December 9, 2016

The Eyes of My Mother [2016] – A Dark Fable on the Victim of Circumstance

Nicolas Pesce’s masterfully crafted monochromatic images in The Eyes of My Mother (2016) tells the story of a mother and a daughter; a daughter who doesn’t know much about her mother but, still yearns to follow in (what she perceives as) her mother’s steps. Alas, the daughter doesn’t know she is falling into a irredeemable void rather than climbing up the steps. If “The Eyes of My Mother” sounds like a typical coming-of-age drama, I got to insist that it’s not. It is a disturbing psychodrama, pervaded with unnerving atmosphere of madness. It pushes you through the kind of horrifying movie experience which may either make you love it or hate it. The visceral reaction the first time director/writer Nicolas Pesce derives definitely won’t make us feel good as the end credits start rolling. I was little disappointed with “The Eyes of My Mother” since it doesn’t expand upon its thematic elements to become a truly powerful horror movie of the year. It’s neither an exploration of a human psyche nor offers social commentary. The cryptic quality ingrained in the narrative feels a bit thin towards the end rather than exhibit profundity. I think of this as the movie’s flaw since Mr. Nicolas doesn’t seem to be only interested in shocking the viewers or simply stay within the genre’s limited territory. Nevertheless, it’s an admirable American Gothic.

The Eyes of My Mother opens inside a giant truck. The truck driver hears a cheery song on the radio. He sees a woman in the middle of the road and gears it down to a halt. The camera is affixed inside the truck gazing outside. It kind of provides the claustrophobic, uneasily calm atmosphere that persists throughout the narrative. The woman lies down in fetal position in the scorching road. Who knows what horrors she has witnessed? Told in three chapters (‘Mother’, ‘Father’, & “Family’), this story of fractured minds & mutilated bodies then shifts to an isolated small-town American farm. The young nine or ten year old Francisca (Olivia Bond) is seen picking wildflowers with her mother (Diana Agostini), who was once an eye surgeon in Portugal. Now the woman only does gardening and housekeeping chores, gently nudging her daughter to be good and grow up to be a woman she once was. The mother also shows to Francisca on how to gently dissect a dead cow’s eyes, which she says is just like human eye (but only a bit larger). The stoic father doesn’t say a word and is always occupied with some errands. One day, a stranger in white-shirt and with an unsettling smile, visits Francisca’s house. This drifter named Charlie (Will Brill) brutally murders the mother.

The murderer is captured by the father and he chains him in the barn. The mother is buried with the help of Francisca. The father is highly detached to take the role of a parent. The void inside Francisca gradually deepens. When Charlie asks to the little girl, “Are you gonna kill me?”, she replies, “Why would I kill you? you’re my only friend”. To keep this friend from running away and to make father feel proud of her, Francisca sews Charlie’s wounds and then perfectly sews his eyes & severs the vocal cord. The chapter ends with little Francisca dancing with her father, thinking that the void is filled. The static frame suddenly cuts to the next chapter. Time has passed. The little girl has grown to be a young woman (Kirk Magalhaes) and her father has just died. The adult Francisca bathes her father’s corpse and is reluctant to let go of it. The bony, naked, eyeless Charlie still lays in the barn, gorging on little food Francisca brings him. The young woman’s actions become increasingly senseless as she engages in casual torture to embrace a twisted normalcy. The narrative gets distressingly strange as Francisca lures in innocent people into her isolated house.  

The lack of precise explanation and the big time gaps may either escalate the terror quotient or it may frustrate you, based upon your engagement in the story. It is better to approach The Eyes of My Mother as a dark fairy tale which doesn’t follow a logical path. Director Nicolas Pesce cites “Night of the Hunter” (1955) as his inspiration. Like that masterpiece, Nicolas’ script also deals with reaction of a family to emotional trauma. The perfect Gothic sets in Night of the Hunter imbues a very bleak tone, yet the proceedings resembles a fairy tale. The Eyes of My Mother is also a journey into a mythical dark tunnel, except that this tunnel is sealed on both sides, unlike the possibility of piercing light in Night of the Hunter. There’s no Lilian Gish-like character and the child (Francisca) never breaks away from asphyxiating loneliness. Nicolas Pesce doesn’t stop with the weirdly beautiful expressionist composition; he also revels in the body-horror elements, reminding the brutal vision of Takashi Mike. The strength of the film, however, is that it never immerses fully into exploitation flick territory. For the most part, the brutality and violence is only suggested. There’s only one sequence when you see someone getting killed on-screen. But even in this scene, you don’t witness the close shot of a sharp knife mutilating the body. You just hear the sound of knife plunging into human skin. These suggestions I felt are more disturbing than vividly detailed exhibition of torture.

The sound design is absolutely flawless. It adds a lot to our terrifying experience. The sound of a shovel digging at wet ground; the sound of rattling chains as the blinded person moves forward; the sound of tortured prisoner walking through the grass-fields; the sound of a crying child; the sound of Francisca scraping the floor to get rid of blood stains – the sound haunted me as much as the well-crafted frames. Director Nicolas Pesce has also done the editing work. He creates the perfect disorienting factor when he suddenly cuts away from one static shot to another. This is an extraordinarily assured direction for a first time director. Even when the narrative takes some conventional or predictable turns, Nicolas’ crisp monochrome composition continues to holds our attention. As I mentioned earlier, the film’s flaw lies in its less profound approach in exploring the mislaid sense of morality. The director refers to Christian iconography whenever disturbed Francisca performs deeds, which in a way she believes to be part of divine being’s plan. The references lead to epitomization which totally lacks the depth. While this perceived flaw didn’t give me a wholly satisfying horror movie experience, it certainly doesn’t affect the pervading atmosphere of terror. Kirk Magalhaes’ (acclaimed dancer-choreographer) intriguing performance brought to mind the Angela Bettis’ haunting presence in the body-horror “May”. The subdued physicality Magalhaes imbues to her character makes adult Francisca a more complex being than the usual, thin portrayal of psycho girl. 


The Eyes of My Mother (76 minutes) makes us feel like we’re stuck within a terrible nightmare or that we are witnessing something we should never have. Its inexplicable narrative may not appeal to those with a narrow-minded view about horror feature.  



December 1, 2016

Aloys [2016] – A Splendid & Soothing Character Piece

Don't we sometimes feel like we are trapped inside a box, the painful emotions slowly suffocating our thinking process? There would be an urge to scream louder; may be to not hear the screams from within; or may be to prove to this apathetic world that ‘I exist’. Whatever might be the reason, this loneliness, social isolation and uncontrollable depression grows day-by-day to finally push you deep into the unclimbable void state. You can stand among jam-packed crowd, but only the emptiness deep within reflects in the surroundings. You actively avoid the society and the society doesn’t care what you do. Swiss film-maker Tobias Nolle brilliant feature-film debut Aloys (2016) is an intimate portrait of one such alienated guy. For me, it is the kind of movie that’s easy to connect with and even makes me jump in excitement after looking at how the director has visualized the isolated feeling. Nevertheless, “Aloys” is not for all; definitely not for those expecting an entertaining mystery/fantasy movie. It is a distinct, profound study of a universe expanding and contracting within an extreme introvert’s mind.

I couldn’t understand the meaning of the opening sequence of shots in “Aloys”. Water gushes through kitchen-sink tap and the kitchen is empty with a wide open fridge. In what seems to be a living room, the camera sits in the corner. The frames are beautifully etched out and may be the tour around empty flat is to simply inform us on the life lead by protagonist Adorn Aloys (Georg Friedrich). Aloys is holding a video camera and filming the dead man, lying on a coffin in a big, funeral home. We learn that it’s Aloys’ father, although we don’t know the reason for his bizarre ritual of filming. The young woman at the crematorium recognizes Aloys from the past, but he scoffs at her and quickly moves away. He stands outside the crematorium with a passive look and this frame, shot from a distance, pins him within the vast, empty surroundings. We see a big cross towering the small building behind him. We feel that he bears a bigger cross inside. Aloys gets into a bus. He seems to be the only passenger. And, as the bus moves through the empty streets he looks out through condensed glass windows (a recurrent visual motif indicating his condensed world-view). Through these set of clear-cut visuals, Noelle perfectly immerses us into Aloys’ obscure, lonely world.

Aloys worked with his father as a private eye. He lives in a towering apartment block, avoids the company of others and films his subjects (who are all mostly adulterers). He returns home to watch the clips he made during the day. He has stored away a library of videos. Many include the videos of neighbors, his father and the magnesium-deficient cat. A fleeting smile escapes his mustachioed lips while watching certain clips, for example the video of father playing piano. When Aloys’ eyes move toward the empty bed of his father, the existential void expands. While this extreme introvert is going through this voyeuristic lifestyle, we too, with a similar sense of voyeurism observe his physical movements and inner melancholia. In his detective office, Aloys still says ‘we’ over the phone. It shows how he is reluctant to let go the 'dead' father. One day, he sleeps on the bus, only to wake up and find that his camera and the tapes are stolen. He receives a mysterious phone call from a woman, who sort of forces him to break out of the ‘watching’ routine to really interact. The woman says that she will give him the tape & camera if only he goes for a ‘phone-walk’ with her. She explains that 'phone-walking' is a method to rehabilitate the socially-withdrawn people. Initially, there’s a sense that the mystery caller is some angel trying to uplift Aloys. Gradually, we learn about the identity of soul at the other end of the phone, who is as  lost in the same pit of loneliness as Aloys. Will these anguished souls connect? Most importantly, can they overcome the unforgiving, dull reality to make a tangible connection (not just an ethereal one)?

The beautiful quality of Noelle’s “Aloys” is that the reality doesn’t relegate to the background when the narrative jumps into the magical realist territory. The imaginative realm is often invaded by the confounding moments of reality. “Everything that moves us is in our head” says the woman. Part of the narrative is about how big our inner universe, dreams and fantasies could be. It’s so vast than our perceptions & experiences of physical reality.  Nowadays, we are all part of a connected society, projecting a part of our 'self' in the virtual realm and gradually drifting apart from reality. Parallels could be easily drawn between ‘phone-walking’ and omnipresent social media. But, Noelle doesn’t use the narrative to just indict our increasing detachment from reality. He shows how such projections of 'self' in fictitious realm are sometimes vital to break out of the isolation and emptiness. The fantasy exercise brings out the deep emotions which Aloys didn’t know he had. However, to fully shatter the loneliness, Aloys has to use the newfound emotions to embrace reality for what it is. If he fails to make contact with reality, he may forever lose himself in the virtual world. And, however fantastic your imagination is, you definitely can’t lead a life by pushing out the reality. Being caught in a magical realist atmosphere is only gonna lead him to form of insanity.

Aloys 2016

The clash between projection and reality is elegantly depicted in the film’s second half. The approach, of course, reminds us the works of Charlie Kaufman, Michel Gondry, and Spike Jonze (the oft-kilter humor seems to be a tribute to Roy Andersson’s movies). Just like their works, “Aloys” is a melancholic love story, where the virtual space blended with hard-hitting reality threatens to derail the positive emotions between central characters.  And similar to their movies, “Aloys” is pervaded with a joyful intimacy which upends the layered sadness. The intimacy Aloys and Vera fabricate in the ‘party’ scene was so delightful, yet a suppressed sadness could also be felt.  At this point, the distant imagery slowly dissolves to get closer to the characters. We are no more an observer, but an fully embroiled, uninvited participant (like the fictional party-goers), fearing for the breach of this enjoyable illusion. The dialogues, although sounds simple has the inherent power to resonate with introverts. “Every party must come to an end, and left behind are lonely people, who then go to the next party. And to the next one. Each time a bit lonelier”, enunciates Aloys. This fear that you are going to be left out, despite your best possible efforts, is what makes introverts like us to perpetually withdraw into a shell.

Nevertheless, director/writer Nolle’s proceedings bursts with hope. It closes us with one of the great, wordless moments I have witnessed in a film this year. It is the kind of shot which made me alternately laugh and cry. I don’t know if Noelle’s intricate study of loneliness would have had the same impact if not for the two central actors – Austrian actor Georg Friedrich (“Piano Teacher”, “Wild”) and Tilde von Overbeck. Fantasy or reality, their showcase of emotions is captivating to watch. Nolle’s subtle approach in presenting their characters’ surroundings (Aloys’ environment looks bland, while Vera’s is darker, hinting at how she’s more lost than Aloys) also adds ample strength to the performances. 


Aloys (91 minutes) is a visually superior and emotionally engaging study of alienation in the modern society. Those who are expecting a generic or plot-driven narrative would be sorely disappointed, but those who want to leave out the cinematic comfort zones to confront or analyze their own conflicting emotions would be highly rewarded. From a personal viewpoint, this film is as great as any Kaufman-esque works. 


November 30, 2016

Magallanes [2015] – Confronting the Historical Trauma

There’s something fascinating about indigenous Peruvian actress Magaly Solier. She has this vacant look, yet if we look closer her character’s inner pain gradually escape through the forced passivity. She made her feature-film debut Claudia Llosa’s “Madeinusa” and received international acclaim for playing the young woman, burdened with a tragic past, in Llosa’s The Milk of Sorrow. In the neo-noir/thriller Magallanes (2015), she is once again given the role of a victimized woman. But, Solier conveys this set of profound emotions through her eyes and through little fleeting movements, which makes us to totally invest our emotions. Even when the narrative in Magallanes threatens to lose its complexity, the performances keeps us hooked on.

Peruvian actor Salvador del Solar has made his directorial debut with Magallanes. It is based on 2006 novel by Alonso Cueto (titled ‘Black Butterfly’). The central theme of the story is sins of the father or sins of the past. In the nation’s prolonged period of internal conflict, from the early 1980s to late 1990s (the conflicts didn’t fully recede till date), it is estimated that at least 70,000 people were killed. The armed forces (trained specially by US ‘counter-terrorist’ operations) created many emergency zones in its fight with te guerilla forces, raiding villages of indigenous peasants and killing scores of them. The place named ‘Ayacucho’ plays a vital role in the film. The gruesome events once happened in this place occupy the center of protagonist’s moral crisis. The Peruvian military committed many atrocities and human rights violations in & around Ayacucho. Magallanes (Damian Alcazar) is part of the regiment which participated in such barbarous acts. He  now works as a taxi-cab driver and as a care-taker for his once-powerful colonel (Frederico Lupi), who is afflicted with Alzheimer. Magallanes and his former colonel now live in the capital city Lima. One afternoon, a woman named Celina (Magaly Solier) gets into Magallanes’ taxi and after looking at her in the rear-view mirror, he is visibly tense. She isn’t looking at him, but it is clear that the face he saw in the mirror haunts his conscience. He averts his eyes when the woman gets off at her destination.

Celina is being scammed by one of those vicious companies that gives false hope to people to make them sell useless anti-aging, beauty products. She runs a salon business and it is clear that she has lost hope in everything. Moreover, Celina is burdened with a large sum of debt. In his den, Magallenes scatters around the old photographs and documents, he had gathered in those days when he was part of colonel's regime . In Ayacucho, when Celina was around 14 years of age, she was kidnapped and kept as a sex slave at the colonel’s barracks for nearly a year. One photograph shows her sadly sitting on the lap of colonel.  Magallanes decides to use this incriminating picture to extract some money from the colonel’s rich lawyer son (Christian Meier). He enlists his sister to blackmail the lawyer on phone. The place for receiving the money is all set. But his simple scheme to get the money brings chaos. Amidst the chaos, the old feelings of guilt takes him to the doorstep of Celina. Magallanes' quest to right the past injustice gets him and her mired in complexities. 

The movie works well as a thriller about an amateur blackmailer, trying to get back at the victimizing class. But, director Salvador del Solar merely uses this genre framework to bring us closer to his central intention: to indict the worst treatment unleashed on indigenous people in the past. He uses the personal story of Celina to explore the country’s past and the way subsequent generations’ have failed to come to terms with their patriarchs’ despicable activities. Although Magallanes’ reason for blackmailing seems so simple, Solar turns his motivations ambiguous as the narrative progresses. When his sister asks, “Why this idea now?”, Magallanes replies, “I’m tired of being penniless”. In the later half, this simple desire to attain money is transformed and he looks forward to right a wrong. We would expect the two individuals who were wronged by the colonel to join together in a moral crusade. However, the darkness of the past events is more complex than viewers could expect. Magallanes tells he just followed orders. We could assume the horrors he must have witnessed (or even committed) when he was with the colonel. And, as the man’s eyes expresses a kind of unrequited love for Celina, the abyss of the past deepens. Magallanes’ journey to redemption becomes more complex and it exhibits how much his soul is fractured by the savagery of the past.

Del Solar’s frames keep a sense of unease (DoP Diego Jimenez) as if the brutality of the past will jump out from every street corner. The visuals could have used more subtlety, but the imagery never gets fussy too. The performances are the soul of the narrative. Damian Alcazar brilliantly portrays a character whom we can’t single-mindedly hate or just forgive. He impressively wears an indelible expression of regret. Margary Solier, as I mentioned earlier, is the primary reason to watch this film. At times, Solier’s Celina seems to be catatonic, her expression remaining very hard. It could even be ripped apart as bad acting. But, in a couple of dramatic situation, the way she brings out Celina’s anger and sadness suggests us that the earlier rigid expressions were the result of her, suppressing all those damaging emotions. The greatness of her acting culminates in the film’s most affecting scene, when Celina talks about her anguish in the native Quechua language. Director Del Solar cleverly decides to not insert the subtitles. We don’t know what she says, whilst we can understand what she may have said. The ugly side of history may be kept in the darkness, but the indecipherable words and perceivable emotions will haunt the nation’s conscience forever.


Magallanes (110 minutes) is a gripping study of a man and his country’s moral crisis which is elegantly presented within a thriller framework. 


November 24, 2016

The Dark Horse [2014] – A Soulful Tale of Redemption

New Zealand film-maker James Napier Robertson’s “The Dark Horse” (2014) tells the story of real-life chess champion Genesis Potini. This Maori chess genius, who suffered from bipolar disorder, taught the game to underprivileged kids, raised among alcoholics, drug abusers and hoodlums. So, apparently it is an underdog/redemption-seeking-mentor story. But, Mr. Robertson’s fine-tuned direction and Cliff Curtis’ majestic method acting stops “The Dark Horse” from being just another inspirational story. The film opens with tall, hulking frame of Genesis Potini, wrapped in bright, multi-colored blanket, walking in the middle of the road through heavy rain. It is a perfect frame which conveys our protagonists’ journey towards salvation. His pate is partially shaved and a smile reveals rake of broken teeth. The man’s face seems to exude painful and beatific look in equal measures. He moves through a chess shop and rattles the pieces placed on a wooden chess board. The people in the shop are alarmed at first, but looking at the way he rapidly moves the pieces (playing both sides and reciting different strategies) with surging excitement eases the little crowd. Before long, a woman softly brings him out of the shop and a couple of bulky guards push him into a hospital van. In this opening scene, the eccentricity and genius of Mr. Genesis is placed alongside the hard reality that afflicts him. This balanced, refined approach continues throughout this brilliant story of mentor-ship.

New Zealand actor Cliff Curtis has played many supporting roles in Hollywood, portraying characters of different ethnicity – Arab, African-American, etc. He has played the despicable Uncle Bully character in “Once Were Warriors”. Cliff is a slim guy and he had gained over 60 pounds to play bulky guy Genesis. He has also stayed in character, both on and off the frame, until the end of shooting. The commitment is incredible. From the moment he enters into the frame, Cliff conveys Gen’s genius and illness with utmost conviction. When the film’s narrative commences, Genesis has spent some years in a mental institution. The authorities are ready to release him, provided he takes his medications and placed under the care of a relative. His only brother Ariki (Wayne Hapi) reluctantly takes him out of the hospital. A brief flashback shows us that Genesis learned chess from Ariki at the age of 10. Their long disunion had strained the relationship. Ariki is now a top leader of brutal Maori biker gang. He wants his teenage son Mana (James Rolleston) to toughen up to be part of the gang.

Mana takes interest in chess and his uncle than gang life. Genesis was strongly advised to find a purpose in life; some positivity. The purpose comes in the form of ‘Eastern Knights Chess Club’, which is run by a friend & social worker Noble (Kirk Torrance). The last thing Noble wants for his club of underprivileged kids is a man with no stability. He worries Genesis will build their dreams only to fail them at some crucial point. The kids are a group of charming, unruly oddballs, hailing from environment of poverty and violence. Genesis reckons that he will prepare them for Auckland Junior Chess Championship in six weeks time. He also helps his sensitive nephew Mana to escape from the gang. Problems turn up at every corner and stress levels threatens to derail Genesis, but like the king in a board he is pressed down by the responsibility to bestow stability on his tribe of young warriors, both on and off the board.

James Napier Robertson made his directorial debut with a micro-budget thriller “I’m Not Harry Jensen” (2009). His confidence in writing and astute direction in this film makes him to be talent to watch out for. It is easy to get carried away with a story like this. The sentiment could be over-cooked or the heroic achievements could be overstated. Robertson doesn’t fall into any of those traps. He never over-sells a joyful or sad moment. There are few occasional cliches (for eg, Mana’s act of robbery or Ariki’s arrival to Auckland) but the lives and emotions involved here seem much more complicated than your typical inspirational drama. Mr. Robertson has spent a year with real Genesis, a gentle giant, who is said to have freely talked about his illness as much as showing his prowess. Genesis Potini passed away in 2011 (at the age of 47), while Robertson was working on his script. Although the film shows Genesis helping small bunch of kids, in reality the champion has guided thousands of kids to lead a better life. Robertson recalls that during Genesis’ funeral the hall was overflowing with people. Successful businessmen and lawyers attested that this great man had turned them away from a path to crime. So, in a way the director had the extra pressure to cement Genesis’ legacy through this tale. The riveting end result not only deftly handles the emotions, but also dwells on the broader ramifications of this story. By gaining a pot-belly and through the rocking gait, Cliff is able to mimic real Genesis (as seen in you-tube clips). The performance, however, goes far deeper than a mere impersonation. He flawlessly zeroes-in on the constant conflict between mental frailty and quest to gain inner strength. He offers an unflinching look at the man without ever disrespecting his predicament. Neither Robertson’s script nor Cliff’s acting insinuates about a happy ending or a cure before the end credits. The honesty with which Mr. Genesis was presented & portrayed is the chief strength of this uplifting movie.


The life of Genesis is basically a story of a man who wins over the unforgiving world and his vulnerability through steadfast inner strength. The narrative could have been more crowd-pleasing if the focus is deviated on kids and their preparation of chess competition or Robertson could have weaved a lesson on poverty among Maori community. The choice to keep the focus only on the difficulties of central character and his conflict with brother Ariki lends a broader scope. The life of gangsters in “The Dark Horse” is filled with boredom. They are just seen sitting around, drinking boisterously laughing for no reason whatsoever. We could see the inherent sadness of this (often glamorized) environment (their idea of masculinity is subtly questioned). Genesis quest to transform the lives of kids (including Mana) sort of reflects his connection with board. He has coordinated all the powerless ‘pawns’ of real life to find something – like a purpose – on and off the chessboard. And, these ‘pawns’ (the kids) have become stronger to protect their ‘king’ (Genesis). The kids’ quest for a purpose and Mr. Genesis’ purpose beautifully blends in. Apart from Cliff Curtis, Hapi turns in endearing performance as Ariki. Hapi was once a gang member, who turned away from the brutal lifestyle when his son was eager to follow the path. The way he emotes in the key final confrontation with Cliff makes us hard to believe that this is Mr. Hapi’s first time before camera. The kids are also not trained actors. And their inability to utter some dialogues and natural smile bring loads of charm. 


“The Dark Horse” (120 minutes) is one of the best uplifting drama i have seen in recent times. Although the story line may make you think of it as yet another ‘against the odds’ story, the towering performance from Cliff Curtis and the sensible directorial approach will impart you with an unparalleled movie experience.