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.

 

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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.

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.