Groom’s Block (2017)

Impression: You definitely don’t want to end up in a Turkish prison. Especially if you are accused of a sex crime. This is a very dark movie. In every sense. Almost all the action takes place in a dark, and dingy cell that eight men share, sleep, eat and lounge in, and the interactions between them are violent and dark.  It’s somewhat of a social experiment, as they establish their own societal order within the cell, and it’s very Darwinian. The physically strongest, and the emotionally most unstable among them sets himself up as the leader, and there is not much the rest of them do to counter him.  He is a violent murderer and an alpha male, and the physically smaller scrawnier guys basically take on ‘female’ roles, make food and coffee for the rest of them, clean,  and are treated as hired help.  The stronger ones are allowed to lounge around, but eventually they start getting on each other’s nerves and pick fights. The murderer keeps them in check. By the end two guys end up dead: one by suicide, one killed, and another one is wounded. Eventually the crimes some of them had committed, are revealed and there is definitely a spectrum of severity, but they all share the same cell.  The ending is unexpected and very good.
The strange thing is that the official prison system has minimal impact on what happens to them.  The violent murderer bullies guards, not just his cell mates, and basically rules through terror.  The film is well made and acted, but definitely not light entertainment.  There are also noticeable political overtones through overheard audio from the television they listen to daily in their cell. All the overheard segments are overtly nationalistic. Makes me think that the movie can perhaps be read as some kind of metaphor for the social order within Turkish society. But I don’t know enough about it to be able to tell what each character is supposed to represent.

Facts: Eight men share a single cell in a Turkish prison where they create their own brutal social order while they are segregated from the rest of the prison population.

Extra: I saw this at the 2017 Indy Film Fest.

 

Patti Cake$ (2017)

Impression: I can’t think of a more quintessentially American movie (or maybe just New Jersey) I have seen in a long time, or maybe ever. And I mean that in all the positive ways: the optimism, the American Dream (but in this case with a good dose of realism, and also clearly showing that idea often does not work out), people from very different backgrounds coming together to work on something they love. But it does not gloss over the details: it shows the hopelessness of working dead end jobs in a small town, the bitterness when your life does not work out the way you hoped, our completely failed medical system, and people just being mean and cruel to each other.  It’s amazing that the movie is able to touch on so many issues in less than two hours, but at no point does any of it feel forced. Sure, hundreds, of movies have been made about someone having a dream and overcoming obstacles to make it happen. It’s probably the most cliche Hollywood plot there is.  But I can’t think of a single other time, where I enjoyed it more. The performances are outstanding, the cinematography and editing are excellent. There are a couple of really cool, and also hilarious sequences when we see what Patti imagines in her dreams, the opening sequence especially.  This movie is basically everything a movie should be: entertaining throughout, funny, but also thought provoking.  You also can’t stop singing P B N J once you leave the theater.

Facts: Patricia works in a dive bar, cares for her nanna, and puts up with her alcoholic mother, and hangs out with her best friend Hareesh, all the while dreaming of one day being discovered as a rap superstar, Killa P, AKA Patti Cake$.

Extra: I saw this as a closing film at the 2017 Indy Film Fest.

Laura (1944)

Impression: A  very good one from the film noir catalogue, which I had not seen before. A lot of witty 1940’s movie banter, and a lot of vitriol between the main characters is thrown around. Some of the twists are quite original, if over the top. Most characters faults are over-exaggerated, and no one is exactly likable (except maybe Laura herself). This plot device makes it easy to either suspect everyone of being the murderer, or not find it difficult to accept any of them as such. The most intriguing relationship is between Laura and Waldo. He is an older successful man, and somewhat of a mentor to her, but there is plenty of old Hollywood hints that he is not really into women. Their relationship somewhat reminds of that between Eve and Addison DeWitt in All About Eve, although that one is a lot more sexually charged.  And this film came out a few years before the story of All About Eve was either written or filmed. In Laura, the friendship is platonic, but with a lot of strange power play between the two.  Not really sure what to make of it. The other strange character is her fiance, Shelby (played by Vincent Price), who is basically a gold digger, who is unknowingly to her, also a boy-toy for her aunt. So much nonconformity in this one, especially for a 1940’s movie! But of course it is all neatly packaged within the genre conventions. The big twist  is definitely one I had not encountered before, and I highly doubt it is one anyone would see coming.   But it is a clever one, and definitely makes for a lot of suspense.

Facts: A very successful and beautiful socialite is found dead in her apartment, and everyone seems suspicious to the detective who is trying to solve it, but instead slowly falls for the idea of Laura.

The Last Trapper (2004)

Impression: This movie is in some strange category of its own. It is not exactly a documentary, as some things are staged for dramatic effect, but it features the real life of a trapper in far north Canada, playing himself.  The acting is a little clumsy when it involves any dialogue (since none of the characters are professional actors), and the writing is maybe a little preachy at times, but the gorgeous scenery and the shots of him moving through landscape with his dogs or horses make it completely worth it. Norman is a trapper and he lives off the land, except when he goes into Dawson to sell his furs, hang out with people and have a few drinks.  The logging is threatening their way of life, and they completely move locations and build themselves a new log cabin in an area where there is more trapping to be done. Some drama is added when his favorite dog is killed in town and he has to train and adjust to a new one. Some other dramatic situations arise, and there is minimal contact with another trapper living at least a day’s trek away.  But all of these plot elements are just a vehicle for getting the viewer to appreciate how different Norman’s life is from anyone who might be watching the movie.  The value of this film is in showing this remote landscape through stunning cinematography and dramatic action sequences, so any dialogue and plot are very much secondary  to any of that.

Facts: A trapper and his wife live in the wilderness of the far north of Canada (Yukon Territory, a few days trek from Dawson City pop: 1,375) with his partner, 7 dogs and 2 horses.

Extra: Ran across the movie when searching for Leonard Cohen songs on youtube and seeing the video for By The Rivers Dark. The song is actually featured heavily in the movie.

Lucky (2017)

Impression: At some point you get too old to care about what other people think of you or your opinions, and you start dispensing it without a care. At 90 years old, this is where Lucky is. He doesn’t care who he offends, and he doesn’t mind calling “bullshit” when he encounters it.  His days consists of  lots of smoking, 5 yoga exercises, walking the streets of his small dusty desert town (in same exact order), getting a cup of coffee at the same diner, solving a crossword puzzle, watching game shows and hanging out at his favorite bar drinking bloody mary’s.  He is a little bit rattled when he is faced with his mortality when he loses consciousness  while inadvertently hypnotizing himself by staring at the blinking unset time on his coffee maker. The only thing his doctor can diagnose him with, is old age. A whole host of strange characters inhabit the town and Lucky’s world (mostly played by fairly famous actors like Ron Livingston and Tom Skerritt), the most fun of which is played by David Lynch: another old guy whose tortoise has carefully timed its escape. The movie is quirky and funny. I was actually surprised at the number of laugh out loud moments a large portion of the audience took part in.  The pace of the film is slow, and in some ways it reminds me of Jim Jarmusch’s films, where you just have to accept the speed at which things happen to get any enjoyment out of it. But it’s closer to how life proceeds in reality, than how it does in Hollywood movies, so it requires some adjustment.  What I enjoyed the most was Lucky’s no nonsense perspective on life and death, and how the movie paints his world. I would recommend to anyone who enjoys slow moving, quirky movies.

Facts: A man in his 90s, living in a dusty Arizona town dispenses his wisdom to people he runs into whether they want to  hear it or not.

Extra: I saw this as a special presentation film at the 2017 Indy Film Fest.

Wind River (2017)

Impression: Wyoming is cold. Damn cold! I remember. I lived there. This film takes place in Wyoming in the midst of the cold and snow. It’s a murder mystery set on an Indian Reservation. The setting is crucial to the plot as it uses it to hint at issues of poverty and hopelessness and violence. As it is presented in the movie, the prospects are bleak on the reservation and the only escape is either running far away from it or heavy drug use. People are bitter, and forgotten: the area the size of Rhode Island is covered by only 6 police officers. And the conditions are harsh, roads are often impassable in snowstorms and population is sparse. In the midst of all this a completely unequipped female FBI agent from Florida by the way of Las Vegas is sent to solve the crime. Alone.

She engages a local tracker to help her solve the case. Hints in dialogue, slowly reveal that he is emotionally closer to the murder than was apparent at first with his very scientific and detached way of analyzing all the clues.  In general, the dialogues is kind of sparse, and does not explicitly serve to move the plot forward.  In a couple of places, the dialogue borders on too heavy handed or preachy, with its meta-discussions of grief. But mostly the events are presented in a very detached manner, with minimal emotion. As befits a place as cold and frozen as the Wind River reservation.

The acting is good, the cinematograph is breathtaking. The only thing that I really have complaints about is the over-the-top violence. Yes, it’s a violent topic and some violence is bound to happen in resolving it, but I think the big shoot-out in which the entire Wind River police force dies as well as equal number of people on the other side, seemed a little unnecessary. And I know people flying across rooms when shot with a single bullet looks really cool, and it works for John Woo, but Taylor Sheridan is not John Woo.  The highly stylized, and choreographed bullet play, really feels out of place in a movie that is trying to be starkly realistic.  Plus, you know, conservation of momentum and all. But it’s just one scene. The rest of the movie is really quite engaging and well placed, and well filmed.

Facts: A girl is found dead in the snow on the Wind River Reservation and the plot  to solve her murder touches on issues of opportunity, jurisdiction and law enforcement on the reservation.

Extra: Saw this at the opening night of the Indy Film Fest.

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.