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.

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!

Midnight in Paris (2011)

Impression: I would say on average, I enjoy Woody Allen movies. But, some more than others. He has a formula, which he has now been repeating for most of his 50 movie, but he often manages to pull out something new and fresh, and enjoyable, and that’s impressive. I liked this one more than most of his films in recent memory.  The soundtrack is fabulous, and reminiscent of the one to Sweet and Low Down, which I also liked very much. This time, Owen Wilson as Gil is the stand in for Woody himself, the neurotic writer, around whom the action centers. Although the movie is only 6 years old, it feels like a throwback to some happier times, when you could joke about Tea Party Republicans with much less bitterness because they were not actually running the whole country. Owen Wilson is like a caricature of himself, as a confused guy in a permanent pout, but very entertaining. His girlfriend is also a caricature of a self-obsessed, materialistic airhead (except that she hangs on every word her friend Paul – who is a self-proclaimed expert on everything- says). Other than she is very good looking, it is never quite explained how the two would ever have made it to a second date, let alone gotten engaged. But none of this made the film any less enjoyable for me. I loved the magic realism, and time travel aspects of it, and the nerdy run ins with artists from the 1920s, from the Fitzgeralds to Cole Porter to Bunuel and Hemingway. The plot involves Gil finding a portal to the 1920’s Paris every night at midnight, an era which he idolizes and is writing a novel about. He drinks, discusses, and dances with his idols all night long, but then wakes up in the present. Adrien Brody as Dalí is the best thing I have seen onscreen in years. I don’t think I love any actor as much as I love Adrien Brody. He is to acting what Eugene Hutz is to rock stars! The costumes and the backdrops are beautiful, the writing is sharp and witty, and the movie is very entertaining.

Facts: A successful Hollywood writer dreams of making ‘real art’ and on a visit to Paris finds a portal to the roaring 20’s which he visits nightly to hang out with his artistic idols.

Julieta (2016)

Impression:  Almost 40 years after his first feature, Almodovar has perfected the way his films look, and it’s visually stunning. All the walls in this film look incredible as backdrops: from the long-established  deep reds to strange 70’s inspired psychedelic wallpapers. I wish Pedro would come and do-up my house!  But it’s not just the backdrops: there is a brief, and not particularly important, scene of food preparation in Julieta. I realized, even if I was just shown eggs cooking, out of context, I would be able to recognize it as Almodovar’s “cooking eggs.”  I can’t completely explain why or how, but there is something about the quality of the color, the way that particular yellow looks on film. The backdrops and the general look of the film build the mood within which the plot takes place.

The basic theme in Julieta is a lack of communication between the main character and people in her life. There are secrets and unspoken truths between her and her lovers, between her and her parents, between her and a friend. But most disastrously  between her and her daughter, who disappears without any explanation. Some of the motivations behind this central breakdown are revealed by the end, but never completely, and the ambiguity of why such a break would happen lingers after the credits. Interesting parallels are drawn between different relationships in Julieta’s life; she deals in different ways with similar situations in different contexts.  Infidelity when she is the cause of it is excused, when her father is in a similar situation is frowned upon, but when she is the victim is devastating. Yet she never quite grasps the hypocrisy. Despite her flaws, Julieta is portrayed as a sympathetic character who has lived through a number of traumatic events, and persevered. The film draws you in, and makes you feel devastated for her. She is stunned to find herself abandoned by her daughter. It’s not until a conversation many years later (still not initiated by her) that she gets some explanation and begins to acknowledge that some of her actions (or inactions) may have had consequences.

Facts: A woman searches for answers about her missing daughter and reminisces about her life.

Extra: Almodovar is my favorite film director. In my head, I divide his films into two eras: ones made before I discovered his movies circa late 1990’s and ones that have been made since. The dividing line is a little fuzzy, but basically either right before or right after Live Flesh (1997). The early ones are low budget, and either outright comedies with ridiculous premises (think: terrorist sniffing gay lovers, or nuns who smuggle weapons and prostitutes) or comedy/melodrama mixes.  The later ones are mostly dramas, with much higher production value, amazing cinematography, a much more main-stream feel, but sometimes still far-fetched melodramatic premises. The films in the two eras fall into completely different genres, and are hard to compare.  All About My Mother is my  favorite of the later films. And Julieta is now a close second.

The Dance of Reality (2013)

Impression: I think I saw another Jodorowsky movie, possibly El Topo 7 or 8 years ago and all I can remember is that it was set in a desert and it was very strange.  This one is also very strange. It’s a surrealist version of the director’s childhood told through a series of vignettes with a backdrop of politics of 1930s Chile and mixed with some commentary on religion. It’s impossible to extract what real event may have inspired each short story from the fanciful tale that he spins around it, but maybe that’s not the point. The point is maybe how our imagination influences memory and distorts reality. In the film, his mother sings all her lines opera style, and has magical powers. She is able to summon his father back from a quest where he has gotten stuck and lost his memory, by tying a rock to balloons which then track him down in a town far away, drop on his tin roof and return his memories. Unlike his mother with her magic, his father is a stoic atheist, who worships Stalin in an almost religious way. The young Alejandro faces a series of struggles to do things to win approval of his mother and father, but it’s a balance, and usually winning one, means losing another. A number of other visually stunning sequences stand out as well. As a boy. Alejandro likes to throw rocks into the sea. He is told this will kill all the fish, and soon after, a giant tsunami-like wave spits out all the fish onto the beach, the seagulls start eating them, and he is torn between feeling responsible for bringing a demise to all the fish and feeling good about feeding all the birds. What an awesome metaphor for how any action has ambiguous consequences?!  People’s motivations are also laid bare. In my favorite sequence, a group of diseased people is quarantined on the beach and given no food or water, and his father wants to use the situation to be a hero. He  breaks through the quarantine with his donkey cart full of water, which he passes out. Once they’ve had enough water they turn on his donkeys and kill them for meat. He is flabbergasted and yells out “But how will I bring you more water  tomorrow if you kill the donkeys?” to which they reply “But we are hungry today!” It’s one of those movies whose visuals and stories stay with you for days.

Facts:  The director recalls through a surrealist lense what it was like growing up in a small town in Chile in the 1930s.

La La Land (2016)

Impression: I kinda wanted to hate this movie. It had picked up all the awards, that Moonlight (which is on my top 5 movies of all time) rightly deserved. I wanted it to be horrible, so I can feel ok about yelling at the screen when it wins awards. But I didn’t hate it! At first, I kept thinking “This is cute, I am glad that a movie like this got made!” Eventually, I felt myself kind of liking it, and by the end maybe even loved it? I still think Moonlight should win anything it gets nominated for. But, I think La La Land is actually pretty great: it’s very entertaining, it’s well filmed and well acted, and creatively thought-out. It deserves its nominations, it’s just unfortunate for it that it was made in the same year as a cinematic masterpiece.  This movie is both, a Hollywood fantasy and a commentary on the Hollywood happy-ending type fantasy, and it’s clever with how it’s presented. It’s about dreams and hopefulness and the weight of reality. The monochrome dance sequences were spectacular, and the writing was funny and sharp. The scenes where Mia is shown going through bad auditions were pretty funny.  And while it’s most definitely a movie about Hollywood, it deconstructs the myth, and presents a much more likely scenario as an acceptable ending.  And sure, Hollywood’s obsession with itself, and the likelihood for a movie about Hollywood to win awards, is absurd (The Artist and Birdman come to mind from just the last few years). But, as Roxane Gay pointed out in a recent interview, authors write books where main characters are authors all the time. So, it’s not all that surprising that movies would be about movies. Still, if you want your movie to stand out for more than beautiful shots, and amazing song and dance numbers, the movie might need to say something a little deeper than “It’s tough to make it in showbiz!”

Facts: A struggling actress and a struggling musician in Los Angeles keep running into each other until they fall in love, amidst a lot of song and dance.

Extra: Bad choice to see it in IMAX, the spinning sequences were all extra blurry.