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.

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.

The Bad Batch (2016)

Impression: I am not a huge fan of horror, and usually not a huge fan of ultra-violence in movies either. So there had to be a strong reason for me to get excited about a movie tagged a “dystopian cannibal love story”  and drive over an hour to go see it. And there was, it was directed by Ana Lily Amirpour, of  A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night fame. I loved her previous film, for its sensibility and just general sense of weirdness in an alternate universe she created. It was black and white and tagged as “the first Iranian vampire Western.” The Bad Batch turned out to not be a horror, but definitely a violent dystopia, produced on a much higher budget, with much higher profile actors (some credited, some not), and it’s own strange aesthetic and logic. I feel like her movies have to be taken the same way Baz Luhrman’s movies are consumed, not as a film, but an experience: there may be a plot, but it is secondary to the full world and atmosphere the director creates. Here the story follows a girl, who is literally broken and butchered, but does what she has to in order to survive, and find her place in a very brutal and strange world. Sure, the film can be read as a metaphor for life and surviving hardship, or choosing to build something new when faced with bad choices, but I think more than anything it is just a vision of an alternate world, and a chance to be transported into someone else’s vision. Keanu Reeves has never been creepier or better cast (and never worn a mustache in a movie before according to the director!) as a world creator and a cult leader of “The Dream.” And Jim Carey is completely unrecognizable in a silent role.  This is definitely NOT an action movie, it is slow moving and moody, much like her previous film. I think I still prefer her first film, just because I had never seen anything like it,  but this one is also very original and quirky, and full of creative energy.

Facts: A girl gets dropped off in a no-man’s land dystopian desert, where she is first faced with a brutal world run by bodybuilder cannibals. only to escape to a seemingly more  kind world of daily lazing about the desert and nightly rave parties. Soon, she discovers something nefarious is going on there too.

Extra: The fact that I got to see this film at a sneak preview, right after an hour and a half live interview with a very funny and entertaining Ana Lily Amirpour may  have made me like this movie more than, I otherwise would have. She was full of hilarious anecdotes, and very no-nonsense thoughts on life, and amazingly creative and badass.

B. Monkey (1998)

Impression: This is my favorite example of a movie which I don’t think is objectively good, but I still love! I guess I love the idea of Beatrice being a badass. Who has not had an office job they found boring and daydreamt of being a badass by night? Well, Beatrice makes all your dreams (and nightmares!) come true. She is a skilled jewel thief by night, and she hangs out with some shady characters who are purely driven by impulse and emotion and violence, and have no regard for anyone outside their little self-selected family. By chance, she crosses paths with a shy elementary  school  teacher (Alan) who is attracted to her wild ways. She plays hard to get, but eventually falls for him too. When she decides she wants to live a normal life with him, her past is hard to shake, and the ties are both practical and emotional.  No matter how far they try to run, her past keeps popping back up.  Asia Argento may not be the world’s greatest actress, but she has a presence that few can match, and I can’t plausibly see anyone else as B. Jared Harris is very understated and quietly great as Alan. And Rupert Everett is great too. The violence in this movie is sometimes brutal and unnecessary and spills over into parts of the movie where you would not expect it, but maybe there is a point somewhere there, the director is trying to make.

Another thing I love here is the soundtrack.  Alan’s character likes 30’s hot jazz, and works as a DJ in a hospital in his free time. It’s probably my favorite movie soundtrack of all time, mixing 90s brit-pop and tarantella and opera and Django Reinhardt seamlessly.  The decadent interiors and the wild costumes B. wears are memorable, as is the scene where they paint the walls of their cottage bright blue and red. I understand this movie is not technically great, but it’s one I enjoy rewatching, despite it’s faults.

Facts:  A badass thief mixed up with some shady characters, meets a mainstream guy, and tries to go straight, but keeps getting pulled back into her criminal past.

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.

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.