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 August, 2015 including The Weather Underground, Christo's Valley Curtain, Spy, The Devil-Doll, and The End of the Tour

  1. The Weather Underground at the Flying Squirrel, August 3: Born in 1970, I was barely aware of the Weather Underground when they were active from the tail end of the U.S.–Vietnam War through the early 1980s. They were a radical group most notorious for bombing U.S. targets in retaliation for injustices, starting with the "Days of Rage" designed to "bring the [Vietnam] war home". The film gives voice to the core members alive today. In general, their tone was remorseful about their actions but unashamed of their ideology. Watching it, I observed a couple things. First, when one's country's military is constantly murdering people for political and ideological reasons, it stands to reason that that rationale will steep in the minds of the citizenry—and that is just what happened with the Weather Underground. They felt that the only option was to murder their enemies as that had become the law of the land (much like it is in today's state of constant warfare.) Second, it underscored the absolute lack of a political "far left" (or even a "left" for that matter) today. I could at least look at the actions of the Weather Underground and say, "whoa—those people are way too radical for me." Instead, I am the radical in the room when I say things like, "maybe we should share our wealth instead of hoarding it"—and, call me crazy, but that is not "radical" or "far left" at all.
  2. Christo's Valley Curtain at the Dryden, August 5: I had have been curious about conceptual artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude for some time—especially since visiting The Gates in NYC in 2005. This film is the Maysles' first in of many collaborations with Christo and Jeanne-Claude and I thought it quite exemplary. Its design is an inspiration to many modern documentarians today, splitting between a design timeline, and the days of the installation. The project itself was fascinating, and there are two standout people—both construction workers. One is flabbergasted that someone could conceive of such a project and is amazed by its immense beauty. Another, an iron worker operating the rigging to unfurl the curtain from its suspension cabling, is giddily nervous and waxes poetic, "I'm as nervous as a whore in a field of peckers."
  3. Running Fence at the Dryden, August 5: In some ways I thought this was not as good as "Valley Curtain" but the topic is much more complex. This time the central conflict is getting the legal approval to install a 18-foot-high, 25-mile-long fabric fence across two counties in California and display it for two weeks. I thought the film took some liberties with the timeline to make for a better story as Christo and Jeanne-Claude are initially rebuffed only to convince the effected ranchers individually in a montage, then be approved. However, I think the film is an excellent document of the collaborative and community nature of the duo's work.
  4. Spy at the Cinema, August 9: I read a positive review and convinced Jenn to go too. Indeed, Melissa McCarthy's performance was perfect and the whole film quite hilarious. The story goes that after the identities of their active agents are compromised, a "behind the earpiece" CIA agent Susan (McCarthy) volunteers to go into active duty to thwart an (admittedly ludicrous) plot. I also appreciated that the supporting characters were generally strong, particularly Allison Janney as Susan's wry boss Elaine, and Jason Statham as the ridiculously inappropriate agent Rick Ford. And while there were a few gags that played off McCarthy's average appearance, there were many more that made use of her quick wit and comedic timing.
  5. Terminator: Genisys at the Cinema, August 9: I figured I'd give this a shot although Jenn left after just a few minutes. I've seen the "Terminator" films so this one seemed like a kind of boring rehash … and it's full of flaws … but it was entertaining enough that I stayed to the end. I thought it rather funny that, with The Terminator being released in 1984, I remember thinking Linda Hamilton's Sarah Connor was an adult woman, while in this 2015 film, Emilia Clarke's Sarah Connor was just a girl even though both actors were 28 years old as of each film's release date. (And funny enough, Clarke was born exactly 2 years after the release of the earlier film.) It also kind of bugged me that Hamilton's feathered 1980s hairdo wasn't replicated, but I guess it would have been kind of distracting. Umm, yeah, anyway, the film is kind of meh. Stuff happens … there's inexplicable time travel … there's an inexplicable countdown … there's an inexplicably powerful enemy … a whole lot of inexplicable stuff, actually.
  6. The Devil-Doll at the Dryden, August 18: Jenn had already seen this, although not on the big screen in a long time. I admired the commitment to special effects of dogs and people shrunk to doll-size, and to be honest, the plot was rather tense (if flawed and absurd—science fiction aside.) Although characters and goals get dumped along the way, the central plot is that of Paul (played perfectly by Lionel Barrymore) who escapes from prison to exact revenge on his former partners who set him up 17 years prior.
  7. Islands at the Dryden, August 19: Jenn and I went to see these further collaborations between filmmaking brothers Albert Maysles and David Maysles, and artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Islands documents the "Surrounded Islands" project around six islands in the Biscayne Bay near Miami, Florida in 1983. With nearly the same structure as Running Fence, the artists are met with resistance, then acceptance following a montage of community outreach. I thought the resulting project was the least interesting I had seen, and long shots of its completion were made less appealing by a banal soundtrack.
  8. Christo in Paris at the Dryden, August 19: Although tired, Jenn stayed through this—partly because of better music. It documents the intertwined lives of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, and "The Pont Neuf Wrapped" project, surrounding the oldest and most famous bridge in Paris. This later film recycles a fair amount of footage from Islands as it had meandered into this concurrent project as well. Perhaps most fascinating was the opinionated French debates of artistic merit on the pedestrian ways across the bridge at the completion of the project. And the politicking of then-mayor Jacques Chirac.
  9. The End of the Tour at the Little, August 23: Neither Jenn nor I knew much about author David Foster Wallace aside from an excerpt from a commencement speech on BrainPickings. Jason Segel admirably plays the part of Wallace (or at least makes for a character that embodies every letter of the script) and comes off as a likable misfit, too beautiful for this world. Jesse Eisenberg, meanwhile, fills the role of Rolling Stone interviewer as an everyman, clumsily hiding his jealousy.
  10. Umbrellas at the Dryden, August 26: I convinced Jenn to see this Maysles brothers film again showing the work of Christo and Jean-Claude. The artists installed thousands of large umbrellas—yellow ones in California and blue ones in Japan—for a temporary exhibition. I guess I continue to be fascinated by these artists as their work stands in such contrast to nearly any other artist I've heard of—both in scale and in its temporary nature.
  11. People Places Things at the Cinema, August 28: Jenn and I skipped the first feature and caught this film we had a passing interest in seeing. It's about a man who is shocked by the breakup with his longtime girlfriend and how he deals with it. Unfortunately he's a bit of a Mary Sue as he's got a consistently well-meaning, kind, and naïve perspective throughout, played against a half-dozen comparatively undeveloped characters—mostly women, although "Gary" is the biggest milquetoast pushover of them all. In all it's got a fair number of amusing moments, so it was mildly entertaining to watch.

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