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.
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Disobedience (2017)

Impression: Although I have seen quite a few movies set in orthodox Jewish communities (not sure why I have seen so many?) usually in Israel or New York, I feel none of them have felt so close up and intimate with the different religious rituals than Disobedience. In this film, set among London’s orthodox community, you actually feel like you are in the synagogue listening to rabbi Krushka speak in the first scene, or later that you are in Dovid’s house with all the mourners. The camera is tight on everyone’s faces and the rooms are small, and you get a sense of how close and tight knit the community is, but also how suffocating it can feel. Enter Ronit, the prodigal daughter living in New York, working as a photographer, living a much different life than she left behind. She returns for her father’s funeral and is faced with her past. The way those scenes are shot is amazing, and you almost feel in her skin. Uncomfortable. Familiar, but judged. The story unveils slowly, she left without saying goodbye, some years ago. Her best male and female friends (Dovid and Esti) have since married each other, and he is being trained to take over for her father.  At first, Esti seems much more guarded towards Ronit then Dovid, and as if she is only tolerating Ronit staying with them because her husband invited her.  Ronit is a loudmouth and even though she eventually gets herself invited to family functions, she has a hard time keeping quiet about her opinions and all the things she disapproves of in the community she has left behind. Slowly, even more details of the past are revealed, and things between Ronit, Dovid and Esti are not quite what they seemed in the beginning. I enjoyed the way this film was shot very much and the slow way in which the past is revealed. The only part of the movie I really disliked was the central sex scene, which I felt was cheap and exploitative. Why shoot a sex scene as a montage? To show it was long? To be able to show the sequence of a all it entailed?  But why does that even matter? I don’t know why, but it really rubbed me the wrong way.  In all other ways I thought the film was beautiful and well done. And I very much enjoyed the ending.
Facts:  Extreme close-up of the life inside an orthodox Jewish community in London, as a rabbi’s prodigal daughter’s return for his funeral causes waves
Extra: I saw this film at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival.

Suleiman Mountain (2017)

Impression:  How many movies from Kyrgyzstan do you get to see in your lifetime? Not many, I decided. So I made it to the only film in Toronto I didn’t have to wait in a rush line for. It’s a road trip comedy with some interesting characters. Zhipara is a middle age shamanistic healer/swindler (up to you to decide!) who is on a mission to win back her estranged husband, Karabas – a long distance truck driver. She picks up a boy from an orphanage (who may or may not be her son, but has the same name) Uluk, and gets Karabas to half-way buy into her plans and take her and the boy aboard his truck. Since they’ve split up, he has taken on a young wife who travels with him, and she is not too keen on having the two new passengers along for a ride. Many adventures await them on the road, mostly in the form of clever ways of separating unsuspecting people they encounter from some cash. The film moves slowly, but I found it entertaining and an interesting look into a culture not often seen on film. There are some references to actual organized shamanistic rituals on Suleiman Mountain and Ziphara seems to actually believe in the power of its magic, even if she mostly seems to be faking it to make a quick buck.  But money comes and goes fairly easily for the travellers in the film, and they lose it as easily as they earn it.  One of the themes is the importance of things going well, regardless of the reasons. Ultimately, does it really matter if Uluk is really their son if they are happy and they all get along? Some strain between Karabas’ itinerant carefree lifestyle and his parents and extended family is hinted at, and during the Q&A, the director explained that there has been some political issues in real life Kyrgyzstan with the people adhering to traditional beliefs and living outside the mainstream on the mountain and the government. If the movie touched on this in any more depth, it surely went over my head. Scenes of nature are beautifully filmed, while the life in the truck and truck stop is portrayed as fairly grimey. All in all, glad I saw this one.
Facts: A road trip through Kyrgyzstan with a motley crew of swindlers.
Extra: I saw this film at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival.

A Fish out of Water (2017)

Impression: In the festival program this movie was compared to something Edward Yang would have done. It’s not just because it is also from Taiwan, but because it’s very intimately focused on family dynamics and slow moving, but beautifully shot. I loved Yi Yi by Yang, so I figured I should give this one a try.  The center of  the story is a family with a very young boy, and an aging, sick father they take care of.  The stresses of dealing with family and work, eventually lead to fights which lead the man and woman to temporarily separating with the woman taking care of the boy and the man taking care of his father. The additional stress is that the boy constantly keeps thinking about and mentioning and drawing his “other family.” We eventually learn the other family was a family he remembers from a previous life. He has very clear memories of this other family, and his parents want to be helpful, but it is stressful to deal with his teachers, other family, who they are afraid are judging them. The boy also, keeps wanting to go visit his “other family” and can’t be left alone, because he wanders off.  Although this strange detail in the plot is central to the film, the film is actually still about family dynamics, and how families deal with problems that life throws at them.  At the end they finally take him to visit the small town by the sea where he claims his “other family” lives.  While the movie is mostly hardcore realism, I particularly liked the last scene, which during the Q & A, the director admitted was his favorite also. It depicts the central couple struggles up a sand dune in wind in their wedding attire, being followed by photographers. Certainly a metaphor of sorts for family life.
Facts:  Taiwanese movie about a young boy who constantly thinks and remembers his “other family.”
Extra: I saw this film at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival.

Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)

Impression: In the new movie by Yorgos Lanthimos, Collin Farrel’s character (Steven) seems like a continuation of the part he played in the The Lobster. The acting is the exact same deadpan, no emotion with rapidly fired words said in monotone.  But it is more than that, the type of things he says are things that are just not said in society: people might think them, but they don’t say them.  Because they are uncomfortable and go against conventions about what is appropriate and what is not. Things like “Our daughter started menstruating last week,” are not normally said in small talk at a work function. Basically, his character is what would normally be seen as socially awkward. Except that the society which Lanthimos constructs has different rules than ours and there is no reaction to what he says,  just the audience’s laughter at the inappropriateness of the situation. In our world.
In the worlds Lanthimos constructs inside his films, there is actually no concept of inappropriateness. And this is the basis upon which he then builds situations which would otherwise be absurd, like the world in which you have to be coupled up or turned into an animal in the Lobster, or lack of knowledge of the outside world beyond what their parents make up for the kids in Dogtooth, or a teenage boy (Martin) constantly invading Steven’s family life in this film.  The smaller inappropriate behaviors are never questioned, and so the characters keep pushing against each other. But eventually, even in Lanthimos’ world, it does get to the point where it makes his characters uncomfortable. Because even without societal norms, on an individual level, there are lines that can be crossed.
In this movie, Steven is a surgeon with a seemingly perfect family.  He spends a lot of time interacting with Martin, who he introduces to his family. Eventually, the boy demands more and more of his time and attention.  When Farrell awkwardly starts avoiding him, things beyond his control start happening to his family, and the boy’s revenge plot is foisted on him.  Lanthimos’ previous films, just like this one, dealt with rules, and arbitrariness of rules. In Dogtooth, it was the parents who made the rules for the world in which they kept their children, in Lobster, the rebels made rules to rebel against the rules of the mainstream world. Here, Martin makes up his own rules about what is right and what is wrong and has the power to make others conform to his rules. Lanthimos’ films leave me with a sense of unease. Where do rules come from? Are all rules basically arbitrary? Must all human interactions be governed by rules? Even if we acknowledge them as arbitrary?
Facts:  Supernatural events start transpiring to Steven’s family once he refuses to have contact with a teenager who seemingly started out as a friend.
Extra: I saw this film at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. It was my favorite film I saw at TIFF this year.

Okja (2017)

Impression: What a strange and imagination-filled adventure this movie is? I am not sure what category to even place it in. It’s a little bit sci-fi-ish, a little kids-movie adventure, a little over-the top comedy, a little action, and a little vegetarian. 🙂  I definitely had second thoughts about eating pork in my Chinese food the day after seeing it. So if its goal is to use cuteness to make you question eating meat, it has succeeded. This is a new film from the director of Snowpiercer, Bong Joon-ho. Thankfully, his love of Tilda Swinton as a villain has not subsided. While in that movie she built a character that she described as a mix of Margaret Thatcher, Colonel Gaddafi, Adolf Hitler and Silvio Berlusconi, in this one she is more like a female Donald Trump with an even more evil twin sister which he is trying to prove his worth to, while running a pig butchering empire marketed by cute piglets. But this is peripheral. At the center of the story is Okja, a very cute super pig raised by a farmer and his grand daughter in the Korean mountains. Ten years later, the Mirando Corporation (cleverly named) who gave them the piglet in a marketing ploy wants it back, for more marketing, and to sell its meat. While the farmer acquiesces, the girl will not let her best friend go, and sets on an adventure to bring Okja back home. She runs into an animal activist cell whose leader is played by Paul Dano (always best cast as a fanatic leader!). They are mostly on her side, but also have some agendas of their own.  Their ambiguous relationship to violence is well portrayed: on the one hand they want to avoid pain to all living things, on the other, they are thirsty to beat up people who stand in their way and instigate violent clashes with police. Reading other reviews, some people did not find the special effects all that successful, but I thought the CGI was very realistic, and I totally bought Okja as a central character in this movie.  I especially liked the use of a kids adventure and over-the-top action movie trope to tell a story of corporate greed. The way genres (which I would otherwise think are pretty incompatible) were blended was surprising, but mostly, the wild imagination that was on display throughout the film was thrilling.

Facts: A “super piglet” grows up care-free with a human girl best friend roaming the mountains of Korea, until the food industry wants it back… as food.

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.