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.

The White Helmets (2016)

Impression: One of the reasons I don’t own a TV or why I self-curate the little news I read is that I can’t deal with the 24-hour-news cycle, and the reality-TV style in which war can now be portrayed in real-time. Other than occasionally at airports, I actually have no idea what news channels show these days, but I assume with the fast internet connections and everyone owning cell phones that they have first person narratives of any traumatic event anywhere in the world, and that they play it over and over again. It’s possible I am wrong, but I really don’t want to watch it to find out. In the early 90s when the all-news-all-the-time channels were just starting, I had just moved from a country that was about to plunge into a civil war. The personal connection to what I was seeing on screen sucked me in: I watched more hours of CNN Headline News than I can count. I don’t know if this has changed, but the amount of new information updated each half hour was miniscule, and anything worth knowing for a whole day could have been summarized in 1-2 minutes. But instead, the willing audiences were constantly bombarded by the same footage and same images.

It’s hard for me to rate documentaries in general, but specifically this one as a film, since it’s more about its importance in documenting a place and time. And it IS an important place and time to document. There are scenes where the camera goes out of focus, because it’s the only way to capture what’s going on when people are running out of an exploding building. But there are also artsy shots of raindrops on boots. The White Helmets, pull people out of rubble: some are shown being found dead, a few days old baby is being shown found alive after a 14 hour search. The men go to a training in Turkey to learn about techniques and more advanced technology for their rescue missions, but also presumably to recharge. While not in the training, they are constantly on their cellphones communicating with family back home or watching the news. The psychological toll is massive.

All I take away from this movie is: war is horrible. Real people dying and getting maimed is horrible, I don’t care what your ideology is. But apparently having the ability to watch other people suffer in real time, has done nothing for our ability as humans to empathize. Because we still fight wars, we still wave flags and we still glorify war heros and minimize casualties. You would think if the books or movies showing war as horrible have not done it, having it all brought into your living room in real-time would have changed things, but no. Maybe because we have seen so many fake versions of it? Maybe because it’s just too much and we can’t really handle it and process it as real?  Maybe in the 100+ years of cinema we have moved so far past Lumière’s train, that now everything on screen is easily dismissed as “not real” or “not really happening” or “nothing I can do anything about.”

Facts: The White Helmets are a group of civilians in Syria who rush to dig people out of rubble after each of the many bombing raids, this is a documentary showing some of what they do.

Extra: This was the 2017 Academy Award winner for Best Documentary Short Subject.

Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie (2016)

Impression: I was a huge fan of the AbFab series in the 90s. I have watched each episode more times than I care to admit. It is completely silly and ridiculous, and over the top. And it makes me laugh each and every time. Patsy and Edina say and do ridiculous things, and get away with it. They take some basic truths of celebrity culture, mother-daughter relationships, friendships, etc. and and then go wild creating the most out-there version of it they can imagine. A few months on, there is very little I remember about the plot of this movie, other than Eddy now has a grown granddaughter which somehow leads to her pushing Kate Moss into the Thames, and having to go into hiding in the south of France, where Patsy has to pretend to be a man with a ridiculous fake moustache. That may be more than enough!

I just don’t understand reviews of this movie from people who claim to be fans of the original series, but say that this just didn’t live up to the standards.  What standards? This show has never had any standards, and that was the point. I had brunch with a friend, we had mimosas, poured leftovers into paper coffee cups and walked into the movie. Maybe it was because it was Sunday matinee, but we were at least 30 years younger than the next youngest member of the audience. I laughed so hard, that my jaw hurt at the end of the movie. And that’s the highest praise you can give a comedy! Do I need to see it again? Not particularly, but I wouldn’t turn it down.

Facts:  Ridiculous adventures of Patsy and Eddy continue as  Eddy manages to push Kate Moss into the Thames, then has to hide in the south of France, where Patsy pretends to be a man with a ridiculous fake moustache in order to marry a rich old lady to continue financing their lifestyle.

The Conformist (1970)

Impression: The cinematography and locations/set design are beautiful in this film. The vast empty spaces in giant buildings with only one or two characters inside each frame, the very stark architecture, the black and white colors and the very clean lines are the main  settings in the first part of the movie. While it is set during the fascist era in Italy, the film is more than just a commentary on political conformism; it tackles conformism in general. In the beginning, there is a scene where it is explained that the main character’s reasons for joining the fascists are not typical: it is usually done for money, but he just wants to belong. It is particularly strange, because unlike his wife, who is blissfully unaware of alternatives, he is fully aware that it is possible to not conform in political views,  in sexuality, etc, but he actively rejects those options in favor of fitting in. The plot constantly jumps through time, that it is almost dizzying to keep track of where in the story you land from shot to shot. But the flashbacks to his childhood and the scenes with his family, convey that he had grown up feeling disconnected from the rest of society, by the virtue of his family’s wealth and position. As a result, his wish to conform is strong. He forgoes his interest in studying philosophy and any wish to find a genuine love interest, in order to serve the system and marry the most mediocre woman he can find, so he can feel ‘normal.’ He eventually develops strong feelings for another woman, but when faced with a choice that would jeopardize his belonging, he chooses belonging over her. At the end of the film, when the regime changes, he is not so much afraid of the political retribution or even for his life, as he is that he will no longer be ‘normal.’ His instinct is to denounce his friend.  In a way, The Lobster which was made 45 years later is a complementary piece to this film. While this film explores, the need of one person to conform, the Lobster explores how a society, even one formed by people who did not want to conform to mainstream rules, enforces its own strict rules, and essentially demands conformism.

Facts: A man in fascist Italy actively makes choices that conform with what is expected of him, in choosing what to pursue in love and work.

Daytime Drinking (2008)

Impression: A very low budget Korean movie which follows a guy who recently broke up with his girlfriend through a slew of very unfortunate misunderstandings.  The comedy is very understated. First his friends ditch him during their planned vacation to cheer him up, so he ends up vacationing  (and drinking) on his own. Then, he ends up at the wrong cabin and meets a crazy girl who he tries to impress. But, her boyfriend keeps showing up. Eventually the lead character ends up without any clothes in the freezing cold in the middle of nowhere, and has to hitchhike his way out. I feel like if this movie had been in english it would have long ago become a slacker cult classic. There is not much talking, but a lot of shots of him looking miserable and waiting, or walking, and any interaction with people just leaves him feeling worse. As the title suggests, there is also a lot of drinking, which also doesn’t end up making him feel any better. I really liked the feel of this film, very low key and unassuming, but also very funny and relatable.

Facts: A guy tries to get over a break-up with his girlfriend, with a road trip and a lot of drinking, gets himself into a lot of funny situations.

What We Do in the Shadows (2014)

Impression: From the same New Zealand deadpan comedy team that made Eagle vs. Shark, this one is just as laugh out loud funny. It helps if you’ve seen or read any other vampire lore, since it pokes fun at it, but it’s just funny anyway. It places four vampires from different eras in the same house as roommates and is filmed reality-TV style. They have house meetings  and end up with all the same mundane issues all roommates have: cleaning dishes – some vampires think they are too cool to be washing dishes, so a large pile of blood encrusted dishes keeps growing; cleaning up after eating a victim – is placing newspapers or paper towels on the floor to prevent blood stains on the carpet uncool? This film is just as ridiculous as the description sounds. But ridiculously funny! Although sometimes, it seems like they stretch a joke too thin, and it could have achieved the same effect in less time. But if you just need to laugh at a way-out-there premise, this is your movie. “Leave me to do my dark bidding on the internet! What are you bidding on? I am bidding on a table.” My favorite part was the relatively low production value combined with seamless special effects. It’s made to look like it was filmed with low-budget shaky home cameras, so the flying vampires, or vampires turning into bats, or sun-charred vampire remains, all look completely normal, and expected. It’s as if anything filmed with a cheap shaky camera must be true. Of course, reality TV and The Blair Witch Project have used this premise before, but never has it been so funny.

Facts: A deadpan vampire mockumentary presented in the style of Big Brother (or whatever the equivalent show is these days). I almost wrote “The Real World” but that would really be dating myself 🙂

White Girl (2016)

Impression: I can see why this movie was controversial: there are a lot of drugs, and there is a lot of very explicit sex, and the movie is unapologetic about both. But it’s not frivolous. There is a statement being made. Leah is young and somewhat naive and curious, and willing to try anything and she unwittingly gets herself involved in the criminal underworld whose rules she does not understand. The movie is not glorifying any of this, but is very brutally realistic about the kind of consequences her actions can have (and do in this movie) for someone like her and the very different consequences that apply to others. She feels completely free to do whatever she wants, take the kind of drugs she wants, have sex with whoever she wants. And it’s not that there are no personal consequences for her complete sense of freedom, there are, and they are brutal.  But as the last scene illustrates, she can just continue with the life she had planned. The consequences for Blue, her Puerto Rican drug-dealing boyfriend, are different, and arguably more final. The movie is filmed with a lot of very tight close-ups, and you get to know Leah’s face in such intimate detail, that it’s almost uncomfortable. It was very well acted, and I was surprised that the actor who played Blue had never acted before.  Chris Noth was amazing as the sleazy lawyer.  I loved the use of very bright sunshine and slightly overexposed film that accentuated the happy moments, and the kind of blissful ignorance of any consequences which Leah feels.  And the way those end abruptly when reality catches up with her a number of times throughout the film. Beyond the shock value and the controversy, I think this is actually a very well made and thought provoking film.

Facts: A young college student in New York during her summer break gets into drugs and sex. Lots of it.