Movies in September, 2015 featuring The Hand that Feeds, Irrational Man, The Look of Silence, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, and Cyrano de Bergerac

  1. 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!)
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.)
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.)
  11. 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.
  12. 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.
  13. 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.
  14. 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.)
  15. 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.

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Movies in June, 2015 featuring The Wolfpack, Pack Up Your Sorrows, and Love & Mercy

Better late than never … I finally finished up June's movies halfway through July. Yeesh! Here we go:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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).

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