A gentle, sentimental piece of filmmaking sure to frustrate the more cynical filmgoer, Naomi Kawase's Radiance is a quaint, personal drama about the human condition, deconstructing how an individual's perceptions and experiences often define who they are. A story centered around a descriptive video transcriber, who specializes in creating audio descriptions for films to serve the visually impaired, Radiance immerses the viewer into a world unbeknownst to so many, effectively showcasing the paramount nature which vision has, not only as it relates to practicality, but also to spirituality and ego- a force that shapes and molds an individuals inner-being through the perceptions of the world it provides. A former photographer who now serves as one of her panel members provides much of the conflict in this melodramtic story, an individual who has lost not only his professional livelihood but also his main mode of connection to the world. This once proud photographer is slowly and methodically challenged with starting his life anew in many ways due to his rapidly deteriorating eyesight, as he desperately grasps to find a new way to connect to the world around him. While the acquantanceship that unfolds between these two characters teases unncessary romantic implications that feel out-of-place and forced in an otherwise earnest film, Radiance remains pointed and resonant in its ability to showcase the profound difference between objective reality and subjective perception, as the film beautifully recognizes that our lives and experiences themselves, how we see the world, are shaped and modeled by individualist perception. While the video transcribor aims to provide this once proud pohtographer hope, intent on helping him regain his agency to see the world in new ways, he himself pushes her to recognize the paramount nature of being a transriber to those whom have lost their ability to connect to the world visually, asserting that one must be desriptive but never intrusive, allowing those without their eyesight to maintain and sculpt their own individualist perceptions through personal experience. What unfolds throughout the course of Radiance's narrative is a deeply respectful film which provides a unique and emotionally effective portrait of what mankind attempts to quantify as "the human experience", with Naomi Kawase providing a delicately crafted story that serves as a powerful reminder about the vast ways in which we can interpret the world through our perceptions
Offering a documentary-like snapshot into a particular space and time, Tomas Gutierrez Alea's Memories of Underdevelopment transports the viewer to 1961 Cuba, detailing the exploits of an apolitical writer and member of the bourgeouise, Sergio, a man who is unwiling to leave Cuba after the revolution. Seeing his wife and family friends leave for the United States, Sergio refuses to leave, seemingly convinced that he retain his way of life. Socio-political assertions related to Marxist class theory, the intrinsic relationship between capitalism & imperialism, and other various complex issues related to soverignety, freedom, and equality are very much at the core of Memories of Underdevelopment, yet the film remains relatively unique in its deconstruction of such issues due to its reliance on its main characterization, Sergio, a man whose detached from the quickly changing world around him. Memories of Underdevelopment details the socio-political climate of the time through the lens of a man in Sergio who isn't particularly likeable to the average viewer; he is a playboy, a well-educated member of the bourgeouise, whose perspective of the world doesn't particularly align with the revolutionary forces. He isn't an agitatator, just an outsider driven by egoism, and Sergio's perspectives of the quickly changing world provid unique perspective one would not expect from this film, making Memories of Underdevelopment feel far more balanced, astute, and profound than many film's I've seen detailing similar themes. Tomas Gutierrez Alea as a filmmaker shows an unwillingness to simply adhere to the didactic socio-political assertions that all to often craft simplistic binary implications about good and evil, right and wrong, instead delivering a dense, though-provoking piece of cinema about politics but also identity, and the subjective nature of reality when viewed through the lens of the individual. Perhaps Memories of Underdevelopment is best described as a character study with socio-political undertones, as this characterization remains the driving force of the entire film, exhibiting a reflection on the time and space of post-revolution Cuba, with Sergio's own internal existential struggle between intrinsic comforts of the familiar and the existential threat of change manifests itself on a scale that speaks to universal ideas much larger than just this one individual's journey. Sergio is educated and driven heavily by self-improvement, and the impending sense of creeping alienation he feels around him is emotionally resonant, as we witness this headstrong individual slowly crumble under the weight of a rapidly changing environemnt in which his ideals and beliefs are not shared. While he is a character who is hard to like at first, coming off as privledged, materialistic, and autocratic in his beliefs, the film slowly transforms him into a sympathetic character in a lot of ways, questioning the systematic and oppressive nature of authority, something which is often glossed over by many revolutionaries who are dishonest about the toxic nature heirarchy, power, and authority has overall all those, no matter how "good intentioned" they may appear. With this in mind, Memories of Underdevelopment is an astute study of identity, recognizing how we are all hostages to our underlying ideas and perceptions of the world. It is honest in its recognization that as human beings we intrinsically have autocratic tendencies in our overall philosophical beliefs, at least internally, yet the film subtly recognizes how the position of Authority and Power is the problem, as it provides the intrument necessary to inflict one's internal philsophical beliefs on others via force and oppression. For Sergio his general arrogance is his undoing, as he slowly recognizes his mistake in staying in Cuba, believing he can sculp his environment in his own image, a tedious exercise that leaves him in a state of alienation in his homeland. He tries to start over, replace his wife with a new woman in his desired image, and in doing so he becomes a victim of his own autocratic tendencies, a path that leaves him in despair. Sergio's whole plight, his arrogance in the belief that he can craft his environment in his image draws major parallels with United States imperialism, both being driven by an autocratic and absolute belief that they can shape the world in their image, both unwilling to accept that not all individuals or cultures will except their brand of ideas. A film that is ripe for a host of variant political ideologically-driven takes, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea's Memories of Underdevelopment is perhaps first and foremost viewed best through a simplier philosophical lens, one in which systematic authority, often derived through arrogance, power, and absolutes, always ends in oppression.
A bombastic film that is relatively coherent given the intrinsic bloat that is to be expected from a superhero mash-up on this scale, Infinity War wisely makes Thanos its central character, empowering its antagonist with the narrative drive of its grandiose, multi-dimensional story. This decision makes this dense Marvel mashup feel more like a space opera than a generic, bombastic superhero film, elevating the stakes and general clarity of the story while delivering an exciting superhero film in which none of the various character brands that have been sculpted and crafted over the past 10 years in the MCU feeling beyond the cold, potential finality of death.
Perhaps the closest thing Claire Denis will every make to a romantic comedy, Let The Sunshine In is a whimsical deconstruction of the intangible nature of Love. Set in Paris, the film follows the recently divorced Isabelle, a middle-aged painter who struggles to find someone to share her life with. Perhaps best described as a "Comedy of Errors", Let the Sunshine's narrative unfolds almost like a series of vignettes, as we see Isabelle stumble between all-too-flawed men, unwilling to settle for an individual who can't provide both the companionship and passion she seeks. Featuring a simple romantic comedy formalism, Claire Denis manages to never romanticize the societal construction of love, rather it treats it as this mysterious, poignant force, one which has the ability to drive stable individuals into a psychological frenzy. with Isabelle herself struggling to find her version of love. 'The anxiety, angst, fragility, and longing experienced by Isabelle throughout Denis' film are bitterly honest and quietly profound, with Binoche's brilliant performance balancing all the varied components of the mysterious nature of love, as the film showcases the subjective nature of love, and how in many ways, it's predicated by the various preferences and desires of each individual seeking to find something more through this connection. Circumstances, the conflict which often can exist between carnal desires and love, as well as various outside influences all provide conflict in Isabelle's pursuit of love and companionship, and through this relatively straight-forward construction, Claire Denis reveals universal truths about this paramount, intangible pursuit known as love.
Difficult to quantify, Tamir El Said's In The Last Days of the City takes place in Cairo, 2009, telling the story of Khalid, a 30-something documentary filmmaker, who is struggling to capture the soul of his home against the backdrop of such instability, uncertainty, and state-based oppression. Predating the start of the Arab Spring, Tamer El Said's In the Last Days of the City is a powerful reflection on a region of the world teetering on the edge of great change, a film that weaponizes its film-within-a-film construction to deliver a powerfully efficient, ingenious elegy about a region in crisis. Blending cinema-verite sensibilities with a loosely-constructed coming-of-age narrative, In the Last Days of the City is an immersive experience, one that juxtaposes the idyllic beauty of Cairo with the existential threats the region finds itself confronted with, where violence and death are daily companions in everyday life. The narrative itself is intentionally loosely constructed, with our main protagonist's documentary-making characterization allowing an aesthetic that is much more documentary-like, being extremely observational in how it presents the city of Cairo. Melancholic and insightful, The Last Days of the City is a deconstruction of the importance of the places we call home, reflecting on how where we are from often defines us as individuals, not necessarily in a tribalistic way per se, but in one driven by the the emotional attachment in which familial spaces can provide. In the Last Days of the City isn't fierce or angry, it's melancholic, exposing the viewer to a host of young 30-something individuals whom are struggling to define themselves in an unstable world. Their sense of identity is being confronted, potentially damaged, or even subverted by the volatile nature of a region going through major upheaval, each individual being uniquely effected by the instability of their home, whether that be Egypt, Iraq, or Lebanon. In the Last Days of Cairo never shy's away from showing the oppression and violence carried out by the state, yet it never conflates the government with the people, showcasing how different cultures, both old and new, secular and non-secular, coexist in Cairo on the streets, yet through the government, and the various power structures which fight for control and authority over the masses, instability, oppression and violence are commonplace. Taking place in 2009 Cairo, In the Last Days of the City already feels like remnant of the past, a melancholic elegy to a city pre-dating the Arab Spring that isn't particularly political in nature, instead being far more concerned about the region and its people, a film that views such a complexities of the unstable region with sweeping humanism, in which its only true focus maintains fixated on non-violence and the tragic nature of displacement.
Evoking the viewer's inquisitive nature throughout its 120 minute running time, Lucrecia Martel's Zama is a beguiling, multi-layered character study of Don Diego de Zama, a Spanish officer, who awaits his transfer to Buenos Aires from recently settled Asunción. Offering no simplistic or didactic assertions, Zama welcomes the observant eye, displaying the story of a man whose virtuous pursuits and sense of worth are slowly degraded and deflowered by the harsh realities of authoritarian order, a slowly tightening vice that contains and restricts his own free will and personal freedom. An intentionally tedious journey through the monotonous life of a magistrate, Zama follows this proud officer of the crown as he is slowly beaten down by the sense of stagnation, forcefully held in a state of submission by the monarch and power structures which it empowers. He is a character who only wishes to be transferred back to his home, yet with each passing Governor comes new orders and various decrees, each of which holds this character hostage, slowly and emphatically breaking the spirit of this man whose once virtuous nature and blind service to the crown has been left shattered, broken under the tight grip of authoritarianism. Set against the backdrop of colonization and European imperialism , Zama is a powerful and nuanced portrait of the tension which exists between human freedom and the constrictions often placed on this by authority, juxtaposing Zama's plight with that of the indigenous people, while raising profound questions about what it means to be free. The opening scene of the film, one in which Zama stands proudly and confidently on the shores of this newly discovered land, offers a glimpse of Zama's internal pride in his service to the crown. In this sequence Zama's body language exudes a sense of purpose, with his treatment of the indigenous people being pejorative in nature, viewing them as savages who must be properly educated. While this scene sets the stage, Martel's film quickly subverts one's typical expectations with such a subject matter, as the viewer soon realizes how fleeting this magistrate's sense of virtue will become. Zama's career-minded pursuits are merely for the profit of others and his bureaucratically role slowly begins to break down his inner sense of self and individuality, detracting him, even imprisoning him from his own personal ambitions related to fatherhood and family. The virtuous sense of "service" is emphatically shattered by the end of Martel's Zama, with the magistrate himself imprisoned by his service to those who wield authority, unable to even live freely. Zama reveals not only the vapid nature of materialist pursuits, with the magistrate's purpose being merely to serve the material desires of the crown, but the restrictive, oppressive nature which authority often has on personal freedom, as Don Diego de Zama begins to discover where he finds his true virtue, not in materialist pursuits or service to others but in his love and empathy he has for his family. Lucrecia Martel's Zama is a challenging film that is intricate and complex in its deconstruction of the confliction which exists between individual freedom and public service, recognizing the intrinsic constraints which any type of power structure or authority places on the individual's sense of free will.
Imploring b-movie sensibilities to deliver a potent and playful satirical take-down of Hollywood, Special Effects finds the iconoclastic filmmaker Larry Cohen operating at the top of his game. Traversing the traditional formalism of the mystery/thriller, Special Effects delivers a subversive, self-reflective study of creativity, art, and the Hollywood machine, being a film which finds the dark humor in the the intrinsic, exploitative nature of not only Hollywood, but of being an artist itself- a role that is autocratic by design. Chris Neville, the suave, monstrous filmmaker at the center of Special Effects, is a director intent on returning to the forefront of his career, a psychotic man, who murders an aspiring actress one night and sets out to make a movie based off of this killing. What transpires over the course of Special Effects strange and singular narrative is Cohen providing a reflection of the exploitative nature of the Hollywood system, one in which often the wide-eyed romanticism of big dreams is exploited and manipulated by those in the position of power and authority to do so. Neville is the extreme example of such exploitation and manipulation, a man who goes as far as murder to create his next piece of filmmaking, with much of Special Effects interested in the collision between reality and illusion, with Nevillle attempting to control and distort the world that exists around him, much like he would on any film set. While Special Effects is interested in the psychology of authority and control, following Neville as he manipulates and extorts those around him for his personal artistic gains, the film's most powerful assertion lays in its critique of the Hollywood system; one which is often exploitative in its designs, profiting off of the tragedies of reality. Neville himself is a reflection of the Hollywood machine, a character who attempts to profit off of real-life tragedy (one he created in this case), using the allure of movie-making to entice and control those around him. Everyone from the police to the murdered actresses' own husband find themselves intoxicated on various levels by Neville's position of power, with the sheer promise of being part of Neville's creation often blinding them from the realities in front of them. In Cohen's Special Effect's Neville is simply a symbolic representation of the Hollywood machine, a force which exploits and manipulates the world, blending reality with illusion for personal profit. Wielding its exaggerated, b-movie thriller narrative to make thematic assertions related to the exploitative nature of the Hollywood machine, Larry Cohen's Special Effects is a profound, self-reflective deconstruction of the darker aspects of creativity, recognizing how the powerful allure of creation can often lead to exploitative practices.
A harrowing portrait of 1970s Manila, Lino Brocka's Manila in the Claws of Neon blends melodrama and the Hollywood-style detective narrative, delivering a powerful expose into the state of the Philippines capital city, one in which corruption, exploitation, and injustice run rampant. The story of a young fisherman from a provincial village who arrives in Manila in search of his girlfriend, the love-of-his-life who left the small-town for the allure and promise of the big city, Manila in the Claws of Neon weaponizes its narrative and melodramatic elements for thematic impact, traversing the city of Manila through its character-driven narrative to reveal a city in the state of brooding class upheaval, with the cities' rapid industrial progression crushing the lower-class, those who don't have the social or economical capital to fight back. Casually blending neorealism, melodrama, and genre filmmaking into a cohesive portrait of a city, Manila in the Claws of Neon simplistic narrative feels grandiose in scale, being film as much about the state of a country as it's about the personal journey of a character. Claws of Neon pains a stark portrait of Manila, one of rapid corruption and exploitation, where those with privilege are granted access, and where those who have nothing, struggle to rise above their class. Like any good work of art, Manila in the Claws of Neon is emotion-based, a rally cry, one in which its protagonists plight is synonymous with the filmmaker's overall thematic intentions, showcasing how barbarism breeds more barbarism, with the oppressed, kind-hearted lead protagonist committing a heinous, brutal act of violence. Some may find it more than justifiable, given the circumstances that I won't detail here, but that would be missing the larger point. This act of violence is soul-shattering, it's one derived from personal satisfaction (i.e. revenge), and in this act our protagonist's kind-hearted, empathetic soul feels fractured, as he has fallen to same level as the world around him. The main protagonist's plight, one in which a good-natured man is slowly beaten down by the weight of a cruel world, serves as the perfect counterbalance to the film's thematic intentions of class upheaval; showcasing how one can only be beaten down for so long by injustice that surrounds them before they lash out. Like most politically-driven art, Manila in the Claws of Neon is too simplistic at times, recognizing the inherent flaws in capitalism but also using it as a catch-all, a scapegoat for humanity's larger complex problems related to self. Art is intrinsically rooted in the qualitative, the personal experiences, and in this Manila is always focused on the qualitative, not recognizing the quantitative, aggregated progress the region as experienced as a whole over the time period. That being said, this is a piece of art, and the emotional core of the film is robust and through-provoking, as the film never feels too monolithic or absolutist in its assertions, just perhaps misguided at times, being first-and-foremost a cry for more empathy and general kindness. The best example of this is the one low-skilled worker whom gets a job at an advertisement agency; his success is chalked-off merely as "good luck" by his friends, other low-skilled workers, yet the filmmaker knows this isn't true, recognizing that this man's commitment to getting an education paid off. This doesn't cheapen the film's larger assertions about the rampant exploitation and injustice that has manifested itself under capitalism, it strengthens it, as the film is honest in a way that few political films are, recognizing that nothing is monolithic or absolutist, and that there are always exceptions, with most success being derived by a combination of both merit and circumstance; not merely one, or the other. My largest critique of the film deals with its treatment of morality. Being like most films that dance around the Marxist doctrine, I found it problematic at times due to its moral absolutism and general simplicity when it comes to individualism and class, being a film that is quite negative towards certain fringe-social groups such as homosexuals, presuming that all choices one makes are merely out of necessity and not an individual's free-will to conduct their lives in a way they deem fit. Choice isn't relevant to the filmmakers here, as the view any "morally reprehensible behavior" (whatever that means) as merely something derived by oppression, a flawed simplistic assertion to a complex issue which feels autocratic in nature. For all its minor flaws, Lino Brocka's Manila in the Claws of Neon remains a powerful and salient portrait of corruption, exploitation, and injustice, a rally cry for change in Manila that impressively blends neorealism, melodrama, and genre filmmaking into an cohesive whole.
Attempting to deconstruct the catastrophic internal trauma one experiences when their own perceived identity is shattered by the uncontrollable external forces of life, Chloé Zhao's The Rider is an poignant, reflective character study, one that details the life of a young cowboy, Brady, who desperately attempts to hold onto his lifelong rodeo dream in the aftermath of a near fatal head injury. Impressionistic in its ability to transport the viewer into the psyche of its main protagonist, The Rider works best as a piercing, intricate character study, one which is honest and genuine in its attempt to capture the pain associated with an individual seeing their dreams being stripped away from them. Through the eyes of Brady, The Rider exhibits the internal forces of his struggle, with the quintessential essence of this man's identity, defined by his passion for rodeo, being stripped away from him in an instant. It's not only his dream that is taken from him, but also his social and economic capital, with his skills being rendered useless by this injury, and his worth declining due to a culture values toughness and self-determination and devalues weakness, granting access to those whom prove themselves. While The Rider's character study is respectful, nuanced, and organic, they stand in stark contrast to the thematic elements of the story which rely far too much on didactic narrative moments, and caricatures to extrapolate its commentary. The film's larger cultural critique centered around masculinity and heartland culture doesn't work as well its its nuanced character study elements, never quite congealing to the driving force of the story, its main characterization. The Rider is respectful of this culture as it pertains to its lead character, yet it's autocratic in its distaste for such things at times, never really attempting to understand the world its character's love. The Rider makes little effort, using nearly all the supporting characters as molds to drive its critique of the rodeo lifestyle. The best example of how these narrative/character flaws cheapen the film's thematic assertions is the characterization of Brady's father; a drunk, dead-beat father, who serves little purpose outside of pushing the narrative and theme forward. This dead-beat dad is a character who is used to inform us about Brady inorganically, even being a potential example of what Brady may become. Unfortunately, the way he is injected into the story feels lazy, at least compared to the larger, soulful moments related to Brady's internal struggle to find his new sense of identity and purpose. In its critique, The Rider makes Brady a victim which is careless given the talent of the filmmakers, never making an effort to appreciate the intoxicating, visceral nature of the sport nor attempting to understand why the risks associated with such an activity as the Rodeo is well-known, and accepted; The freeing nature of the Rodeo, how this culture is intrinsically a part of this character's identity is explored but done so with a judgmental lens, which leads to the film's thematic ideals coming off as a shrewd, overly simplistic commentary on "toxic masculinity". All things considered, The Rider is still an extremely well-crafted, compelling feature, one with a noble message about respecting the aspects of life that are bigger than one's own primal self-interest, as Chloé Zhao' delivers another soulful character study.
Constructed in post-production by his wife, Valeria Sarmiento , fter his untimely death, Raoul Ruliz's final film, The Wandering Soap Opera finds the chilean master's singular formalism used to create a blistering critique of Chilean society. The tonal and stylistic aspects of the soap opera, one's rooted in absurdity, vapid drama, and high stakes, are used to present Chilean reality itself, with Ruiz packaging and presenting this story in a way that suggests the current state of Chile, the reality in which its people inhabit in its current state isn't a true reality but a manufactured one by the state and its beneficiaries. Various soap operas on television are presented as the very fabric of life, with each soap opera almost a vignette about an aspect of Chilean society which Ruiz wants to observe, and often critique. Life is presented through this Soap Opera aesthetic and tone in a way that makes Chile displayed but also examined, with the exaggerated reality of such soap operas revealing the disdain Ruiz has with the current state of his country, one that has perceivable sold its soul and its spirit for material riches. The Wandering Soap Opera is satirical in its ability to be sharply funny and strikingly full of despair congruently, with Ruiz's final film offering another piercing study of life in his home country, one full of artistic craft, singular designs, and philosophical commentary worth entertaining.
Love of all things cinema brought me here.