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A Few Thoughts on Recent Movies

Gah, I wish I had time to do proper reviews like I used to, but I always dawdle until it feels too late and then I have like half a dozen movies I want to write about! I'm so rusty at this! So here are some brief (for me) thoughts on a bunch of movies I've seen the last couple of months.





Mustang (2015)
This is nominated for Best Foreign Film, though it probably won't win (Son of Saul is the more likely choice there). But this is a stellar little film by a woman director about five girls in a Turkish village who are severely punished for being seen playing on the beach with their classmates (some of whom are boys) and spend the rest of the movie being trained by their guardian to be proper wives in arranged marriages. This is not a period piece; it's set pretty much in present day, and in fact the beach incident is based on something in the director's own life. But it's chilling how restricted these girls become -- not because their guardians don't love them, but because of the expectations of this super conservative society. It reminded me a bit of The Virgin Suicides. It's less depressing than it sounds, though. Every fresh instance of the girls' rebellion (and there are several) made me want to cheer. And the youngest, Lale, is my hero. After the girls are scolded and even beaten early in the film for sitting on boys' shoulders -- because (*clutches pearls*) their naughty bits were next to the boys' necks -- Lale, who is *maybe* 12 years old, takes one of the chairs from the dinner table and defiantly takes it outside like she's going to burn it because (*SAVAGE SARCASM*) OMG OUR PRIVATE PARTS HAVE BEEN IN THEM.


The Brave One (1956)
If you saw the movie Trumbo, with Bryan Cranston, this is the movie Dalton Trumbo wrote that won him a second Oscar while he was still on the Hollywood Blacklist. It's a fairly simple story about a boy who has a pet bull and who struggles to keep him from being sent to the arena to die a supposedly glorious death at the hands of a matador. It's pretty astounding for a movie from the 50s, in that while most Hollywood movies were telling what few stories there were about people of color with white actors, shooting on sound stages, this movie is shot entirely on location in Mexico. With actual Mexican actors. The star of the movie, young Michel Ray, is the closest the film comes to whitewashing the characters, though Ray is still part Brazilian. It's fairly by-the-numbers, but it's a great example of why the formula works.


The Ip Man Trilogy (2008, 2010, 2015)
Donnie Yen is the man. I thoroughly enjoyed all three of these movies about the kung fu master who trained Bruce Lee (as we're told countless times). Great fight scenes, and a really compelling narrative; in fact, I was kind of blown away that there was enough story with this one guy to make three movies, and the movies don't even really get to deal with him training Bruce Lee at all (because they couldn't work things out with his estate). After watching the first film and looking up Master Yip's history, I found myself really wishing there were a movie about the woman who invented the style of kung fu he used. I was super excited, then, to see that not only is there already a movie about her (called Wing Chun - starring Michelle Yeoh, no less), but that it's available to stream on Netflix! The first two Ip Man movies are also on Netflix, and the third (which features Mike Tyson as the villain) was recently released in theaters and may still be there.


Hail, Caesar! (2016)
This is one of the Coen brothers' farces, which some people would classify as "lesser Coen," but they don't know what the hell they're talking about. My favorite of their films has always been (and still is) O Brother, Where Art Thou, and just as that movie pushed particular buttons in me as a southerner and a person of (occasionally skeptical) faith, Hail, Caesar! pushes specific buttons in me as a movie-lover. I wish so much that I could have seen it with the BNAT crowd, because I'm certain I wouldn't love it as much if I had never been and hadn't been exposed to movies like On the Town, Footlight Parade and Million Dollar Mermaid. It's also a spiritual foil to Trumbo, with a salty crew of blacklisted Commie screenwriters that are far less nobly drawn than Mr. Trumbo himself. But even though it's frothy farce -- a bit like Grand Budapest Hotel, actually -- there's an interesting layer underneath all the Old Hollywood homage, particularly when it comes to the beleaguered hero of the piece, played by Josh Brolin. There are some amazing set pieces -- you can't imagine how hilarious it is to hear one line repeated over and over again for a seemingly endless gag. A BNAT friend of mine had a minor complaint with Channing Tatum's Gene Kelly number, which was that you could see the outline of Tatum's underwear, and you NEVER see Gene Kelly's underwear (and I've logged enough time admiring his magnificent behind to know). However, I would counter that that number is as much Jimmy Cagney at the end of Footlight Parade (the "Shanghai Lil" number) as it is Gene Kelly in On the Town, and Cagney was a little more rough-and-tumble. :P (That number, by the way, is ever-so-slyly risque, with the boys consoling themselves over not being able to see any dames while they're at sea by saying they might see some "octopusses" ... "or a half a dozen clams.")


Deadpool (2016)
Full disclosure, I know next to nothing about the Deadpool comic (or any comic, really). I hope I'm still allowed to enjoy it, because it was brilliant, and probably my favorite superhero movie, at least of the recent crop of the past 10 or so years. Absolutely not for young kids, and I can't in good conscience say it's okay for young teens to see it either. (When Kick-Ass came out in 2010, I helped a couple of 13-year-olds sneak in, but I can't say I'd do the same for kids that age trying to get into Deadpool.) Having said that, it's absolutely the kind of movie that a 13 or 14-year-old would get a kick out of, just for the naughty humor. It's not really the profanity that I'd be worried about, but there's some rather strong sexual content and nudity (that wasn't really a factor in Kick-Ass). The story is pretty basic, but that's not where the charm is. The fourth-wall breaking and the references are delightful (and could have been sooooo bad). I especially love Deadpool's response to only ever seeing the same two people at Professor Xavier's school. And maybe my favorite thing about it is the romance between Wade and Vanessa, which is leaps and bounds better than any of your other Marvel pairings, in my opinion.


Where To Invade Next (2016)
I really loved Bowling for Columbine and I liked Fahrenheit 9/11 quite a bit, but this is definitely my favorite Michael Moore film. The premise is Moore going to various countries ("invading" them, as he calls it) and taking good ideas for the United States. He goes to Italy, where by law everyone gets at least 4 weeks paid vacation, 12 paid holidays, 2-hour lunch breaks and an extra month's bonus pay each December. He goes to France, whose government-provided school lunches are like food from a five-star restaurant (and healthy!). They also teach actual non-guilt-trip sex education. I was completely blown away by the glimpse at Finland's education system, which used to be as bad as the U.S. until they revolutionized the system about 20 years ago, and it's now the best in the world -- the children don't have homework (usually, and when they do, it's very little), they don't do standardized tests, and -- what a concept -- the students have free time to spend with their family and friends and figure out who they are. In Slovenia, college is super cheap or free (even for American exchange students), and the students had no concept of college debt. In Portugal, they have eliminated punishment for drug use and treat it as a health concern, which has resulted in decreased drug use. And training for Portuguese policeman centers -- CENTERS -- on caring about human dignity.

Probably the centerpiece of the film is his visit to Germany, where not only do they have universal health care (that will even pay for a 3-week stay at a spa if your doctor writes a note to your employer saying you're under stress), but schools teach their students the truth about the WW2 and the Holocaust EVERY DAY. There is no passing the buck of "well, that all happened before my time; it's not like I did anything PERSONALLY." No, they all accept responsibility -- even a guy who only recently became a German citizen (saying that part of becoming a citizen was accepting the Holocaust as now being a part of his own history). What moved me most, though, is that a lot of the ideas Moore was "taking" from these countries were AMERICAN IDEAS TO BEGIN WITH. Ideas like "no cruel and unusual punishment," which we have redefined beyond recognition (if not downright ignored). As much as I'd love to see us get back to those ideals, I wonder if we can, because (as one of the interview subjects from Iceland said) our culture is so self-centered and the idea of doing what's best for a community of people is seen "liberal porn" or "communism."

Yes, this movie pushed me a little closer to feeling "the Bern."


The Witch (2016)
Wow. I don't know how people can say this isn't a horror movie. It may not tick off all the boxes people are used to when they watch horror movies, but it's one of the more disturbing movies I've seen in a while. It might be more accurately described as a history lesson, and in fact, the first thing you see in the movie is the tag line that this is a "New England folktale." The detail in the movie is stunning -- the sets, the costumes, the DIALECT (which is sustained from beginning to end) -- and far beyond anything you would expect in a horror film. Probably the thing that impressed me the most was that I kept waiting for the usual tropes and twists and it consistently defied them. No "it was all a dream" -- this is really happening, and we know that in the first ten minutes. It isn't The Crucible -- this isn't about mob mentality or the destruction of a community; the entire story revolves around six people. You just sit and watch this family tear itself apart and descend into paranoia. There's a palpable sense of fear with all of these characters and uncertainty of whether they're going to heaven or hell. And the cast of actors sells it every step of the way.

It's also pretty dang feminist. The movie's center is Thomasin, the family's oldest daughter. She gets the bulk of the chores in and around the home, and she also gets the brunt of the blame when things go wrong. And you can't help remembering, as you watch Thomasin struggle through the movie, that any woman who was an outsider (be she a woman of color or a woman who challenged patriarchal norms) was thought to be a witch, and some form of that prejudice still exists today. The ending is [SPOILERS] rather horrifying, but it's also bizarrely positive, to the point where I saw one woman report that, when it was over, she turned to her neighbor and said "Good for her." [/SPOILERS]


The Hunt (2012)
I'd seen stills and gifs from this, from a bunch of the Hannibal blogs I follow, and I knew this had won Mads Mikkelsen some awards (including Best Actor at Cannes) and was up for Best Foreign Film a few years ago. But I had no idea what it was about, and in fact, the title gave me the impression it was some sort of action-adventure. LOL WRONG. Mikkelsen plays a kindergarten teacher who is falsely accused of sexual abuse and the intense pain and suspicion this creates in a small, close-knit community. What I loved most, other than Mads's stunning performance, was that the movie never made a villain out of anyone. If there's anything I like less than rape/abuse stories, it's fake rape/abuse stories, because it creates this nasty narrative that victims are just making up these crimes or it's all in their heads. We know from the start that this man did nothing wrong, but the movie never, ever minimizes or delegitimizes the parents' fear, and you can perfectly understand what must have been going on in this child's mind and why she did what she did (and in turn, why all of the parties responded the way they responded). It's incredible storytelling with incredible characterization that makes you care about every single person you're watching. My one beef (though I can't deny it's realistic) -- [SPOILERS] I wanted so badly for someone to find out how the little girl really learned those words, but nope. Nothing. Infuriating, but honest. [/SPOILERS] This one is available on Netflix streaming, if you're curious.


Amy (2015)
I know this is probably going to win the Doc award at the Oscars this weekend, but this is not *that* great. It was popular, because its subject matter is popular, but the filmmaking is nothing spectacular. It's slick, I guess, and it's sort of an achievement that they were able to make something coherent out of what must have been a mess of home videos and interviews, but I just wasn't feeling it. Maybe if I'd known more about her music beforehand I would have been more into it. Probably the section that was the most interesting was the bit about the concert in Serbia, where she really, really didn't want to go on tour and thought that if she got drunk enough they couldn't possibly shove her out there on the stage. I'd never seen anything like that before -- she just sat down and refused to perform.

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