While visiting India, Ruth, a headstrong Australian woman, experiences a spiritual awakening, embracing the teachings of a guru named Baba. Back in Sydney, Ruth's parents couldn't be more distraught to learn of their daughter's new spiritual path, fearing she has no intention to ever return to Australia. In a last ditch effort, Ruth's mother travels to India, but is only successful in getting Ruth to come home after pretending that Ruth's father is ill. With Ruth now back in Austrialia, her family hires P.J, a macho American expert in cults and depogramming, whom the family hopes can break Ruth of the Baba's spiritual grasp. Jane Campion's Holy Smoke is a stylish examination of sexual politics, family, religion, and spirtualism, that misses the mark as much as it succeeds, being fascinating but full of half-baked ideas. Holy Smoke is a film that will be difficult for casual viewers but its deconstruction of gender roles, through the relationship beween Ruth and PJ, is the strongest aspect of the film. What begins as a teacher-student dynamic that sees PJ possessing the power is quickly subverted, when Ruth discovers of the older PJ's sexual attraction to her. Using her body as a device, Ruth gains power through sex over PJ, slowly shattering his long-shrouded misogynistic principles layered in his psyche. The teacher becomes the student in this twisted little game, but both character's reach a sense of enlightment through this shattering of beliefs. For me, Campion's film seems to be about acceptance, whether it be spiritual beliefs or value systems, doing so in a unconventional way that doesn't always work. Dismantling gender myths and creating a unique look at the importance of spiritual acceptance, Jane Campion's Holy Smoke is a flawed but fascinating film.
Josephine Decker's Thou Wast Mild And Lovely is a simple, classic story exploring sexuality, possession, and identity told in an impressionistic way. The film centers on a rural farm where Jeremiah lives with his daughter, Sarah. Needing help on the farm, they hire Akin, a married man, who shares a brooding sexual tension with Sarah. As Akin slowly becomes a slave to his deep-rooted carnal desires, his new found relationship with Sarah rubs Jeremiah the wrong way. Thou Wast Mild and Lovely is sensuous thriller loaded with experimental sensibilities. Decker's style and aesthetic is reminiscent of Bergman's work in the themes it explores and Lynch's work in terms of style, but this film doesn't manage to reach those heights, not being nearly as perceptive or profound. For me, Thou Wast Mild And Lovely is more a subversive nightmare, a fever dream that uses style to create its poetic and disturbing portrait. Decker's ideals are not particularly profound or intellectual, with the film feeling more like a study in creating an uneasy mood with experimental flourishes. Taking advantage of the rural, farm setting, Decker juxtaposes the animals living situations with those of Sarah, showing how she is just as imprisoned as their livestock, a possession of Jermiahs. The strongest aspect of the film is without question Decker's visual aesthetic, using unusual compositions that effectively create a sense of unease in the viewer. Josephine Decker's Thou Wast Mild and Lovely is a film worth seeing from an aesthetic perspective alone and while there is no doubt that Decker brings a unique visual eye, the film has its narrative and theamtic shortcomings.
Matthew Vaughn's The Kingsman: The Secret Service is the latest action thriller about a ultra-classified spy organization who must stop a mad-man from taking over the world. The film is centered around Harry Hart, one of the agency's top men, who is tasked with recruiting a new member of the Kingsman. His selection is Eggsy, an unrefined street kid, whose father was once a promising trainee in the program. While Eggsy goes through the difficult and competitive training program, The Kingsman must confront the latest global threat - a tech genius' sinister plot to "save the planet". Fully embracing the great range of tropes associated with the Spy film subgenre, Matthew Vaughn's The Kingsman is a self-aware, ultra-violent spy film that doesn't shy away from being over-the-top for the sake of entertainment. The film's narrative is by-the-numbers, with Eggsy being the rough-around-the-edges recruit who is doubted by everyone but ultimately saves the world, but The Kingsman is still worth seeing due to its unique action set-pieces and care-free attitude. Matthew Vaughn and crew deserve some credit for making an action film that feels lively and fresh, with action choreography and set pieces that do enough to not feel derivative in today's quick-cut, chaotic blockbusters. This is not a film interested in being political correct, with Samuel L. Jackson's main antagonist character being a perfect example of that. Always dressed in colorful outfits and sporting a lisp, this is one of the strangest main bad guys to head up a major release in awhile, offering a perfect bond type villian for this silly tale. While a little overlong, Matthew Vaughn's The Kingsman is a self-assured twist on the spy genre that works due to its unflinching attitude and playful nature.
The last film of Aleksei German's career, Hard To Be A God is a science fiction film taking place on the planet Arkanar, a humannoid society that is in the midst of its own Medieval Age. When humans discover this Earth-like planet, a group of scientists are sent to the planet Arkanar, living amongst the alien barbarians. Officially collecting data on this newly discovered people, the scientists attempt to help the local civilization, with hopes of setting them on the right path of progress. The scientists cannot interfere in the planet's political or societall delvelopments, as they themselves begin to regress to an earlier stage of development and morality. Aleksei German's Hard To Be A God is a bleak and engrossing epic that's sure to be a challenging experience for most viewers due to its brutal depiction of darker ages and its ideas centered around humanity. The world that Aleksei German creates in this film is truly remarkable, depicting a brutal and crude world where there is a cheapness to human life, with higher educated ideas about morality and life not yet to developed among humanity. There is a rambunctious energy to this whole film that is unnerving yet engaging, with imagery that is sure to stay with me long after the end credits of this film. Treated by the natives of this planet as some type of divine presense, the scientists become godlike but also helpless in the faces of such harsh brutality and chaos, with German's film exploring the relationship between humanities brutality and intellectual and moral progress. Hard To Be A God suggests that human progress is almost inevitably cruel and violent, with religion being an effective catalyst of oppression that blindly obstructs science and intellectual enlightment. The scientists are symbolic of God in the film, men who have far more advanced knowledge than those around them, unable to assist or interfere with the natural order of history. A truly one of a kind experience, Aleksei German's Hard to Be A God is a complex and challenging film which attempts to explore the harshness that so frequently goes hand-and-foot with mankind's further enlightment.
Ronit & Slomi Elkabetz's Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalemm tells the story of Viviane, a woman who desperately wants a divorce in Israel. This is a culture that doesn't have civil marriage or divorce, with a religious system being the only legitimate authority on these issues. Viviane has been seeking divorce from her husband for years but her husband, Elisha, simply has no intention of seeing their marriage disolved. Taking place in a single room for the majority of its two hour plus running time, Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem is a methodical and impressively engaging film that reveals the misogony of a system in Israel that was established generations ago. The entire film chronicles the court house proceedings of this woman's fight for divorce, capturing the absolute absurdity of a system that values women as second-class human-beings. Gett exposes how woman are viewed as ancillary to men in this culture's society with Viviane unable to gain her own freedom in a system that frankly views wives as a possession of men, nothing more. Surprisngly funny due to the outright absurdity of the proceedings, Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem could easily be mistaken as a marriage/divorce farce, if not for it being rooted in fact. One thing I believe is worth noting is how carefully the film treats the husband, Elisha, never outright exposes him as some monster against his wife, but a deeply flawed man who loves her. This arch enables the film to have another poigtant message, capturing how love must be reciprocal - Just because you love someone doesn't mean you deserve them. Constantly engaging from start to finish, Gett is a powerful character study of a woman but also an incredibly flawed system in Israel, exposing how intentional or not, woman are viewed merely as objects in this society.
Fresh out of prison, Bambi, a 21-year-old, returns to his old stomping grounds in Watts, Los Angeles looking for a fresh start. While in prison, Bambi took solace in writing about his harsh upbringing and experiences, serving as his escape. Now out, Bambi wishes to stay on the right path, looking to reconnect with his young son and make a better life for both of them. Malik Vitthal's Imperial Dreams is a film that doesn't mince words in capturing the hoplessness of inner-city ghettos, but what sets it apart, is the underlying sense of hope and optimism that exists, centered around Bambi, a man desperate to create a better life for his son. Using Bambi's plight, Imperial Dreams captures the invisible barriers the inner-city lifestyle, showing how difficult it truly is to get out. Without financial resources it's a constant struggle for Bambi, who is routinely tempted by the promise of "quick and easy" money that exists in the drug trade, most notably by his own uncle who wants his help. Presenting a genuine depiction of rehabilitation, Imperial Dreams captures the extreme difficulties of this process, from the need to cut oneself off from all friends and family still involved in illegal activies, to the hypocritical system of tangled bureaucracy that seems to hurt as much as it helps. While a powerful expose of inner city life in its own right, Imperial Dreams is also a poignant father-son story, with Bambi doing as best he can to make sure his son doesn't grow up in the same violence and despair. Imperial Dreams treats this relationship with respect, never using the young boy for emotional manipulation, simply letting the relationship unfold organtically, which only makes the film more poigant towards the end. Thematically, Imperial Dreams tells it how it is but unlike most similar films it doesn't wallow in despair, subverting typical narrative conventions in offering a glimmer of hope. Imperial Dreams exclaims that rehabilitation and getting out of the ghetto is incredibly tough, admitting the whole system isn't fair, while still arguing it's possible to make oneself better, despite the obstacles. Bambi is a character who suffers a lot throughout the course of this narrative and when we leave this character his life isn't exactly peachy but what makes Imperial Dreams so poignant is it subtle does capture how it's headed in the right direction, and Bambi can find happiness in that fact.
Edward Yang's Mahjong is film that is hard to describe, a quasi-comedic satire of a city in Taipai that reaps the benefits of an economic boom, though the comedy is routinely transcended by Yang's seething commentary on globalization, capturing how it's essentially economic imperialism. The film features a convoluted narrative with a host of characters primarily made up of European businessman and the Taiwanese underworld, with their paths crossing in more ways then one. Languages, cultures, and classes collide in Mahong's dizzying narrative, with Yang making a statement about the current state of his country. Tonal shits come at a rapid rate, jumpimg from violent gangster flick to poetic drama, as Yang seems to using the narrative and characters as a device to express his theme. Nearly every character in this entire film is selfish or outright greedy, from the European businessmen who want in on the economic boom, to the youth Tawainese gang who makes a living scamming people. Morality, friendship, and even love are trumped by the power of greed in Mahong. The one real exception ot this rule is the romantic story arch involving the young Frechwoman and contemplative Luen-Luen, one of the Taiwanese hoodlums, that serves as one of the few relationships that resonanted with me. For all the great aspects of Mahjong, the film does suffer at times, being terribly uneven, but it's a film I somewhat forgive given it almost feels by design. While I would probably say this is my least favorite film from the talented Tawainese filmmaker, Mahjong is a one of a kind film that feels out the norm for Edward Yang, being a hate letter to the town he grew up in.
Dishonorably discharged from the Army, Thomas returns home to the small town of Jerichow for his mother's funeral. His return home isn't going well so far, with his mother's funeral being where he coincidentally runs into his old business partner who Thomas owed a lot of money. Completely broke, Thomas stumbles across Ali, a local Turkish businessman, owner of a vast snake-bar chain. Ali struggles with alcoholism and because of it he has just lost his license, so he takes the chance in hiring Thomas to be his driver. Needing the money, Thomas is a good employee and the two of them form a trustful relationship. That is until Thomas meets Ali's beautiful German wife, Laura, entering into a passion-filled affair which throws chaos into the mix. On the surface, Jerichow is a film that sounds incredibly generic, featuring the rich older man, his young attractive wife, and the drifter who comes between them but with Christian Petzold behind the film, it's so much more. A film that I'm sure draws tons of comparisons to The Postman Always Rings Twice, Jerichow stands on its own due ot its fantastic characterizations and direction that reminds me of why Petzold is one of the best contemporary filmmakers in the world. Exploring the typical themes of passion, love, and guilt, Jerichow does so with three characters that you find yourself invested in but what I found most interesting is the film's subtle commentary on the relationship between love and money. Jerichow captures a woman in Laura who believes she forced herself into love for financial security, but it can't stop the passion she shares with Thomas. Jerichow is also an extremely well-written film that has multiple characters experience moments of true poignancy that by the end feels more like an ensemble film, transitioning organically through the story. Another interesting element of Jerichow is its undercurrent of European xenophobia that sees Ali feel ostracized by the end of the film. Christian Petzold's Jerichow is a simple tale of love and betrayal told in an extremely well-crafted and artistic way, further showing Petzold's impressive ability to capture his characters emotionally.
Blackie Gagin, an ex-solider who recently returned from World War II, arrives in a town in New Mexico, looking for Frank Hugo, a very rich man whose dealings haven't exactly been legal. The town is buzzing due to the upcoming fiesta but Gagin's mood couldn't be more calm and collected, out to avenge the death of his best friend. Gagin isn't interested in murder, he wants to blackmail Hugo, just like his friend before him. Robert Montgomery's Ride The Pink Horse is a film that is fairly considered peculiar given its convoluted narrative and host of characters that include Bill Reitz, an FBI agent whose been tracking Gagin to gain the evidence that will put Hugo behind bars, and Pancho, a good natured Mexican man who drinks a lot and works as the carousel operator. Personally, I didn't find the film hard to follow but what I think is truly interesting about Ride The Pink Horse is its examination of post war disillusionment, friendship, and revenge. Gagin is a simple man and the film slowly and subtlely displays a tortured soul who struggles to trust anyone, disillusioned about the government's good nature after the war. Bill Reitz wants him to do the right thing and give him the evidence he needs but this time Gagin is only out for himself, simply wanting to reap the benefits for once. The relationshiop he forms with a young Mexican girl is another intriguing aspect of the film, with her and Pancho being the ones that slowly fuel this man's transformation. Montgomery's direction is assured, with a fantastic carousel sequence that really stands out, and the acting all around is strong, making Ride the Pink Horse a unique noirish crime drama that offers a interesting perspective on friendship, alienation, and vengeance.
Deeply in love with her boyfriend, Marie, a schoolteacher, is struggling to deal with the complete lack of intimacy between the two of them. With frustration mounting, Marie attempts to fulfill her sexual desires through other men. Feeding her sexual appetite, Maria goes further and further down the rabbit-hole of sexual desires, even developing a sadomachiosnitic relationship with the headmaster of her school. Catherine Breillat's Romance was a horribly misunderstood film that was foolishly dismissed as pornography by a host of countries on its release. This critique is utter nonsense given that Breillat's film is one of the most pensive explorations of female psychology, giving the viewer the perspective of Maria in a world where she feels secondary to her boyfriend both sexually and from an identity viewpoint. The film represents the clash of love and sexuality between men and women, told entirely from Maria's point of view. Nothing about Romance attempts to titilate the viewer, with Maria using these extreme acts of carnal desire as a way of seizing control or power for herself in a society where she is alotted very little. Maria's sexual encounters are almost entirely passive; there is nothing reciprocal as she uses sex for entirely selfish means. While I would admit the film starts off in a way that makes those unfamiliar with Breilat in a bit of shock and awe, by the end, Romance shows us a portrait of a woman who feels undesired and unwanted, extinguishing self doubt by sexual means in this powerful expose of women living in a male centric society.
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