Support the Girls (2018)

Impression:  Not since Office Space have I run into a movie that rings more closely true to my experience of America than Support the Girls. Ha, I don’t mean that literally… I am not saying that I have worked at or even ever been to a Hooters. 🙂 But the desolate characterless urban landscapes, the endless strip malls and highways are much closer to my experiences of the US than the cutesy urban settings of New York (or places made to look like New York for the camera) coffee shops and parks and bodegas that are often served up in American movies. I am not saying those places don’t exist, I am saying that for a large portion of the population, those are places you go to on vacation, not places where you live your day to day life.

I recognized the endless crossing highways as Houston for some reason, but when I read up on the movie some more, it was filmed in Austin. Cementing my point that these places are interchangeable.

It occurs to me that the reason I thought it was in Houston, is because I worked for a few years for a company headquartered there, and they would fly us over and take us to restaurants in strip malls, and you had to drive to it even if it was across the street from the hotel, because there was no way to cross the highway. It also made me remember when I set up a meeting with my boss at my local teahouse, and he thought it was the weirdest thing that anyone would go to a place that’s not a chain. But I digress…

This is not a movie I would have normally been drawn to, or even noticed, had it not been one of the few films on a recent list of recommended films from Seventh Row that I had immediate access to. And they have not led me astray before.

Support the Girls is a quintessential small movie. Its world is the world of Lisa, the general manager of a Hooters-like restaurant called “Double Whammies” as she tries to keep her cool dealing with everyone else’s issues first… and then her own. Regina Hall is wonderful as Lisa, the people-pleasing, but still straight shooting manager who enjoys everything about her job except her boss. Lisa gets her kicks from being helpful to the girls who work for her, from dealing with sleazy customers in just the right way, and she enjoys enforcing the rules when they need to be enforced. She just doesn’t enjoy not being appreciated by the owner, who sets the rules but has no idea how things work on the ground. The girls love Lisa, although they sometimes keep things from her (to not upset her). The owner’s number one rule is “no drama” which Lisa informs him is impossible to adhere to with a bunch of 20-year-olds.

The humor is subtle, and nothing really happens. But the movie is like Lisa, it’s sweet, and (almost) never judgmental. If you like seeing slice-of-life films about the type of people who rarely get shown on film as just people, this one is for you.

Facts:  A few days in the life of Lisa, a manager of a small Hooters-lite type restaurant in a strip mall somewhere in middle America.

My Buddhist reading:  Lisa tries to please everyone and finds that it can’t be done. She finds out that even with her best intentions and wanting to help, people choose badly. She finds out that even the parts of her life she things she has control over, she really doesn’t, and there are always outside forces messing up her plans.

Bacurau (2019)

Impression:  Whoah! I am a bit speechless and unsure what to say about this one. Super violent and graphic. Two running themes throughout the movie are coffins and a mysterious drug people take when they enter the town. The film has somewhat of a post-apocalyptic feel. Like a Brazilian Mad Max but without the cars. The setting and the gritty portrayal of place also made me think of The Bad Batch. But I think this is a deeper movie, I think it’s saying something about community and identity, although I am unsure what exactly. Maybe something as simple as that when people come together they can defeat external threats. It’s definitely saying clearly and loudly that politics and politicians are corrupt, and that people can organize and make positive changes in their community much better than waiting for a corrupt self-serving politician who only needs them when he needs their votes. Maybe it is also saying that when dealing with violence from above, sometimes it may be necessary to use violent means to survive.

The film is set in the near future in a dusty town of Bacurau, somewhere in the wastelands of Brazil. The town seems pretty much abandoned to its own devices; you have to be tough to live in Bacurau. There is only one thing they want from the local politician, and that is to help them deal with the water supply they have been cut off from. But there is no help. The small town has turned the church into a storage space. Prostitution is rampant and out in the open. The town doctor is also the town drunk. Some local guys are holed up with guns in the abandoned dam out of town: it’s unclear if they have been run out of town, or they left on their own accord and what exactly they are doing out there. Something violent and sinister has happened here before, but we are never fully told what.

But this is all just the set up. The second half of the movie brings in a way more global commentary on violence, hatred, indifference, and I will not spoil it. A lot of things are never fully explained, so you have to be the kind of person who loves (instead of getting frustrated with) films that make you ask: “What is this movie even about?” until the very end. Any maybe after…

Facts:  Something weird is going on in a small dusty Brazilian town of Bacarau.

My Buddhist reading:  That violence begets violence and in general that causes create effects of a similar kind is pretty much a given in Buddhist teachings. And that violence is not good, not just for those who are on the receiving end of it, but those who perpetrate it either, is also clear. But maybe in some ways Bacurau can be read as a personification of samsara. People are mostly left alone to do what they want within the town, but these outside violent forces which they perceive as completely outside their control have actually been caused by their own previous actions? And at the end, putting aside their differences and taking care of each other is what saves them? Maybe.

Limbo (2020)

Impression:  Who knew I had to wait for a comedy about refugees stuck on a remote Scottish island to see the first film of London Film Festival 2020 to really move me? And on one of the last days of the fest. Makes me think they program them so that the films get better and better as the fest goes on. From the opening scene I knew this was a film for me: A super awkward dance sequence as explanation to a room full of asylum seekers on what is socially appropriate and what not in the UK. The blank or confused stares of the audience were priceless.

From this scene the film goes into a number of vignettes where that awkwardness of culture shock is presented in the same dry, but warm fashion. But, the culture shock goes both ways, the refugees are in an alien environment, but also the locals have lived all their lives in an insular community and have never seen strangers like these. There is something of the silliness of a film like Cool Runnings in here too, with people from warm climates experiencing snow and cold for the first time and shivering in the cold. There is also something of the cultural differences aspect of making contact with the other.

The film focuses on the story of Omar, a young Syrian musician, slowly revealing a bit of his back story, which is sad, as expected. But his interactions with other refugees, and some locals are very matter-of-fact and funny. This film, as most of my favorite films, manages to walk that line between funny and sad very well. Abedi and Wasef are a comedy duo of (what we initially think are) brothers with dreams of footballing greatness and goat metaphors. But as the story develops we learn that they come from completely different countries and have only met as refugees while crossing the Mediterranean, and are pretending to be brothers thinking it will strengthen their case for asylum. Then there is Farhad, Omar’s very deadpan Zoroastrian roommate who steals a chicken from the locals to keep as a pet (“You have to return the chicken! -They won’t notice!”) He names it Freddie, after his idol Freddie Mercury. Farhad appoints himself Omar’s manager and tries to get him to play his oud. The visual of Farhad with his chicken feels like something straight out of a Kusturica film.

While Omar is the main character, he is the most introverted of the lot, so we experience most of the events through his eyes rather than seeing him experience events. He frequently calls his parents, living as refugees in Istanbul, and we find out that he had a falling out with his brother who stayed to fight in the Syrian civil war and he has a lot of feelings of guilt and anger about the decisions he made.

There are many very serious and sad things that happen in this film, but the tone is never morose. The writing is excellent, and the film is never boring, always keeping you waiting for what will happen next. In the end it also promises that “no animals or chickens were harmed in the making of this film.”

Facts:  A group of refugees from various parts of the world are housed on a remote Scottish island while waiting to find out if they qualify for an asylum in the UK.

My Buddhist reading:  There is something of the Buddhist philosophy in the tone of this film. The ability to take heavy and difficult things with a sense of lightness and play, and not to make them heavy is essential to making progress on the Buddhist path. There is an interaction between the two main characters in the film about this, where Omar doesn’t understand how Farhad can keep being silly in the light of all the heavy things that have happened to them, and Farhad explains that he has no choice.

After Love (2020)

Impression:  The beginning of this film reminds me of Ignorant Fairies (later renamed to His Secret Life) which I liked very much. It’s the same set up. A fairly happy marriage ends when a husband suddenly dies. The wife goes through his stuff and finds that he was living a parallel life. In both films, the wife get intrigued by his other life, but instead of exploring it by becoming a part of it, in After Love, she finds herself unable to tell the other woman who she is and what happened. Instead, she goes along with the other woman believing she is a house cleaner. Initially instead of getting involved with the people in his other life, Mary seems more intrigued by the objects. But slowly she develops a relationship with his son, Solomon. The film is very sparse on dialogue, and the longest talking part Mary has is about half way through the film when she tells Solomon about how she and Ahmed met. There is a very sweet bonding moment between them, as she speaks Urdu with him and cooks him Pakistani food.

The film is slow, and beautifully shot, with layered references to place and otherness. The physical distance of the two worlds: Dover and Calais is wonderfully visually represented by the many ferry rides across the Channel. Additionally, there is this third mythical place in the form of Pakistan where the husband/lover/dad was from, which acts as an invisible force uniting the three characters, but also separating them, because of how they’ve chosen to define themselves with respect to it. The white cliffs of Dover feature prominently as a metaphor for what Mary, the main character, is feeling throughout the film.

Constant comparisons with Ignorant Fairies in my mind keeps me thinking of what the differences between these films might suggest. Maybe you can conclude that there is some deeper truth about how Northern vs. Southern Europeans deal with situation: solemn suffering versus food and party. Or you can think of it as representative of how a gay man and a straight woman deal with it: making friends, forming community and inclusiveness, versus how two straight women might deal with it: holding grudges and secrecy. But maybe I am reading too much into it. After Love is very much its own film, and well worth seeing. But I do keep wondering if the writer/director has seen Ignorant Fairies. This is something I would have asked had I seen it at a live version of the London Film Festival instead of online.

Facts: A white middle aged English woman who converted to Islam for her husband in her youth deals with his sudden death and discovery of another life she didn’t know he lead.

My Buddhist reading:  It’s hard to really know another person. All we can know is our own mind, and that’s not exactly easy either. Mary obviously thought she knew Ahmed, but he had a whole other life he kept secret from her. She then subtly thinks she knows Genevieve and Solomon and Genevieve thinks she knows Mary. But all any of them are doing is projecting their own biases and preconceived notions onto each other.

Mouthpiece (2018)

Impression: Wow! This film is available to screen online for the next 3 days for free. So if any of this intrigues you, seek it out!

My favorite Jane Austen adaptation is of Mansfield Park by Patricia Rozema. I know it’s a little controversial to Jane Austen fanatics, because it apparently is not very true to the book at all, but instead takes liberties with mixing the plot of the novel with events from Jane Austen’s own life. But it makes a wonderful and dynamic film. It breaks the fourth wall, and is just a clever use of film. Which is what I like about the Patricia Rozema films I have seen.

I didn’t know much about this film going in (always best!) other than it was directed by Rozema. I glanced at a few reviews/comments after I finished it (not reading more than a few sentences of each), just to see if everyone thought it was as good as I did. While most of what I found seemed positive, the one negative review I found thought it was too obviously an adaptation of a play. I found this so bizarre. Rozema, for me, falls into category of director who makes plenty of use of film as a medium. This is actually something I really enjoy about her films. And this is also something I am quite attentive to and end up not liking films like Carnage for example, for exactly this reason.

Anyway, this film uses a very clever visual device (which could feel like a gimmick, but it’s really not!) to impart the idea of internal conflict. I won’t give it away, but it becomes clear within a few minutes what’s being done. The plot follows a young girl who is struggling with her place in the world as a woman, as a daughter, as a person. Temporally, the entire plot is squeezed within 2 days: between the moment she finds out her mother passed away and when she has to attend her funeral. I love that what she does for a living is very much left out of the plot (other than a brief mention of an article she wrote). Her boyfriend/lover is also incidental. I love that it’s all focused on her inner life, her inner conflicts, thoughts and demons. It’s very much a movie about the inner world expressed through the medium of film.

Like Almodovar’s Julieta, it’s a film about mother/daughter relationships, but in a much more subdued and less dramatic way. It speaks to internal conflicts inherent to that complex relationship: wanting to conform and wanting to break away, loving and judging. It also grapples with what it means to be a woman, and how that role is cast down by the society around us. I guess, it’s a feminist film. And it’s also probably the film that struck an emotional connection with me in a way no film has, since Moonlight. I highly recommend this one.

Facts: A young woman deals with a sudden death of her mother, her conflicting feelings towards her and prepares to give a speech at her funeral.

My Buddhist reading:  Buddhism holds that everything is just a label. But while being a woman is a label, it’s still one that even someone like Cassy, who is trying desperately to escape traditional roles, feels very acutely. While as an individual you can recognize a label as being empty of inherent existence, society has a way of constantly reinforcing their ideas of what that label should entail.

Under the Skin (2013)

Impression: Reading the Film 4 one sentence description both ruined this one for me and made me want to watch it. I had heard of this film when it originally came out and had it on my mental list of films to see for a while. I always assumed it’s science fiction. Which I guess it is, but I imagined it to be high-tech high budget sci fi, which it definitely isn’t. The description which sets it up as Scarlett Johansson roaming the streets of Glasgow as an alien made it seem intriguing. But it also ruined it. Since you don’t actually find out for sure that she is an alien until the end of the film. The whole film is a mood piece, where you know something bizarre is going on, and more and more bizarre things start going on. It’s very much a non Hollywood feeling film t0o, with very minimal dialogue, and very slow moving plot. The way the film is shot puts you in the frame of mind of the protagonist, noticing people in crowds, documentary style shots of streets and people going about their business, a lot of shots of her driving a van.

She zeros in on men, ones who are alone and then has very brief conversations with them. This is followed by a very abstract representation of what she does to her victims, shot in minimalist but visually interesting style. What I liked most about this film is that there are no explanation given. It’s just an exposition of her experiences of an alien (to her) world, and it is left completely to the viewer to interpret what happens and why.

The scene at the beach where she does not even notice a screaming baby was striking to watch. But then somehow her senses are primed for that sound, so the next time when she is in a car next to a screaming baby she notices it. You can notice similar things with other experiences she has as well. At first just ignoring something a regular human would notice, but next time noticing it.

There is so much that could be said about this movie, but I feel like you have to be in the right frame of mind to watch it. It is slow and strange.

Facts: A woman drives through streets of Glasgow noticing random men and picking them up. Something sci-fiy is going on.

My Buddhist reading:  I have no idea. An alien being would not have labels and conceptual elaborations associated with every object they encounter. The concept of food and eating would be brand new. She wouldn’t just assume that the chocolate cake tastes good, because she would have no concept of what chocolate is. And that’s exactly what happens, she chokes on it when she tries to taste it.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020)

Impression: Oh, where do I begin. I like Charlie Kaufman‘s films. A lot! I’ve seen all the ones he has directed and all the one’s he has written. They are quirky and mindbending and definitely the most creative thing coming out of mainstream Hollywood. So, this movie. It’s a relatively simple set up, a woman is going with her boyfriend to his parents house for the first time. At first it seems like a fairly normal movie about 2 hipsters driving to a dinner, having some pseudointellectual conversations on the way. Slowly some weirdness creeps in. First she talks about a biology paper, then she’s apparently a poet, and recites a super long quite powerful poem, at some point she is a painter, then a waitress. Stranger and stranger things keep happening and you realize there is this dark undercurrent, but this is not a horror film, things are just off, and no one seems to realize it.

The point of the movie seems to be that it’s all performance: they are all just going through the motion (the dance?) of saying something to keep conversations going, and what they say is unimportant. Whether they are talking art or science or film, all that matters is that the other person doesn’t quite agree and keeps the conversation going. It’s a little weird to make a very talky movie where what they talk about is completely irrelevant. The characters never notice that their conversations are non-sequiturs or that the stories they tell to each other about themselves change or that who they are talking to ages or changes clothes or that sometimes they are a totally different person. They just keep talking. Sometimes the characters get emotional for no reason. Behind the endless talks there are possibly some truths about anxieties of modern life, but there might as well not be. It seems like none of that is the point.

After finishing watching the movie, I felt I needed to know a lot more about the musical Oklahoma (I know nothing more than it exists) to understand the plot. But instead I got sidetracked and read about the novel on which it was based, and it seems to have been pretty true to it, and there was no mention of the musical in the plot of the book, so maybe it’s not so central.

I don’t know, it’s a film that makes you think, and it looks good. But… did it really need to be 2 hours 14 minutes long to make you think about the purpose of conversations, about how we relate to each other and how well we really understand each other? I would argue it would have worked much better as a short film.

Facts: A couple on a surrealist road trip through snow and windswept Oklahoma.

My Buddhist reading:  Idle chatter is one of the 10 non-virtuous actions in Buddhism. The film uses a lot of idle chatter (which passes for deep conversation) to illustrate the pointlessness of it.

Red Joan (2018)

Impression: The best thing about this movies is Dame Judy Dench. It’s an interesting story, that probably could have made an interesting movie. But, that’s where the good things about this movie end. I think this is likely the worst British movie I have ever seen. It’s like the British equivalent of a Lifetime Special. All my experience until now with British cinema has been that you can count on a movie to be well written and acted. It’s possible the subject matter may not interest you, or that you find it boring, but it’s invariably been well written and acted. I don’t know what exactly went wrong here, but but this one just wasn’t. The acting from most (other than Dench) was over the top, and/or stilted and the writing cringey.

It claims to be loosely based on a true story. There was a British woman who in her 80s was arrested for having been a Soviet spy during World War II, and she made a confession in her suburban garden. And the spying had to do with the work on the atomic bomb. The rest of it: the over the top love affair, the over the top friends, the blackmailing of the gay government official, the bad acting; I can only assume those were all made up. It’s hard to tell if it was just the writing that was bad, and it translated into actors having to make badly written cliché pronouncements about science and morality, or the actual acting was bad too.

I watched this in two parts: in the first part an elderly woman is arrested and flashbacks of the backstory are revealed: becoming involved with a group of young enthusiastic communists and falling in love with the charismatic Leo. It seemed a bit cheesy and formulaic, but I was willing to wait for the story to develop. And Dench was great, as always. So I stared the second part excited to finally get to the spying and intrigue. Unfortunately, it just prolonged my misery by subjected me to more scenes of Leo using JoJo for information, and calling her his “little comrade” while staring deeply into her eyes whenever he wanted to manipulate her, and JoJo pouting. Sonya as the ridiculous cell leader and oversexed girlfriend at least provided some comic relief.

In conclusion: Too much smooching, not enough spying.

Facts: An old woman in the modern day English suburbs is arrested for treason during World War II.

My Buddhist reading:  I can’t get over my disappointment over this movie. It had so much potential. I guess, my Buddhist reading is to try not to get too attached to hoped for outcomes. Be more ok with a movie being bad.

Cold War (2018)

Impression: I saw this film because I remember seeing Ida by the same director,  Paweł Pawlikowski, a couple of years ago and liking it. I liked this one even more. Also shot in black and white, it’s like a 1940’s and 1950’s Romeo and Juliet set in Poland (and abroad), but where the forces keeping the lovers apart are themselves and sometimes political realities or social norms of the countries they reside in. The film opens with a scene of a Polish winter and snow that was so bleak and realistic that my husband commented how cold it was in the room. Granted, we soon discovered the window was open, so I guess it’s possible it had nothing to do with the stark realism of the movie.  I also loved the early scenes of a group of ethnomusicologists travelling the Polish country side collecting traditional music.

Visually, Pawlikowski’s work is very interesting. Other than the obvious rejection of color, he uses interesting camera angles which especially became obvious towards the end of the film. He frames his characters in the bottom half of the frame and leaves the top of the frame there for you to interpret. Weight of circumstances? God? I don’t know. He is also keen of abrupt endings in both his films, and he loves long black screens between acts. And each act leaves you waiting for more. The transition between the church walls and the mud on the road was striking, and it took me a while to notice there was a mirror in the dance hall scene. On a personal note, it’s also one of very few major movies to feature scene from my very photogenic hometown.

The acting is especially good from both leads. Joanna Kulig feels like a Polish Jennifer Lawrence. Not only because there is a bit of a physical similarity, but because of the acting style, and in that I could very easily have imagined Lawrence playing this role as well. Tomasz Kot feels like a classic leading man from that era of Hollywood films.

In addition to all of this, the backdrop of post World War II era political climate in Poland and France is presented in interesting ways.  The film doesn’t fall into the easy trap of most films which portray that era as East=bad West=good. Instead, it shows that even hanging out in smoky bars with libertine Parisians is not all its cracked up to be. The more I think about this film, the more I like it. It’s the best film I’ve seen in a while. I would say, almost a perfect film. 

Facts: Black and white rendering of a love story in the late 40s and early 50s in Poland and abroad. 

My Buddhist reading:  I guess, as most tragic love stories, it’s about our inability to escape samsara, our inability to get what we want, no matter how much we want it. The causes and conditions always conspiring to not allow us to have permanent happiness.

Graduation (2016)

Impression: I haven’t seen a ton of it, but I really like what I have seen from recent Romanian cinema: somewhat dark, but well paced. I’ve now seen three films by Cristian Mungiu including 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and Beyond the Hills. There is this realism to them: you are often placed into cramped apartments, or dark offices, or are driving in a small car along with the protagonists. In Graduation specifically, I noticed that the camera is hand held even during seemingly still shots, moving ever so slightly in a rhythm of a breath, giving you a feeling of being part of the conversations. There is also a sense that the Dr. Aldea rarely gets any rest or down time. Even though we never actually see him doing his work (in a couple of scenes he is in the hospital, but not actively doing the doctoring), he is always on the move: meeting people, setting up appointments, driving. Even during his down time at home, he is peeling apples. He is contrasted by his wife who is usually moving very slowly, folding clothes or smoking. I like the way the films unfold, there is always something unsaid and not quite understood, and you have to be patient to get to the answer.

Corruption is the central theme of this film, with the main question being what do you do in a society where corruption is mainstream? Do you resist it for moral reasons? Does that make a difference in any way or just hurt you even more? The other theme is the relationship between Dr. Aldea and the rest of his family (mother, daughter and wife), and with women in general. For whatever reason, his relationship with his wife is broken. It’s unclear how he came to have a lover, but his wife knows. He wants the best for his daughter but is not great at letting her make her own decisions. His relationship with his girlfriend/lover is also a bit strained.

At its core, this film is about an every man trying to survive against the forces of the society in which he lives. Although Dr. Aldea comes off as a very likable character, who is trying to do the right thing, his decisions, no matter how seemingly nonthreatening still somehow reverberate and have negative effects on the women in his life. I feel like there is also some kind of a feminist message in there as well. The film is well paced and well acted, and keeps interest throughout.

Facts:  Eliza is about to graduate high school, and her dad really wants her to go abroad for a better life, she is not so sure.

My Buddhist reading:  I guess the first thing that occurs to me is the idea that you can’t escape samsara. No matter how he tries, Dr. Aldea seems to make things only worse for himself and those around him. All his efforts just dig him in deeper. The other major Buddhist concept that can be read into the movie is the idea that we are all connected: what Dr. Aldea chooses to do doesn’t just have an impact on his own life, but also on others, and he is not very good at doing immoral things.