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6/10
Practically a documentary about familial mental illness
20 May 2015
Warning: Spoilers
This animated film is nearly a documentary about Baumane's family's history of mental illness—particularly suicidal depression, but told in a remarkably frank and surprisingly humorous way. Her accounts of her own depression and the personal, details of the experiences of her family are very honest and interesting. The remainder of the film, though, is somewhat uneven, spending a lot of time on seemingly inconsequential family history and on her eldest kin's stonewalling that haunts more recent generations. Nonetheless, in totality, it paints a remarkable picture. (Note that this review is also posted to my blog.)
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Cotton Road (2014)
8/10
An unbiased look at the 2014 story of how cotton becomes clothing
26 March 2015
Warning: Spoilers
This well-designed and unbiased documentary tells the 2014 story of how cotton grown in South Carolina is shipped all over the world (particularly China) where it is made into fabric and clothing, then shipped back to South Carolina as finished products. Notable to me was how the manual laborers—the American cotton farmers and the Chinese clothing makers—worked in insufferably difficult conditions while each step removed did so 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.

My only complaint (and perhaps a bit of filmmaker bias here) was that I found the music to be cloying and melancholic, although many other people liked it.

(Note that this review is also on my blog.)
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6/10
A nice story with likable, down-to-earth characters
7 January 2015
There are a lot of movies out there. If the Internet is any guide, I guess that each year there's about 700 that make it to mainstream theaters, and around 50,000 getting submitted to film festivals. If I were to see all 50,700 movies and rank them all, I bet this movie is around number 1,000. It's not great, but it's not awful; it's got a good heart, good-enough acting, good-enough technical aspects, and a good-enough story.

Starting with the basics, it is competently constructed (shooting it well into the top 10,000 films this year). It was clearly shot on low-budget equipment judging by the picture and sound quality, but it was done professionally. The camera work is well framed, pretty stable, and well lit. The audio was handled with supplemental recording so it doesn't sound like an in-camera mic.

Then there's the acting, direction, and editing which is also reasonably good (now into the 3,000s or so). The film has a meandering but deliberate pace that could be tuned up a bit, but it works. The movie is watchable and you can get lost in the world that's created.

And finally the story and overall experience is, you know, worth a gander. It's not going to be played all over the world to blockbuster lines of people, but if you're hanging out on a rainy day, it's a movie worthy of a couple hours.

One thing I liked was that the actors were more "average sized" so-to-speak. By Hollywood standards, most of them would be the "fat friend", but Hollywood standards are, well, kind of weird, you know? What's quite wonderful is that the film pays absolutely no attention to this fact. These are just normal people getting into and out of relationships.

I thought the story was pretty engaging—I didn't know who was going to end up dating whom—but I thought it got a bit daunting keeping track of the incidental dates and additional characters, trying to remember who was a main character and who was on the side.

In the end, though, it's a nice enough movie. I'm not going to say that this was awesome and you "have to see it". It's a nice story with likable characters who are a lot more down-to-earth than what we're used to seeing on the big screen.
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Twenties (2014)
6/10
Successfully and comprehensively captures the zeitgeist of their generation
3 December 2014
Warning: Spoilers
Initially I was distracted by the low-budget quality of the cinematography, what with looking like it was shot on a cell phone. But once James Battaglia's Jake and Zac Hobert Thompson's Luke got to interact, I started to understand better. The gist of the story is that these two mid-twenty-somethings are listlessly adrift in their post-college years until they get a windfall of a bag full of $20 bills ... which turns out to be counterfeit. The film is entirely carried by the very funny interactions between Jake and Luke. But more importantly, I think the filmmakers have successfully and comprehensively captured the zeitgeist of their generation: from the defeatist apathy toward employment, to the powerful platonic love they have for one another, to the way their emotional range is invisibly bounded to prevent any real harm. And up until now, cinema has based its visual style on the 35mm film camera with a 50mm lens and careful composition to not waste expensive film, but this generation was raised on smart phones with wide-angle lenses and zero-cost images, and Boris Sapozhnikov's camera work exactly captures that aesthetic. (Note: also published on my blog.)
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Tectonics (2012)
9/10
Rappmund's "anti-temporal" filmmaking brilliantly demonstrates temporariness.
1 May 2014
Warning: Spoilers
In short summary, Peter Bo Rappmund filmed various locations along both sides of the U.S.-Mexico Border in-order from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific. I went into it with a bit of trepidation as my prejudices of borders — and this one in particular — are that they are useless, harmful relics of xenophobic nationalism. As such, I began the film with negative feelings of frustration and anger.

Rappmund's anti-temporal filmmaking techniques (where he looped sequences-of-images and time-lapse photography which created a timelessness, and used overlapped field-recordings to carry the chronological narrative) led me to experience the border as something intensely futile, intensely irrational, and intensely beautiful. It was disconcerting to me to see all this technology and effort dedicated to creating suffering. But by the end, I found myself at peace with all of it. One thing that helped was the timeless quality of the film which implied a longer-term view — that this silliness is all temporary.

(This review is largely taken from my own blog.)
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In a World... (2013)
3/10
I'm apparently alone in despising this film:
9 January 2014
Warning: Spoilers
As you may know already, 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 voice-over artist gifted similarly to LaFontaine—who wants to break into the world of voice-overs, particularly for film trailers, and become the next LaFontaine.

Kudos to Bell for humorously broaching the subject of male-dominance in the voice-over field. But my praise ends there. 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.

(Note: this review appears on my own blog.)
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2/10
Dillinger is Dead is a terrible movie to try and watch
20 February 2008
Warning: Spoilers
(Note that this comment is largely copied from my own website.) The film is about a boring industrial designer who returns to his boring home and decides to prepare a decadent meal in as boring a way possible. He happens to discover a gun in a newspaper and he splits his cooking time with cleaning the gun in olive oil. Most of the screen time, though is spent on his monotonous existence — in point-of-fact, the externally uninteresting bits of life we all experience.

I felt like the movie was a joke on the bourgeoisie of the film world — the art-house film-goers who chafe themselves with their furious masturbation. Yes: the film turns the focus of the story onto the least interesting parts, and as such it is an example of how to not make an interesting film. However, the resulting product is one to be endured for the sake of bragging that you "really understand what the artist is getting at". It reminded me a lot of the garbage that Andy Warhol produced: more things to antagonize the masses and create a self-aggrandizing class of people who celebrate an artist who's courageous enough to deliberately produce junk.
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Then a Year (2001)
7/10
Don't let "experimental short" scare you either.
10 January 2007
I got to see this film at Dryden Theatre at the George Eastman House prior to a screening of Reichardt's "Old Joy". Described as an experimental short, I braced myself for a barrage of semi-coherent abstract images, but was pleasantly surprised at its subtlety and consistency. I found it to be an anti-narrative about a passion-crime. The disconnected bits and pieces thrown together was reminiscent in a way of Michael Haneke's "71 Fragmente einer Chronologie des Zufalls" (71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance). It made for an interesting complement to "Old Joy" in that way as well, except that "Old Joy" has a much more concrete grounding, as you'd expect of a character-story.
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6/10
Another valiant attempt to out Poe the poem
10 May 2006
I had a chance to see this very good short film at the Rochester International Film Festival ("Movies on a Shoestring") in May, 2006. "The Tell Tale Heart" is quite a challenging poem to render to screen effectively and Garcia makes a valiant effort to do it justice. His use of black-and-white (that is, maximum contrast with literally just black-and-white) 3-D animation brings forth foreboding shadows and is quite effective. The scratchy Bela Lugosi reading has its own haunting charm, but didn't fit with the contrasty punch provided by the visuals. I think I would have enjoyed the film more if it were bolder in its audio.

I'm not sure, though: the poem is so strong in its own written/spoken medium that to add visuals does not do it justice. I think it needs to be significantly adapted to screen to make it work -- simply adding solid visuals to a solid telling somehow fails to get to the heart of the tale.
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8/10
Where everybody knows your demons.
18 December 2005
For the past few years, there has been a monthly screening of short films from New York State "Emerging Filmmakers." I saw The Empty Building at the October 31, 2005 screening and it was not only one of my favorites from the series, but one of my favorite short films of all time.

It speaks of the horrors of our modern lives. It speaks of the things in each of our pasts that hold us back -- the subtle and the dramatic traumas that choke off the capacity to live our lives, demanding our attention to try and solve the unsolvable puzzle of how to unchain our present selves from the past. The answer is to change ourselves to accept what happened, but that's not such an easy path.

Thus, there is an empty building where we relive our fantasies and hash out that acceptance. Where we can go to embrace ourselves and our past selves and our successes and our failures. It's where those demons live and where we can look them straight in the eye and say goodbye.
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7/10
Warmth and humor over flash and theatrics.
20 June 2005
I've had a chance to see Drivers Wanted a couple times in the past few years. Each time I'm struck by its natural warmth.

Ordinarily, "warmth" means that the actors, director, and crew have done their job to create a theatrical experience that simulates "emotional warmth." In this case, however, it feels much more genuine.

It's the warmth you feel when you get a gift from your best friend that says they really know you as opposed to the "warmth" of getting exactly what you asked for on your Christmas list.

But it's this warmth that's much harder to analyze because it is not carefully calculated.

In addition, Drivers Wanted ends up feeling complete but not perfect. It's someone's creation that they completed as far as it needed to be.

They didn't hire a crew to come in and apply a dozen coats of paint and polish it to a glass-like shine -- while that result is appealing and good, there is also merit in an artwork that is deemed "finished" by the artist but for which the audience knows it could be done differently.

Having met the director on several occasions, let me add that this film is a reflection of his personality. And it's probably that which gives it its warm feel most of all.
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Smear (1998)
Homophobia and/or puberty
1 December 2004
I got a chance to see this at the November, 2004 Emerging Filmmakers show at the Little Theater in Rochester, NY.

My take on it is that, on the one hand, it touches on the "homophobia means you're a closeted homosexual," but it also explores the way teenage boys "discovering" girls conflicts with boyhood friendships.

It's about a couple teenage boys and a girl. One of them starts dating a girl, and the other is jealous. But jealous of what? That he's dating? or for his attention? Does this make him gay? Somewhat bi-sexual? These questions lead to a commentary on society: why would such feelings be bad, and lead a person to lash out against others? A society that says, "it's right to be straight and wrong to be gay" just may be at fault for this kind of behavior ... but you can decide for yourself.
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Tighten up the jokes, Matt
8 June 2004
I got to see "Who's Your Daddy?" at the Emerging Filmmakers screening at the Little Theatre in Rochester, NY on March 29, 2004. I got the impression that Matt Ehlers' wasn't quite finished editing it, or at least I very much hoped so.

In Matt's other shorts, he has relied on a consistent formula: get in, be funny, get out. "Autobank" is the best example of this, and "Lunch" adds on several layers of punchlines to make things funny. "Who's Your Daddy?" seemed as stiff and lifeless to me as the joke to other viewers of using the words "stiff and lifeless" to describe the central flaw. I mean, he gets to the reveal too quickly--answering the titular question--then dawdles around the point for a few minutes before getting to the final punchline.

I don't know ... I'm being fairly harsh on it. It's still a funny short and demonstrates a great skill of comedic timing through editing and directing--something few directors possess.
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Catching Out (2003)
"Meditation on freedom" isn't such a bad description
23 December 2003
I recently bought the Catching Out DVD--it was one of the films I didn't get a chance to see at The High Falls Film Festival this year. I did, however, talk with the producer/director Sarah George a few times. The film is technically about the people who hop freight trains, but she described it in the somewhat cryptic phrase, "a meditation on freedom."

See, if someone told you they saw a movie about hopping freights, you might expect to see a bunch of details about the mechanics of the process, like getting past security, where to eat, where to sleep, and how to ride, with some details about several of the people. Catching Out does the opposite and touches on the details only tangentially as it closely examines the personalities of several riders. In some respects, it attempts to answer the question of "why" much more deeply than that of "how."

I guess it's not really "why" that is asked, but what is living?-what is freedom? Most of us just assume that the only way to live is within the gilded cage of society. We're offered limited freedoms and security, and pay with this intangible thing we like to call "responsibility." Before I go off on that too far, let me just ask why do we own anything at all? I mean, consider that you should just be able to go into the woods and make a little shack and eat food that grows in the area-so, to whom, exactly, does your money go to when you pay for your shelter? What exactly is responsibility anyway? Is it worth it?

The film compares the collective knowledge of the audience to the selective experiences of the subjects. That is, most people live life according to the "normal" societal rules (otherwise, everyone would be hopping freights, right?) On the other hand, if you spend your life sitting on freight trains moving from town to town, what's your life like? It's interesting to see the absence of discussion about things that concern the rest of us: money, job, home, career, retirement, taxes, television, movies, etc. Without any of that, what's there to talk about?

I also liked the methods employed. Most of the documentary structure repeats the introduction of another person then alternates between the primary interview and, usually, footage of the landscape out the doors of freight cars. It's unbelievable to see the scenery where there is no reason for commercialization. It's like a "reverse action photograph," in a way: the subject is stationary but the photographer is racing along. There's also several stellar examples of rail-oriented time-lapse photography used to punctuate the segments.

Oh, and the music was expertly selected and top-notch as well.
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7/10
The artist-subject-viewer love triangle
13 November 2003
As a photographer, I'm aware of myself, the subject, and the viewer. Unfortunately, how the viewer perceives the results is not in my control--even the subjects as viewer may misconstrue my purpose.

This film explores those options and, interestingly, leaves it to the audience to decide on the evidence presented. Shelby Lee Adams presents his case well as the photographer, but it is clear that the subjects of his pictures are not aware of the subtler influences of outside society on the content of the pictures.

In all, a great film to watch if you're interested in perceptions.
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In America (2002)
10/10
If you liked "It's a Wonderful LIfe"...
13 November 2003
I'm not a fan of movies that create characters who are tragic and put them in situations where you are left with no choice but to weep for them. I find that technique to be artifically manipulative--especially when the _only_ point of a character's existence is to generate pity.

"In America," on the other hand, is more like "It's a Wonderful Life." In both films, the characters have their own drives and motivations. The point of each is to create a plausible world where the hopeful dimension of the human spirit can be explored.

I found it useful that the characters were based on real people. Each of them had their own drives and motivations outside the context of the main point of the storyline. Fully-formed characters through extensive back-story is a necessity for bringing an audience a truly empathetic experience. I feel that "In America" succeeds in this respect.

I found myself really caring about the characters. I was pleased to find myself forgetting that I was watching actors on a screen, and instead, that I was experiencing the events as they unfolded. An impressive feat for a style of film that I'm usually very critical of.
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8/10
Expert documentary making from such a newcomer
13 November 2003
Although the primary goal of the documentary is to examine prison tattooing in Russia, it gives the subjects the opportunity to discuss the conditions in the prisons. I thought this was an expertly crafted technique: if Alix Lambert had arrived in Russia and looked to film the deplorable conditions in the prisons, she'd likely have been guided to some "show prison" where prisoners are treated kindly. By examining tattooing, she had the opportunity to see how casually accepted the poor conditions really are.
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Alchimie (2002)
7/10
If you like wine, it's like that first glass that welcomes you back to your own life at the end of a long day.
6 May 2003
I got to see this at the 2003 Rochester International Film Festival (Rochester, NY.) The film is shot with rich, warm color saturation which made it stand out at the festival. Although the plot is just a little simple (even for a short film) writer/director Anna Condo's acting is superb. She plays the role perfectly, utilizing silence as well as dialog. I didn't notice this, but apparently a couple of the party goers are also the figures on the candlestick ... now I have to see it again.
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4/10
Somewhat above average example of opposites finding value in eachother.
14 January 2003
I caught this on IFC the other night and found it to be an okay movie overall. I found the two lead characters to be far too oversimplified for my taste, though. Their entire personality is wrapped around each one's solitary trait--anal retentiveness and anti-responsibility, respectively. Although overall the film and situations are creative and somewhat entertaining, it bothered me that the sitcom-esque main characters were so shallow that they were often overshadowed by the more completely drawn secondary characters.

If you happen to catch the movie at some point, check it out. I think that this plotline of a parable of opposites finding something valuable in one another has been done many times in the past and this particular example doesn't shine bright enough above the rest. Don't get me wrong, it's an okay movie overall, and an above average example of the genre--just not an exceptional example.
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Sister Helen (2002)
10/10
Engaging documentary on an engaging woman
5 November 2002
I got a chance to talk with the co-creator, Rebecca Cammisa at the 2002 High Falls Film Festival in Rochester, NY. She said that her style is to be completely open and uninhibited in filmmaking but was very happy to be so severely constrained in the tight quarters of the group home. The narrow hallways and small rooms were expertly shot with a realism that would have been lost with more controlled and deliberate camera work.

Sister Helen herself is a remarkable character, coming from tragedy in her own life to being an unusual combination of caring, tough, and street smart. The way the film introduces us to her past is excellent, spending only a few carefully selected minutes sprinkled throughout.

In all, I can't begin to correctly heap on praise for this film. It really is a treasure of cinema and the subject a treasure of humanity.
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Size 'Em Up (2001)
7/10
Curiously entertaining short film
5 November 2002
Being male I haven't had the experience of "bra ladies" who aren't timid about sizing up the breasts of a young woman, much to her embarrassment. The film has a peculiar tone ... I found the famous actresses out of place and far too recognizable for me to let go of their already established personas. In general, though, it's got an uneasy and funny feel to it, which is quite appealing. I thought the lesbian overtones were a bit heavy-handed, though, and could have more effectively been made more subtle.

If you get a chance to see it, do so and add your own comments.
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Chelsea Girls (1966)
2/10
It's a intolerable to watch! It's experimental avant garde!--It's both!
4 November 2001
You know when you let your mind drift--especially when under the influence of drugs or alcohol--and you think up some idea that sounds like it would be great? A typical non-genius would consider an idea like that later and think, "well, this sounded like a good idea then but it's just stupid now?" Thankfully, Warhol said to himself, "no, I'm a genius and therefore that was a good idea."

And what was this brilliant idea?

Film a bunch of drug users and couples in various rooms of a hotel then project two films at a time side-by-side, shifting the audio to switch focus.

Doesn't that sound amazingly fresh and cool?

Don't answer yet! You also get:

  • randomly twitchy camera work


  • quasi-purposeful film speed changes


  • having the camera's point-of-interest fail to follow the viewer's desires


  • racking the zoom


  • sluggish response to bad focus after changing camera positions


  • over- and under-exposure


Now how much would you pay?

With your average film you'd get three or four reels, but with this, you get _12 reels!_ Plus, you get sketchy instructions on when to do transitions and change projectors, putting _you in the driver seat!_

Operators are standing by.
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10/10
Honest directing makes this film into a haunting documentary
25 October 2001
I was very glad to have other plans turned upside down so I could be graced to see this film at the 2001 High Falls Film Festival in Rochester, NY, USA. I found that the dry, honest directing coupled with the documentary-style cinematography tended to galvanize the film into my mind. It's been about a week now, and I still crisply recall scenes as if I had lived them myself.

To elaborate, there are three things I think are key to making this film as good as it is:

First, the entire feel of the picture is documentary-like. You're presented with a chronology of events about a young woman living with heroin addiction on the streets--I found it particularly remarkable that it does not beg for pity ... it really doesn't force any emotions at all, but simply offers the subject matter honestly for the observation and judgment of the viewer. Unlike most directors of this and other charged subjects, Rosemary Rodriguez chose to present the subject in an almost matter-of-fact manner.

Second ... wait: for these last two points let me just say that I have no experience whatsoever with heroin or any other drug, so my opinion is tainted with copious ignorance. ... Second, I was stunned at the realism of the drug use in the film. I really believed the people in the film were using heroin and that each of them responded in a manner consistent with how I thought they should. There wasn't even a hint of the fantasy world of drug use propagated by movies like Reefer Madness.

Finally, Ana Reeder was amazing. There was not a frame of footage when I thought I was watching an actress. I swear this girl was hooked on heroin and actually was living the life of her character. I am generally fascinated by the craft of acting, but once in a while I am confronted with a scene like the climactic breakdown of Alix where it is beyond my comprehension altogether how someone can possibly act that true to life but really be acting.
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5/10
An old story told well but without a twist.
13 January 2001
The story is about a young man at war who is exchanging letters with a woman he has never seen and falls in love with her; when he returns from war they finally meet.

The film is well produced, acted, and set, but the plot is way too predictable (even if you've never heard the story before.) A bit of a twist would have been nice.

Nonetheless, if you get a chance to see this, it'd be worth a look. Certainly a positive work for all the crew to include in their portfolios.
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5/10
I laughed, I hated the ending, I liked it nonetheless
22 June 1999
Ok, first kudos goes to making Sandra Bullock totally likable. Ben Affleck played his character well although the character is a bit of a square.

There's one shot in a laundromat which the imagery is blatant but it just makes a perfect photograph which would have had me in the theater during first run (I saw it cheap at a second run theater yesterday) had it been used in the promotions.

However, like all romantic comedies, I didn't like the ending. This is a trend for most romantic comedies I've seen...

Ok, so here's the deal--what gives with these kinds of movies always ending with the idea that it's best to (1) defy your heart, and (2) everything is best if you do what's expected of you. Yaahhhhk! Isn't the most rewarding part of living the growth we experience by pushing ourselves beyond the bounds of our personality?

Ok, 'nuff said. Overall I would recommend it as a rainy-day rental since it's quite enjoyable to watch and only a couple times do people do things which make you beg them to not be so dang stupid.
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