's domination in chess. While Maguire captured the "genius on the brink of madness", the film overall was a bit flat. Its linear narrative dragged it down, starting with Fischer as a child in Brooklyn. The bizarre relationship triangle between Fischer, his trusted Father Bill Lombardy, and xenophobic, jingoistic lawyer Paul Marshall seems too fake to be true. And compared to two other recent biopics whose subjects I knew little about, it's a bit more interesting than Big Eyes but not as engaging as Love & Mercy.
and ½ Jurassic World at the Cinema, September 29: After having watched the entertaining reenactment-filled Nostalgia Critic review, I figured we should shoot for seeing the last half of the film. So Jenn and I meandered in to the theater about an hour in. Even then, my rule for improving not-so-good movies didn't work this time: even though we skipped what was likely banal introductions of each one-note character, we had them figured out instantly. It was basically like an inferior version of Jurassic Park, only with more boring characters who have no on-screen chemistry so you really don't care about anyone or anything going on. I'm guessing you'd be better off watching the last 35 minutes or so (although you might miss the Jimmy Buffet cameo, but you can just go back and see that on the Internet.)
The Gift at the Cinema, September 29: I was lukewarm on seeing this, but Jenn saw all the critical praise and we checked it out. Simon and Robyn are just moving from Chicago into a new home in Simon's hometown of Los Angeles. No sooner do they move in that they're visited by Simon's former high-school classmate Gordo. An outcast in school, Gordo's behavior doesn't seem to have changed much as he persistently injects himself in to Simon and Robyn's life. From here, it's essentially about Robyn trying to uncover the truth about Gordo and Simon's past. I found it a bit inexplicable that Robyn never knew that Simon was sociopathically manipulative despite, well, everything about him. Overall it's an entertaining movie and kept me guessing to the very end. Plus Simon is perfectly played by Jason Bateman. But if you'd prefer to take your individuals-remorseless-about-a-brutal-past without being watered down, go see The Look of Silence (reviewed above) instead.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
Portrait of Jennie at the Dryden, May 2: Jenn and I went to see this as part of the Eastman House's Nitrate Picture Show. It's an well-written tale of star-crossed lovers—or perhaps just an artist's delusion.
Salad Days: A Decade of Punk in Washington, DC (1980-90) at the Cinema, May 4: I got to see this very good documentary about—well, just look at the title. I found it quite inspiring because it defies the American experience that making art/things/a difference is only for exceptional people—punk lets people know that creativity is natural and available to anyone. Plus, it reminded me of my days seeing bands at the Bug Jar.
The Clouds of Sils Maria at the Little, May 6: Jenn and I weren't sure about this one based on what we saw about the reviews. Fortunately, we both found it to be an engaging and interesting movie. realistic characters, good depth. It follows an actress, Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) and her young assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) as they travel to an awards ceremony, and then how Maria gets involved with a remake of a film that launched her career except she would now be playing the older woman who's driven to suicide by he younger peer. The methodical pacing and fair treatment of all characters was well executed and worthwhile. And I'm sufficiently out of touch to have not noticed numerous pop-culture references and jokes that seem to have annoyed other reviewers.
Wall Street at the Dryden, May 7: Apparently, when the film opened in 1987, audiences were drawn to the charismatic Gordon Gekko played by Michael Douglas even though it was clear we were supposed to sympathize with Martin Sheen's level-headed salt-of-the-earth Carl Fox (father of Charlie Sheen and character Bud Fox, respectively.) Today's sociopolitical climate is a bit different, though, and Gekko seemed more like the arrogant sociopath hedonist he was intended to be. In all it was an interesting movie of the 1980s that encapsulates the mood of the era quite well.
Avengers: The Age of Ultron at Regal Cinema Culver Ridge, May 9: Jenn wanted to go see this and I figured I'd give it a shot. It was my first modern 3D movie and the effect was as good as I think is possible, but I still didn't feel like if I had seen the movie in 2D that I would have regretted it. Probably because I'm not a Marvel aficionado, I found a lot of the film to be quite boring. I felt like I was being lackadaisically and mechanically dragged through a story solely to get to the next dazzling special effects showcase. The effects were kind of cool, I guess, but they're still there as demonstration rather than by necessity.
An Honest Liar at the Little, May 12: James "The Amazing" Randi is a magician and an evangelist against charlatanism. His fundamental belief is that magic and trickery are wonderful for entertainment, but vile when used to trick people into falsehoods. The documentary, interestingly, revealed more about Randi's life than I knew before, but then again, all I knew him as was a master debunker. During the videoconference question-and-answer, I asked Randi if there was danger in relying too much on science, intending to key in on the notion of "true believers" who reflexively shut out all opposing viewpoints. He certainly missed that point and unfortunately responded as a true-believer in science. Then again, he's well into his 80s and it was rather late, so I can imagine he might not have been at his sharpest.
The Trespasser at the Dryden, May 15: Jenn and I got a chance to see this very early "talkie". I found the camera work—particularly its sweeping camera moves—to be excellent and with a modern feel. The characters were deep and their relationships were very natural and honest-seeming. An early scene had two waking lovers lounging together in the most natural way—and a way that would soon be banned by the Hays censorship codes just a year later.
Félix and Meira at the Little, May 16: Jenn and I saw the preview for this and thought it looked pretty good. I appreciated the gentle, metered pacing more than Jenn although both of us liked the movie overall. Félix is a man adrift at life, dealing with the impending death of his father; Meira is a married woman in a devout Jewish household who longs to express herself. They meet serendipitously and are immediately intrigued by one another. I think the thing I appreciated most was, as the story unfolds, each of the main characters is revealed to be not as simple as they first appear. And I was able to let the overarching story rise above my disdain for the religious misogyny—I'm sure if it concerned me I could equally forgive Félix's slacker lifestyle, or Meira's childlike naïveté.
Rocks in my Pockets at the Cinema, May 19: I got a chance to see this animated feature from the charming Latvian/American filmmaker Signe Baumane. It is nearly a documentary about Baumane's family's history of mental illness—particularly suicidal depression, but told in a remarkably frank and surprisingly humorous way. Her accounts of her own depression and the personal, details of the experiences of her family are very honest and interesting. The remainder of the film, though, is somewhat uneven, spending a lot of time on seemingly inconsequential family history and on her eldest kin's stonewalling that haunts more recent generations. Nonetheless, in totality, it paints a remarkable picture. Plus, Baumane herself was vivacious and engaged the audience with a few of her paper mâche rocks and a movie-quiz contest for several of the 30,000 hand-drawn frames.
Night Nurse at the Dryden, May 22: Jenn and I got to see this early Barbara Stanwyck film made before the Hays censorship codes were enforced. Karen Noske introduced the film and mentioned how shocking some of the the scenes were (even to modern audiences), and how many double entendres they used. Unfortunately, I missed all the double entendres and didn't really find it "shocking". Nonetheless, it's kind of an odd movie and worth checking out. Stanwyck plays a newly hired night-nurse at a hospital where she sees disturbing injuries and is under constant scrutiny by the head nurse. She gets an assignment taking care of a couple sick children but discovers something amiss. I say the film is kind of odd because the whole central plot about the children felt like it was added on in the middle; as if the writers suddenly learned that a story works better if there's some kind of conflict. In any case, there's a scene where Stanwyck shows her power, ferociously standing up to a man (an early role by Clark Gable of all people). The thing that I thought special was she never flinched and it seemed like Gable was genuinely afraid, having a hard time not backing down—most actors I've seen tend to flinch in deference, if only for a split second.
Iris at the Little, May 27: Jenn mentioned this film and wanted to see it so I went along with virtually no information beforehand. It's an expertly shot documentary by Albert Maysles about octogenarian fashion designer Iris Apfel—the "rare bird of fashion" and self-described "geriatric starlet." As would be obvious to anyone who's seen me, fashion is not something I aspire towards, so it takes a lot for me to notice. While I found Apfel's designs interesting, I'm not grabbed by them; her personal style, though, would certainly draw my attention and earns my respect. Overall it's nice to find someone whose vibrancy and grace is a model for drinking deeply from life.
Occupy the Farm at the Little, May 28: I wanted to see this documentary about people in a fairly poor neighborhood in San Francisco who attempt to claim designated agricultural land before it was ruined and turned into commercial development. I think I was the only one in the audience who was not inspired. Rather than see hope in the "regular people valiantly take on the aristocracy" story, I could see clearly the fact that three old, rich white guys were equal to a community of 10,000 people, and that industry, police, the government, places of higher learning—every pillar of hierarchical authority—have been gleefully conquered by the ideology of greed. So aside from that kind of cynical diatribe, I prefer to wallow in my pit of gloom and quietly offer whatever support I can from the sidelines, hoping to not derail the optimism and strength that is the only possibility for a better world.
Furious Seven at the Cinema, May 30: I was looking for something to do and thought I'd be as amused by this car-chase installment as I was the last one. I was a bit bored at times between car chases, but overall entertained—I will freely admit my standards are extremely low for this kind of film, so I forgive a whole lot of inanity. When I wasn't watching the ridiculously contrived scenes of automotive trickery, I amused myself trying to imagine how this could be written as satire. Unable to improve upon the mind-numbing dialog, I wondered if the Furious films are actually self-contained satire: I laughed out loud at least twice at the absurd events that transpired in the form of a "plot", and at one point out-loud asked for more car chases when I was bored with the dragging interpersonal developments. And aside from the comically sexist presentation of women (although admittedly some of the men are exceptional physical specimens), this film would pass the Bechdel/Wallace Test.
Insurgent at the Cinema, May 30: I knew nothing of this film until I started watching and swear I saw a parody trailer or scathing review but just can't find it. It didn't bother me that this is the sequel to Divergent since the simple storyline was pretty easy to pick up. What did bother me was the "young adult" writing style which is basically "this makes no sense but instead of fixing it we'll call it 'young adult'". I gather in the film you get a personality test that fits you into one of five kinds of people unless, you know, you're human and actually are not a perfect fit into any one group—but that makes you "divergent" which means that you are special and a hunted underdog. Oooh! Just like, you know, everybody watching the film. Seriously: young adult does not need to mean "garbage"—please! After I ran out of popcorn, I decided that anything else was better to do so I left. Not even Shailene Woodley's short haircut I adore so much could keep me in that theater.
20,000 Days on Earth at the Dryden, March 4: Jenn and I caught this quasi-documentary. It's a fascinating film that ostensibly documents a "day in the life" of musician Nick Cave. However, it is fiction-within-a-fiction in that it actually documents Nick Cave's public persona, and as such is a fake documentary. Regardless, it's a unique and wonderful method of storytelling.
A Year Along the Abandoned Road at the Dryden, March 5: I was thrilled to get to this first of two short films. This one is an unbelievable time-lapse film shot in motion along a road in a Norwegian lakeside village. It must have been a strange and unique experience to shoot—apparently taking one image each day, moving the camera a few inches, then waiting to take the next image the next day, and repeating for a whole year. It's an eerie and beautiful experience to watch, making one feel like an otherworldly being floating through the world unseen.
An Injury to One at the Dryden, March 5: The title is taken from the Union phrase, "an injury to one is an injury to all", and the film documents the relationship of business and labor in the mining town of Butte, Montana in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It's a haunting and evocative film that highlights the philosophy that winners write history. In this case, the winners were the lucrative mining companies; the biggest loser being International Workers of the World (IWW) organizer Frank Little who was murdered by mining company goons parties unknown.
Whiplash at the Little, March 7: Jenn, Chris, and I went to see this together, although I was leaning toward another movie. The first thing I noticed was the dark and muddy digital recording—in attempting to capture the early morning of New York like an homage to Taxi Driver, it only succeeds in making itself look like a 1970's horror movie with inky blacks and dingy colors. Fortunately, I got over that. The movie moves along well and pits two passionate characters against one another: one a driven, aspiring drummer, and the other a abusive music professor obsessed with perfection in his collegiate ensemble. I assure this is no spoiler: the moment of divining greatness is not something that can be found through calculation, but rather through passionate happenstance.
The Gang's All Here at the Dryden, March 16: I went to the Senior Matinee today … I guess to feel even younger than at an average Dryden screening. I guess set in mid-war America, it makes sense, but otherwise it's about a reprehensible man who stalks and rapes a dancer (née "uses his soldier's bravado to win the heart of a dancer"), all the while stringing along his soon-to-be fiancée. Fortunately it works out in the end because the girlfriend knew all along it was just a relationship based on familial ties just like the rapist believes, and the dancer loves the rapist, so it wasn't rape after all! Howeverrr … it is worth seeing two rather unbelievable Carmen Miranda-centered Busby Berkeley dance numbers that push the boundaries of cinema and clearly pushed the limits of Technicolor filming (just watch those giant cameras shake as they are rapidly hoisted into the air—yikes!)
Cotton Road at the Little, March 21?: Jenn and I caught just one of the films at the Greentopia Film Festival this year. It's the story of how cotton is grown in South Carolina, shipped all over the world (particularly China) where it is made into fabric and clothing, then shipped back to South Carolina. Notable to me was how the manual laborers—the American cotton farmers and the Chinese clothing makers—existed in insufferable conditions while each step removed lived in more comfort: the American industrial cotton gin, the refined cotton warehouses, and the Chinese warehouses for fabrics faring better; the shipping companies in both nations and the American retailers faring best of all. Jenn and I both found the music to be cloying and melancholic (revealing the only evidence of the filmmaker's bias), but many other people liked it. While the Rochester audience lobbed lackluster questions at director Laura Kissel, she revealed at one point that the hardest place to film was not in China but in American retail stores. One final note: the Greentopia Film Festival asked us to fill out a survey online for a chance to win an Apple iPad—without a lick of irony—despite the widespread knowledge that Apple's products are made in Chinese factories with working conditions as bad or worse than depicted in the film.
What We Do in the Shadows at the Little, March 22: Jenn and I went to this hilarious mockumentary about a group of vampires living in New Zealand in modern times. I didn't know exactly what to expect, but I was pleased that I found it extremely funny. Perhaps it was from bottling up all my criticisms after my recent indoctrination into the Cult of Buffy, but the juxtaposition humor was plentiful.
The Red Shoes at the Dryden, March 27: Jenn and I went to this Technicolor classic featuring the revered camerawork of Jack Cardiff—which was, sadly, projected from a restored 35mm print that itself did not use the Technicolor 3-layer process. It's that 3-layer process with its imperfect color registration and the impossibility of perfect focus (since each color is a different distance from the lens) that gives it its nearly imperceptible shimmer whereas the modern color emulsion made from digitally-scanned 3-strip negatives has perfect registration and a single focal plane that affords razor-sharp perfection, as undesirable as it is in this particular case. Anyway, the movie itself is quite good: music student Julian and ballerina Victoria join a ballet troupe with a hard-nosed director (making the later Whiplash comparable in subject-matter). As both rise to stardom, the latest production is The Red Shoes, based on the Hans Christian Andersen story in which a dancer wishes for red shoes which happen to be cursed and she can't stop dancing until she finally dies. Both get intertwined in one another as they are central to the ballet.
Relatos Salvajes (Wild Tales) at the Little, March 29: Jenn was excited to see this after seeing the name Agustín Almodóvar, thinking he directed it, but it was actually Damián Szifrón and Almodóvar produced it. It's a series of 6 short stories of vengeance. And as is the case with successfully-executed vengeance: it's always and already gone wrong. The tales are told as black comedy and largely succeed … I thought the more-petty violations made for funnier stories. In the end, it all felt kind of repetitive, and I was reminded how much I liked the similarly revenge-themed black-comedy, God Bless America, which I wrote about.
OnFilm Shorts by Karpo Godina and Davorin Marc at the University of Rochester Hoyt Auditorium, March 30: I go to see this fantastic program—check out the blog post for the complete review.
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.
Twenties at the Little, December 2: I didn't really know what to expect in the Rochester premiere of this locally-produced comedy—and I'm pleased to say that overall I was rather impressed. Initially I was distracted by the low-budget quality of the cinematography, what with looking like it was shot on a cell phone. But once James Battaglia's Jake and Zac Hobert Thompson's Luke got to interact, I started to understand better. The gist of the story is that these two mid-twenty-somethings are listlessly adrift in their post-college years until they get a windfall of a bag full of $20 bills … which turns out to be counterfeit. The film is entirely carried by the very funny interactions between Jake and Luke. But more importantly, I think the filmmakers have successfully and comprehensively captured the zeitgeist of their generation: from the defeatist apathy toward employment, to the powerful platonic love they have for one another, to the way their emotional range is invisibly bounded to prevent any real harm. And up until now, cinema has based its visual style on the 35mm film camera with a 50mm lens and careful composition to not waste expensive film, but this generation was raised on smart phones with wide-angle lenses and zero-cost images, and Boris Sapozhnikov's camera work exactly captures that aesthetic.
The Homesman at the Little, December 13: I didn't know exactly what to expect of this, only knowing it was a modern western by Tommy Lee Jones (who I know more as an actor, but has directed a few films as well), and Jenn joined me. I was rather surprised at how coldly brutal it started out, and how that brutality merely ebbs and flows throughout the story. It's bracketed by incredible beauty, lending a bit of rationale for why anyone would bother to stay—aside, perhaps, from a desperation to find a place to be in the then-modern world. Finally, it's a fascinating tale of a woman who does her best to keep her strength and sanity viable through a long and (you guessed it) brutal journey. Jones acts in the picture as a bumbling outlaw with a coldly self-serving streak. In all it's a rather potent film that I may not seek out for a long while to revisit.
Side by Side at the Dryden, December 16: Keanu Reeves is a surprisingly amiable host (given his typically … umm … stoic acting performances) as he interviews the titans of modern cinema to discuss the recent birth of digital filmmaking, its incredibly rapid adoption, and how it compares to film filmmaking. I was personally saddened that film has been ousted by the most advanced digital cameras today since they are capable of more dynamic range and resolution than any chemical film (even though digital projection is still lacking in that same digital range.) (And, oddly, even though the film was a special 35mm transfer made specifically for exhibition at the George Eastman House, most of the dark areas of the recording were completely obliterated black, lacking any shadow-detail that film could very well have provided.) But I lament the (largely) collective ignorance of "what is lost"—a common issue I have when new ideas oust old. For film specifically, it is the fact that film has proven itself a worthy archival candidate whereas there continues to be no way to archive digital data. Even the first films ever made have usable visual data today after 120 years or more with a carefully-controlled environment extending that by many more decades, but digital recordings made on now-outdated technology are lost after as short as 10 years (e.g. DV tape). And worse, the only way to retain digital data is with regularly-operated and regularly-replaced hard drives, making for an expensive, labor-intensive process that depends on continuous plentiful funding of such an archive—a very necessary feature that has proven to be impossible in the long-term.
The Searchers at the Dryden, December 17: I returned to the Dryden for a taste of Western's roots with one of the best-known and highly-rated such films in history. Like the much more recent Homesman earlier this month, I was struck by the beauty of the vistas and the interesting story. But I was also shocked by the presumption that Native Americans were the brutal enemy. The whole idea that the white man went into a populated country, overran the existing economy, trampled the ecosystem, slaughtered the people who lived there, and then had the stunning audacity to consider the brutal retaliation "wrong" is preposterous to me. In the end I found it quite hard to separate myself from that mindset and just enjoy the damn movie.
The 78 Movie Project at the Little, December 19: As an aficionado of 78s, Jenn encouraged me to go see this documentary of a project to recording artists around the country using an antique record cutting machine. As a documentary it's not that great—lacking in a lot of areas including sound quality (at least at the beginning few artists). But the subject is interesting on a number of levels. First, it was fascinating to see the surprised reactions of musicians listen to the freshly-cut recording, even though they had presumably been recorded before and heard their own voices immediately … there was something apparently quite special about this device. Second, the interludes at the Library of Congress' collection of prior incarnations of this project were fascinating, if a little disappointing in the lack of any playback. And third, the idea of recording sound for the longest-term storage (much like I said about film in Side by Side, above) is best done with records.
Big Eyes at the Little, December 27: Having both been aware of the "big-eyed" pictures of children painted in the 1960's and 1970's, Jenn and I were curious to see this fictionalized account of the lives of the artist Margaret Keane and her husband Walter Keane. And although we were also interested in Tim Burton's take on it (along with music by his long-time collaborator Danny Elfman), I was somewhat relieved that it was not a typical Burton & Elfman partnership but a traditional narrative with a straightforward plot and characterization. The story goes that Margaret met Walter after she had established her "big-eyed child" style, they married and he took credit for her work after which the paintings skyrocketed in popularity. She eventually left him and abandoned the charade, winning a court case to prove herself the rightful artist. The movie does little more than tell this story, and since it's basically a 1960's gregarious white male versus a 1960's desperate and reserved single mother, the emotional notes are pretty narrow in range and what you expect. Despite this, somehow the movie works, though, if in its own subdued way. One thing I thought I noticed that I imagine nobody else did was the way the digital effects—to make outdoor scenes look like the 1960s—were a little off and kind of intrusive. Faraway scenes of San Francisco looked to have some digital jittery edges, scenes on the open road (presumably to remove cell towers and add old-style telephone poles) made the road look sort-of flat and animated, and the teal 1950's car (a Mercury Montclair, maybe?) sometimes looked like its color was out-of-gamut—an unnatural teal that would have been impossible for the camera to capture (but that a computer could generate).
Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown) at the Dryden, December 30: Jenn was especially interested in this Pedro Almodóvar film from 1988 and I was merely curious about it. It's about … well, it's a tangled tale of a woman whose boyfriend is leaving her and she is subletting their apartment, coincidentally, to his son (played by a young Antonio Banderas) and his son's fiancée; meanwhile her friend thinks the police are after her because she met some terrorists, and the lot of them end up in the apartment. I couldn't tell if there were aspirations for the film to be a social or political commentary—perhaps from my lack of knowledge of Spain and 1988 Spain—but the film is engaging and entertaining for certain.
Gone Girl at the Cinema, December 31: Having seen the second feature (St. Vincent) already, Jenn and I spent our New Year's Eve at the South Wedge Diner and with this film. It's ostensibly about a woman who goes missing and her husband trying to figure out what happened, but it delves into a much more complex story and a commentary on the sensationalist media's portrayal of people in crisis. It's definitely a good thriller—if not a great one—although I do want to check out Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl: a novel to fill in the details that seemed to be missing from the film.