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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Ten More Movies: September–October 2013

So here's the last 10 movies I watched …

  1. Blue Jasmine at the Little, September 11: I'm no sycophant for Woody Allen, and I find his films distinctly big-hit and big-miss, but damn, Blue Jasmine is genius. It broaches an incredibly challenging subject: humans are ill-equipped to deal with the infinite possibilities of choice we have in the world today. It centers on Jasmine who is a hot mess after she loses everything her life once was — a nearly absurd life of incredible wealth and jet-setting with her husband — to move in with her step-sister living in near-poverty we call "middle class". Jasmine is an unlikeable nutcase for whom Allen carefully sketches so (while staying wholly unlikeable) we learn enough about to at least be sympathetic.
  2. City Girl at the Dryden, September 24: I greatly enjoyed this tale of city girl/country boy romance that revolved around some incredibly well-formed characters. What with being among the last silent films ever made, it is certainly a testament to the advanced story-telling possible with the movie camera.
  3. Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel at the Dryden, October 3: A rather gushing documentary about Roger Corman (arguably, deservedly so.) He seemed like a nice enough guy who got into making inexpensive, successful movies and launching the careers of numerous now-famous actors and directors.
  4. A Bucket of Blood at the Dryden, October 3: A really quote good film from the 1950's about a lousy artist who gains admiration when he presents a clay cat. The film is a condemnation of bottom-tier, classist art-culture where an undefined thing called "art"—and recognition of said art—is revered at the expense of all else.
  5. 16 Photographs At Ohrdruf at the Little, October 6: Despite the Little's complete apathy (grrr … not even mentioned on the website), I found out about this film through Jenn who knew the filmmaker. Matthew Nash's grandfather took 16 photographs when the U.S. Army discovered the Nazi concentration camp at Ohrdruf. It was the first camp discovered by the U.S., following legends of camps after the Russians found Auschwitz earlier the same year, and the only camp visited by President Eisenhower. Yet it's not a name well-known. Anyway, Nash interviews some former GI's who were in the same division as his grandfather and paints a personal picture of what it was like to witness the Nazi atrocities. I have a very hard time emotionally connecting to the true horror of the Holocaust (since she sheer scale is impossible for me to comprehend) but these personal tales made it that much more real to me.
  6. The Way, Way Back at the Cinema, October 8: I was skeptical but saw good reviews, and Jenn moderately wanted to see it as well. In all, it's a really nice coming-of-age story. At first I found some of the characters a bit grating, or played too broadly, but in the end it all seemed adequately realistic and touching.
  7. In A World… at the Cinema, October 8: Ok, this one counts as half. I persevered for the second film in the double-feature and actually wanted to see it … pretty much only because of watching too many "Honest Trailers" by ScreenJunkies on YouTube. The gist is that Don LaFontaine was the guy who popularized the phrase "in a world…" as the way to begin nearly every movie trailer for decades. He's a real guy who really did die in 2008. So the film is a fictional account of Carol—the daughter of a voiceover artist gifted similarly to LaFontaine—who wants to break into the world of voiceovers, particularly for film trailers, and become the next LaFontaine. It's written and directed by Lake Bell who also stars as Carol. I found that every single character was written as a shrill fast-talker no matter their age, gender, or background. It was insufferable, and the cheap writing continued: pivotal plot points hinged on unrealistically stupid coincidences. For instance, Carol can't get a date with the guy who has a crush on her ("Mary Sue" much?) because someone interrupts her cell phone call and he's confused about who she's talking to. Just dumb, lazy writing. I left when her sister's boyfriend finds the [telegraphed] evidence he didn't want to know. That's when my refills of popcorn and "Arnold Palmer" ran out and I left. (And I should point out that the film is doing very very well in reviewer circles like RottenTomatoes: is everyone blinded by Bell's "brave" choice to consider women for voiceover work? Her point is certainly valid, but just because she's among a mostly-male group of writer/director/stars doesn't mean I'm going to grade her writing quality any less stringently.)
  8. Elmer Gantry at the Dryden, October 9: I kind of love the tale of a charismatic sociopath. I couldn't help make a comparison to A Face in the Crowd which I saw last year since I enjoyed that story a lot. This one was a little more subtle, but its steady pace revealed a desperate man. A slimy salesman becomes a preacher for a traveling evangelical group, firstly for his own gains. Glimpses of compassion in him may be genuine and may be calculated, but nonetheless allowed me to empathize with him.
  9. X: The Man With the X-Ray Eyes at the Dryden, October 10: Roger Corman directed this tale of a man who gives himself the ability to see through solid matter: a change that gradually increases in strength. It starts as scientific curiosity, and he exploits it largely for good, but by the time all of the world is invisible to him, it essentially drives him mad. The story is solid, and overall worth watching, but by no means a masterpiece.
  10. The Vampire at the Dryden, October 22: This was the first of a pair of related silent films shown. The titular "vampire" is not a bloodsucker, but a woman who preys on men who are attracted to her. It tells the tale of a small-town farmer trying his hand at big-city life, only to fall for the lure of one such woman. It has a steady pacing and tells an interesting story. Among the interesting notes is the use of title cards to introduce action and events — apparently early filmmakers were not ready to rely on narrative structure alone at this time. Another interesting element is that the production company saved money by building sets outdoors and using natural light, yielding some bizarrely breezy interiors.
  11. As in a Looking Glass at the Dryden, October 22: This one should count as half as well since tiredness got the best of me and I wasn't able to stick with the film for its short duration. What I can say is the story is not unlike "The Vampire", but told from the perspective of a woman who falls into the trap of living off men who are attracted to her. I recall it had some unusual structures that weren't clear: cuts to what may have been a second storyline, or an abstract alternative.

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