The Babadook at the Little, February 4: While it's not my usual style, I was inspired by the positive review by charming (and apparently relatively private—what is this guy's name?) YouTuber Horrible Reviews. It's a film about a woman, Amelia, and her son Samuel—he was born the night his father was killed in a car accident. Clearly this thoroughly disturbed Amelia, and her sudden role as a single mother didn't allow her to take necessary time-off to properly mourn, so those feelings festered within her psyche. As such, she's generally quite unhinged throughout the film and only manages to muster glimmers of normalcy. The Babadook begins in the form of a children's book that horrifies Samuel. The first half of the film is quite tense and terrifying, but the gradual physical and supernatural appearance of the Babadook character tends to seem unbelievable, and as such, tends to spoil the tension. Worst, though, is the incredibly absurd resolution. In the end, the Horrible Reviews' review mirrored my own experience pretty much perfectly—although he favors horror, I was finding the things he liked and disliked about movies seemed agreeable to me, and this first test of that impression appears to confirm that belief.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night at the Little, February 20: Jenn was excited to see this film once it was described as a "feminist Iranian vampire Western film". It's about a woman who's a vampire trying to keep some semblance of a code-of-ethics for herself. After a little post-film discussion, I guess I could call it a "feminist Iranian vampire Western film," but only if I must shoe-horn it into categories. But I think a better way to look at it is to take your expectations of a film called "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night"—with all its cautionary-tale baggage of helpless women—and gender-flip it so you have a powerful and complex female vampire who preys upon weak-willed men until she's surprised to find herself attracted to one of them. To me, her hesitant capitulation to that situation (and her overall resigned demeanor) seemed to show a deep understanding of the likely outcome from a long-line of past experiences that belie her youthful appearance. It's a very-well made film all around—directing, plot, acting, cinematography, sound-design, and music are all excellent. And I guess it's about a group of people who are, for the most part neither saints nor sinners, but who tend to boldly live on the sinner side of the line. And of them all, the vampire almost seems the most saintly. (And one final note: the Little's projection marred the film with terrible judder, so boo to the Little and boo to digital.)
Red Hollywood at the Dryden, February 21: Having heard of Senator Joseph McCarthy's state-sponsored murders in the 1950's, I was curious to hear the "other" side. Basically this is Thom Andersen's essay highlighting the horrors and failures of the push to rid America of members of the Communist Party. It is a dense and thick film, and I was lacking two important pieces of information: what exactly is communism in that era—and in terms of "members of the Communist Party"—and how did the example film clips act as subversive messages. As such, I spent much of the film trying to articulate my questions, and then to answer them. For instance, I thought "helping people when they were out-of-luck" was a genuinely good trait, so to see it framed as communist propaganda was thoroughly puzzling. Nonetheless, I guess it ended up making me pretty sad as—my beliefs aside—it is well-known that the fleecing of the worker for the benefit of the business owner is celebrated dogma in America, and more prevalent than ever.
Wild at the Cinema, February 28: Sneaking a double-feature in before the wire, there were these two films I thought looked interesting. I heard mixed but overall good things about Wild, but I was immediately put off. As soon as it started, I came up with this synopsis: "a moron tries to walk the Pacific Crest Trail." We're introduced to Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon) who shows up to a hotel with a giant backpack and begins to prepare for a 1,100 mile journey. I'm admittedly an extreme planner, so when I see someone attempt something new without so much as asking a single human being for advice, or consulting a book, I'm already not with them. Thankfully, the PCT in the film is the easiest hike in the world. We're told through flashback that despite having the most caring mother in the world (Laura Dern as Bobbi), she was blindsided by some terrible personal events. So this journey is one of personal discovery that, by sheer luck, does not end in the death of the main character. Now to be frank, this is not a terrible movie, it's just that it's, well, mediocre. And since it's supposed to be realistic, the non-realistic moments are glaring. Like how can a Minnesotan not know how to deal with snow?, how are lodges along the way full of people despite an absolutely desolate trail?, or why would a trail guide fail to mention the lack of water up ahead? If you can get into the personal story and don't tend to worry about realism in a realistic movie, then yeah, this would be a very good film for you. I'm betting the book is better.
Cake at the Cinema, February 28: I'm like, "okay, Jennifer Aniston as Claire, a woman in a chronic-pain support group who becomes obsessed with the suicide of a fellow member … yeah, I can get into that". Only again, the non-realisim in the realistic movie gets to me right away. Claire has some unspecified chronic pain, but it's so unspecified that the pain apparently shifts around so she can only lay down when in a car, but can easily sit for in chairs just fine, and she aches and groans in bed, but can get out of bed with only the apparent achiness of an average 45-year-old. And, like Wild, this is a personal journey story, but I will say this and spoil the movie a little: she doesn't go from a quasi-crippled curmudgeon to a happy, healthy hero, so there's that bit of realism. She does grow a bit … I guess … but it's so slow and subtle that I wonder if I wasn't simply mistaken.
Horrible Bosses 2 at the Cinema, January 3: Jenn and I headed out to see the double feature at the Cinema although we weren't too sure about this film. I had very very low expectations and it thankfully exceeded those expectations—funny but not amazingly funny. It's about three guys who invent a silly device, and when they can't be bosses themselves, they resort to crime. One of my rules about mediocre movies is to skip the first half-hour or so which generally just contains the character introductions. In this case, skipping the entire first movie was fruitful in that respect and let us figure out who the players were and what their motivations are (not that it was anything but very very obvious.) In fairness, the writing is exceedingly clever with a lot of silly jokes, but none that are really really big. In fact, I laughed hardest at the last out-take over the credits where Jason Bateman and Jason Sudeikis share a scene and Bateman says, "it smells like dog shit in here" and Sudeikis plainly replies, "maybe it's your acting" followed by a one-second pause before both actors start laughing.
Art and Craft at the Cinema, January 3: I had much higher expectations for this positively-reviewed documentary about an art forger. As documentaries go, I think it was quite a success … if a little rough around the edges. It's about Mark Landis who To has been copying art for decades, but set his sights on "philanthropy" and began donating forgeries to art museums. His undoing was curator Matthew Leininger who became obsessed with outing Landis' fraud to all other art museums. Landis is a frail, soft-spoken Mississippian whose mental health is not so hot, particularly after the recent loss of his beloved mother. If the documentary is to be believed, he would be a shut-in if not for his visits to a mental hospital and his escapades to art museums. Leininger, meanwhile, seemed more like a police officer than an art curator (again if the documentary is to be believed) with his matter-of-fact demeanor and the pride he takes in his daughter's ability to identify images of Landis. His pursuit of Landis was a catalyst for him losing is curatorial job, leading him to take on the task as a hobby while being a stay-at-home dad. I say it's a successful documentary because it lets us say, "how strange" (to both principals) without mockery or hostility, and it honestly asks, "what's the problem, exactly?" in an equally neutral way.
To Have and Have Not at the Dryden, January 6: Jenn and I went out to see this earliest of pairings between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Indeed, the relationship that builds between them is easily believable—even though their snarky dialog could so easily have derailed the whole thing with anything but this perfect pairing of actors. The film is about an expatriated American boat captain (Bogart) in Martinique during World War II who tries to make a living in uncertain times. He meets a young American (Bacall) trying to make her way back to the States. It's a suspenseful and interesting tale well worth checking out.
Don't Look Now at the Dryden, January 10: I asked Jenn what Donald Sutherland is doing now and laughed since I've not been privy to his role in the Hunger Games. (Julie Christie, meanwhile seems to have kept steadily busy with 52 titles over the past 57 years.) Anyway, the film is an adeptly stylized supernatural thriller about a couple reeling from the death of their daughter. I was really quite impressed by all elements of it. The story is excellent, and the way it is presented as film is as perfect as I could imagine: the relationship seems strained but loving (the sex scene is astonishingly believable in spite of the now-cheesy music), the supernatural elements are as otherworldly as they are explainable, and the final chapter of the film is pitch-perfect disorienting.
The Interview at the Cinema, January 12: I didn't have much of any interest in seeing this, and my expectations were fairly low. It's a comedy about an assassination attempt on Kim Jong Un, but it doesn't take either facet serious enough. Too much of the comedy is lazy writing, like how the film can't seem to come out and say that James Franco's Dave Skylark is bisexual, so he's gay when that would make for a lazy gay joke and he's straight when that would make for a lazy straight joke. And the mechanics of the assassination attempt are moronic. A better writer would make both a cunning comedy and a clever caper. Instead, it's a comedy ruined by a muddled caper and a caper ruined by forced comedy. A superior film is Ishtar (really: despite its continuity and editing issues, it's both funnier and caperier.)
Dear White People at the Cinema, January 12: This second part of the double-feature was what I was hoping to see, and my expectations were much higher. Alas, while The Interview barely exceeded my moderately low expectations, Dear White People failed to meet my moderately high expectations. My biggest complaint is that the central promise of the movie—that of a witty radio show called "Dear White People"—failed to materialize. There was nothing more than the few lines presented in the trailer, so I never got the impression it was anything of a "show" as much as some pithy remarks between songs, yet it is a lightning rod for white backlash. I mean, come on … I can rattle off a few more kernels off the cuff (e.g. "Dear white people, why do you feel the need to 'come out' to realizing you are talking with a black person halfway through a conversation", "DWP, apologizing for a racist's behavior implicates you as a racist," "DWP, there is no moment in your daily life that is 'just like' my experience") Second, it borrows heavily from the Spike Lee school of characterizations (in which every character has one dominant personality trait that drives jeir behavior) but misses the mark because the mix of characters is unbalanced and incomplete. OK, I spent some time complaining, but I did, for the most part, enjoy the film. I thought all the characters were reasonable, realistic, and charismatic. The story is plausible and full of realistic examples of modern relations between blacks and whites. And, between the lines, it pointed out a fascinating idea: for most college students this is the first taste of independence they have seen, so their behavior exposes their upbringing—especially in their first year or two. It reminded me of the changes I went through, learning the error of my intolerance in a number of ways. But then when I visited some students 10 years later, I discovered their prejudices were exactly like mine were. And now this film, 10 years after that, reveal that those same prejudices are alive and well. It all made me kind of sad.
Stella Dallas at the Dryden, January 15: Jenn and I headed out to see this great picture with another knockout performance by the great Barbara Stanwyck. Stanwyck plays Stella, the daughter of a working family in 1919. She wishes to mingle among the rich and famous, and wrangles her way there through Stephen Dallas. Unfortunately, her working-class roots are unforgivingly obvious, but Stanwyck draws out empathy for her pathetic, sad-sack character.
Top Five at the Cinema, January 17: Jenn and I skipped a second viewing of Big Eyes and showed up for this Chris Rock film. It was, well, okay. It appears to be a semi-autobiographical account of the life of Chris Rock in the form of comedic film star Andre Allen, played by Rock. Allen is about to release his personal project film—a fictionalized account of the 18th century Haitian Revolution—but all eyes are on his reality-TV marriage to Erica Long (Gabrielle Union) and whether he'll do another "Hammy" movie (Allen's comedic, sass-talking cop-in-a-bear-suit). The plot is lazily driven by an ongoing interview with New York Times writer Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) and the relationship that builds between Allen and Brown. Unfortunately, it's not particularly funny nor is it particularly interesting, although I must admit that a lot of the references are lost on me—the "Top Five", for instance, is a list of favorite rappers as both a kind of point-of-comparison and test of knowledge, yet my knowledge of rappers is only a tiny fraction of my practically nonexistent knowledge of pop culture, so I felt a little left out. And although I knew all three, I barely recognized cameos of Whoopi Goldberg, Adam Sandler, and Jerry Seinfeld as they all appeared considerably aged (although I swear I saw comic Bobby Slater as the bouncer to a small New York comedy club where Allen visits.) But its unfunnyness may also stem from lackluster homosexuality jokes and a healthy dose of misogyny (sparing only Dawson's writer, Brown). Thankfully for all its faults, I'd still go to the next Chris Rock film.
Designing Woman at the Dryden, January 20: Jenn, Mo, and I went to see this Cary Grant / Lauren Bacall comedy about a couple who get married but realize they have virtually nothing in common. I had high hopes for a screwball comedy, but it was much more subdued and realistic, so I was disappointed to only chuckle quite a few times. The chemistry is pretty good between the two leads, but the story was a bit rambling at times. The climactic brawl was quite hilarious, though.
The Imitation Game at the Little, January 29: I was already aware of Alan Turing (from that pesky degree in Computer Science) and I had heard of his code-breaking contributions in World War II through a Numberphile video blog with Dr. James Grimes (my top boy-crush with his adorable smile and mild British lisp) titled 158,962,555,217,826,360,000, the number of combinations of rotors and plugs possible in Germany's Enigma machine. I'll omit the history lesson—however fascinating—and just say that the movie was quite good although I think it was a little to simplistic when it tied early childhood events to Turing's later life. To give away the ending title card, Turing (and the other 9,000 or so people—in reality—who did the code-breaking) was estimated by historians to shorten World War II by about 2 years and saved over 13,000,000 lives, but instead of being celebrated as the world's greatest peace hero—more spoilers ahead—the full breadth of his contributions were classified until the mid-1990's and he committed suicide in 1954 after serving part of a sentence of "chemical castration"—a psychologically-devastating oestrogen treatment—for the crime of "gross indecency"—1950's British speak for "being a homosexual". I'm sure his 42-year-old corpse was relieved that Queen Elizabeth II granted him a posthumous pardon in 2013.