Often times unlikable characters are what make a film so appealing, complex characters who are not sympathetic to the viewer but endlessly interesting due to their own personal strife. What makes a film like Grandma work is it presents such a character in Elle, a bitter, old woman, and slowly forces the viewer to feel empathetic towards this character, un-peeling the layers of her struggle and revealing a human-being with her own faults, trauma, and experiences. Paul Weitz's Grandma is a film that establishes early on that Elle isn't exactly the most upbeat individual, exhibiting a misanthropic-type woman who has just gotten through a mean-spirited breakup with her girlfriend only to find her granddaughter Sage at the door needing $600 for an abortion. Temporarily broke, Elle spends the day with Sage attempting to track down the money necessary, which requires Elle visit old friends and old flames unannounced. The structure of Grandma is simple but quite brilliant, following Elle as she is forced to confront her past relationships, some which are more reluctant to see her than others, each shedding new insights into Elle as a human-being and what has led to her current status - a grandmother who has very little contact with her own daughter. Featuring a good amount of dark humor, Lily Tomlin gives a strong performance as Elle, displaying a head-strong woman who is far too difficult to ask or allow for others to help. Elle is a character who has never been able to admit her mistakes or express her humility, something that has led to these destructive relationships, not only with lovers but with her own daughter. Through this character of Elle, Grandma is truly a film about humility and family, exhibiting that it's always acceptable to ask for help, to admit weakness and seek comfort or guidance from those who care about you or love you. This is a film that acknowledges the importance of being a strong woman while simultaneously understanding the importance of humility, balancing these two forces quite well. Grandma also shows a strong grasp of family dynamics between these three generations of woman, with both Elle's daughter and her granddaughter, Sage, each having their strong-willed, sometimes pigheaded attitudes from Elle, an assured trait of self worth that has likely been past down through the generations. Featuring a transfixing lead performance from Lily Tomlin, Grandma is a film that manages to entertain with its colorful characters while simultaneously showing an ability to offer some pensive insights into family and humility.
Arthur Marks' Detroit 9000 is a fast-paced, blaxploitation flick that delivers on everything one would want from this type of police procedural film. There are crooked cops, crooked politicians, prostitutes, pimps, anti-hero police officers, car chases, foot pursuits, shoot-outs, and of course plenty of groovy 70s music. The film opens with a heist, as Congressmen Aubrey Clayton, who has just announced himself as Michigan's first Black Governor candidate, finds himself and his guests robbed during an elegant event at the Sheraton-Cadillac hotel by a well trained crew of masked bandits. Clayton wants answers, which forces Detroit police to put two detectives on the case, Lieutenant Danny Bassett, a white no-nonsense cop, and Sergeant Jessie Williams, a black police officer, who knows the city of Detroit inside out. From a narrative perspective, Detroit 9000 is a racially-charged mystery which is solid albeit unspectacular, but where the film excels is in the setting and atmosphere it's able to create around Detroit, painting a picture of a downtrotten city that has seen violence and filth bring this once mighty city to its knees. This is a film that makes sure to establish its setting early on, making it very clear that Detroit is a place where no one wants to live, even commenting at one point about how Lieutenant Danny Bassett is having trouble with his sinuses due to the horrible conditions of Detroit. This film really doesn't have any interest in painting anything but a seething portrait of Detroit, capturing the racial tensions, community marches, and social unrest of a city that is plagued with crime and corruption. Even our two main protagonists struggle to get along at times, showing animosity and tension towards each other through much of the film's running time, with their one common pursuit being to catch the men responsible for the heist. These are abrasive characters who have been sculpted by a mean-spirited city they inhabit, with Detroit 9000 creating an aura of the need to escape which encapsulates the whole film, as these characters feel the need to free themselves from the leech of Detroit. To this point, perhaps the most interesting aspect of Detroit 9000 is how it never fully trusts Lieutenant Danny Bassett, even questioning his true nature at the end of the film as to whether he was out of himself or was intent on doing good police work. Featuring action scenes that are well-crafted, bringing a gritty realism to the shootouts and car chases, Arthur Marks' Detroit 9000 is an engaging action, mystery police procedural, with its greatest attribute being its ability to show effect which racism, poverty, violence and death of a city has on shaping its citizens.
Juan Piquer Simon's Pieces certainly gets off to a demented, bone-chilling start, as a young teenager, who is repressed by his mother, hacks her up with an axe after being harshly scolded for playing with a puzzle that features female in the nude. Fast-forwarding forty years later to a college campus in Boston, a chainsaw-wielding serial killer is on the loose, killing beautiful young co-eds, severing their bodies, and taking various pieces of their bodies with him. In an effort to stop this demented killer, Lt. Bracken makes a deal with the dean of the campus, sending agent Mary Riggs undercover as the school tennis teacher in an attempt to identify the man responsible for their heinous crimes. Juan Piquer Simon's Pieces ia a violent, cheesy horror film that draws heavily from the Italian Giallo films of the 1960s and 1970s when it comes to creating an effectively, stylistic atmosphere. From heavy use of first person pov cinematography, to effective sound design that uses the killer's breathing to chilling effect, Pieces' best sequences are its murder sequences which bring a ton of violence and atmosphere to the table. Well-made from a style perspective, the story itself of pieces is a pretty cookie-cutter horror film narrative which relies heavily on a lot of the classic tropes of the genre to push its story forward. This generic narrative isn't very detrimental to the overall experience though, as what stands out the most about Pieces is its commentary on sexual repression. Pieces is essentially a horror film which warns about the dangers of a repression, with our main antagonist being a psychopathic killer who is attempting to create the world's first real-life, human-flesh jigsaw puzzle. While it's never outright stated, the opening sequence establishes a child whose repression forces him to violence, with Simon's Pieces being a film that warns about these dangers in an over-the-top, gorey way. Featuring a healthy dosage of gore and violence, an impressive atmosphere, and a cheesy narrative full of tropes, Juan Piquer Simon's Pieces is a fun early 80s horror film which even manages to comment on the dangers of repressing sexual urges of developing youngsters.
Ruben Ostlund' Play is an opaque examination of race, bullying, and manipulation, which tells the story of Yannick, a young immigrant, who along with his friends target a trio of a presumably wealthier kids, two of which come from Swedish backgrounds. Yannick and his friends claim that one of these boys stole their friends' phone, luring the impressionable children outside of the city, where they use elaborate means to eventually steal almost all of their belongings. Play is a film that I struggled to get through, a film thats monotony creates a tedious experience of more of the same. The film's intentions feel important and essential, but the film is just far too long for such a simple story construct where the protagonists and antagonists feel far too easily defined for 95% of its running time. From a style standpoint, Play is an impressive achievement, with Ostlund using the long shot to chilling effect, creating an atmosphere that is quietly dangerous, giving off an ominous atmosphere where impending violence feels palpable even though it never actually comes, at least in the way you'd expect. The film seems to want to keep a level of ambiguity around the whole situation when it comes to Yannick and his friends and their treatment of the other kids, but id' argue it never manages this, with it becoming pretty clear through Yannick and his friends actions that they are bullies, and the antagonists of this story. One of the most daring contemporary filmmakers working today, Ostlund's Play is another fascinating film that examines modern society in a unique way. While the film doesn't quite hit the mark, Play is still a fascinating, albeit tedious experience, one that thematically captures how inherent human selfishness breeds social division in society.
Set in post-war Estonia, Klaus Haro's The Fencer tells the story of Endel, a man who is attempting to flee the Russian secret police due to his controversial past as an operative for Nazi Germany. Returning to his homeland,Endel begins to teach at a local school, teaching a host of young children the art of fencing. Living a secluded life, Endel eventually finds his past begin to catch up with him, forcing him to choose between leading his students down the right path or attempting to continue to evade Russian secret police. Based on the real story of Estonian fencer, Endel Nelis, The Fencer is a film that struggles to maintain a consistent tone, being a feel-good sports movie about raising a group of disenchanted youth that never fully clicks when it comes to the darker aspects of its story. The film is too fluffy and sentimental for my taste, never able to create much tension surrounding a character who always has to have one eye watching his back. Every once and awhile the film reminds the viewer of Endel's predicament, but the danger is never truly felt throughout The Fencer, as the feel good narrative completely overshadows the film's more tension-based attributes. The filmmakers seem to intentionally make the dangers an afterthought too, with the most notable example of this coming at the end of the film when Endel is captured by the Russian police while simultaneously his students are winning a major fencing competition. The sequence itself lacks any real emotional weight, but even more so, the very next scene guarantees this, literally jumping right to a title card that reads "Stalin has just died, which led to many prisoners being released". Then, the very next scene sees Endel reunited with his students and his love interest in the film, completely stripping the film of its dramatic stakes and falling back into sentimentality as our main protagonist walks off into the sunset with his students. The Fencer's best attribute is how it captures the feeling of being left behind in post-war Europe, as the school, students, and Endel himself struggle to find the necessary resources to move forward. A love-letter to fencing of sorts, Klaus Haro's The Fencer is a film that chooses a feel-good, sentimental narrative over a more nuanced story of this historical time-period and a man who has finally grown tired of running from his past.
Jean-Pierre Melville's The Silence of the Sea (Le Silence de la Mer) takes place in a small town in occupied France in 1941, where Werner Von Ebrennac, a German officer, is billeted in the house of a bourgeois French Family. An older man and his niece are the only other ones living in the household but they refuse to speak to the German Officer. Every evening Werner Von Ebrennac arrives back at the house, warms himself by the fire, and talks about his country, its culture, and his idealistic perceptions of what the relationship between Germany and France should be. One day, Werner Von Ebrennac finally gets the chance to visit Paris, where he sees his ideals shattered, discovering the dark truth as to the extreme means which his military and government are going through to erase France's culture and history. Melville's debut feature, The Silence of the Sea is a simple yet deeply effective story which exhibits the absurdness and tragedy of war. With most of the film being set in the living room of this French household, The Silence of the Seas has a very quiet sense of horror that is palpable, capturing how the aunt and uncle have no control, even in their own home, forced to simply let Werner Von Ebrennac do as he pleases in their household, having possession over them and their things, much like Germany has over France as a whole. These two French characters, the uncle and niece, have barely any spoken dialogue throughout the entire film, with Melville using internal monologue to offer up insights into the psyche of these characters who are powerless to do anything but watch Werner Von Ebrennac as he waxes poetic about French culture and the German way of life. Melville's film isn't flashy but it's certainly assured in its approach, having great use of lighting and silhouette in these living room sequences that add tension to this simplistic story. Howard Vernon as Werner Von Ebrennac is fantastic, bringing an assured arrogance to his performance that is intimidating, transfixing, and ultimately empathetic, as the film presents a cultured man who is immensely troubled by the destruction of so much significant and important French culture by the end of the film. The Silence of the Sea is a film that presents the conflict between one's conscience and their ideology, as we see Werner Von Ebrennac come face-to-face with his own beliefs and come to understand how senseless culture, human emotion, and existence are made by war. Simple, taut, and ultimately profound, Jean-Pierre Melville's The Silence of the Sea is a impressive debut feature and important film about the destructive nature of war, particularly on culture.
Being made directly after World War II, Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast is an enchanting fairy tale which asks the viewer to return to a simpler time, discover their innocence again, and behold an elegant story of true beauty. The story begins in a small, seaside town of France, where Adelaide, Belle, and Ludovic are introduced as three siblings of a merchant whose hit tough times when his shipts were lost at sea. With the family close to ruin, Adelaide and Felicie continue to show little restraint with their father's money, while Belle slaves around the house, doing whatever she can to support her father which she loves very much. One night while crossing the dense forest, Belle's father gets lost, taking refuge in a fantastical castle. After picking a rose from the garden, he is confronted by a Beast who tells him he much die for his transgressions. The Merchant attempts to plead with the beast, explaining that the rose was merely an innocent gift for his daughter Belle, leading the Beast to offer up an ultimatum, either he dies or one of his daughters does. With Belle feeling like the cause of such conflict, she sacrifices herself to the Beast, but as the story goes, things get interesting when the Beast begins to show strong feelings for young Belle. Jean Cocteau is a bit of a minor blind spot for me, at least compared to many of the great filmmakers out there, but what continues to stand out is the fantastical world the filmmaker is able to create, with Beauty and the Beast being a great example of this. What Cocteau is able to create with such basic film technology allotted to him at the time is just remarkable, as Beauty and The Beast is a masterpiece in fantasy filmmaking, using cinematography, set designs, and loads on ingenuity to bring this fairy tale to life. If you like old-school camera tricks and special effects over today's plastic-looking CGI fests, look no further than Cocteau's Beauty and The Beast which manages to still stun with its creativity and visual flares. A familiar story, Cocteau's version focuses heavily on the importance of trust in a loving relationship, with the slow evolution of the relationship that unfolds between the Beast and Belle being heavily built up by the growth a trust between two characters. Nearly every other character in this story simply can't be trusted, from Belle's sisters to Avenant, a handsome scoundrel whose had his eyes set on putting a ring on Bella for awhile now. Through the narrative these characters deceive and make decisions with their best intentions in mind, while the relationship between Bella and the Beast goes the opposite direction, being deceptive at first but eventually becoming supplanted in a firm grasp of trust between the two characters. A magical experience, Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast is one of the best examples of a fairy tale committed to celluloid, coming at an important time in European/World History where innocence needed to be rediscovered.
Jaco Van Dormael's The Brand New Testament begins with a bang, being what could only be described as a revisionist version of the Book of Genesis, where in this version God is a mean-spirited man from Brussels who plays with humanity in an attempt to escape his mundane life. We all know his son JC, but his daughter, Ea, is who this story is based upon, the film gleefully states. Fed up with her father's overbearing ways, Ea follows in her older brother's footsteps, leaving their home to live among humanity where she plans on gathering her own apostles, and writing her own testament. The Brand New Testament is an endlessly creative experience, being a film that manages to inject creative ideas not only into its story but also into the visual design of the film. Using a varied array of cinematography devices, The Brand New Testament is the closest thing to magicalism in cinematic form, showing an assured approach when it comes to shaping its revisionist version of humanity and god. Tonally, The Brand New Testament is light-hearted fare, being a film that regardless of its subversive qualities feels much more playful and comedic, though that isn't to say the film doesn't have a few moments throughout of dramatic resonance. While The Brand New Testament's creativity and world-building are beautiful reminders of what cinema is able to create, the film's narrative doesn't carry its own weight, unable to sustain the same momentum the film creates in the beginning, almost becoming more and more uninteresting as it progresses. Some of these problems can likely be attributed to the character of Ea, who herself is somewhat uninteresting character, with the whole driving force between most of the narrative simply being her picking these 6 new apostles, something which itself becomes a tad monotonous. The film works best when documenting the lives of each of the apostles which Ea has selected for her "New Testament', offering candid examinations of various characters that reveal universal truths about humanity. The film seems to have something to say about personal solitude on an emotional level, as every one of these apostles, whether living a life of loneliness or being unhappy with their current situation, suffers from an inability to feel a connection with the outside world. The first three apostles in particular, all provide potent portraits of loneliness, with The Brand New Testament being a subtle, yet effecting exploration of the impact solitude has on the human psyche. That being said, The Brand New Testament still feels like a missed opportunity at times, as its playful, lighthearted nature never fully allows it to dissect some of the issues it dances around, often moving on to the next apostle or next plot point of Ea's adventure right when the film is finally beginning to reveal some interesting ideals. Even with these faults, The Brand New Testatment is such a unique, creative story that I find it hard not to recommend, being a fun time for the most part and without question one of the most singular visions you are likely to see this year.
While Tarr is best recognized for his epic thematic tales such as Werckmeister Harmonies or Satantango, his early output is much more intimate, with The Prefab People perhaps being the best example of Tarr's intimacy I've seen, as it offers a pensive "kitchen sink" drama about the dissolving of a blue-collar marriage in the Eastern Bloc. Told through what essentially amounts to a series of vignettes focusing on the deterioration of this couples once harmonious relationship, The Prefab People is a painfully observant study that feels incredibly organic, never feeling manufactured for dramatic effect in the slightest. The film begins with an explosive opening sequence which finds the husband walking out on his wife and their infant child, cold in demeanor, the husband shows little emotion to the frantic emotional state of his soon-to-be ex-wife. It's a potent sequence which defines what the viewer is in for during The Prefab People's ninety minute running time - an unrelenting portrait of the strains poverty, depression, and masculine inadequacy can have on a marriage. The shortcomings of a society that is dictated by money is definitely felt throughout The Prefab People, with the husband being a character who can't help but worry about making enough money to provide for his family. These constant monetary concerns create a sense of inadequacy in the husband, and perhaps one of the the film's strongest attributes is how it offers interesting insights into the gender roles of this failing relationship. While the husband's masculine inadequacies continuously haunt him, the wife shows a fragile, sensitive mindset when faced with any difficult decisions, a dangerous cocktail which combined present the shattering force behind their dissolving marriage. As one can probably imagine, The Prefab People isn't exactly an uplifting experience, and the thing that stands out the most is the raw realism it creates, something which few films seem capable of. Reminiscent of Cassavetes' Faces in moments, The Prefab People is honest and so raw that it becomes unbearable to watch this young couple fall apart at times, being a fascinating early film from the master Hungarian filmmaker
Steven Piet's Uncle John is an impressive, audacious achievement, a film which manages to seamlessly blend a slow-burning mystery/thriller with the tenderness of a compelling mumblecore-esque love story. Featuring dual narratives that eventually merge, the film tells the story of two generations of family, Uncle John, a well-liked old man who makes a living in the countryside as a carpenter, and Ben, John's nephew, who makes his living as an animator in Chicago. John has just killed Dutch, a man who has brought a lot of frustration and misery to many nice people around town. Since Dutch has gone missing, no one has even considered John may be responsible, no one except Danny, Dutch's drunkard brother. Meanwhile, Ben lives somewhat of a lonely existence in Chicago, that is until Kate, a new coworker, comes into his life. Told mostly as two completely segregated tales, the two narratives merge when Ben takes an impromptu trip to his hometown with Kate, visiting his uncle who continues to struggle to evade growing suspicions into Dutch's disappearance. Uncle John is a film that manages both narratives extremely well, with John's story being a haunting examination of regret and grief, while Ben's offers up a tender and heartfelt story of romance. The film has a quietly haunting atmosphere which engulfs the whole film, using cinematography that evokes a meditative sense of regret and repentance in particularly with John, but also with Ben's inner-struggle to deal with his feelings for his co-worker, at least early on. The film's cinematography also does a great job at linking these two characters even before their stories merge, using similar shot compositions with each character that evokes a sense of them being one of the same. While these dueling narratives may feel like they have very little in common outside of the uncle/nephew relationship, I'd argue the two stories work subtlety in unison to deconstruct love, family, and paternity with Ben's own new relationship being a nuanced 'passing of the torch', a positive moving forward from the pain and loss John still feels from the loss of his sister. Featuring stellar performances from everyone involved, Steven Piet's Uncle John is a great example of what independent cinema is capable of, an audacious effort that is both haunting and life-affirming as it tackles issues of loss, death, love, and life.
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