Ringo Lam's Prison on Fire on the surface may seem atypical of filmmaker's unglamorous action films, being set entirely in a prison, void of the typical gunplay and gangster of his other films that have gained status as 'Heroic Bloodshed'. Yet, all that is changed is the aesthetic of these characters - the gangsters now wear stripes, and the lines between the oppressors and the oppressed are blurred, but it's the film's depiction of male bonding in the face of violence, torment, and pain, that makes Prison on Fire another worthy study of male ethos. The rather plotless story follows the recent incarceration of Lo Ka-Yia, whose been locked away due to involuntary manslaughter after defending his family owned store from a group of street hooligans. Lo Ka-Yia's placement in this prison is much like a minnow being placed into a shark tank, a character whose high-morality and righteous demeanor soon get him into immediate confrontations with various power structures in the prison, including both the guards and the gang leaders who run the operation from the inside. It's through Lo Ka-Yia's friendship he forms with Mad Dog, a seasoned inmate whose unhinged demeanor and carefree mindset help Lo Ka-Yia navigate the tumultuous prison political waters, enabling him to survive his sentence in this foreign, hostile climate. Ringo Lam's Prison on Fire is an intricate examination of prison culture and the power structures which exist within, deconstructing how such a harsh environment as prison often offer no sense of empathy or reprieve, being structures that don't adapt to the individual but rather consume them, presenting a place where the lowest common denominator of morality forces those inside to live by its rules. Lo Ka-Yia is a character who finds himself pushed to the edge by the new, harsh world he finds himself, his own morality tested and abused through a form of psychological torture that finds this character forced to accept a new playing field when it comes to morality and general decency. Mad Dog's unhinged, carefree demeanor offers the only type of reprieve from this hostile environment, something which Lo Ka-Yia must embrace, or at least comprehend, in order to survive. Prison on Fire isn't a film interested in the rehabilitation process, instead Lam's focus is on the bonding effect which such trauma can create, focusing on the unlikely friendship which forms between these two characters. Their time spent together in the course of this story doesn't provide any type of morality tale, rather simply a story of survival while touching on the vast importance of adaptability and bonding in such harsh environment. The finale of Prison on Fire, a brutal ballet of fisticuffs and raw aggression, is a worthy conclusion to Lam's unique prison epic, with the primal brutality on display symbolizing how the power structures of prison breed and manufacture brutish violence where strength and violence are rewarded with power. Ringo Lam's Prison on Fire is not quite like any prison film before it, being simply put, a survival story focusing on male ethos under the tumultuous moral conditions of prison.
CGI-infused epic assertions lambast the underlying humanity of Yimou Zhang's The Great Wall, a film which constantly finds itself at odds between its more nuanced story of a man discovering his underlying humanity, and its adrenaline-fueled promises of fantastical blockbuster style action. A film which gained most of its pre-release notoriety due to the criticisms surrounding its casting of Matt Damon in a movie about ancient China, The Great Wall largely dismisses those criticisms, introducing his character as a mercenary from the West, William Garin, who has been hired for a a quest to seek out 'black powder' rumored to be in the far east. Narrowly escaping an attack by nomadic bandits William, along with his close confidant, Pero, soon find themselves in shackles, imprisoned by the guard at the Great Wall. Intent on escaping from The Great Wall, William soon discovers that the enemy of the Chinese warriors is an existential, fantastical threat to all of humanity, forcing William for the first time in his life to fight for something bigger than himself. Yimou Zhang's The Great Wall is a lush, sweeping, colorfully violent aesthetic, a film which feels so intent on delivering an epic experience that it often sabotages its more intimate story about a man discovering his own humanity. Matt Damon's character is a man who has lived the life of mercenary, only fighting for survival but no true purpose other than his own gain. The existential threat presented by this dragon like monsters gives Damon's character a chance to be a part of something bigger than himself, a worthy storyline that is unfortunately fumbled more-so-than not by The Great Wall's intent on delivering excess. The Great Wall is without question a good-looking film, injecting an intriguing mythology that is met with production design that is inventive; almost cyber-punk like in its ability to create fantastical ideas through means which only the Song Dynasty would provide. The main problem here isn't the look of the film, but the plotting itself, as The Great Wall injects too many throwaway moments of excessive action, with sweeping music and cinematography thats extravagance seems to mask its underlying lack of emotional focus. Overall, Yimou Zhang's The Great Wall is dumb fun, featuring a script that can't decide what it wants to be, too silly to be taken seriously as it appears to want to be, which is in contrast to the film's thrilling, all-out inventive action set-pieces, which show no shame in their absurdity.
Embodying the punk-rock, anarchist spirit of the music scene in the 1980s, Susan Seidelman's Smithereens is the story of Wren, a fiery, independent spirit living New York City. Desperately trying to inject herself into the New York punk scene, Wren is a character who is in constant conflict with societal norms, a strong-minded female character whose struggle for recognition in the punk rock/anarchist lifestyle is amplified on a daily basis by her vagabond lifestyle, one that finds her going from place-to-place, fiercely scrambling for basic needs, such as food or a place to lay her head. Smithereens provides a vivid time capsule of New York City counterculture in the 1980s, detailing a character in Wren who bounces from seedy bar, to sweaty night club, intent on injecting herself into this punk rock culture. A character who isn't afforded the same type of recognition or respect as her male peers in this counterculture, Wren often finds herself only accepted due to her physical attributes, with both Paul, a runaway from Montana who lives in his van in a vacant lot, and Eric, a punk rocker looking to return to prominence, affording Wren at times for the purposes of either sex or companionship. Seidelman's Smithereens is a nihilistic film that never seems to seek empathy from the audience, presenting characters who seem to embrace the fringes of society, forming a culture that isn't congruent to the Reagan era of the 1980s. While the film is never outright political, it presents a core of disenfranchised youths, never going out of its way to make them sympathetic, quite the opposite, yet the humanity it presents, paired with a few subtle nods to the Reagan era and the conservative christian culture, provide a powerful testament to this counter-culture among the young, fed up with society's definition of success. Wren's nihilistic ways, her general lack of empathy towards everyone around her, her me-first demeanor seems matched by Eric, but Paul's genuine feelings for Wren provides the only real sense of optimism towards fellow man throughout Smithereens. Wren's toughness and selfishness are revealed as somewhat as a defense mechanism, a way to mask her own insecurities and fragility centered around her lack of success in the punk scene. This way of living, dog-eat-dog nihilism eventually finds Wren in a more fragile place, whose selfish, unhinged desires inevitably seem to have left her in a place a solitude.
A period drama set in 1950's Japan, Kôhei Oguri's The Sting of Death is a minimalist study of the erosive effect insecurity and distrust can have on a relationship, chronicling a couple whose marriage and overall well-being becomes increasingly combustible after Miho, the wife and mother of two young children, discovers that her husband has been having an affair with another woman. As one could probably summarize, given the title, Kohei Oguri's family-drama is not a particularly uplifting experience, rather a stark exploration of psychological torment experienced specifically by Miho, a woman who simply struggles to put the pieces together for the sake of her family, with her new deep-seeded distrust of her husband being the barrier that stands in the way of her finding solace and happiness once again. While timid early on, Miho grows increasingly hysterical, tormented by her fears of being left behind, unwanted. A woman whose seen her idyllic family life shattered by her husband's transgressions, it is nearly impossible for Miho as a woman, mother, and wife, to return to normal psychologically, with her husband's deceit continually haunting her. There is little reprieve throughout The Sting of Death, little hope for these two characters who attempt to salvage their relationship, and the longer the film goes on, the more it becomes clear that both these characters are deeply-flawed, with their relationship being toxic, beyond repair, each character reinforcing each other's own pain and self doubt through their internal struggle. Make no mistake, The Sting of Death is Miho's tumultuous story first-and-foremost, but Kôhei Oguri's film always remains balanced in its deconstruction, being fair to the adulterous husband, Toshio, capturing how he does have remorse, how he does take responsibility for his past transgressions, even suggesting that his own despondency is at least somewhat related to the trauma of World War II. A stark, tumultuous experience, The Sting of Death may not be a 'fun' watch, but the film's craft is very impressive, a film that is subtle in its style, atmosphere, and surrealism, blending the static, intricate compositions of Ozu with the moody, impressionistic atmosphere one is accustomed to seeing in the works of Michelangelo Antonioni. The opening sequence of The Sting of Death is a masterclass in composition, opening on Miho and Toshio engaged in a conversation, Miho lamenting for her husband to come clean about his transgression. Oguri starts the sequence with a shot-reverse-shot, each character having their own frame. As the conversation intensifies, futher details are revealed, as Oguri pulls the frame back, revealing their sleeping children in the background, the filmmaker taking advantage of the depth of frame, using visuals to escalate the stakes, encapsulating how parent's actions, and their relationship, have far-reaching effects over not only their own selves but also their children's well-being. As The Sting of Death progresses, the film becomes increasingly stark and atmospheric, with high-pitched strings being used in key moments to accentuate the tension and subversive psychological state of Miho. Composition and mise-en-scene are intricate yet critical in telling this sorrowful tale of alienation and fractured romance, with Kôhei Oguri often regulating the children of Toshio and Miho to the background, or at least oft-center to the main quarrel, visually expressing how these children are collateral damage of sorts, deeply affected yet completely detached from this betrayal of trust and brooding insecurities that haunt both Toshio and Miho. Masterfully told, Kôhei Oguri's The Sting of Death encapsulates how lack of trust and insecurity often create emotional trauma, detailing in Miho a woman who is slowly consumed by paranoia due to her distrust, unable to discern truth from fiction, due to her husband's past deceptions.
Being a fan of Bruno Dumont since his debut film, The Life of Jesus, I can't help but find myself astonished by the unique and unpredictable career trajectory of the iconoclast French filmmaker, as he has transitioned from, quiet, meditative storytelling to a more tonally manic style, a strange, intoxicating blend of slapstick, absurdity, and surrealism. His latest film, Slack Bay, continues down this more comedic, absurdist route, being a film that completely defies not just genre description, but any true type of written description, a mapcap, surrealist tale that sees the filmmaker leave his patient, meditative style completely in the dust. Set in the early 1900s, Slack Bay takes place on the beautiful beaches of the Channel Coast, where oddball inspectors Machin and Malfoy have arrived to investigate a series of disappearances. A seaside town made up primarily of small community of fisherman and oyster farmers, Slack Bay becomes a popular destination for the bourgeoisie in the summer time, which presents a unique culture clash between these two classes. The focus of Slack Bay is between the Brefort family, a lower-class, strange family of Oyster farmers, who help transport the wealthy back-and-forth across the bay, and the Van Peteghem family, an extremely wealthy family whose mansion towers high above the bay on the hill. When a peculiar romance between the oldest son of the Brefort family, Ma Loute, and the young Billie Van Petehem unfolds, these two families are thrown into a world of confusion and mystification, with their specific way of life itself shaken at the very foundation. Bruno Dumont's Slack Bay is a peculiar, oddly entrancing experience, a somewhat generic class critique and bourgeoisie satire, that feels nothing but commonplace thanks to Dumont's manic style which grants its actors a unique ability to deliver hyper-reality like performances. Juliette Binoche stands out as Aude, a matriarch of the Van Petehem family, whose unhinged performance perfectly serves the cartoonish, madcap tone Dumont is going for. While Slack Bay's overall point may be a little elusive to some viewers, Dumont's film effectively skewers both the upper and lower class families in over-the-top, surrealist ways. While the Brefort family is presented as near savages, cannibals who devour the rich in order to feed themselves, the Van Petehem family is presented as a group of decadent, yet degenerate individuals, who clearly are seeing the effects of inbreeding. These two families, their cultures, way of life, etc. couldn't be presented as more different, both being very much detached from one-and-other, and through Dumont's absurdest farce, he is highly critical of society as a whole, and the vast disconnect which exists between various classes of society on even the most simplistic scale. A high level farce and biting critique of french society and class struggle, Bruno Dumont's Slack Bay is beguiling and enigmatic at times, though its craft, slapstick humor, and absurdity often offset the depraved story that takes some getting used to.
Chad Stahelski's John Wick: Chapter 2 is a gloriously fulfilling follow-up to its predecessor- a bigger, more explosive film that builds off the same principles that made the first entry so memorable, delivering another gleefully violent, self-aware hitman saga full of high-octane gunplay and intricately designed fight choreography. Having more in common with ballet than most modern action films, John Wick: Chapter 2 wastes no time diving headfirst into its carnage-soaked dance of mayhem, finding our heroine thrust into action once again, this time by Italian Crime lord Santino D'Antonio, whom Wick owes a blood oath too. Reluctant to accept at first, John eventually agrees to Santino D'Antonio's request, a decision which eventually leads to John Wick himself having a large bounty placed on his head when D'Antonio double-crosses him. Fans of the first film are certain to enjoy Chapter 2, with this iteration doing even more when it comes to high-flying action choreography and gunplay than its predecessor, offering up a tight, fast-paced narrative that never lets up. There are so many memorable action set-pieces, from the Paris catacombs, to the house of mirrors sequence, but perhaps the absolute standout is the showdown between John Wick and Cassian, played by Common. The one-on-one fight between these two characters is a sequence that epitomizes this franchise, a sequence full of electric, testosterone-dripping violence, but also self-aware humor, which finds these two character's tumbling down a seemingly never-ending sequence of stairs, a scene in physical comedy that would probably make Buster Keaton himself stand-up and cheer. Chad Stahelski's John Wick: Chapter 2 is nonstop fun from start-to-finish, a worthy successor to the highly-entertaining original that offers yet another welcome reprieve from the currently superhero-dominated action genre.
M. Night Shyamalan's Split is a film built around its sense of mystery and intrigue, a unique horror story about a man suffering from severe multiple personality disorder, who kidnaps three teenage girls one day in broad daylight. Intentionally evasive when it comes to the details surrounding its characters, both in its antagonist, Kevin, the man whose mind is constantly up from grabs by 24 unique personalities, and Casey, one of the kidnapped girls, a social outcast who herself seems to have a mysterious past, Split's narrative compellingly unravels, offering up a unique slice of fantasy horror that should appease most viewers who are simply looking for something different from the genre While Split is far from an astute study of mental illness or the toxic effect which trauma can have on the human psyche, M. Night Shyamalan has crafted a compelling blend of supernatural horror and mental health introspection, with the divisive filmmaker not relying solely on twists or reveals like so many of his past films, instead letting the sound storytelling unravel the sense of intrigue, keeping the viewer guessing from start to finish about the outcome while never promising any type of shocking twist, something which began to plague the talented horror filmmaker due to his self-induced, predictable formula. While Shyamalan's direction effectively elevates the tension of this story from start to finish, it's James McAvoy's memorable performance that truly stands out in Split, a tour-de-force showing by the talented actor whose chameleon-like ability to move from personality-to-personality elevates the electric, unpredictable nature of the story. Without going into details, Split is a film that thematically plays with the convergence of the supernatural and natural world, a film that pays off its supernatural elements with a clever conclusion that doesn't feel cheap or tagged on as much as it may appear to the casual viewer, thematically linking itself to one of Shyamalan's other efforts, Unbreakable, where the barriers between the supernatural and reality are shattered. Far from a perfect film, Split is a welcomed return for the divisive filmmaker, a film that sees Shyamalan trust in his story and thematics more so than cheap twists, unraveling his narrative with a constant and steady dose of tension and intrigue.
Taking place in a single location, the confines of a Park in the middle of summer, Damien Manivel's Le Parc is an enigmatic curiosity, a fable-like exploration of human emotion that follows two teenagers, a boy and a girl, who are meeting up for a first date in the park. Le Parc is a near masterclass in the economics of filmmaking, a seemingly simplistic story which taps into the profound effect emotion can have on the overall psyche of an individual, delivering a dreamlike fable full of introspection and fascinating insights throughout this simple story of boy meets girl. Early on, Manivel's Le Parc is tender and alive in its simplicity, exhibiting the hesitant fragility of these two characters who are feeling each other out, each radiating in their innocence, infectious in their curiosity towards each other as the promise of connection and/or companionship is very much a possibility. The film's tone shifts quickly in the second half of the film, with the revelation that the boy himself already has a significant other delivering a striking blow to the girl, whose psyche full of optimism and exuberance finds itself dashed under the weight of this betrayal. Through this impressionistic fable, Damien Manivel exhibits how fleeting life's truly joyous moments can be due to our emotional complexities, demonstrating the relativity of emotion in time and space, and how the weight of emotion, rather positive or negative, impacts our perceptions of time. Minimalist in design, Le Parc's impressionistic cinematography gives the film a very dreamlike, fantastical feel, the visual design supplementing the internal emotions of these characters, through both the promise of love and the eventual threat of isolation and loneliness which is felt through this girl's introspective character arc. The static photography gives the film a tranquil quality, with the sun-drenched green fields, and luscious vegetation of the park beautifully exhibiting the joyous nature of these two character's interaction, one where the promise of connection and possibility of companionship is expressed visually. When these two character's share a kiss in a secluded area of the park, Damien Manivel's brilliant but simple decision to use a basic shot-reverse-shot of their faces, similar to the work of Eugene Green, pays off in spades, beautifully exhibiting the exuberance and shared intimacy of both these characters, who at least for a moment, are one. The back half of the film, where the girl finds her promising romance shattered, takes place between dusk and darkness, the pitch black night expressing the emotions of a character whose illusion of romance and the possibility of love is shattered by the revelations that this boy himself has a girlfriend. Tonally what was once vibrant and alive, is replaced with the piercing silence of solitude, with the open fields of the park, the expanding space of the visual design feeling far more prevalent as it evokes the feelings of loneliness and isolation being felt from our protagonist. A dreamlike experience, Damien Manivel's Le Parc is a minimalist exploration of love, companionship, and human emotion, a film that through a simple date in the park, which starts out promising but ends poorly, manages to tap into they dynamic nature of emotion, and how its relativity to circumstance often shapes the world in how we experience it.
Thematically complex while narratively simplistic, Nicholas Roeg's Insignificance is an imperfect, yet endlessly intriguing reflection on fifties America, which uses four 1950's cultural icons (Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio, and Joseph MacCarthy) to deliver a whimsical, yet dread-filled examination of cold-war paranoia that touches on the intrinsically fickle nature internal perception can have over all individuals, demonstrating how our relative perceptions themselves, fueled by personal circumstance and memory, shape our over-arching in the world. Taking place over the course of a single night, Insignificance finds each of these character's struggling in one form of another, each haunted by their own relative issues. Einstein is haunted by Hiroshima, wracked by the guilt associated; Monroe struggles with being perceived as nothing more than a sex object, craving intellectual credence; McCarthy is at the height of his red-scare, witch-hunting powers though behind closed doors he is a weak, impotent sleaze; Dimaggio is in the twilight of his career, insecurities related to his celebrity seep into his psyche, he has become self-obsessed with his wife, Marilyn, and prone to violent outbursts. Each character, the mental state in which they find themselves, seems to have them barreling down a road of self-destruction, with their troubled circumstances/past experiences suggesting a questionable future. The interplay between these characters is dynamic and lively, featuring strong performances from all involved, and while Insignificance can be a bit beguiling at times, each character's internal struggle, their obsessions, fuel this ideal that they will never truly find peace-of-mind and/or happiness. Insignificance uses the 1950's American paranoia and Eisenstein's theory of relativity to comment on how perception is always defined by one's own frame of reference, as we gradually begin to understand that many of these character's are victims of their own psyches. Events we believe to be significant in the course of the narrative begin to reveal themselves as insignificant in the scope of the grand-scale narrative- with the finale itself being perhaps the best example of this, where Einstein sees a nuclear holocaust erupting, only for the camera to pull back and reveal that this grand-standing paranoia is nothing more than another figment of his imagination, an insignificant event in the scope of the world that is perceived as apocalyptic by the relative introspection of Eisenstein, a man who is wrecked by guilt due to his association with the creation of the nuclear bomb. It's through these character's unique frames of reference that Roeg's Insignificance applies the famed scientists' theory of relatively to cultural perception, with the personal issues of these characters being a manifestation of the fear and paranoia associated with 1950's America. Featuring Nicholas Roeg's typical visual flair and kinetic editing, Insignificance is a delirious, beguiling, yet astute piece of filmmaking that uses 1950's American culture icons to touch on the destructive qualities of obsession, and how we all as individuals and as a cultural collective, can be victims of our relative experiences.
Taking place in rural New South Wales, in a slowly dying logging town, Simon Stone's The Daughter is a dramatically charged, character-driven story, which explores the organic conflict that exists between pride and forgiveness, detailing how the destructive nature of past deceits, lies, and mistakes often threaten the livelihood of individuals present and potential future. The story itself is centered around Christian, a young man who returns to his family home in New South Wales for the wedding of his father, Henry, a wealthy man and owner of the local mill. While nothing about The Daughter's narrative is overly didactic, it is apparent early on that Christian harbors animosity for his father, a powerful man in the local community, who recently had to close down the local mill, displacing much of the community. Christian's animosity towards his father isn't spelled out at first, but as the narrative progresses it becomes clear that he blames his father for the death of his mother, who took her own life several years ago. Reconnecting with his childhood friend Oliver, who is happily married with a daughter, Christian's return to New South Wales slowly unearths long-buried secrets about his father's past, secrets which eventually threaten to shatter the lives of everyone involved. The Daughter is a film that unfolds with great mystery and intrigue, beautifully juxtaposing the serene Aussie landscapes, the tranquility of nature, with the slowly building conflict between its characters, one where long dormant secrets are slowly revealed, threatening to shatter the very foundation of which character's have built their lives upon. A film that doesn't shy away from melodrama, The Daughter details a portrait of a character in Christian who is deeply suffering, consumed by his personal failures while simultaneously haunted by the guilt and animosity towards his father, a man he views responsible for his mother's death. Christian's own pain and anguish eventually becomes toxic and combustible, with his venom towards his father threatening not only his father's own happiness but also that of his close friend Oliver. Through this examination of Christian, The Daughter documents a character whose broken, whose inability to forgive leads him down more pain and anguish, detailing how a vengeful persona only causes more pain for everyone involved. Without going into details, as The Daughter as a narrative is cleverly structured with quite a few revelations throughout, Simon Stone has crafted a film that captures the intermingled relationship between self-doubt, pride, pain, and forgiveness, detailing in Christian a character whose pain breeds disdain, ultimately leading to more destruction around him. Pride often stands in the way of forgiveness, as self-sorrow itself can create a venomous effect on others, clouding one's judgement while making it nearly impossible to move forward and get better. These character repeatedly stumble and fall, with Oliver himself falling victim to his own version of pride-based sorrow that in itself threatens the life of someone he holds dear. The Daughter is a film full of emotion, pain, but ultimately a story of unbridled hope and forgiveness, a film that loudly in its final frame demands that all of us as individuals try and think outside of our own sorrow, understanding that pain, self-doubt, and self-inflicting anguish often not simply internally-focused, as they often cause unintended strife externally in those we care about. Far from an uplifting experience, Simon Stone's The Daughter is a well-designed, intricately constructed narrative exploring the organic conflict which exists between pride, pain and forgiveness, detailing in essence the overall importance of optimism, empathy, and self-positivity from both an internal and external perspective.
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