They Shoot Horses, Don’t They (1969)

Impression: I went to see this because as I was writing my review of the The Laundromat I remembered I owned a book of interviews of filmmakers (and some actors and critics) about political film making. I just happened to re-read the Jane Fonda chapter and she was specifically asked about this movie.* I also happened to have volunteered to help promote a screening of this film at a local film theater. Too many coincidences not too go see it.  Plus it’s one of these classics I’ve always meant to see.

It’s a depressing one for sure. All the characters are desperate, the ones in the dance competition and ones putting it on. They put their bodies and brains through torture for weeks on end, dancing night and day with very short rest periods. Some of them drop out of exhaustion, some of them lose their mind and start hallucinating; One of them has a heart attack, one is pregnant while doing all this. It’s insanity. In a way it’s kind of torture to watch as well. There is not much plot: they dance, they rest, there is some internal fights between the contestants. And that’s the whole movie.

The main couple are Gloria (who is super sarcastic and annoyed by everything) and Richard (who really doesn’t have much to say). Some of the other couples are fleshed out a bit too: an older sailor who pretends to be in his 30s, an actress in fancy dresses desperate for a role in the movies, a young couple with a baby on the way, but most are anonymous. The plot is scant. I guess where it really succeeds is in its portrayal of desperation: some of the contestants showcase a talent and the audience throws pennies at them, the close ups during the derbies where the contestants try to push each other, exhausted bodies falling over. It’s all quite a spectacle.

Knowing that the premise is based on actual competitions from the 1920’s and 1930’s makes it even crazier. It’s one of these films that I am glad I saw but would not want to see again.

* Jane Fonda says of this movie: “definitely an analogy with American society: the tragedy of all those people killing each other for a prize that doesn’t exist at the behest of one man they could replace if they were conscious of what was being done to them.”

Facts:  Plot follows a few couples during weeks long exhaustion dance contest in 1930s  USA.

My Buddhist reading:  Ah, finally one ripe for a Buddhist reading. Other than  Buddhists not being fans of suicide (it’s not too nice to decide not to take full advantage of your rare human rebirth for your own and benefit of all), this one can be pretty easily fit into a Buddhist world view.  The dance competition is kind of like samsara: there is no escape, you can do some things to make a bit more money, or to make people like you, or to relieve your boredom, but at the end you are all just stuck there. After you take your short break, it’s back to the same all drudgery over again. And then, towards the end, we find out that it’s all even more pointless than it seemed at first.

Five Fingers for Marseilles (2017)

Impression: This film felt like a South African mixture of old school Mad Max, a western and a kung fu flick. Not that there is any actual kung fu, but it just felt like a lot of plot lines were left not completely explained, which is how I always feel with kung fu movies. In a dusty small town a bunch of kids play war games amongst each other. When the white police shows up and uses unnecessary force, confrontation ensues, and one of the cops is killed. The kid who was the leader of the group, Tau,  is responsible and runs off, never to be seen in town again.  We next see him years later, buff, and a hardened criminal with a posse. He decides to return to his home town, a loner, where there are different political forces at play fighting for control, and the population is mostly scared. No one recognizes him and his childhood friends have all grown up to have prominent roles in the life of the town.  I feel like there must be a lot of political commentary, and the whole film is some kind of allegory for something going on in South Africa, but I just don’t know enough about it to quite figure out what it’s trying to say.  The friend’s roles all seem like caricatures: the fat kid becomes the Mayor, the girl runs the only bar in town, one  is in cahoots with the military, and one is dead, but his son is trying to avenge him. The dark force in all this is a hired band of thugs headed by a very creepy one-eyed Sepoko (ghost) who comes with his very own creepy theme music.  His role is overplayed in dramatic style. As is to be expected from the set up, it all ends in a very bloody and very long shoot out. The pacing sometimes felt like it dragged, the acting sometimes felt over the top, but one thing this film had going for it is unbelievably beautiful cinematography. And how often do you get to see an African western?
Facts: A South African winter western, centers on a guy who runs away as a kid and comes back to his dusty hometown years later, to find it run by bad guys.
Extra: I saw this film at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival.

The Overnight (2015)

Impression:  Having had a kid, and hung out in parks with him, and having moved cities a couple of times, and struggled to make friends in new places as an adult, the opening sequence of this movie was oh-so-relatable.  Being invited to dinner and having a fun time with brand new friends, that’s happened before too. But then, this movie gets a little weird. And funny! What if your new friends with kids were maybe…actually… into swinging. A lot of awkwardness and comedy ensues, as each of the two main characters goes through a different sequence of emotions, from weirded out, to bonded to the hosts (uhm, not that kind of bonded!), to at odds with each other about what they think of all this and what should be done about it. Although it’s really just a silly comedy about sex and relationships, it never gets too absurd (ok, maybe the trip to the massage parlor is a little weird) and the characters for the most part react to the situation within bounds of what would be expected. The humor is born of the awkwardness of the situation itself, rather than mocking it or taking it to some kind of over-the-top absurd conclusion. All in all it’s a low key comedy that’s respectful of its characters and audience, and fun to watch. I’ll still probably have a little smirk on my face the next time I get invited to a dinner after meeting parents at a park .
Facts:  A family newly moved to Los Angeles gets an invite from a friendly dad at the playground for dinner, hilarity and weirdness ensues.
Extras:  I watched this movie because I love the Duplass brothers. I think Togetherness is one of the most underrated and underseen TV shows of the last decade, at least. They specialize in directing, producing, staring in talky low-budget films/series, and they make a ton of them. Glad to see someone carrying on the tradition of what “indie” used to mean in the 90s.

You Carry Me (2015)

Impression:  I really liked how this movie looked, I thought the acting was very strong, and I liked that it’s mostly about strong female characters. But… at almost 3 hours, I think it’s too long: It could easily have been cut in length and not lost the point or the feel of the movie. It’s also too intense. Everyone in it is pissed off all the time. Having a connection to Croatia, I  unfortunately know that this is just the normal state of affairs in Croatia, but honestly it’s why I don’t enjoy visiting so much anymore or reading the news.  It’s like everyone (not just the women) is on a verge of a nervous breakdown.  The film is also a little too ambitious: It tries to do too much, touch on too many issues, and it seems to lose focus towards the end. I liked the first story the best, it was about a woman being torn between dealing with her father’s illness and trying to live her own life at the same time. I thought it was really well done, and well paced, and sweet. It was very different than the later stories, which seemed to pick up in pace, ending with the very frantic, melodrama at the end.  Other than living in the same city, the connection between the characters is that they all work on a set of a ridiculous TV soap opera. Towards the end of the movie the real life relationships seem to actually morph into something from a soap opera. While this was most likely on purpose, I am not sure what the point of it was. The film is also not too subtle about other films it takes ideas from, bird scene from Amour, a little bit of a Y Tu Mama Tambien vibe, the magic realism, a little bit of the Almodovar melodrama, etc…

Facts: Three stories about three women from different socioeconomic strata in modern day Croatia dealing with every day life. And for once it’s not (directly) about war.