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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Movies in March, 2015

  1. 20,000 Days on Earth at the Dryden, March 4: Jenn and I caught this quasi-documentary. It's a fascinating film that ostensibly documents a "day in the life" of musician Nick Cave. However, it is fiction-within-a-fiction in that it actually documents Nick Cave's public persona, and as such is a fake documentary. Regardless, it's a unique and wonderful method of storytelling.
  2. A Year Along the Abandoned Road at the Dryden, March 5: I was thrilled to get to this first of two short films. This one is an unbelievable time-lapse film shot in motion along a road in a Norwegian lakeside village. It must have been a strange and unique experience to shoot—apparently taking one image each day, moving the camera a few inches, then waiting to take the next image the next day, and repeating for a whole year. It's an eerie and beautiful experience to watch, making one feel like an otherworldly being floating through the world unseen.
  3. An Injury to One at the Dryden, March 5: The title is taken from the Union phrase, "an injury to one is an injury to all", and the film documents the relationship of business and labor in the mining town of Butte, Montana in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It's a haunting and evocative film that highlights the philosophy that winners write history. In this case, the winners were the lucrative mining companies; the biggest loser being International Workers of the World (IWW) organizer Frank Little who was murdered by mining company goons parties unknown.
  4. Whiplash at the Little, March 7: Jenn, Chris, and I went to see this together, although I was leaning toward another movie. The first thing I noticed was the dark and muddy digital recording—in attempting to capture the early morning of New York like an homage to Taxi Driver, it only succeeds in making itself look like a 1970's horror movie with inky blacks and dingy colors. Fortunately, I got over that. The movie moves along well and pits two passionate characters against one another: one a driven, aspiring drummer, and the other a abusive music professor obsessed with perfection in his collegiate ensemble. I assure this is no spoiler: the moment of divining greatness is not something that can be found through calculation, but rather through passionate happenstance.
  5. The Gang's All Here at the Dryden, March 16: I went to the Senior Matinee today … I guess to feel even younger than at an average Dryden screening. I guess set in mid-war America, it makes sense, but otherwise it's about a reprehensible man who stalks and rapes a dancer (née "uses his soldier's bravado to win the heart of a dancer"), all the while stringing along his soon-to-be fiancée. Fortunately it works out in the end because the girlfriend knew all along it was just a relationship based on familial ties just like the rapist believes, and the dancer loves the rapist, so it wasn't rape after all! Howeverrr … it is worth seeing two rather unbelievable Carmen Miranda-centered Busby Berkeley dance numbers that push the boundaries of cinema and clearly pushed the limits of Technicolor filming (just watch those giant cameras shake as they are rapidly hoisted into the air—yikes!)
  6. Cotton Road at the Little, March 21?: Jenn and I caught just one of the films at the Greentopia Film Festival this year. It's the story of how cotton is grown in South Carolina, shipped all over the world (particularly China) where it is made into fabric and clothing, then shipped back to South Carolina. Notable to me was how the manual laborers—the American cotton farmers and the Chinese clothing makers—existed in insufferable conditions while each step removed lived in more comfort: the American industrial cotton gin, the refined cotton warehouses, and the Chinese warehouses for fabrics faring better; the shipping companies in both nations and the American retailers faring best of all. Jenn and I both found the music to be cloying and melancholic (revealing the only evidence of the filmmaker's bias), but many other people liked it. While the Rochester audience lobbed lackluster questions at director Laura Kissel, she revealed at one point that the hardest place to film was not in China but in American retail stores. One final note: the Greentopia Film Festival asked us to fill out a survey online for a chance to win an Apple iPad—without a lick of irony—despite the widespread knowledge that Apple's products are made in Chinese factories with working conditions as bad or worse than depicted in the film.
  7. What We Do in the Shadows at the Little, March 22: Jenn and I went to this hilarious mockumentary about a group of vampires living in New Zealand in modern times. I didn't know exactly what to expect, but I was pleased that I found it extremely funny. Perhaps it was from bottling up all my criticisms after my recent indoctrination into the Cult of Buffy, but the juxtaposition humor was plentiful.
  8. The Red Shoes at the Dryden, March 27: Jenn and I went to this Technicolor classic featuring the revered camerawork of Jack Cardiff—which was, sadly, projected from a restored 35mm print that itself did not use the Technicolor 3-layer process. It's that 3-layer process with its imperfect color registration and the impossibility of perfect focus (since each color is a different distance from the lens) that gives it its nearly imperceptible shimmer whereas the modern color emulsion made from digitally-scanned 3-strip negatives has perfect registration and a single focal plane that affords razor-sharp perfection, as undesirable as it is in this particular case. Anyway, the movie itself is quite good: music student Julian and ballerina Victoria join a ballet troupe with a hard-nosed director (making the later Whiplash comparable in subject-matter). As both rise to stardom, the latest production is The Red Shoes, based on the Hans Christian Andersen story in which a dancer wishes for red shoes which happen to be cursed and she can't stop dancing until she finally dies. Both get intertwined in one another as they are central to the ballet.
  9. Relatos Salvajes (Wild Tales) at the Little, March 29: Jenn was excited to see this after seeing the name Agustín Almodóvar, thinking he directed it, but it was actually Damián Szifrón and Almodóvar produced it. It's a series of 6 short stories of vengeance. And as is the case with successfully-executed vengeance: it's always and already gone wrong. The tales are told as black comedy and largely succeed … I thought the more-petty violations made for funnier stories. In the end, it all felt kind of repetitive, and I was reminded how much I liked the similarly revenge-themed black-comedy, God Bless America, which I wrote about.
  10. OnFilm Shorts by Karpo Godina and Davorin Marc at the University of Rochester Hoyt Auditorium, March 30: I go to see this fantastic program—check out the blog post for the complete review.

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