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.

Laura (1944)

Impression: A  very good one from the film noir catalogue, which I had not seen before. A lot of witty 1940’s movie banter, and a lot of vitriol between the main characters is thrown around. Some of the twists are quite original, if over the top. Most characters faults are over-exaggerated, and no one is exactly likable (except maybe Laura herself). This plot device makes it easy to either suspect everyone of being the murderer, or not find it difficult to accept any of them as such. The most intriguing relationship is between Laura and Waldo. He is an older successful man, and somewhat of a mentor to her, but there is plenty of old Hollywood hints that he is not really into women. Their relationship somewhat reminds of that between Eve and Addison DeWitt in All About Eve, although that one is a lot more sexually charged.  And this film came out a few years before the story of All About Eve was either written or filmed. In Laura, the friendship is platonic, but with a lot of strange power play between the two.  Not really sure what to make of it. The other strange character is her fiance, Shelby (played by Vincent Price), who is basically a gold digger, who is unknowingly to her, also a boy-toy for her aunt. So much nonconformity in this one, especially for a 1940’s movie! But of course it is all neatly packaged within the genre conventions. The big twist  is definitely one I had not encountered before, and I highly doubt it is one anyone would see coming.   But it is a clever one, and definitely makes for a lot of suspense.

Facts: A very successful and beautiful socialite is found dead in her apartment, and everyone seems suspicious to the detective who is trying to solve it, but instead slowly falls for the idea of Laura.

Wind River (2017)

Impression: Wyoming is cold. Damn cold! I remember. I lived there. This film takes place in Wyoming in the midst of the cold and snow. It’s a murder mystery set on an Indian Reservation. The setting is crucial to the plot as it uses it to hint at issues of poverty and hopelessness and violence. As it is presented in the movie, the prospects are bleak on the reservation and the only escape is either running far away from it or heavy drug use. People are bitter, and forgotten: the area the size of Rhode Island is covered by only 6 police officers. And the conditions are harsh, roads are often impassable in snowstorms and population is sparse. In the midst of all this a completely unequipped female FBI agent from Florida by the way of Las Vegas is sent to solve the crime. Alone.

She engages a local tracker to help her solve the case. Hints in dialogue, slowly reveal that he is emotionally closer to the murder than was apparent at first with his very scientific and detached way of analyzing all the clues.  In general, the dialogues is kind of sparse, and does not explicitly serve to move the plot forward.  In a couple of places, the dialogue borders on too heavy handed or preachy, with its meta-discussions of grief. But mostly the events are presented in a very detached manner, with minimal emotion. As befits a place as cold and frozen as the Wind River reservation.

The acting is good, the cinematograph is breathtaking. The only thing that I really have complaints about is the over-the-top violence. Yes, it’s a violent topic and some violence is bound to happen in resolving it, but I think the big shoot-out in which the entire Wind River police force dies as well as equal number of people on the other side, seemed a little unnecessary. And I know people flying across rooms when shot with a single bullet looks really cool, and it works for John Woo, but Taylor Sheridan is not John Woo.  The highly stylized, and choreographed bullet play, really feels out of place in a movie that is trying to be starkly realistic.  Plus, you know, conservation of momentum and all. But it’s just one scene. The rest of the movie is really quite engaging and well placed, and well filmed.

Facts: A girl is found dead in the snow on the Wind River Reservation and the plot  to solve her murder touches on issues of opportunity, jurisdiction and law enforcement on the reservation.

Extra: Saw this at the opening night of the Indy Film Fest.

Blue Jay (2016)

Impression: I love the Duplass brothers! So even if a description of  one of their movies doesn’t sound like something I would normally watch, I watch it, because I have yet to be let down. And this one sounded like something that would have been a Lifetime Special in the 90s. And I am not saying that I am above Lifetime Specials, or that I didn’t watch my share of them in the 90s, it’s just not the type of thing I seek out at this point in my life. But of course, it was so much more than a 90s special: incredibly well acted, and well written, and that’s what made it worthwhile. It’s still a lot of emotion, so if that’s not your thing, this may not be a movie for you. But it’s basically just the two leads almost the entire time. There is the old man at the liquor store who has 2 lines, but it’s all them the entire rest of the time. Many years, later on visits to their home town, Jim and Amanda run into each other at the grocery store. At first they are awkward, the conversation is halting, and they almost leave each other without exchanging more than a few words, a couple of times. Eventually we discover that they were once very close and in love. They spend the whole night talking and reminiscing of the past and re-enacting some of it. Some scenes are cute, some are even a little too uncomfortable and awkward. But it is not until the end that we find out what caused them to separate. And nothing about this story is something that hasn’t been told before, it’s all in the acting and how the two leads relate to each other, the pauses and looks, and how realistic their characters are. One thing that I found a little odd is that it was shot in black and white. Since it’s not cheaper to do that anymore, and I am not sure that it added much to the film stylistically, I am not sure why they picked to do that. In any case, it’s not an amazing film, but it’s worth watching. Especially if you are a sucker for love stories not meant to be.

Facts: Jim and Amanda unexpectedly reunite on chance visits back to their home town… in black and white.

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.