Told in a style that is best described as a series of vignettes which loosely connect around the school-year calendar, Whitney Horn & Lev Kalman's L for Leisure tracks a series of graduate students as they spend time away from the classroom, documenting their overall demeanor with the passing of time. With activities that include hitting on teenagers, coed-wrestling, and leisurely time at the lake, L for Leisure is a unique experience which manages to deliver dry humor and a surprising amount of substance in what essentially amounts to a kaleidoscope of sequences in which a group of graduate students slack off. Being a film that could somewhat be classified as part of the twenty-something existential crises sub-genre, L For Leisure is a pretty singular vision, delivering a unique brand of dry humor that at times almost feels like a satirical take on the films which it shares some common themes. The acting is intentional stilted, the situations vary from the mundane to the absurd, and yet L For Leisure manages to both deliver some hilarious moments as well as resonant soliloquies on a host of issues. What I truly loved about L for Leisure is how tonally reflexive it becomes, with many of the graduate students conversations revealing universal truths that resonant while others border one satirical, as if the filmmakers are poking fun at this particularly age in life, one where twenty-somethings tend to think they know everything about how the world works. Taking place in the early 1990s, L For Leisure feels like a time capsule, with the filmmakers winking and nodding, as they transport the viewer back to the good-vibes of the era. The cinematography aids this endeavor, using low-fi 16mm photography that is reminiscent of 90's television or home movies, which make L for Leisure feel even more like a time capsule of an era. This is not a film for everyone, as many won't find much comedy in the sarcasm and extremely dry humor, but what Whitney Horn & Lev Kalman have created with L for Leisure, is a truly unique film which manages somehow to feel satirical while simultaneously capturing certain truths, including the importance of release from life's stresses.
Taking place in Palo Alto in the fall of 1985, Gabrielle Demeestere's Yosemite is a story of adolescence, chronicling the lives of three 5th graders in Chris, Joe, and Ted, each of which is dealing with their own issues of self-discovery. Subtle, low-key, and observant, Yosemite is a film which effectively captures the adrift feeling of youth, where the world feels so big and the desire to understand it is hopelessly out of reach. Told entirely from the perspective of these three fifth grade boys, Yosemite is a film that works best at evoking the sense of curiosity, frustration, innocence, and confusion of these characters, two of which are dealing with issues of neglect. The film exhibits adult issues through the lens of youth, evoking the sense of confusion and lack of understanding young children often have when faced with adult problems like death or personal responsibility. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Yosemite is how it subtlely speaks to the importance of guidance for youth, with paternal neglect being a connecting theme between these three young boys, each of which is attempting to define the world around them mostly by themselves. The atmosphere Yosemite is able to create is probably it's greatest attribute, with observant cinematography that creates a lyrical form of intimacy around adolescence, evoking the curiosity and innocence of this time period in these character's lives. Some may find Yosemite too low key for its own good at times, touching on these three boys internal struggles but never fully developing them, being far more interested in creating an atmosphere that evokes this sense of drifting in a world these children can only attempt to grasp. Personally I found this aspect to be the most resonant, with the biggest issue with Yosemite for me being that it never seems to fully embrace these meditative qualities, at times forcefully injecting its narrative with unnecessary conflict which feels completely out of place when considering the films overall low-key, atmospheric qualities. I'd argue that Yosemite's vagueness is one of it's best qualities, mirroring the insecurities and confusion of its young main protagonists. Touching on issues of neglect, death, and self discovery completely from the perspective of its three 5th grade characters, Yosemite works best as tone poem of adolescence, while only struggling when it gets too wrapped up in narrative plot points.
Don Hertzfeldt's It's Such A Beautiful Day is an intimate, insightful examination of Bill, a character who has been diagnosed with an undisclosed illness. Chronicling his daily struggles with a psyche which has become shattered under the weight of this illness, It's Such A Beautiful Day reaches levels of intimacy which are astonishing, being a metaphysical examination of life and death. While I'm far from a Don Hertzfeldt expert, this being his second film I've seen, it's apparently that this talented filmmaker delivers singular cinematic visions, with It's Such A Beautiful Day bringing a reflective, philosophical quality which explores abstract concepts of being, identity, time and space. As one may expect, given the story, It's Such A Beautiful Day can feel a bit scatter-brained at times, routinely mimicking the psyche of its main protagonist, a character who is essentially seeing large aspects of his life flash before his eyes as he attempts to come to gripe with his pending death. While dealing with weighty thematic observations, It's Such A Beautiful Day balances its tone extremely well, showing an ability to be absurdest, darkly funny, and emotionally resonant all at once. From a visual perspective, It's Such A Beautiful Day is like nothing you've ever seen before, with Hertzfeldt blending hand drawn characters, mostly of the stick-figure variety, with real-life photography in a way that is truly unique and beautifully realized. One of the most fascinating and singular visions about reflection, self-doubt, and metaphysics in general, Don Hertzfeldt's It's Such A Beautiful Day is a bold attempt to capture the perspective of a character whose slowing losing their mind, offering up a potent portrait on the realities of death that can darkly humorous but also unsettling.
Featuring a prologue written by Jean Cocteau which essentially celebrates the oddities and differences that define humanity and the asymmetrical beauty it creates, Francois Reichenbach's America As Seen By A Frenchman is an in-depth travelogue of the United States of America through the eyes of French director Francois Reichenbach. What jumps out about this film is the exuberance and curiosity which the filmmakers have in exploring the United States, not only documenting different regions of the United States, but attempting to understand the culture from a transitional standpoint, examining the American Way of life from early adolescence through adulthood. The filmmakers never show any judgement, only intent on experiencing America, not trying to understand it, and their fascination with the differences of everyday life is a major aspect of what makes America As Seen By A Frenchman such a charming travelogue. Featuring lots of breathtaking footage of 1960s America, the film is beautifully crafted, visually capturing the same sense of awe from the filmmakers routinely stated in the narration. While nonjudgmental, America As Seen By A Frenchman does provide a ton of fascinating insights into the American way of life, touching on the excessiveness of America where commerce itself fuels the creation of nearly everything. In what could be described as a time capsule of 1960s America, aspects of America As Seen By A Frenchman is captivating but also can border on depressing, especially the sequence of the film about adolescence. The filmmakers lament about how much of a child's time is spent outside playing with other kids in the neighborhood, a concept which unfortunately is a rarity at this point. America As Seen By A Frenchman also captures the clearly defined gender roles of the time period, where men were praised for their toughness and masculinity while woman were praised for being good caregivers. Some may wish America As Seen By A Frenchman brought a more critical eye to this observational study, but i'd argue that is exactly what makes the film so compelling, as it shows no judgement, only interesting in celebrating the cultural differences of a land the filmmakers aren't particularly familiar with. While Chris Marker's involvement in the project is a confusing at best, with some crediting him as a co-director while others simply as a writer, America As Seen By A Frenchman is a film that would truly be appreciated by any fans of the prolific French filmmaker, being a charming, captivating, and most importantly nonjudgmental look at America from an outsiders' perspective.
Alex R. Johnson's Two Step is a meticulously crafted neo-noir which takes its time revealing itself to the viewer, relying heavily on its skilled direction and strong performances to set an uncomfortable, foreboding atmosphere of impending danger. Structurally, Two Step features a dual narrative centered around James, a teenager whose recently lost both of his parents and gone to live with his grandmother, and Webb, a malicious con artist, who has just been released from prison and owes the wrong people ten thousand dollars. Without going into much more detail, the narrative unfolds slowly, eventually finding these two characters violently colliding. The juxtaposition of these two characters is one of the film's most intriguing strengths, as both Webb and James are two characters who are very much alone in this world, each of which is dealing with their solitude in very different ways. While Webb is a mean-spirited character, the film manages to capture how similar these two characters are at times, with James having a support system that Webb simply does not have, almost as if the film wants to suggest how easily James could head down a similar path. Make no mistake, Webb is the main antagonist of this story, but the juxtaposition of these two characters provides an interesting layer of intrigue which keeps this dark noir interesting from start to finish. Two Step is a slow-brewing thriller with not a ton of action, but when it does come it's violent, jarring and resonant. The filmmakers shoot various scenes of violence in a very quick and merciless way, capturing the brutality in such a quick fashion that encapsulates how commonplace such brutality is in the world which Webb inhabits. James Landry Hébert's subtle and nuanced portrayal of Webb is the standout, exhibiting a quiet sense of menace. This is a character who is not the most menacing from a physical standpoint, but the longer he inhabits the screen, the more the viewer feels his unhinged nature and penchant for violence slowly bubbling to the surface of his psyche. While the performances are stellar, the thing that jumped out the most to me about Two Step is the craft and thoughtfulness of the filmmaking, as the filmmakers managed to create a foreboding sense of dread and despair that is prevalent from the opening frame. Through the use of slow-crawling camera movements, focus manipulation, and an eerily simplistic score, Two Steps creates a moody atmosphere of intrigue. Establishing shots are another major tool used by the filmmakers, as they not only capture the stagnant nature of the small-town setting but also aid in giving the film a darkly, melodic quality that doesn't let up until the last frame. Featuring impressively designed ambiance and strong performances all around, Alex R. Johnson's is an effectively made, slow-building neo-noir that's certainly worth a look.
Ernst Lubitsch's Cluny Brown is set just prior to the onset of WWII and follows amateur plumber Cluny Brown who gets sent by her uncle to work as a servant at an English high-society country estate. On her arrival, Cluny struggles to understand the proper practices of a servant in the household, as she befriends one of the estate's guests, Adam Belinski, a charming Czech refugee and author whom the estate mistakenly believes is an important figure in the resistance against the rising Nazi threat. Though not nearly as impressive as some of Ernst Lubitsch's earlier work, Cluny Brown still features the charming characters, whimsical storytelling, and playful satire that makes his films so infectious. With Cluny Brown, Lubitsch uses a slowly-brewing romance between Brown and Belinski to playfully roast high society and the judgement which class puts on the individual. Lubitsch's film captures the vapid nature of manners, with characters routinely acting barbaric in their actions but using a polite tone to hide their darker, more incendiary feelings. The owners of the estate are polite and well-tempered on the outside, but as the film progresses it becomes apparent that they are self-centered, self-important, and arrogant about their superiority over others. One of the best examples comes when Adam Belinski announces that he must leave, prompting the head of the household to exclaim "it took me so long to learn how to properly say your name and now that I finaly have you are leaving, that is so selfish you". While a funny line, it is a telling one, as it reveals the overall self-importance these upper class members have, viewing themselves above everyone else. Cluny Brown is a film that reveals the silliness of labels through humor, capturing how absurd predefined characterizations of someone based on their financial situation are. When Cluny Brown first arrives at the estate she finds herself mistaken as an important houseguest by the two owners of the home, who simply don't realize she is just a maid. While the scene feels somewhat superfluous at first, I'd argue it's another subtle swipe at this silly distinctions, showing how there is no true characteristics which define someone as rich or poor. Potentially the most interesting aspect of the entire film is that Lubitsch takes humourous swipes not only at the upper class but also the middle and lower class, keeping a balanced approach as he skewers the class system. Cluny Brown, for example, is not an intelligent character, being sweet and sincere but quite simple, and this juxtaposition of her lack of intelligence with the smart but cretinous characters of the upper class is a unique and balanced approach that saves no one from the film's humourous swipes. A film about societal labels that feels like a farce at times about the absurdities of manners and class, Ernst Lubitsch's Cluny Brown features a host of strong character acting, witty dialogue, and a pleasant love story of two lower-class citizens in Belinski & Brown who find love and happiness in each other, with financial success hinted at in the final scene.
Jonas Alexander Arnby's When Animals Dream tells the story of Marie, a 16-year old Scandanavian teenager living on a small island with her terminally ill mother and her father, who spends nearly all of his time taking care of his wife. Marie's mother is heavily medicated due to her condition, almost permanently in a vegetable state, but when Marie herself begins to feel something primal awakening inside herself, this young 16-year-old begins to realize her family has a dark family secret which puts them all in mortal danger from the townsfolk around them. When Animals Dream is skilfully made but it doesn't show the same mastery for composition and atmosphere as Let the Right One In, nor the thematic parable that makes Ginger Snaps such a fun experience. When Animals Dream is a film that is feels stuck in the middle, never quite capable of being strong enough in any way to discern itself from other films that use supernatural horror as a symbolic device for the difficulties centered around female adolescence, a coming of age type story if you will which includes a form of sexual awakening. Much of what makes When Animal Dream work is its strong lead-performance, with Sonia Suhl creating a well-rounded character as Marie, a vulnerable teenager at first who discovers herself, which in a movie like this means trouble for certain more oppressive forces like the townspeople who know of her families dark secret. The film does create a strong amount of atmosphere but I never found myself particularly invested in many of the plot points of the narrative, with the bully type male characters and the love interest all being uninteresting and only taking away from the more compelling family dynamics. Of course a major aspect of these shortcomings must truly be placed on a rather un-compelling narrative, which quite frankly shortchanges the film which is otherwise melodic werewolf tale. One could argue that the romantic interest of Marie provides a nice poetic parallel to that of her mother and father's fate, but once again I'd argue their relationship isn't earned, needing more development than a few cold stares and small time exchanges. Creating an effective atmosphere which really embraces the small town vibe where everyone has a hand in everyone elses business, Jonas Alexander Amby's When Animals Dream is a solid, albeit conventional story of female body horror that hits many of the same tropes across its narrative, which can be unfortunate given the skilled direction the film does possess.
Fernando Di Leo's Rulers of the City tells the story of Tony, a young loan collector for the mob who is growing increasingly dissatisfied with his current position in life. Stuck in a seemingly dead-end job that equates to beating up low-level borrowers who have fallen behind on their payments, Tony dreams of one day hitting it rich and being his own self-made man. After a chance encounter with Napoli, another low-level mob enforcer who has just been beat up and fired from his job working for Mr. Scarface, the two young men hatch a plan, which involves conning Mr. Scarface out of a fortune of cash, but of course things don't go as easily as the two originally planned. Rulers of the City is another highly entertaining Italian Crime film from Fernando Di Leo which features all the typical things one would come to expect from the Italian Crime master, featuring shootouts, epic brawls, tons of masochism, scantly-clad woman, double-crosses, and a ton of stylistic direction. That being said, what stands out about Rulers of the City is how different the main protagonist is in this film, being a much more metrosexual version of masculinty, whose far more playful and far less cynical. Looking like a skinny, college student, Tony as a character almost feels like a passing of the guard when it comes to these Italian Crime films, being a very different definition of masculinity, an assured, borderline cocky individual whose playfulness is a far cry from the standard, tough as nails, man of few words type definition of masculinty which the main characters of many of these Italian Crime films tend to inhabit. Hell, even Tony's apartment feels like the home of an adolescent, the walls being completely covered in various posters, something which is typically seen in a college dorm room. Tony and Napoli represent the youthful ideal of ambition, two characters who idolize the idea of being able to be their own men, clashing with much darker, remorseless tough guy antagonist, Mr. Scarface, played with terrifying effectiveness by Jack Palace. These characters, each of which are significantly younger than almost any other mobster in the film, seem to be a representation of youth ambition, as they attempt to snatch a piece of fortune from their elder mobster bosses. From an action perspective, the climax of Rulers of the City, which takes place in a large abandoned industrial factory, has got to be the highlight of the film, featuring a ton of kinetic camera work that brings an epic showdown to a strong, visceral conclusion. Being one of the later Italian Crime Films by Fernando Di Leo, Rulers of the City almost feels like a film in which the filmmaker is acknowledging this passing of the times, with both Tony and Napoli being younger, prettier type characters who still show an ability to kick ass, as they try to grab their own piece of the pie.
An experimental art film that is sure to only appeal to the more adventurous viewer who is a fan of opaque and mysterious works of art, Werner Schroeter’s Death of Maria Malibran provides little conclusions through its running time but never-the-less it's a harrowing portrait that challenges the fundamental ideals of what cinema can be. The film is a fever dream of emotion and subtle energy, being dreamlike as it uses a vibrant orchestral score and operatic performance art to deliver an expressionistic art piece that confounds as much as it intrigues. The film is simply stunning, with cinematography, art direction, and lighting which combine to create an intoxicating experience that feels very much like an operatic stage play while still giving off an almost supernatural vibe of mystery and intrigue. The film starts off full of Romanticism but as it progresses it becomes clear The Death of Maria Malibran is one of ironic romanticism and subversive style, routinely having sound and image intentionally out of sync which creates a playful perversion, something that becomes darker and darker as the film progresses, dehumanizing these romanticized, picturesque woman of bourgeois society. While trying to easily define Schroeter's film in any easily discernible way feels like a fools errand, The Death of Maria Maliban is a film which uses opera as a device to expose the ugliness and cruelty that exists in bourgeouis society, one that is driven by status and the collective ideals. Characters routinely speak in a way that makes little sense and many of the characters become undifferentiable as the film progresses, as if to suggest that language itself has little meaning, as one's actions are the deriving force of morality and personal characters. Schroeter routinely injects the film with upbeat, vapid pop-style songs throughout, another bizarre but expressionistic decision which speaks to the vapid nature of society. While many of these observations could be completely off-base, The Death of Maria Maliban as a whole feels like an indictment on the selfish, abusive constructs which society as a whole can create, one which routinely tears down the individual for the sake of the collective. Conformity and lack of individuality feel like a major aspect of this film, with the bourgeois characters essentially attempting to destroy the young Maria Maliban for having a different perspective than their overall ideals. Featuring so much to think about, consider, and attempt to deconstruct, Werner Schroeter's The Death of Maria Maliban is a film you experience more than attempt to define, being an expressionistic fever dream that is not quite like anything I've ever seen.
Zachary Reed & Joseph Frank's Sweaty Betty is the type of film that isn't going to appeal to most viewers due to its tepid pacing and slice-of-life style, but for those willing to give the film a chance, Sweaty Betty is an impressive first-feature documentary which only hints at the potential of these documentary filmmakers. Featuring two interweaving narratives, Sweaty Betty takes place in the neighborhoods of Maryland on the outskirts of Washington D.C, where in cramped row houses we follow two stories of impoverished citizens with big dreams. One of the stories is centered around Floyd, a 30-something man, who along with his family has raised a 1,000 pound hog named Charlotte in their backyard. Determined to turn the animal into the official team mascot of the Washington Redskins, Floyd and his family have taken care of the animal for years, bringing it to tailgates on gameday where it has become a staple in the Washington D.C. community. Living only a few blocks away, the other story of Sweaty Beatty is centered around Rico and Scooby, two teenage single fathers who spend their days scheming of a better life for themselves and their families. Sweaty Betty is an observational study of a way of life, being unquestionably amateurish in look and feel while simultaneously capable of crafting an oddly compelling story of that is engaging and unique. This is a film that feels very objective, simply interested in capturing the world which its characters inhabit in a wholly genuine way. Both these stories are centered around characters who have embraced the hustle, with both Floyd and his family, as well as Scooby and Rico, intent on making money and providing for those around them. These characters never make excuses for their lower economic status, with nearly every character showing an unbridled sense of optimism at their potential for reaching financial success. One thing I really appreciated about Sweaty Betty is that it never shows interest in emotionally manipulating the viewer or creating an inorganic sense of sentiment. This is a film that is unapologetic in presenting the world which these characters inhabit, understanding that life isn't easy but also expressing that it could always be worse. With teenage single-father Scooby lamenting to the camera at one point, "Life ain't easy but it ain't that hard either', Sweaty Betty gains its traction, being a film that is wholly optimistic, much like its characters, never wavering from the notion that hustle can reap the benefits of success. While this pursuit of the almighty dollar is what thematically binds these two narratives, the environment in which these character's inhabit is another major aspect, as Sweaty Betty is a film that puts a lot of stock in exhibiting the environment of its characters. It captures the world which these characters inhabit on a day-to-day basis, displaying the absurdity and oddities which make up these characters everyday lives, and through these two stories it presents one of the most unique perspectives of the American dream. Intentional or not, another interesting aspect of Sweaty Betty is the role which pets can play in providing optimism in our everyday lives, which is particularly showcased by the plight of Floyd and his hog, Charlotte. Even though Floyd's intentions are driven by potential financial incentive, Charlotte provides a sense of community for Floyd and his family, as they form a connection with this animal. Perhaps the most emotionally poignant point comes at the end of the film, when Charlotte is taken away from Floyd and his family by animal control, with the film capturing the sorrow felt by Floyd and his family, who themselves have grown an attachment to Charlotte, even if their intentions were financially fueled originally. The poetic contrast to this comes from Scooby and Rico's newfound relationship with a young pitbull which they intend on selling. These characters show a steadfast demeanor in unloading the young dog for financial gains from the very beginning, but given the other narrative' tragic trajectory, one can't help notice their growing emotional attachment to the young dog even though they eventually sell it. Featuring an observational approach, Zachary Reed & Joseph Frank's Sweaty Betty is a fascinating oddity which transports the viewer into the impoverished community on the outskirts of Washington D.C, offering up poignant insights into two unique stories, each of which is driven by optimism.
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