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.

Art and Luck at the Record Archive

I headed to The Record Archive (33 1/3 Rockwood St.) for the Opening Reception of Heather Ingram's Color Mania show. I also happened to want to pick up a couple CD's, so I did it all together.

Ingram's art in this show is a blend of colors in a uniformly random drip-line pattern. The key is in the colors — I found one piece particularly appealing for that reason. I didn't make much more of a connection than purely aesthetic, however.

About a year ago, the Dryden screened Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields. I was kind of suckered in to the sound of The Magnetic FieldsMySpace link, and when I saw a semi-positive review of the new album on the AV Club website, I decided to go get Love at the Bottom of the Sea.

But while there, I was walking around looking aimlessly — looking for that which I didn't know I was looking for. Then I passed the $1 Used CD bins and looked straight at the self-titled CD from Julia's Star.

Holy crap. I lost that CD about 10 years ago — I loaned it to someone and pretty much lost touch with them right afterward. I suspect that I was holding the actual copy that I lost. I had seen Julia's Star perform in 1999 at Milestone's and picked up their CD at some point (I have an old e-mail where I lament, "I still don't find all that impressive…not my kind of music more than anything else" so I don't know why I ever got it.) I recall that Matt Blanchard was in the band (playing a synthesizer as I recall) although I knew him better as a saxophonist in the ska band 5HeadMySpace link and in the infectious experimental jazz band JerseybandGarageBand linkMySpace link. In fact, in the aforementioned e-mail, I had seen Julia's Star play on the same bill as 5Head.

Nonetheless, had I owned the CD all these years, I probably would have taken it for granted along with lots of other bands I've seen over the years. I mean I'm sure I would have liked it, but since I had lost it, it always had that fond je ne sais quoi of having disappeared. Funny how listening now, I instantly recalled the songs and the crisp lead vocals of Julia Gray over a couple synthesizers, drums, and a DJ — reminiscent of other late-1990's bands like PortisheadMySpace link.

Making a Song at the Instant Album Party

A friend of mine invited me to an event called the "Instant Album Party", now in its second year. The gist is that they set up a practice space and a recording studio with their own and borrowed instruments and gear, and then spend a day record an album of songs, each created in 1 hour by randomly-selected people in heretofore new bands.

At first I thought I'd go to spectate, but I couldn't resist throwing my name in. I played trumpet when I was in grade school, have feebly attempted to teach myself slide guitar, and took a few months of singing lessons ten years ago. I've never been in a band or performed a whole song, save for some drunken karaoke nights. Basically no musical experience at all. So why not join a band?

I stopped in briefly at the very beginning of the party around 10:30 a.m. to drop off some audio equipment in case they needed it, and I put my name in the festive Christmas tin and tossed a couple fictional band names in the unfestive water jug. I returned at 3 p.m. and things were starting to really take off. The first band was drawn at 11:30 a.m. and at 1-hour intervals from there on. My caffeine buzz was starting to wear thin by the time my name got picked at 9:30 p.m.

So five of us guys (who for the most part had never met one another) are a band. We got four choices from the band-names bin and decided the best of them was "Brochures!". We headed to the basement Kenny played keyboards, Ben (or Ian) played drums with Justin backing up on both a tomtom and with vocals, and Ian (or Ben) played electric guitar.

While the other guys hashed out some melodies, I started scribbling furiously to try and come up with some lyrics. Earlier in the day, someone was telling a story that happened a short time after breaking up with his girlfriend, except he used the phrase "brokeing up" by accident. I commented that "brokeing up" really captures that initial feeling where present-tense and past-tense collide, and I decided to try and work that into the song. Aside from that, I just listened to the style of music and wrote down a bunch of lines. Within 10 minutes or so the words started to congeal into a simple 3-verse structure with a chorus.

I shared my ideas and did my best to match a melody to the music already created, singing my best on the microphone. We hashed through it a couple times and (owing largely to my lack of musical and band-performing skills) I had a hard time figuring out exactly when to sing. But it wasn't long before the hour was up and we headed to the recording studio.

Making it more difficult for recording was that I had to sing once for the band's sake, then again listening to the recording, and I just couldn't remember exactly how I did it the first time. Nonetheless, things sounded pretty good and Justin added a harmony to the chorus in a subsequent track. We finished at 11:29 p.m.

We got to name our song, and picking from the lyrics, we all agreed "There is no July" was the way to go. Presumably they'll put the new album on the same Shark Tank Shows where the 2010 album is available for download.

Anyway, it had dawned on me earlier that day that I finally had an answer to a question from my own (and something similar from anyone's) past: "how do I meet women?" Of course, in my case, if I were asked "well, why don't you?", I'd say I was afraid of the unknowable. So one of the big things to do, I think, is to practice boldly entering the unknowable future. That is — along the lines of fear and excitement like I've talked about before — making a habit of seeing new opportunities as something to excitedly experience rather than something to fear failing at. If I had lived like that at age 25, I'd probably be a few years "ahead" of where I am now. But no matter because every time I remind myself to push myself, the more of a habit it forms, and the better things get.

Catching My Brightest Diamond and Auld Lang Syne at the Bug Jar

I went to the The Bug JarMySpace link (219 Monroe Ave.) with high hopes. First, I'm a big fan of Auld Lang SyneMySpace link with their fantastic, heavy, electric, lounge-folk. Tonight they didn't disappoint with a set that built from catchy, straightforward acoustic rock to a wall of sound in that same style. A friend of mine had mentioned that his friend would be playing as My Brightest DiamondMySpace link. Playing a variety of instruments in turn, she's an excellent soloist with a melodic voice. In all I was thrilled to have been there.

Catching Stereophone and Red This Ever at the Bug Jar

I got a later start than I wanted but it turned out to be timed perfectly. Just minutes after I arrived at The Bug JarMySpace link (219 Monroe Ave.), Stereophone started their set. The trio played fast, hard-pop-rock with a notably deceptive effortlessness. Although they jokingly implied they were new to live performance, they were proficient with their songs.

Next up was Red This EverMySpace link who played great punk synth-pop. Listening to their album after the fact, I reinforced the notion that they were influenced by bands like Ministry and Depeche Mode, bringing in the hard instrumental aspects of the former with the a singing style closer to the latter. I chatted with them after the show — apparently they decided to make the road their home for the next 2 years, leaving Baltimore, Maryland in the rear-view mirror. I wish them well and hope that lead singer Roy stays serious-injury-free (despite my best efforts, advising improvements on how to attach plastic milk crates to one's feet.)

Seeing Young Empires, Hosannas, and Black Elk Speaks at the Bug Jar's Tympanogram Show

Music blog Tympanogram hosted another show at The Bug JarMySpace link (219 Monroe Ave.) After their show earlier this year, I knew I didn't want to miss this one. That, and their prolific blog has a lot of good stuff.

As always, I went in cold, having not even listening to the sample songs Tympanogram posted. Black Elk SpeaksMySpace link started things off. They do some great vocal-harmonies, and play rock influenced by a lot of genres. Although I have nothing bad to say about them, I did lose interest after a while.

Next up was HosannasMySpace link who I enjoyed a lot. They played great synth-rich atmospheric rock. I picked up their latest CD Together and have been enjoying it as well. Finishing up was Young EmpiresMySpace link who played an excellent set of synth-rock alternative.

In all another successful show — and another reason to keep an eye on what Tympanogram is up to.

Seeing Illimanjaro, The Missing Teens, and Thunderbang at the Bug Jar

It's been a while since I wrote about seeing music at all … but I have been out. I spent some time at The Bug JarMySpace link (219 Monroe Ave.) and met some cool people from the bands and from around town. The bands didn't start until late, but another local musician and friend of members of The Missing TeensMySpace link offered to let them play a bit in the basement. So we went there for a few minutes and a few songs — a proper preview of the great, high-energy rock with a lounge-jam edge we were to see later on.

Back at the Bug Jar, IllimanjaroMySpace link kicked things off with some high-power, melodic, fast rock. Their guitarist was particularly apt at very fast playing and did a few impressive solos. The Missing TeensMySpace link was up next, replacing the temporary iPod with Illimanjaro's drummer and not one but two keytars. Thunderbang!MySpace link finished things off with some well-executed funky lounge-rock and even got a few people dancing.

Jon Moses and Les Shelleys at the Bug Jar

Once again I found myself back at The Bug JarMySpace link (219 Monroe Ave.) This time it was an extraordinarily light crowd — even for a Sunday. Shelley ShortMySpace link had apparently canceled most of her tour due to some issues that kept her wanting to stay near home.

Jon Moses started things off. He's clearly more comfortable improvising and being inclusive and seemed a little off being on-stage separated from the sparse audience. Nonetheless, he showed his acoustic soloist skills admirably. Then it was Les ShelleysMySpace link turn which shrank the audience notably further since Jon relinquished the stage to once audience-members Tom BrosseauMySpace link and Angela CorreaMySpace link. They provided an impressive display of their elegant vocal harmonies and evocative lyrics — the only other instrumentation being Tom's guitar and Angie's percussive clapping and stomping which gives exactly the kind of minimal-but-not a capella sound you'd expect.

Dave Donnelly, Daryl Fleming and the Public Domain, and Hinkley at the Bug Jar

I was pretty psyched to go to The Bug JarMySpace link (219 Monroe Ave.) tonight. I knew I couldn't go wrong with HinkleyMySpace link, I had good memories of Daryl Fleming and the Public DomainMySpace link, and recently saw the excellence of Dave Donnelly who started things off. This time on the Bug Jar's main stage, he brought a mix of original and classic country songs with a well seasoned skill and the perfect voice to do it.

Daryl Fleming was next and played his own style that is loosely an interesting mix of lyrical, groove-rock-ish country/folk/rock. He was saying beforehand that he's recently been fascinated by the unusual chord progressions in some fairly popular 1960's songs — he demonstrated it with a vocoder-enhanced cover of The Seekers' "Georgy Girl". You really never know where Daryl's mind is going to take him on stage.

Finishing up was HinkleyMySpace link who I consistently re-experience as excellent, deceptively mellow, complex rock-and-roll. I never catch on right away, but quicker-and-quicker I'm swept into the nuances of this excellent band.

Visiting Friends in Ithaca and Seeing That 1 Guy and Willie B. at Castaways

All the stay-up-late preparation I had been doing led up to this trip to Ithaca. I stopped by to see my old friends Sean and Kelly — so long has it been, that they have a 3-year-old kid I had never met. Nonetheless, we picked up where we left off and had a nice time catching up.

Afterward, I headed to Castaways (413 Taughannock Blvd., Ithaca) to catch the show there. The place is great to see live music. I can't think of a comparable venue in Rochester: it's laid out as one big room with the bar on one side and the stage on the other. Low ceilings and acoustic drapes keep the sound from being overwhelming. Plus, the people I met were pretty nice … I expected it out of Ithaca, realizing it was just an arbitrary opinion about the town.

Starting off the show, Willie B.MySpace link (a.k.a. Brian Wilson) played drums with some MIDI electronics. I was kind of disappointed because I thought his songs really don't go anywhere — I suspect he's better in a band such as Johnny DowdMySpace link which I really liked years ago (although I don't remember if it was this same guy on drums). Headlining was That One GuyMySpace link who was just fantastic. As I've described before, he plays a custom-made, 7-foot tall "magic pipe" which includes a guitar string and a bass string along with a bunch of buttons that control a synthesizer. As such, the gyrations necessary to play the magic pipe automatically affect a dance performance. Plus the sound is practically unclassifiable: it's cousin to jam bands, hip-hop, rock, synth-pop, and novelty acts — in degrees that vary considerably from song-to-song.

Although I didn't leave all that late, the two-hour drive won out against my stay-up-late practice and I had to pull over for a quick nap before getting home around 2:30 a.m.