Street Fight (2005)

Impression: A well paced and interesting documentary, that’s basically directed as a thriller about the real political race for the Mayor of Newark, New Jersey. The filmmaker is definitely taken by Corey Booker, the young idealist moving to the rough part of town wanting to make a real difference. And it’s hard not to be. He is charismatic and passionate and seems sincere. The scenes where he gets into arguments with either hostile or apathetic opposition in front of the the corner store or at the local radio station, are particularly effective.  The people he encounters outside the store feel tired and cynical about politics and like they have heard all the politician promises before, but Booker is able to spout off facts about the corruption of the current city government that make them listen and by the end agree with them. At the radio station he is faced with made up rumors about himself, which the hosts repeat with quite a bit of conviction and vitriol. But he is able to disarm them and at the end get them on his side.  Just by using words and persuasive arguments. The filmmaker follows Booker around and documents all kind of dirty tricks the incumbent plays to make it a lot harder for the challenger to win, from painting over and taking down his signs around the city, to spreading false and ridiculous rumors, to intimidating business owners or city workers who show support for him. The cinematography is pretty gritty and shaky, but it just contributes to the gritty street feel of the movie.  But while a couple of times the point is made that this race is unlike any other, it makes it very clear how easy it is for this kind of abuse of power and desperate clinging to power to go on in all levels of politics. In the end, definitely biased in the favor of Booker, but very well directed and shot film about an exciting political race.

Facts: A documentary about the machinations and dirty dealings behind the 2002 political race for the Mayor of Newark between a young idealist and an old likeable but corrupt politician who does everything in his power to stay in power.

Extra: This movie was an Academy Awards nominee for Best Documentary Feature in 2005. March of the Penguins was the winner that year.

Zootopia (2016)

Impressions: This is an animated movie which despite cute fluffy bunny animation on the surface, actually deals with pretty adult topics: politics and relationships between different groups of people in a society. In some ways it feels like a modern day version of Animal Farm: a clever metaphor for current political issues. Not even sure if I would classify it as a kid’s movie at all. The main character is a bunny who is able to overcome the obstacles of biology and prejudice to become a cop. Unfortunately, once she makes it, she is faced with the reality of being given crappy assignments and the job not being as exciting as what she envisioned. Eventually she gets to prove her worth and face her own prejudices: this part is very much the standard American narrative.

The main conflict in the story, though, is between animals who used to be prey and those who used to be predators. Sure, everyone is civilized now, but a series of strange disappearances and attacks points that there is something more sinister going on and animals are turning on each other. As with a lot of animated films where animals are anthropomorphized, there are a lot of clever gags and jokes, which are designed to provide comic relief, and appeal to kids. But really,  the film can be read as commentary on the current political situation: a system which strives for fairness is overtaken by unlikely villains with their own agenda, using fear as a method by which to divide and conquer, and justify their own position at all costs. It’s a very smart idea, well executed and with interesting visuals. But it’s difficult to market an animated film to people who are no longer kids, or parents to small kids. Still, there are definite benefits to having young kids watch something like this as a cautionary tale.

Facts: A democratic animal society runs into issues when some of its members start going “savage” and animals disappear.

Extra:  This film was a 2017 academy award winner for best animated feature.

Manchester by the Sea (2016)

Impressions: It is true, I have some leftover bitterness towards Boston and surrounding areas from living there for a little over a year. It’s not at all what I feel for the rest of New England area; I have nothing but lovely memories of my 5 years living in Vermont.  But that aggression in the air, as portrayed in this movie is all too real. Riding the T or a bus to work, I often felt as if a physical altercation could break out any second. And I am sure not all those people had things as horrible as what happens in this movie happen to them. It is an attitude that this movie captures perfectly. I felt it acutely when I lived there.

This is a VERY depressing movie. It has the distinction of being the only movie I saw made in 2016 that fits in the “shoot-your-knee-caps-off” category of depressing. I knew it was a sad movie, and avoided it for a while. But I did not realize just how depressing, until I saw it. It is beautifully shot, and captures the mood and emotion of a place better than anything I have ever seen. It is also terrifically acted. The dialogue is just there to fill the space, it’s really the silences that convey the emotion and the underlying plot.

Something horrible has happened to Lee, and he has run away from Manchester.  He returns to help take care of his teenage nephew, but has to face his past. I’ve seen You Can Count on Me by the same writer/director, which also, interestingly features a messed up uncle. Although in that film, everyone else is portrayed as messed up to some degree as well. Here it seems everyone else has it relatively together, but Lee just keeps messing up and ends up deciding that the only solution is to try to protect everyone else from himself. While there are some lighter scenes thrown in with the teenage nephew trying to juggle his many girlfriends, this movie is very heavy. Some scenes are so heart wrenching I don’t think I could see them ever again.

Facts: A slow moving story set in New England, about a tragedy and its toll on the man who feels responsible and his wider family dynamics.

Hail, Caesar! (2016)

Impressions: When watching a movie on the plane, there is a lot of stopping and starting, and people moving around, so I feel it’s not the same attention you give a movie in the theater or at home. So I should note I watched this one on a very long flight. That said, it still felt disjointed and  slapstick. It felt like a bunch of clever gags put together without anything holding them together. What exactly is the point of this movie? That Hollywood loves itself and thinks it’s more important than it is? That Hollywood is frivolous? That people in general are shallow and frivolous? I am not sure, but all of those ring hollow.
And I have loved a number of Coen brother movies: Raising Arizona has always been a favorite, as has Hudsucker Proxy, and many others.
That’s not to say there were no funny moments in Hail Caesar, because there were: the priest and rabbi bit made me laugh, as did the whole concept of George Clooney dressed as a Roman soldier being kidnapped by communists. The plot follows going-ons at a 1950’s Hollywood studio  where a bunch of genre films are made in a strict genre fashion: a ridiculous western with horse stunts on one lot, a Busby Berkeley-type musical
extravaganza on another, a melodrama on a third, and a biblical epic on the fourth. The actors are interchangeable But the point of all of them is just to attract viewers, and it’s all shallow and cliche.
I am not sure if the Coen brothers recently had some kind of fallout with a Hollywood studio, and this is a form of payback, but that’s the extent of the plot. Some comic relief gets thrown in when actors, who are also portrayed as not-too-bright start getting political ideas. The main character is a head of the studio who has to balance all these people he manages, and his personal life, and the press who wants to get the tabloid scoop.  Maybe it’s all meant to  be a clear dig at particular people in showbiz, but maybe it’s just supposed to be a silly comedy. I feel like it is not completely successful as either. So just a so-so grade for this one

Facts: A bunch of silly Hollywood films, very much in strict genre fashion are being produced in 1950s Hollywood, with a subplot of the main star being kidnapped by communists.

I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore (2017)

Impression:  I’ve fairly recently become reacquainted with the fine acting of the kiwi actress Ms. Melanie Lynskey through an amazing and short lived series called Togetherness written and directed by the Duplass brothers. At this point I am thinking I really should make an exception to only reviewing films here and review that show as well, because it very much deserves it, and I keep feeling compelled to bring it up in multiple reviews. I have of course originally seen her as a teenager in an amazing and disturbing little film called Heavenly Creatures more than 20 years ago where she starred alongside a young Kate Winslet.
In her latest acting reincarnation, Ms. Lynskey’s gift is basically looking like a frumpy middle aged mom, lulling the audience into believing she is playing a really boring, yet likable character and then doing something to shock them. She does this both in Togetherness and in this movie in different ways. But while this is something the script calls for, her unique talent is in being so damn believable as both: a frumpy mom AND a badass. So, yes this movie is worth watching for Melanie Lynskey first! But also for an amazing role for Elijah Wood who plays a nerdy heavy metal listening, martial arts practicing, church going loner, who becomes her sidekick. And the premise, and the hilarious writing. The only unfortunate thing is the ultraviolence that takes place in the last 30 minutes of the movie, which will probably turn off some of its potential audience, but then also earn a cult following with the people who dig it. I am definitely not a fan of pointless ultraviolence, but in this movie, it is in some sense inevitable. The movie starts with a very basic premise: the main character is annoyed with people, and the way they treat each other. She tries to confront people who are assholes in hopes of changing the world, or at least changing the world that surrounds her. But at every step along the way, the consequences of her actions are more and more amped up until she gets involved in a mass carnage scene at the end. But since the premise of the movie is that every action leads to some over-reaction, there was no where else for the plot to go, but to more and more extreme ends. In conclusion, the first 2/3 of this movie are fabulous, the last 1/3 will probably not be everyone’s cup of tea.

Facts: A nerdy nurse, tired of people being assholes to her, goes out seeking vigilante justice and  gets messed up with some sketchy characters.

Blue Jay (2016)

Impression: I love the Duplass brothers! So even if a description of  one of their movies doesn’t sound like something I would normally watch, I watch it, because I have yet to be let down. And this one sounded like something that would have been a Lifetime Special in the 90s. And I am not saying that I am above Lifetime Specials, or that I didn’t watch my share of them in the 90s, it’s just not the type of thing I seek out at this point in my life. But of course, it was so much more than a 90s special: incredibly well acted, and well written, and that’s what made it worthwhile. It’s still a lot of emotion, so if that’s not your thing, this may not be a movie for you. But it’s basically just the two leads almost the entire time. There is the old man at the liquor store who has 2 lines, but it’s all them the entire rest of the time. Many years, later on visits to their home town, Jim and Amanda run into each other at the grocery store. At first they are awkward, the conversation is halting, and they almost leave each other without exchanging more than a few words, a couple of times. Eventually we discover that they were once very close and in love. They spend the whole night talking and reminiscing of the past and re-enacting some of it. Some scenes are cute, some are even a little too uncomfortable and awkward. But it is not until the end that we find out what caused them to separate. And nothing about this story is something that hasn’t been told before, it’s all in the acting and how the two leads relate to each other, the pauses and looks, and how realistic their characters are. One thing that I found a little odd is that it was shot in black and white. Since it’s not cheaper to do that anymore, and I am not sure that it added much to the film stylistically, I am not sure why they picked to do that. In any case, it’s not an amazing film, but it’s worth watching. Especially if you are a sucker for love stories not meant to be.

Facts: Jim and Amanda unexpectedly reunite on chance visits back to their home town… in black and white.

Wages of Fear (1953)

Impression: This is probably the most dudely movie I have ever seen! I am not a dude, but I really enjoyed it. What’s more I am pretty sure, this is what Gloria Steinem had in mind when she wrote about prick flicks in her recent New York Times opinion piece. ( I have to admit, I’ve been itching to write a review that references that article ever since reading it a week ago, and what better movie than this!) In Wages of Fear, the men are manly… although they wear low cut wife-beaters and high waisted pants (and Yves Montand with that kerchief around his neck). The opening 45 minutes is basically the dude version of Casablanca: a bunch of guys, all speaking different languages are stuck in an  outpost town, and they all hang out at the same bar. Sure, this place is a lot more dusty and gritty than Rick’s Cafe, but a similar sense of desperation permeates. Tension runs high as the men are desperate enough to compete for a job that could easily kill them: transporting nitroglycerin in old trucks over gravel roads. Dangers abound: from the original ‘Speed’ sequence, where you have to drive a truck under 6 mph or over 40 not to set off the explosives), to a very precarious rickety wooden platform where the trucks have to reverse, to driving through a lake of spilled oil, to figuring out what to do with a giant boulder in the middle of the road. And each time a new obstacle presents itself, the nail biting anxiety factor is amped up. The source of tension is so obvious, the explosives in the back of the truck could go off any second, yet the tension is on and increasing for over an hour. The film is black and white and there are a few memorable visuals that stick with you. But it is the situation and the acting more than the cinematography that build the tension.

Facts:  Somewhere in Latin America, a bunch of foreigners are stuck in a small dusty town with no work and no money to get out. A chance to make good money comes when 4 of them are picked to drive rickety trucks full of nitroglycerin on very bad roads to an oil refinery, run by a shady American oil operation.

Extra: I just read the director of High-Rise is writing a remake of this movie. What a strange, strange film that will be!