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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Ten More Movies: December 2013 to January 2014

So here's the last 10 movies I watched …

  1. Death Race 2000 at the Dryden, December 11: Cheesy, schlocky, violent, and sexually exploitative: yes. And it's still got some teeth as social commentary. Usually films about the "distant" future 25 years away miss their mark, but this one gets a lot of things right like that the U.S. President will be revered as some kind of exceptional being (at least substantially different from a normal mortal), and our affinity for witnessing death on the highways. Of course it never saw anything like YouTube or the "car fail" meme therein, but who could have known that?
  2. Camille Claudel, 1915 at the Dryden, December 14: Jenn and I went to see this together—neither of us knew much about Camille Claudel except that she was a sculptor at the turn of the 20th Century. The film is a fictional account of 3 days of her life while she was confined to a mental asylum in the South of France, culminating in a visit from her brother Paul. It's a saddening document of a woman who showed such creative promise, but failed to embrace the demands of what was expected of her in civilized society. She recognized her persecution but mischaracterized its purpose or meaning. As such, her family thought they were helping her by locking her away from the art that brought her her only true joy.
  3. Bill Cosby, Himself at the Dryden, December 20: My brother Adam was visiting for a few days and I convinced him to see this with Jenn and I. We all enjoyed it quite a bit. It's still funny and relevant, and Bill Cosby steadily meanders between intertwined stories and ideas to create a well-crafted whole.
  4. Nebraska at the Little, December 21: Jenn and I went to see this together and we both liked it a lot. It's the tale of an aging father (Bruce Dern) visiting his hometown on his way to (futilely) try to claim a million dollar prize. I recognized Will Forte and Bob Odenkirk as primarily comic actors, but here they adeptly play Dern's sons as just regular folk. Alexander Payne had the film shot in black-and-white which was a somewhat unusual choice. Jenn felt it was to lend an air of timelessness by removing the bright color cues of present-day advertising. I was a bit more cynical, I guess, and thought it was because it was set in Montana and Nebraska in winter, and it should have had a blanket of snow to elicit the same effect (see also, Fargo) but the absence of snow forced the hand of the artists and they shot it in black-and-white. One thing I take issue with is the "villain" of the story, played by Stacy Keach, was a bit too vengeful for his age and demeanor.
  5. Phase IV at the Dryden, January 7: I was drawn to this film as it's Saul Bass's only feature film (being far better known for amazing title-sequences on hundreds of famous films.) The story is pretty weird: ants gain collective intelligence and go about taking over the world. The weakest part of the whole film is the dialog, and the ham-fisted allegorical nature of the script. But the cinematography is incredible and includes yet another favorite scene in cinema: a telephoto shot across a hot surface where something starts to appear and we're left wondering what it is for the better part of 20 seconds. Oh, and the extended Saul Bass ending is many minutes of stylized, artistic structures in the style of a Saul Bass title sequence; hence: spectacular.
  6. Prince Avalanche at the Dryden, January 10: Jenn and I went to see this together as she's a David Gordon Green fan. I guess I am too, at least after this film. I'd put it in the bunglingly-named "mumblecore" genre as it's really just a slice of life about two men on a remote road painting lines over a few days. The brilliance lies in the complex, natural characters that are gradually revealed—both just so simply, uniquely flawed.
  7. Du zhan (Drug War) at the Dryden, January 11: Paolo Cherchi Usai selected this as his Curator's Choice for the month, citing the ambiguous morality layered upon what could otherwise be dismissed as a popcorn action flick. I'm not so sure I agree. While I do understand the moral ambiguity—that there are no well-defined "good guys" and "bad guys", nor is the story itself a simplified morality tale—it lays out such broad strokes as an action movie that I couldn't help but see it as primarily that. In some ways I see it as a superior form of action movie since it delivers an interesting plot and sophisticated sequences by genre-decree, but it fails to let the audience root for any team, and thus there is no moral payoff at the end, as I think there is something socially dangerous about celebrating such inhuman behavior.
  8. Évocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie at the Dryden, January 18: Back in the late 1980's, I could swear I remember the Morton Downey Jr. Show in some form of on-air syndication. It was actually something I avoided: even then I did not enjoy witnessing people in conflict, and I especially despised prideful ignorance and anti-rational thinking. So I cringed my way through clips of the show where Downey would essentially deliver a non-stop barrage of ad hominem arguments to the show's guests to the delight of the mob-worthy studio audience. The documentary steadily and artfully paints the background portrait of a man living in the shadow of a famous father, desperately trying to find his own voice. Filmmaker Seth Kramer was on hand to answer questions, but for the most part, everything he wanted to say about Downey is in the film.
  9. Tôkyô monogatari (Tokyo Story) at the Dryden, January 22: I was sold on the Roger Ebert quote, "With no other director do I feel affection for every single shot." And the film delivers. It's a stunningly well-crafted piece of cinema that tells the tale of aging parents visiting their adult children in Tokyo. The kids don't appreciate the significance of the visit, snubbing their parents as an annoyance in their busy lives. But I think it was respectful of both parties, merely showing the melancholic truth that children grow up and drift away from their parents.
  10. Shtikat Haarchion (A Film Unfinished) at the Dryden, January 28: As I was watching I realized this seemed familiar, and indeed, I saw it in October, 2010 when it was released. I think I forgot because it is such an impossible concept to believe: German footage inside the Warsaw Jewish ghetto just months before nearly everyone there was annihilated. The documentary suggests the Nazi footage was to demonize the Jews—propaganda to allow average citizens to justify the Holocaust. It's all quite horrifying, and it actually happened. All I can say is: beware of media generalizations of the character of a people.

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