Bouli Lanners' The First, The Last is a the type of film that defies strict genre classifications, being a film that blends aspects of the American western, Gothic thriller, crime drama, and absurdest comedy into a fascinating, albeit somewhat flawed package. Set amidst a barren, industrial wasteland somewhere in France, The First and The Last is the story of Cochise and Gilou, a pair of aging bounty hunters, who have been hired by a wealthy man to obtain a cell phone containing sensitive information. The phone is in the possession of Esther and Willy, two teenage homeless vagabonds, who believe the world is coming to an end. The First, The Last is a dualing narrative which simultaneously follows these two sets of individuals, each of which are dealing with their own unique brand of troubles. A chase movie of sorts, The First, The Last is a film which features a serviceable story, nothing more, being far more focused on the thematic concerns of its characters, each of which is struggling with darkness of some sort. In The First, The Last nearly every character is adrift is some fashion or the other, an existential exploration of sorts, which finds the filmmakers commenting on the importance of living life to the fullest. Through the course of the narrative, Esther and Willy get separated from each other, leading Willy to be fearful for her safety and question his ability to move forward and fight for her. Meanwhile, it becomes apparent that Gilou is suffering from a heart condition that threatens his life, leading him to existential reflection. All these characters are seeking some form of reassurance and/or guidance, and the filmmakers tackle this concern in both sublte and not-so-subtle ways, with the injection of a character who goes by Jesus providing guidance specifically to Willy who feels lost and alone after being separated from Esther. My favorite aspect of The First and The Last is the aesthetic which the filmmakers are able to create, with dimly lit skies and dark clouds hovering over the vast, empty landscapes. Nearly everything in this film is gray, dark-brown, or dying, as the film's visual palette evokes the pain, drifting mindset of its characters, with the whole film having a foreboding sense of doom centered around its adrift characters. Towards the end of the film, when characters' such as Gilou find a sense of worth and optimism is when the color palette slowly begins to lighten, sunlight begins to creep into the stark setting, with the cinematography visually expressing the arch of these characters who have gone from darkness to light. Featuring a strangely compelling narrative full of cowboys, teenage runaways, grizzly bounty hunters, and Jesus, The First and The Last is able to avoid many schmaltzy moments centered around its thematic ideas of optimism and "living life to the fullest" thanks to its strange, singular study of the importance of making the most of life.
Certainly a very provocative film for the time period, Jean-Luc Godard's A Married Woman tells the story of Charlotte, a young, well-put together woman who clearly prides herself on being up to-date on the most recent fashion trends. She lives in a Paris suburb with her son and her husband Pierre, while in the city she has Robert, her lover of the side. Godard's A Married Woman is an examination of the female form in modern society, using the character of Charlotte to examine the double-standards, and downright misogyny which is systematic in society. In a stunning opening sequence which finds Charlotte in bed with Robert, Godard lets his camera linger completely on the female form, a series of tightly-composed shots of Charlotte's bare back, long legs, and bare-stomach, truly objectifying this woman as the visuals capture the complete sensual-based relationship of Charlotte and Robert, one that is, at least for Robert, based almost completely on physical attraction. From there A Married Woman introduces us to Charlotte's husband Pierre, a pilot who seems to view Charlotte on a significantly deeper level. Pierre is a character who Charlotte cares for deeply, no question, but he has become quite possessive, providing her a sense of structure, taking care of her, but it's clear the spark is somewhat missing at this point in their respective marriage, and Pierre has been suspicious of Charlotte's affair for weeks now. When Charlotte learns that she is pregnant, she is unsure who the father is, forcing the young woman to come to the realization that she may have to choose between her husband, Pierre and her lover, Robert. Often referred to as a lesser Godard, I'm not sure i'd agree with this categorization, as A Married Woman is an intricate study of a woman forced to choose between two lovers, with Godard using this narrative structure as not only a meditation on love but also on the feminine form in modern society. Charlotte is a character who isn't sure what she wants, unable to differentiate between Robert and Pierre's love for her. Godard's deconstruction of love, or societies attempted definition of it, is intentionally elusive, expressing how pleasure and love are far from the same thing while simultaneously capturing the importance of sensuality in any healthy relationship, with structure and security alone not being enough. Through this portrait of Charlotte, Godard captures a woman's place in society in a quietly chilling matter, with in both cases Charlotte being a character who is objectified in one way or another by whichever mate she chooses. With Robert, Charlotte is fearful that he doesn't have any true feelings for her, as she is merely just a sexual object for his pleasure, while with her husband Pierre is quietly obsessive and controlling, always paranoid about his wife's whereabouts -a strict structure that provides very little room to breath. In Jean-Luc Godard's A Married Woman both of Charlotte's potential arrangements are defined more by man's desires than her own, as the iconic filmmaker weaves a fragmented tapestry of a character who feels oppressed by this rigid, defined structure, with the film exposing the objectification and double-standards which face females living in a male-dominated world.
Aleksandr Sokurov's Francofonia is a singular vision, a one-of-a-kind meditation on art that captures the reflective quality it presents on society and humanity, both past and present. Focusing on the history of the Louvre, Sokurov provides a tour of sorts of this historic museum, one which has been through the Nazi occupation of France. Sokurov's film is about the importance of art history, capturing the timelessness art can represent, as the one-of-a-kind filmmaker provides surrealistic touches throughout, examining the intermingled relationship between art, history, and humanity. Francofonia could be described as a love letter to the Louvre, but it is is so much more, with the filmmakers using a vast array of cinematic devices to capture the essence of how art is a reflection of humanities' history. The way the film is constructed, from reanactments and reimaginings, to stock footage, and a wandering camera which explores the architecture and artwork of this iconic French Museum, Sokoruv creates an absorbing film about art history that never feels dull. WWII planes fly over the Louvre and Napolean wanders the halls, as Sokurov provides what is essentially a poetic history lesson that is a very convincing argument for the importance of artwork through history. At one point Sokorov laments, "all museums must be prepared for war", as Francofonia becomes not only a film about the importance of art, but its ability to survive through great conflict. Throughout Francofonia, the director himself has on again, off again communications with the captain of a cargo ship who is carrying a museum's artwork. As the cargo ship enters perilous waters it faces a vicious storm, which becomes a symbolic representation of Art adrift in a sea of human conflict. Aleksandr Sokurov's Fracofonia is a film that will probably only be interested with those who has an interest in art, but that is a shame, as the film is a wonderfully structured, artistically crafted love letter to art as a whole and its importance as a reflection on humanity
Gabriel Mascaro's Neon Bull is a beguiling experience, a film which unfolds among the back drop of vaquejada, a traditional exhibition sport in which cowboys try to pull bulls down to the ground by their tales. Told through the eyes of Iremar, a handsome cowboy, who works for the events, Neon Bull is a sensual exploration of masculinity and the relationship between humanity and beast, which keeps the viewer at a distance from its characters, as if to force the viewer to come to their own conclusions about what exactly the filmmakers are trying to say. Neon Bull's languid pacing is sure to frustrate some viewers but what Gabriel Mascaro has created is an intimate study of rodeo life, one that feels much more like a documentary than any constructed narrative. There is no narrative drive to Neon Bull, instead this is a film that simply wishes to examine the lifestyle of these characters, observing them on a day to day basis much like a fly-on-the-wall documentary. Iremar is a character who works in the dirt, performing backbreaking work as he tends to the bulls, feeding and prepping them for the competitions. Home for him is the back of the truck that they use to transport the animals from show to show, and while Iremar is good at his job, his real dream is to become a clothing designer. Neon Bull is enigmatic yet transporting, with Marsano seemingly having something to say about societies preconceived strict constructs of masculinity and femininity. While tending to the bulls, Neon Bull displays a barnyard earthiness brought to life with a somewhat muted earthy color pallet of browns and yellows which effectively transport the viewer into Iremar's masculine world. As the audience learns of Iremar's true passion for fashion design, Mascaro slowly inserts flashes of bright, vivid neon colors into this earthy color palette, visually capturing the conflict inside Iremar between to what we as a society view as very different worlds. Neon Bull presents things that shouldn't make sense together, challenging our preconceived notions and desire to classify everything independently. Even some of the dialogue supports this idea, with Iremar explaining to Caca, the closest thing he has to a daughter, that "Ice Cream comes from cow fat", with Caca simply unable to accept that two things so different couldn't go together to create something special. Neon Bull's beautifully rendered cinematography effectively wanders throughout these characters environment, defining it for the audience while using expressionistic lighting that evokes a sense of wonder about simply life. Gabriel Mascaro's Neon Bull's thematic elements are ambiguous yet endlessly fascinating, offering a transfixing experience that is well worth your time.
Robert Montgomery's Lady in the Lake is a film noir tale told entirely from the subjective point of view of Philip Marlowe, a private eye who becomes embroiled in a murder mystery that by all intensive purposes he had no desire to be a part of in the first place. Just wanting to get his crime stories published, Lady In The Lake begins with Marlowe visiting Kingsby Publications with the intent of selling some of his most juicy tales. On his arrival, he is greeted by the Publications editor Adrienne, who offers Marlowe a job as a detective, essentially ignoring Marlowe's intentions as a writer. Adrienne explains that her bosses' wife has gone missing, and after some convincing, Marlowe agrees to take on the missing girl case. Robert Montgomery's Lady In The Lake has all the typical tropes one would expect from a film noir, featuring an interweaving story of murder, mystery, and intrigue, a potential femme fatale, police corruption, and a hard-boiled, no-nonsense main protagonist. Robert Montgomery stars and directs this film, and while the story itself isn't anything you haven't seen before, it's engaging enough, being severely aided by its unique, cinematic style. You see, Lady In The Lake is a completely subjective experience due to its use of first person point of view camera work, where the entire film is directly shown through the eyes of Detective Marlowe. While it's certainly fair to call this device a gimmick, Lady in the Water is well crafted, providing a few memorable sequences through its unique cinematography. One particular sequence that stood out is when Marlowe finds himself being tailed, a typical trope of the Noir genre, with this subjective camera creating an extra layer of tension that makes the sequence memorable. Taking place around Christmas, Robert Montgomery routinely juxtaposes the cheerful holiday with that of the murder mystery, oddly using the holiday of giving as a stark contrasting force to this tale of deception and murder. In this Noir the dialogue also plays a big part, with the screenplay providing the character of Philip Marlowe with scene-chewing dialogue, providing a few memorable lines, making it another one of the highlights of this film experiment. Robert Montgomery's Lady in the Lake is nowhere near a top level film noir, and while the subjective camera could be written off as a gimmick, I'd argue Montgomery crafts a unique experience that is worth seeking out.
A worthy follow-up to Jeremy Saulnier's debut feature Blue Ruin, Green Room is a taut, brutal, horror-thriller that doesn't waste a single frame, delivering a highly tense, cinematic experience. A quasi-homage to John Carpenter's brilliant Assault on Precinct 13, Green Room is a simple, yet fierce storytelling, about a young punk band who finds themselves in a fight for their very lives. The story is centered around a young punk band, The Ain't Rights, who have recently finished up a long, unsuccessful tour. About to call it quits, the band gets an unexpected booking at an isolated, run-down music venue located deep in the backwoods of Oregon. What at first seems like easy money, regardless of the fact that the club is infested with nazi punk skinheads, quickly turns into something far more sinister, when the band unexpectedly witnesses an act of violence in the backstage green room, one which they certainly weren't meant to see. Things quickly escalate, as the band finds themselves face to face with the club's depraved owner, Darcy, a man who will do anything to protect his secret enterprise, which includes heroin production and distribution. Jeremy Saulnier's Green Room is simple, yet extremely well told, being a film that places more value in capturing the horrific, nightmarish perspective of its protagonists than it does on clearly defining the motivations of its antagonists for its audience. Things certainly become more clear as the film progresses, but Saulnier's approach pays major dividends early on, only amplifying the tension due to the mystery and uncertainty of exactly what these characters have stumbled into. Green Room is a film that captures the absolute essence of what fighting for ones' life entails, being a brutal survival horror film where life is extinguished quickly, without any type sentimentality. What really stood out about Green Room in this regard is how no character feels safe or off limits throughout this narrative, with death being quick and chaotic, much like the essence of punk ruck music itself. While not nearly as clear thematically as Blue Ruin, which I felt cut to the core principles and pitfalls of Revenge, Green Room does seem to have some interesting ideas lurking underneath the surface of its taut narrative, though i'd argue it's a little more elusive than the filmmaker's previous film. I may be reading into the film too much, but Green Room seems to have something to say about hate groups and this type of thinking. Without going into any spoilers, lets just say there are attack dogs in this film, and towards the end one of these dogs seems to be a symbolic representation of the type of violence which hate can breed. It's only when the dog is unchained, freed from these skinheads, that he begins to be peaceful, showing kindness, instead of the carnage this animal is responsible for earlier in the film. Now you might be thinking, yea that is a stretch, but throughout Green Room there are also a few of these Skinhead characters that essentially come to their senses after being away from Darcy and the other memberrs of their hate group. Daniel and Gabe are such characters, who essentially come to their senses so to speak, though Daniel's is more narratively motivated, almost as if the filmmakers are commenting on the importance of thinking for oneself, with these characters showing an ability to see the faults in being filled with hate and violence after being separated from their brethren. Combine these two characters with that of the unchained dog, and I believe there is more than just the surface to Green Room, with Saulnier commenting on the importance of independent though and the subversive nature of group mentality. In the end, even if you think Green Room doesn't have any deeper meaning or intentions, and that i'm full of shit, it doesn't really matter, as the film is a tour-de-force of tension and brutality that shouldn't be missed.
While not as contextually rich nor brilliantly constructed as Ashgar Farhadi's A Separation or About Elly, Fireworks Wednesday is still another expertly crafted domestic drama from the talented Iranian filmmaker, which challenges the viewers perceptions from start to finish, delivering a powerful tale of domestic strife. The story follows Rouhi, a young-bride-to-be who makes her living working for a cleaning agency. Rouhi's latest work assignment finds her at the apartment of an affluent married couple about to leave on holiday, but on her arrival she is quickly sucked into the couple's explosive domestic conflict. The film opens capturing the loving relationship Rouhi has with her soon-to-be husband, displaying her exuberance and excitement about starting a life with her husband. Once Rouhi witnesses the deceit and treacherous behavior of this married couple, her worldview is effectively challenged, with the young woman's presuppositions about the nature of married life being challenged. Taking place during Iranian New Year, the titular fireworks are literal, but they pale in comparison to the metaphorical fireworks which Rouhi witnesses in this couples home. It's not at all surprising that Ashgar Farhadi has a background in directing stage plays in Iran, as Fireworks Wednesday, and really all his work, shows an impressive understanding of staging and extremely well-written dialogue that is nuanced and at the right times, ambiguous. Farhadi cloaks the events of this explosive marriage in ambiguity, constantly playing with the viewer's perceptions, as he shifts the perspective between the wife and the husband. Fireworks Wednesday isn't a film that has any interest in picking a side per se, instead the film aims at the larger aspects of marriage, examining the fragility of such a commitment, as well as the hard-work it takes to maintain happiness. Ashgar Farhadi's Fireworks Wednesday is a rather explosive, off-the-wall domestic drama that is another great example of the filmmaker's impressive understanding of characterization and point-of-view.
Pedro Costa's Horse Money is the type of beguiling experience where even if you struggle to follow much of what the filmmaker is trying to say, the visual storytelling is so strong that the overall intention of the film will stay with you long after the closing credits. Horse Money, for lack of a better word, is a work of art, with every image, every frame even, eliciting a harrowing sense of isolation and alienation. A tone poem of sorts, Horse Money is a portrait of Ventura, a Cape Verdean immigrant living in Lisbon. Between his numbing hospital stays and the seemingly constant bureaucratic questioning which seems to follow Ventura wherever he goes, Horse Money paints a vivid portrait of an impoverished and marginalized man. Costa's shadowy expressionistic lighting, coupled with the crumbling structures evoke an atmosphere of suffering and oppression, where anger, loss and pain are merely a part of everyday life for Ventura. Horse Money is a film that will frustrate many unfamiliar with Pedro Costa's work, being a film thats cohesiveness isn't entirely necessary, given the film's intent to explore the psychological purgatory of its characters. Effectively getting into the head space of the damaged man, Pedro Costa creates a singular, expressionistic portrait of sorrow and dementia, where sorrow and pain infest this character's head-space. The line between fact and fiction blurs as we get into the heads-space of this marginalized man, with his memories providing subtext as to what he has been through. Audiences unfamiliar with Pedro Costa will indubitably write off Horse Money as incomprehensible due to the filmmaker's penchant for artistry and atmosphere of narrative, but for those willing to be patient, there is no denying that what Pedro Costa has created is another vivid portrait of the marginalized individual who is almost certain to be forgotten.
Set along the Ganges in Banaras, India, Neeraj Ghaywan's Fly Away Solo is a harrowing portrait of contemporary India, exposing how narrow-minded, old traditions conflict with the budding aspirations and desires of the more progressive, younger generation. Focusing on two separate stories which share this common struggle, Fly Away Solo is quite a sobering tale, a study of grief and perseverance as each of these young characters attempt to find their place in the world. One of the stories is centered around a young student in Devi, who after having a romantic encounter with a fellow student in a hotel room, becomes a victim of police corruption, as her and her father become entangled in torment due to the orthodox perspectives of their community. The other main story focuses on Deepak, a low cast man who falls deeply in love with a woman from a higher caste, with their budding romance ending in tragedy. Without going into too much detail in this review, Fly Away Solo is a gripping character study that deconstructs the shortcomings of much of India's old customs, exploring the torment which many of these orthodox views and old-way of thinking have on its characters. While Devi and Deepak's paths only cross very briefly, they both suffer from the same narrow-minded thinking, with Fly Away Solo creating a sense of oppression which is deeply felt throughout this beautifully crafted film. Fly Away Solo touches on a host of issues facing India through these character's stories, such as the lack of upper economical mobility, rampant misogyny, and corruption, just to name a few. Neeraj Ghaywan's direction only aids in telling this tale, with poetic visuals that evoke the sense of grief, struggle, and ultimate hope of its characters. The film features intimate characterizations but the filmmaker makes it clear that this is a much bigger story than just these two individuals, using the Ganges river as visual representation of life itself, and ultimately hope, as each of thse characters strive for a better life. In the end, what stands out about Fly Away Solo is the film never makes excuses for its characters either, exclaiming the importance of personal responsibility and perseverance, even when life only provides darkness. Every character in Fly Away Solo is well-developed and serves the film's overall message, as filmmaker Neeraj Ghaywan has created a powerful study of contemporary India that is deeply tragic but also hopeful towards the younger generation to take responsibility into their own hands and force progress.
Centered on the lives of four women living in the rural town of Gujarat, India, Leena Yadav's Parched is a powerful and important film about the mistreatment and misogyny women face on a daily basis, living in a society in which they are deemed as second-class citizens, property of their male counterparts, having no true freedom outside of their designated role. The film focuses on the lives of four women, Rani, Janaki, Lajjo, and Bijili, each of which struggles to live in this patriarchal world where the old, misogynist traditions still rule. Parched is not an easy film to experience, as it holds no punches in documenting the lives of these individuals, each of which is deeply oppressed by the rampant misogyny of India's traditional values. There is Rani, a 30-something widow, who struggles to control her mean-spirited son, Lajjo, a woman who contends on nightly basis with her abusive husband, and Bijli, an exotic dancer/prostitute who left the village and is demonized for her behavior, and while these women each struggle day-to-day with their own issues, what unifies them is the overall oppression they face under the patriarchal rule of society. Parched works so well because all four of its main characterizations are so well-defined, as the film beautiful documents how in this society women must stick together, as they simply have no voice to stand up for themselves. In this culture, they are simply property, and merely the idea of women being able to provide for themselves is met with disbelief by this patriarchal society. Parched captures how these deep-seeded traditions essentially create a barrier for progress, as young men in this society are taught form an early age that they are the superior gender, with women being merely their to birth their children and put food on their table. Parched is a tough film to experience at times, no question, but what surprised me is just how humorous it manages to be at times, making it a point to capture the overall optimism of its female characters. They struggle in this world on a daily basis, but Parched presents characters who simply haven't lost all hope, still finding the humor in life as they bond over their shared oppression. Without going into narrative details, Leena Yadav's Parched is a film that never holds back in displaying the overwhelming oppression women face in rural India, being a gripping, emotionally tale that works so well, thanks to the fully developed characterizations, as each women struggles desperately in a society that deems them as property for men.
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