This week sees the release of my personal favorite - IN ORDER OF DISAPPEARANCE, a Norwegian action thriller with a dose of dark humour. VOLCANO and DON'T BREATHE also open.
ANGRY INDIAN GODDESSES (India 2015) ***
Directed by Pan Nalin
The first thing that comes to mind when one hears of the film ANGRY INDIAN GODDESSES is the reason the film is called that. The reason becomes apparent midway during the film when all the characters imitate the Angry Goddess Kali, the Goddess who destroys all evil with her anger. Each character do their best to imitate the Goddess as they pose (their tongues sticking out far as possible) for a group picture. Kali is a Hindu Goddess, the Divine Mother or Mother of the Universe and a destroyer of evil forces.
The film’s characters are not Goddesses in any sense of the word. They are more victims than anything else, but they try to live with their problems with the help of the group. This is the premise behind the new film by Pan Nalin (2001’s SAMSARA) that is billed as India’s first female buddy film. The film was first screened at the Toronto International Film Festival where it was runner-up for the People’s Choice Award. It was also screened at other festivals including Toronto’s Inside Out LGBT Film Festival.
The film is set in Goa, the west Indian state of India known for its beaches. For those unfamiliar, Goa is a popular as a seaside resort, which is an excuse for some pretty beautiful beach/sea scenery, Indian style, a welcome change.
The main character is Frieda (Sarah Jane Dias), a strong-willed and celebrated photographer. Frieda gathers her closest friends on the eve of her wedding. The diverse (and often hilarious) group, a snapshot of modern Indian society includes Su (Sandhya Mridul), a businesswoman and mother; the engaging Nargis (Tannishtha Chatterjee); Jo (Amrit Maghera), an aspiring Bollywood actress; Pammy (Pavleen Gujral), a housewife; Mad (Anushka Manchanda), a singer-songwriter; and the house servant, Lakshmi (Rajshri Deshpande). Everything's set for a night of celebration. There is only one issue: Frieda will not say who her betrothed is. But as the film has been screened at the Inside Out Festival, it is an easy guess that her betrothed is a woman, who turns out to be Nargis.
Nalin aims his film to be a crowd pleaser. His film moves fast as evident when the film opens when he introduces the audience to 5 of the characters as well as their problems. Jo is asked to do many takes and to show off her body before she storms off the set; Lakshmi is abused for her songs and so on. The film contains too many characters and too many female issues to be effective, though Nalin tries quite hard. It takes a while before the audience can differentiate one character from the next. Too many issues tackled include arranged marriage, gay marriage, gang rape, wife abuse, activism among others. All the actresses try very hard with the result of most scenes ending on a high note.
But the male roles are mostly underwritten with the males present to forward the purpose of the female course. One group of males appear on bikes just to mock and sexually abuse verbally the girls. One shirtless hunk (Anuj Choudhry) is present or the 6 girls to ogle as a sex object. Frieda’s absentee father is another character not progressive enough to accept a same-sex marriage. Nothing is mentioned about Freida’s mother.
Despite the film’s flaws, Nalin’s film is a light and easy watch for the most part, succeeding more as entertainment than a message film. The ending turns too preachy.
ETOILES DE JOUR (STARS IN BROAD DAYLIGHT) (Syria 1988) ***
Directed by Ossama Mohammed
ETOILES DE JOUR (STARS IN BROAD DAYLIGHT) screens on Saturday, August 27 at 4 p.m. as part of TIFF Cinematheque’s Syria Self-Portraits: Chronicles of Tyranny, Chronicles of War, running from August 26 to September 4. Video introduction by Rasha Salti.
This is my first Syrian film and I am sure it will be the first for most others. Mohammed’s film has an artsy experimental grainy look, being shot in black and white. If commercial Hollywood blockbusters is your cup of tea, better avoid this film like the plague.
Some more background information about the film: Premiered in the Quinzaine des Réalisateurs (Directors Fortnight) at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival, Ossama Mohammed's first feature remains banned from screening in Syria due to its subversive critique of how the arbitrary and absolute power arrogated to men in a patriarchal society engenders a violence that pervades both familial and intimate relationships.
The film is set in a small village where a double wedding is about to take place. The first scene is a chicken through the window while a man chants about his dream during the night. The lead character is an all-powerful family patriarch, who dictates the fate of his family and kin with absolute authority and administers violence almost arbitrarily.
The film is a hard watch and demands concentration to figure who is who and what is going on. All Syrians sort of look alike, which is a problem. The humour is mostly Syrian and deadpan. It takes a while to get into the film, but once in, the film will captivate in its simplicity and subtlety. It is high drama - Syria style. One bride runs away and the other refuses the marriage. The eldest corrupt son makes a good villain.
The film is quite direct in its political views. The characters outwardly declare their hatred towards Jewish Israel. The film is also male chauvinist oriented. So political correct audiences should beware! See the film at your own risk!
Special Screening Saturday the 27th at 4 pm at Bell Lightbox.
IN ORDER OF DISAPPEARANCE (Kraftidioten) (Norway/Sweden/Denmark 2014) ****
Directed by Hans Petter Moland
Can an ordinary man kill a drug lord? The answer is ‘yes’, if (he is) pushed beyond the limit, as this awesome Norwegian film attempts to prove, in a very violent, way.
Nils (Stellan Skarsgård) is a snow plough driver somewhere in Norway. He learns that his son, Ingvar has died, supposedly of a heroin overdose. Nils knows his son was no addict (his wife believes otherwise, though) and starts his own personal private investigation after his beaten up son’s friend confesses to Nils that his son was unknowingly involved in a drug delivery. Soon Nils finds out the local drug lord, known as ‘The Count’ (Pal Sverre Hagen) is behind the crime. He hunts down the two killers and kills both of them, but not before they confess. Based on this information, he goes after their boss, the Count, but finds himself in the crossfire between two rival gangs: one local, the Count and the one "imported" called Papa (Bruno Ganz) from Serbia.
The film contains more observational nuances than the normal action thriller that makes the story more interesting. An example is the scene of Nils asking his wife whether she knows where he had been. Nils is just proud that he had just disposed of one of the men in the chain that caused the death of their son. His wife just looks on nonchalantly.
The film plays like DIRTY HARRY with Skarsgard in the Clint Eastwood role. When the cops are useless and provide no answers into the truth of the son’s death, Nils takes matters into his own hands. The script proves the adage that a man will murder to protect his family.
The Norwegian landscape is used effectively. The film has repeated scenes of a body rolled up in chicken wire and tossed over the grand falls. Nils is also the champion of a huge snowblower that clears the roads of ice and snow. The wintry atmosphere adds to the bleakness of Nil’s situation.
The villain of the piece, the Count is also set up to be a ruthless father. The film spends again more time that the average action thriller on the villain. While showing him to be a ruthless maniac, he is also shown to be a father who wants the best for his son. He tells his bullied son to beat up the bully. He intimidates his driver for not fixing 5 organic fruits in his son’s lunch box and then warns him against talking business (he tells the boss that a worker has gone missing, the one who has just been killed by Nils). The encounters between him and his ex makes the funniest parts. Director Moland is expert in the creation of these wickedly devilish yet violent set-ups.
Skarsgard makes the unlikely but believable hero. He is comfortable in the role and it shows, having worked with director Moland in two other notable films ABERDEEN and ZERO KELVIN, also worthwhile films to catch.
The film is extremely violent. Those who love graphic violence as in horror films are in for a real treat. The humour is very black. For example the sign to the small town where Nils lives, “Welcome to Tycos” is shown half a dozen times as Nils drives in and out of the town to do his nasty business.
IN ORDER OF DISAPPEARANCE is a film that proves that a well-worn story of revenge can still be made intriguing given a little inventiveness even if it comes with a bit of nastiness. This film is my personal favourite of the year! Also, stay for the clever way the ending credits are done.
IXCANUL (VOLCANO) (Guatemala, France 2015) ***1/2
Directed by Jayro Bustamante
It i the age old story of a human being’s quest for a better life despite mounting odds. Here is Maria’s desire to marry the one she loves and to escape to a better place, where the grass is greener. But she is betroth to someone else, while she gets pregnant in the meantime by her jilted lover. This story has been told many times in many films before but never in this new and mesmerizing and dreamlike fashion.
Maria is the daughter born into a poor family that work the plantations under a stern landlord who is never seen. Maria is match-made to Ignacio, the boss’s favourite. But Maria has someone else she desires - Pepe. But Pep is fond of drinking and not the chivalrous hero one would imagine. After getting drunk one night and impregnating poor maria, he abandons her while he takes off illegally to cross the border to the U.S. Maria’s mother attempts to, but fails to abort the baby.
The occasionally brilliant debut by Guatemalan filmmaker Jayro Bustamante is a mesmerizing fusion of fact and fable, a dreamlike depiction of the daily lives of Kaqchikel speaking Mayans on a coffee plantation at the base of an active volcano. The title of the film IXCANUL means volcano, which the family prays to and give offerings, hoping to begat wealth, happiness and if not, at least a decent living.
Bustamante immerses his audience into its characters' customs and beliefs. IXCANUL chronicles with unblinking realism, a disappearing tradition and a disappearing people.
IXCANUL emerges an impressive chronicle of the lives of a people as seen by the observation of the hardships o a single family. This kind of film seldom earns a commercial release. Shot in the languages of Kaqchikel and Spanish. Entertaining and mesmerizing!
A TALE OF LOVE AND DARKNESS (Israel/US 2015) ***
Directed by Natalie Portman
A TALE OF LOVE AND DARKNESS was screened at last year’s TIFF after premiering at Cannes. When a film that marks a directorial debut by an actor is screened at TIFF, the normal reaction is to avoid. But this film by actress Natalie Portman (Oscar Winner for BLACK SWAN) is truly a labour of love. Whether successful or not, it is one that has Portman’s heart and soul put into its making. This should be reason alone to view the film.
Portman reported took 8 years to write the script after obtaining the rights to the book - an autobiography by Amos Oz. She also not only learned Hebrew but to speak it without an American accent. Portman herself was born in Israel. The film is shot in Hebrew.
The book and Portman’s film are told from the point of view of Amos Oz, the son of the mother Portman portrays, as he grows from adolescence to youth. The film tells the story of his youth, set against the backdrop of the end of the British Mandate for Palestine and the early years of the State of Israel. A major influence of Amos’ upbringing is his mother. But in certain scenes, like the one where the mother imagines her bookish husband as a handsome labourer,the film uncomfortably shifts the point of view from the boy to her.
The boy, Amos is closer to the mother than to the father, as observed by the film. The mother is seen to be the more realistic person than her academic husband. Portman paints him as an ugly creature with bucked teeth and spectacles. But she shows the boy, at various points in the film smiling whenever his parents share a loving moment.
Her film is meticulously crafted, perhaps too much so. Her film is beautiful to look at, with a dizzy hazy look but it lacks drama and life. Even the dramatic scene like the swing accident is shot with the confrontation taken away. Portman never makes it clear he purpose of this segment. The audience is expected to figure out this one and many other such segments (like the kicking of the football) on their own.
When a story is told of two monks traveling through India, these scene is materialized with the son and mother in monks’ robes walking through a field of flowers. When the boy smiles while lying on the ground looking at his parents, the image is shown upside down, from the boy’s angle. Portman appears to concentrate more on the film’s look than the way the book’s message is put across to the audience.
Portman’s film though set in the Israel/Palestinian conflict is violence free. The violence is only heard as news on the radio or from conversations that take place. Her film is also a very serious piece, almost devoid of humour. Se does inject the occasional nostalgia as in the rendering of the Charles Trenet Frenc song, “La Mer”.
It is difficult to figure to see the reason for Portman’s obsession for filming Oz’s novel, or why the novel is such a bestseller. Oz’s writing skill is assumed to be inherited from his father. One scene shows Amos’ story telling skills used to prevent himself being beaten up by bullies. But nothing is said on how his writing skills developed except for the stories his mother tells.
The result is a beautifully looking but rather lifeless film.