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

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

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Ten More Movies: October through December, 2013

So here's the last 10 movies I watched …

  1. Escape from Tomorrow at the Little, October 26: Jenn and I went to see this because the description sounded interesting enough: it's about a man who goes with his family to Disney World and his life is thrown into turmoil; the kicker being it was filmed at Disney without permission. Well, it would have been an okay movie if it hadn't had arbitrary plot twists and red herrings all over it. It starts out pretty strong but quickly degrades into an incomprehensible mess.
  2. Inequality for All at the Little, October 30: Jenn and I saw this essay film about inequality in American finances. Not just "some people earn more" kind of inequality, but "400 people earn as much as everybody else combined" kind of inequality (really.) It's ostensibly a documentary that gives former United States Secretary of Labor Robert Reich the ability to explain things from an economists perspective. On the one hand, it's an eye-opening and engaging film, but on the other, it preaches the "business-as-usual" mindset where a strong middle class buys like crazy to keep the economy chugging along to everyone's supposed benefit. But do we really need all that stuff? Maybe the economy can work if a robust middle class was socially conditioned to buy quality, durable products made by workers earning a living with their wages rather than to buy as much of the cheapest slave-labor-produced products one can get jeir hands on.
  3. The Intruder at the Dryden, November 1: This is a brilliant film on the dangers of mob mentality and how easy it is to coerce a mob during a revolution: a rabble-rouser heads to a small town in the south to start a counter-revolution to school desegregation. And it was created by Roger Corman and his brother, Gene at peril to the cast and crew: it was filmed in the south during desegregation (and perhaps, as mentioned by Lori Donnelly at the Eastman House, the only film about the Civil Rights Movement shot during the Civil Rights Movement.) It's a film well-worth checking out.
  4. Let the Fire Burn at the Little, November 12: An impressive document of the misguided actions of the Philadelphia government and police against the MOVE organization that led to them bombing and burning a house in 1985 containing 13 members, eleven of whom perished. Read more in my blog post about it.
  5. Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus at the Little, November 13: This one is about a guy who's a kind-of unlikeable drug thrill-seeker who meets girl who's a kind-of unlikeable modern hippie and they go with three Chilean guys (whose personalities are not nearly as well defined) to partake of a cactus-based mind-altering concoction. Jenn and I went together and, when prompted what I thought of it, I said "it was okay." I stand by that: it's an okay movie. There is some redeeming quality to it, but it's not perfect … you know: "okay".
  6. The Light in the Dark at the Dryden, November 19: Philip Carli spent a significant portion of his introduction trying to set our expectations low enough for this film. It was indeed historically interesting: the fourth and last film made with a not-so-talented actress-as-producer, with not one director signing on for a second film. It's about a fairly pretty (maybe very pretty in 1922, I'd hope) down-on-her-luck woman whose luck turns when a rich woman hits her with her car then takes her in. (Way to go pronouns!) As Carli mentioned, the cinematography is particularly good — and I'm inclined to agree. Also, this restores more than half the footage cut for (apparently) a tale of the Holy Grail. And it's got Lon Chaney, so there's him to watch too. Overall, it's not very good, but historically interesting.
  7. The Internet Cat Video Film Festival 2012 at the Dryden, November 22: I begged Jenn to go see this with the promise we could leave if it wasn't very good. My intention was nefarious: I wanted to see if it was as worthy of the derision I wished to inflict on it. And, well, kind of. It is, indeed, a curated set of clips of funny cat videos from the Internet (see the article at Know Your Meme for a little more information). The selection standards fortunately excluded clips that were extraordinarily low quality, and the clips were, generally, amusing. But really? Clips from the Internet? And comments like that squarely make me one of the fuddy-duddies who deride a new form of entertainment solely because it's new. This is, in essence, a wholly new form of creating short films, although the "new" aspect has to do with sheer quantity: a huge percentage of people now have access to a video camera, and many like to take video of their pets, so it's just a matter of waiting before someone captures something clever. Does that warrant a film festival? (Eh, maybe too soon.) How about two screenings at Dryden Theatre of the world-renowned George Eastman House? And two more for the 2013 festival? I don't know — I don't think so. It all seems like a way to make money since it's amateur, accessible, and popular. (Oh, and we did leave early, so technically this one should count as half.)
  8. Kill Your Darlings at the Little, November 26: Jenn and I decided to see this before we realized "Enough Said" closed that night. The film is quite good — probably more so because I know little of the life of Allen Ginsberg as it's often the mistake made and liberties taken about a familiar subject that distract us from a story. So to go back a sentence: it's about the early life of Allen Ginsberg as he went to Columbia University and met Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs. And how his homosexuality blossomed, and how a seldom-mentioned murder surrounded that group of friends. In all it's a captivating story and worth checking out perhaps because you also know little of Ginsberg's life. Or you want to try to unequivocally destroy a connection between Daniel Radcliffe and Harry Potter.
  9. Philomena at the Little, November 27: Jenn and I wanted to see another film, but decided to check this out as an alternative. As it turns out, it was an interesting story and an enjoyable film. Judy Dench is fantastic and Steve Coogan holds his own pretty well at her side. It may help that it's based on a true story, so frequently that lends a bit of realistic serendipity to what can so rarely be written in fiction.
  10. Piranha at the Dryden, December 7: I saw this a long time ago on TV and, perhaps rightfully, didn't give it much respect. But in deliberately watching it on equal footing with any other film, it's really quite passable. The pace is brisk, the plot was interesting in its own cautionary alarmist way, and the acting was adequate to the task. It's not high-art, but a perfectly adequate example of a Jaws-era terror flick.

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