Movies in April, 2015

  1. Short Circuit Film Shorts Program at the Little, April 4: Jenn and I often appreciate short films so we couldn't resist checking out this rather under-advertised program, part of The Little Underground Film Series. First was an experimental film with distorted, shifting faces, and distorted digital audio. Then was a narrative that rambled around with a gay guy and his mentally disabled partner, touching on interesting things like enlightenment, but then abandoning them just as quickly. The third was about a girl who is sexually attracted to murder. —We made it partway through the fourth film about a young gay man going to a sleepover with some friends before we had enough dour, impenetrable, rambling student-quality films and left. In all, quite a disappointment.
  2. Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow at the Little, April 4: That evening, Jenn and I returned to see this documentary in the Little Underground Film Series. It looks at the studio/estate of Anselm Kiefer in France where he builds giant sculptural spaces out of concrete, metal, and other materials. It is not an introductory documentary, so I was a bit lost not knowing a lot about Keifer in the first place. Although the artworks were impressive, I was turned off by the blaring horror-movie-style modern orchestral composition and found that the digital recording—with all its lack of dynamic range—did no favors to the use of dark shadows and bright sunlight in the artist's work.
  3. The Wizard of Oz at the Dryden, April 5: Jenn, Chris, and I went to see this special screening of a great 3-layer Technicolor print. The story is still engaging and amusing, and I picked up a couple things I had missed. For instance, Glinda adds snow to wake the dozing travelers … in a field of poppies … could it be cocaine she's "snowing" down? And I recognized the Scarecrow's blunder when he says, "the sum of the square roots of any two sides of an isosceles triangle is equal to the square root of the remaining side"—that's only true on a right triangle which cannot be isosceles. And my favorite zinger was when Dorothy whacks the Cowardly Lion when they first meet, she says, "it's bad enough picking on a straw man, but picking on a little dog." Heh … strawman. It's interesting to also watch for L. Frank Baum's metaphors: set in Dustbowl America, the Cowardly Lion is political leadership, the Tin Woodman the industrialized worker, and the Scarecrow the farmer.
  4. Kumiko the Treasure Hunter at the Little, April 7: Jenn and I wanted to see this, largely from the trailer. It's about an antisocial, delusional woman who thinks she can find the treasure hidden during the plot of the movie Fargo. I felt I needed to write about it as soon as I could because, since Kumiko's decision-making process is so skewed, any recollection of the film will quickly vanish like the memory of a dream. I really wanted to like the movie, but it just doesn't quite make it. Kumiko is just too hard to like, not to mention too hard to comprehend. I felt like there was some inkling of a theme—the alienation of humanity in our modern world? the lonely path of pursuing money over the company of others? the similarities of people in Japan and America despite the appearance of polar opposite cultures?—but none quite fit. The cinematography, at least was excellent, and a testament to what a skilled operator can do with modern digital technology.
  5. Danny Collins at the Little, April 11: Jenn and I were looking for something to do and figured this could be an okay way to kill time. We had checked online reviews and the consensus was something along the lines of "a weak story is saved by good acting." The gist is that Al Pacino plays Danny Collins, a 1960s rock star who keeps singing the same songs today, but he tries to do better when a handwritten letter from John Lennon is discovered and given to him. When I left, I said, "that exactly met my expectations"—referring to the reviews we had skimmed. Indeed the story is rather eye-rolling bad with its artificial conflicts and saccharine resolutions, but Pacino is so affable, Annette Bening's hotel-manager Mary so sweetly plausible, Christopher Plummer's friend-and-manager Frank so witty, and the saccharine moments adequately earned, that the resulting movie is, well, entertaining.
  6. The Hunting Ground at the Little, April 14: I had a chance to see this documentary about rape and sexual assault on American college campuses—and how its occurrence is systematically hidden from the public. This isn't new to me, and I expected an affirmation of what I already knew. But I was quite horrified at the breadth of the problem, and at these women (and some men) who were raped and then ignored by the schools they adore—or worse, blamed for the forceful, uninvited actions of someone else. (Read more in my more complete discussion.)
  7. Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora's Box) at the Dryden, April 21: With Louise Brooks as one of Jenn's favorite actors, we went to see one of her finest performances. It's story of a woman living as a courtesan as her world of comfort and wealth collapses around her. Brooks performance emphasizes the casual, innocent nature of the character—that despite trading sex for money, she treats it like it's any other profession, and eschews any emotional attachment to each man she is with (with one glaring exception). The story is boldly presented and avoids only nudity and intercourse, making it seem like it could have been made today. The whole thing is quite brilliant, and I think the snapshot-style act structure works well.
  8. While We're Young at the Little, April 23: Jenn, Chris, Jim, and I went to see this together. I was rather lukewarm on it—I'm too often disappointed by Ben Stiller performances. I was quite pleased, then, when I found his acting to be perfectly fine, but the script was shockingly astute. The film is about a couple in their 40s who rekindle their youth hanging out with a couple 20-somethings. As Jenn and I are right at the age of the "old" characters in the film, all those elements resonated well. And the writer had a stand-up comic's knack for observing and making relatable the quirks of our lives. It's a film that stuck with me and I think I'd like to revisit it in a while.
  9. Rochester International Film Fesitval screening at the Dryden, April 23: Jenn and I attended the first of four screenings this year. Although all the selections were competently made, I have to agree with Jenn's assessment that they all seem kind of flat and similar. I theorize that with the proliferation of cheap filmmaking technology, a much higher number of people are exploring short films as an introduction to filmmaking. As such, the stories are kept simple, and in most cases, unfortunately too simple. I'll mention my top three picks: I thought Tuning Oscar (Mikel Alvariño, Spain, 20 min.) was an amusing and somewhat spooky tale about a guy who's getting over his former lover. Children of Stateless (Moonsik Chung, South Korea, 14 min.), while perhaps the most flawed in the bunch, was a document of life as a Burmese refugee in the Mae-La Refugee Camp in Thailand, and for that reason, deserved attention to preserve it. And finally, Carry On (Yatao Li, China, 17 min.) was a polished and heartwrenching tale of a Chinese father trying to "protect his daughter from the Japanese who have occupied China during World War II."
  10. Ex Machina at the Little, April 24: Jenn and I caught this together. It's about an artificially intelligent robot in female humanoid but distinctly robotic form, and a test to determine if it can pass for "intelligent". Nathan the inventor and Ava the robot are well-defined characters, each with their own motivations: hidden, overt, and conflicting. Unfortunately the film splits its time mostly between Ava and Caleb (the young man doing the testing) and Caleb is flat and boring. Reviewing wise, I think Ex Machina is an excellent science fiction film, but as a movie, it's just so-so. Regardless, the visual effects are astonishing and it is easy to believe in Ava as a robot.
  11. Power to the Pedals: Wenzday Jane and the Culture of Change (Bob Nesson, U.S. 2014, 32 min.) at the Little, April 27: I biked through a light rain to see this, which turned my bad mood worse. I guess the movie is supposed to be an inspiration—how Wenzday Jane created a pedal-powered delivery company in the heart of Boston. But I saw it as a mere trickle of hope against a deluge of hopelessness. For instance, it was amusing to see Jane's worker pedaling recyclables to the waste management site amidst huge garbage trucks, but to me it only underscored how fucked we are—that we actually need fleets of garbage trucks to handle the waste we produce.
  12. A Sampler of Cinematic Gems from the Museum's Collection at the Dryden, April 29: Jenn and I went to see motion picture curator Paolo Cherchi Usai's selections from the museum collection. The world's first sound-on-film motion picture (in competition with—and quick successor to—record-based Vitaphone) called "[Theodore W. Case Sound Test # 4: Canary]" (US 1925, 2 min.) was fascinating to see—not because of its content but for its historical significance. In Absentia (Stephen and Timothy Quay, UK 2000, 20 min.) was a brilliant partially-animated non-linear narrative related to the asylum life of Emma Hauck, and incredibly scored by Karlheinz Stockhausen. To lighten things, Usai dropped in a hilarious short comedy Pass the Gravy (Fred L. Guiol, US 1928, 22 min.). Next was Kitchen Sink (Alison Maclean, New Zealand 1989, 14 min.) which the Dryden screened prior to Maclean's Crush on May 19, 2010—a dark tale in the style of David Lynch. Finishing up was the odd Gus Visser and His Singing Duck (US 1925, 3 min.)—this being perhaps the only film evidence of Visser's vaudeville performances.

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