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.
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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.

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.

 

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.

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.

Kelin (2009)

Impression: A practically silent movie from Kazakhstan; there is no dialogue, but plenty of sounds made, and occasionally a score including traditional instruments and some throat singing. The story takes place in 200 AD, but feels timeless. The entire thing is beautifully shot, in snow, in majestic mountains. The bright open expanses are contrasted with dark, cramped interiors. Lots of interesting shots of strange shamanistic rituals, and quite a bit of nudity. Animals feature quite prominently, running wild, as background sounds, and as clothing and food and workforce. The plot follows the fate of a girl who gets married/sold to a man and returns with him to a hut where he lives with his mother and son. Conflict is introduced when the better looking guy, who in the beginning of the film did not have enough money to buy her, reappears. Well acted, it’s all in glances and look aways and stares. In order to keep interest for over an hour, a movie without dialogue has to be really compelling, and this one certainly is.  It provides a little bit of a voyeurism into a place and time that I’ve not thought about a lot. Besides how many movies from Kazakhstan have you seen? And no, Borat doesn’t count!

Facts: In 200 AD Kazakhstan, a girl gets married/sold to a man living in a remote hut in snow filled mountains with his mother and son.

 

Presumed Guilty (2009)

Impressions: Mexican documentary about the inner workings of the legal system, might seem like a relatively dry topic, but it was actually fascinating, and compelling throughout. My favorite thing about documentaries is coming across one on a topic I know nothing about, and would not have even contemplated seeing, until I was already there. “A Great Day in Harlem” was another great example of this. This film follows a guy accused of murder through the whole ordeal including living in prison, his appeals, and a face-off with the witnesses. Some of the processes are mind boggling, especially the witness face-off, and the fact that once convicted no amount of evidence can convince anyone of anything is frustrating.  The two young lawyers who took on the case, use the filmmaking process itself as a tool in their fight to free an innocent man. Very interesting and really well done, you should see it! If you ever had your doubts, this one definitely makes you not want to end up in a mexican prison!

Facts: Two young Mexican lawyers fight to free a man convicted of a crime they have ample evidence he did not commit.

Extras:  I originally had very brief notes which I wrote in 2009 after seeing this film at TIFF. In order to write a more meaningful opinion, and jog my memory some,  I looked at the wikipedia page on it. It’s apparently become the most watched documentary in Mexico, breaking box office records, and was eventually banned in 2011, causing it to be even more popular. It would be very interesting to see what someone from Mexico thought about it. The system and the process were all very new to me, and made me wonder if it’s common knowledge that this is how the system works.