Death Race 2000 at the Dryden, December 11: Cheesy, schlocky, violent, and sexually exploitative: yes. And it's still got some teeth as social commentary. Usually films about the "distant" future 25 years away miss their mark, but this one gets a lot of things right like that the U.S. President will be revered as some kind of exceptional being (at least substantially different from a normal mortal), and our affinity for witnessing death on the highways. Of course it never saw anything like YouTube or the "car fail" meme therein, but who could have known that?
Camille Claudel, 1915 at the Dryden, December 14: Jenn and I went to see this together—neither of us knew much about Camille Claudel except that she was a sculptor at the turn of the 20th Century. The film is a fictional account of 3 days of her life while she was confined to a mental asylum in the South of France, culminating in a visit from her brother Paul. It's a saddening document of a woman who showed such creative promise, but failed to embrace the demands of what was expected of her in civilized society. She recognized her persecution but mischaracterized its purpose or meaning. As such, her family thought they were helping her by locking her away from the art that brought her her only true joy.
Bill Cosby, Himself at the Dryden, December 20: My brother Adam was visiting for a few days and I convinced him to see this with Jenn and I. We all enjoyed it quite a bit. It's still funny and relevant, and Bill Cosby steadily meanders between intertwined stories and ideas to create a well-crafted whole.
Nebraska at the Little, December 21: Jenn and I went to see this together and we both liked it a lot. It's the tale of an aging father (Bruce Dern) visiting his hometown on his way to (futilely) try to claim a million dollar prize. I recognized Will Forte and Bob Odenkirk as primarily comic actors, but here they adeptly play Dern's sons as just regular folk. Alexander Payne had the film shot in black-and-white which was a somewhat unusual choice. Jenn felt it was to lend an air of timelessness by removing the bright color cues of present-day advertising. I was a bit more cynical, I guess, and thought it was because it was set in Montana and Nebraska in winter, and it should have had a blanket of snow to elicit the same effect (see also, Fargo) but the absence of snow forced the hand of the artists and they shot it in black-and-white. One thing I take issue with is the "villain" of the story, played by Stacy Keach, was a bit too vengeful for his age and demeanor.
Phase IV at the Dryden, January 7: I was drawn to this film as it's Saul Bass's only feature film (being far better known for amazing title-sequences on hundreds of famous films.) The story is pretty weird: ants gain collective intelligence and go about taking over the world. The weakest part of the whole film is the dialog, and the ham-fisted allegorical nature of the script. But the cinematography is incredible and includes yet another favorite scene in cinema: a telephoto shot across a hot surface where something starts to appear and we're left wondering what it is for the better part of 20 seconds. Oh, and the extended Saul Bass ending is many minutes of stylized, artistic structures in the style of a Saul Bass title sequence; hence: spectacular.
Prince Avalanche at the Dryden, January 10: Jenn and I went to see this together as she's a David Gordon Green fan. I guess I am too, at least after this film. I'd put it in the bunglingly-named "mumblecore" genre as it's really just a slice of life about two men on a remote road painting lines over a few days. The brilliance lies in the complex, natural characters that are gradually revealed—both just so simply, uniquely flawed.
Du zhan (Drug War) at the Dryden, January 11: Paolo Cherchi Usai selected this as his Curator's Choice for the month, citing the ambiguous morality layered upon what could otherwise be dismissed as a popcorn action flick. I'm not so sure I agree. While I do understand the moral ambiguity—that there are no well-defined "good guys" and "bad guys", nor is the story itself a simplified morality tale—it lays out such broad strokes as an action movie that I couldn't help but see it as primarily that. In some ways I see it as a superior form of action movie since it delivers an interesting plot and sophisticated sequences by genre-decree, but it fails to let the audience root for any team, and thus there is no moral payoff at the end, as I think there is something socially dangerous about celebrating such inhuman behavior.
Évocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie at the Dryden, January 18: Back in the late 1980's, I could swear I remember the Morton Downey Jr. Show in some form of on-air syndication. It was actually something I avoided: even then I did not enjoy witnessing people in conflict, and I especially despised prideful ignorance and anti-rational thinking. So I cringed my way through clips of the show where Downey would essentially deliver a non-stop barrage of ad hominem arguments to the show's guests to the delight of the mob-worthy studio audience. The documentary steadily and artfully paints the background portrait of a man living in the shadow of a famous father, desperately trying to find his own voice. Filmmaker Seth Kramer was on hand to answer questions, but for the most part, everything he wanted to say about Downey is in the film.
Tôkyô monogatari (Tokyo Story) at the Dryden, January 22: I was sold on the Roger Ebert quote, "With no other director do I feel affection for every single shot." And the film delivers. It's a stunningly well-crafted piece of cinema that tells the tale of aging parents visiting their adult children in Tokyo. The kids don't appreciate the significance of the visit, snubbing their parents as an annoyance in their busy lives. But I think it was respectful of both parties, merely showing the melancholic truth that children grow up and drift away from their parents.
Shtikat Haarchion (A Film Unfinished) at the Dryden, January 28: As I was watching I realized this seemed familiar, and indeed, I saw it in October, 2010 when it was released. I think I forgot because it is such an impossible concept to believe: German footage inside the Warsaw Jewish ghetto just months before nearly everyone there was annihilated. The documentary suggests the Nazi footage was to demonize the Jews—propaganda to allow average citizens to justify the Holocaust. It's all quite horrifying, and it actually happened. All I can say is: beware of media generalizations of the character of a people.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.