Zama (2018) - Lucrecia Martel
Evoking the viewer's inquisitive nature throughout its 120 minute running time, Lucrecia Martel's Zama is a beguiling, multi-layered character study of Don Diego de Zama, a Spanish officer, who awaits his transfer to Buenos Aires from recently settled Asunción. Offering no simplistic or didactic assertions, Zama welcomes the observant eye, displaying the story of a man whose virtuous pursuits and sense of worth are slowly degraded and deflowered by the harsh realities of authoritarian order, a slowly tightening vice that contains and restricts his own free will and personal freedom. An intentionally tedious journey through the monotonous life of a magistrate, Zama follows this proud officer of the crown as he is slowly beaten down by the sense of stagnation, forcefully held in a state of submission by the monarch and power structures which it empowers. He is a character who only wishes to be transferred back to his home, yet with each passing Governor comes new orders and various decrees, each of which holds this character hostage, slowly and emphatically breaking the spirit of this man whose once virtuous nature and blind service to the crown has been left shattered, broken under the tight grip of authoritarianism. Set against the backdrop of colonization and European imperialism , Zama is a powerful and nuanced portrait of the tension which exists between human freedom and the constrictions often placed on this by authority, juxtaposing Zama's plight with that of the indigenous people, while raising profound questions about what it means to be free. The opening scene of the film, one in which Zama stands proudly and confidently on the shores of this newly discovered land, offers a glimpse of Zama's internal pride in his service to the crown. In this sequence Zama's body language exudes a sense of purpose, with his treatment of the indigenous people being pejorative in nature, viewing them as savages who must be properly educated. While this scene sets the stage, Martel's film quickly subverts one's typical expectations with such a subject matter, as the viewer soon realizes how fleeting this magistrate's sense of virtue will become. Zama's career-minded pursuits are merely for the profit of others and his bureaucratically role slowly begins to break down his inner sense of self and individuality, detracting him, even imprisoning him from his own personal ambitions related to fatherhood and family. The virtuous sense of "service" is emphatically shattered by the end of Martel's Zama, with the magistrate himself imprisoned by his service to those who wield authority, unable to even live freely. Zama reveals not only the vapid nature of materialist pursuits, with the magistrate's purpose being merely to serve the material desires of the crown, but the restrictive, oppressive nature which authority often has on personal freedom, as Don Diego de Zama begins to discover where he finds his true virtue, not in materialist pursuits or service to others but in his love and empathy he has for his family. Lucrecia Martel's Zama is a challenging film that is intricate and complex in its deconstruction of the confliction which exists between individual freedom and public service, recognizing the intrinsic constraints which any type of power structure or authority places on the individual's sense of free will.
Imploring b-movie sensibilities to deliver a potent and playful satirical take-down of Hollywood, Special Effects finds the iconoclastic filmmaker Larry Cohen operating at the top of his game. Traversing the traditional formalism of the mystery/thriller, Special Effects delivers a subversive, self-reflective study of creativity, art, and the Hollywood machine, being a film which finds the dark humor in the the intrinsic, exploitative nature of not only Hollywood, but of being an artist itself- a role that is autocratic by design. Chris Neville, the suave, monstrous filmmaker at the center of Special Effects, is a director intent on returning to the forefront of his career, a psychotic man, who murders an aspiring actress one night and sets out to make a movie based off of this killing. What transpires over the course of Special Effects strange and singular narrative is Cohen providing a reflection of the exploitative nature of the Hollywood system, one in which often the wide-eyed romanticism of big dreams is exploited and manipulated by those in the position of power and authority to do so. Neville is the extreme example of such exploitation and manipulation, a man who goes as far as murder to create his next piece of filmmaking, with much of Special Effects interested in the collision between reality and illusion, with Nevillle attempting to control and distort the world that exists around him, much like he would on any film set. While Special Effects is interested in the psychology of authority and control, following Neville as he manipulates and extorts those around him for his personal artistic gains, the film's most powerful assertion lays in its critique of the Hollywood system; one which is often exploitative in its designs, profiting off of the tragedies of reality. Neville himself is a reflection of the Hollywood machine, a character who attempts to profit off of real-life tragedy (one he created in this case), using the allure of movie-making to entice and control those around him. Everyone from the police to the murdered actresses' own husband find themselves intoxicated on various levels by Neville's position of power, with the sheer promise of being part of Neville's creation often blinding them from the realities in front of them. In Cohen's Special Effect's Neville is simply a symbolic representation of the Hollywood machine, a force which exploits and manipulates the world, blending reality with illusion for personal profit. Wielding its exaggerated, b-movie thriller narrative to make thematic assertions related to the exploitative nature of the Hollywood machine, Larry Cohen's Special Effects is a profound, self-reflective deconstruction of the darker aspects of creativity, recognizing how the powerful allure of creation can often lead to exploitative practices.
A harrowing portrait of 1970s Manila, Lino Brocka's Manila in the Claws of Neon blends melodrama and the Hollywood-style detective narrative, delivering a powerful expose into the state of the Philippines capital city, one in which corruption, exploitation, and injustice run rampant. The story of a young fisherman from a provincial village who arrives in Manila in search of his girlfriend, the love-of-his-life who left the small-town for the allure and promise of the big city, Manila in the Claws of Neon weaponizes its narrative and melodramatic elements for thematic impact, traversing the city of Manila through its character-driven narrative to reveal a city in the state of brooding class upheaval, with the cities' rapid industrial progression crushing the lower-class, those who don't have the social or economical capital to fight back. Casually blending neorealism, melodrama, and genre filmmaking into a cohesive portrait of a city, Manila in the Claws of Neon simplistic narrative feels grandiose in scale, being film as much about the state of a country as it's about the personal journey of a character. Claws of Neon pains a stark portrait of Manila, one of rapid corruption and exploitation, where those with privilege are granted access, and where those who have nothing, struggle to rise above their class. Like any good work of art, Manila in the Claws of Neon is emotion-based, a rally cry, one in which its protagonists plight is synonymous with the filmmaker's overall thematic intentions, showcasing how barbarism breeds more barbarism, with the oppressed, kind-hearted lead protagonist committing a heinous, brutal act of violence. Some may find it more than justifiable, given the circumstances that I won't detail here, but that would be missing the larger point. This act of violence is soul-shattering, it's one derived from personal satisfaction (i.e. revenge), and in this act our protagonist's kind-hearted, empathetic soul feels fractured, as he has fallen to same level as the world around him. The main protagonist's plight, one in which a good-natured man is slowly beaten down by the weight of a cruel world, serves as the perfect counterbalance to the film's thematic intentions of class upheaval; showcasing how one can only be beaten down for so long by injustice that surrounds them before they lash out. Like most politically-driven art, Manila in the Claws of Neon is too simplistic at times, recognizing the inherent flaws in capitalism but also using it as a catch-all, a scapegoat for humanity's larger complex problems related to self. Art is intrinsically rooted in the qualitative, the personal experiences, and in this Manila is always focused on the qualitative, not recognizing the quantitative, aggregated progress the region as experienced as a whole over the time period. That being said, this is a piece of art, and the emotional core of the film is robust and through-provoking, as the film never feels too monolithic or absolutist in its assertions, just perhaps misguided at times, being first-and-foremost a cry for more empathy and general kindness. The best example of this is the one low-skilled worker whom gets a job at an advertisement agency; his success is chalked-off merely as "good luck" by his friends, other low-skilled workers, yet the filmmaker knows this isn't true, recognizing that this man's commitment to getting an education paid off. This doesn't cheapen the film's larger assertions about the rampant exploitation and injustice that has manifested itself under capitalism, it strengthens it, as the film is honest in a way that few political films are, recognizing that nothing is monolithic or absolutist, and that there are always exceptions, with most success being derived by a combination of both merit and circumstance; not merely one, or the other. My largest critique of the film deals with its treatment of morality. Being like most films that dance around the Marxist doctrine, I found it problematic at times due to its moral absolutism and general simplicity when it comes to individualism and class, being a film that is quite negative towards certain fringe-social groups such as homosexuals, presuming that all choices one makes are merely out of necessity and not an individual's free-will to conduct their lives in a way they deem fit. Choice isn't relevant to the filmmakers here, as the view any "morally reprehensible behavior" (whatever that means) as merely something derived by oppression, a flawed simplistic assertion to a complex issue which feels autocratic in nature. For all its minor flaws, Lino Brocka's Manila in the Claws of Neon remains a powerful and salient portrait of corruption, exploitation, and injustice, a rally cry for change in Manila that impressively blends neorealism, melodrama, and genre filmmaking into an cohesive whole.
The Rider (2018) - Chloé Zhao
Attempting to deconstruct the catastrophic internal trauma one experiences when their own perceived identity is shattered by the uncontrollable external forces of life, Chloé Zhao's The Rider is an poignant, reflective character study, one that details the life of a young cowboy, Brady, who desperately attempts to hold onto his lifelong rodeo dream in the aftermath of a near fatal head injury. Impressionistic in its ability to transport the viewer into the psyche of its main protagonist, The Rider works best as a piercing, intricate character study, one which is honest and genuine in its attempt to capture the pain associated with an individual seeing their dreams being stripped away from them. Through the eyes of Brady, The Rider exhibits the internal forces of his struggle, with the quintessential essence of this man's identity, defined by his passion for rodeo, being stripped away from him in an instant. It's not only his dream that is taken from him, but also his social and economic capital, with his skills being rendered useless by this injury, and his worth declining due to a culture values toughness and self-determination and devalues weakness, granting access to those whom prove themselves. While The Rider's character study is respectful, nuanced, and organic, they stand in stark contrast to the thematic elements of the story which rely far too much on didactic narrative moments, and caricatures to extrapolate its commentary. The film's larger cultural critique centered around masculinity and heartland culture doesn't work as well its its nuanced character study elements, never quite congealing to the driving force of the story, its main characterization. The Rider is respectful of this culture as it pertains to its lead character, yet it's autocratic in its distaste for such things at times, never really attempting to understand the world its character's love. The Rider makes little effort, using nearly all the supporting characters as molds to drive its critique of the rodeo lifestyle. The best example of how these narrative/character flaws cheapen the film's thematic assertions is the characterization of Brady's father; a drunk, dead-beat father, who serves little purpose outside of pushing the narrative and theme forward. This dead-beat dad is a character who is used to inform us about Brady inorganically, even being a potential example of what Brady may become. Unfortunately, the way he is injected into the story feels lazy, at least compared to the larger, soulful moments related to Brady's internal struggle to find his new sense of identity and purpose. In its critique, The Rider makes Brady a victim which is careless given the talent of the filmmakers, never making an effort to appreciate the intoxicating, visceral nature of the sport nor attempting to understand why the risks associated with such an activity as the Rodeo is well-known, and accepted; The freeing nature of the Rodeo, how this culture is intrinsically a part of this character's identity is explored but done so with a judgmental lens, which leads to the film's thematic ideals coming off as a shrewd, overly simplistic commentary on "toxic masculinity". All things considered, The Rider is still an extremely well-crafted, compelling feature, one with a noble message about respecting the aspects of life that are bigger than one's own primal self-interest, as Chloé Zhao' delivers another soulful character study.
Constructed in post-production by his wife, Valeria Sarmiento , fter his untimely death, Raoul Ruliz's final film, The Wandering Soap Opera finds the chilean master's singular formalism used to create a blistering critique of Chilean society. The tonal and stylistic aspects of the soap opera, one's rooted in absurdity, vapid drama, and high stakes, are used to present Chilean reality itself, with Ruiz packaging and presenting this story in a way that suggests the current state of Chile, the reality in which its people inhabit in its current state isn't a true reality but a manufactured one by the state and its beneficiaries. Various soap operas on television are presented as the very fabric of life, with each soap opera almost a vignette about an aspect of Chilean society which Ruiz wants to observe, and often critique. Life is presented through this Soap Opera aesthetic and tone in a way that makes Chile displayed but also examined, with the exaggerated reality of such soap operas revealing the disdain Ruiz has with the current state of his country, one that has perceivable sold its soul and its spirit for material riches. The Wandering Soap Opera is satirical in its ability to be sharply funny and strikingly full of despair congruently, with Ruiz's final film offering another piercing study of life in his home country, one full of artistic craft, singular designs, and philosophical commentary worth entertaining.
Utilizing a barebones narrative formalism which exists merely to serve the cultivation of its main characterization, Lynne Ramsay's You Were Never Really Here is a impressionistic character study which shares much more sensibilities with a psychological horror film than any narrative-based crime story. The story of a traumatized military veteran who tracks down missing girls for a living, You Were Never Really Here chronicles his latest job, one that spirals out of control rapidly, as the film uses its narrative trust to slowly and emphatically deconstruct its main protagonist, a character whose deeply scarred from past trauma. The narrative of You Were Never Really Here simply isn't all the compelling by itself, and that seems intentional, as Ramsay's designs sit far more in exploring the warped psyche of this character, a man who lives and works among violence and degradation; a man whose semblance of tranquility or at least non-violence stems from his loving relationship with his elderly mother, a man who struggles desperately to find his own sense of inner peace. A character study first and foremost, You Were Never Really Here should also be considered an effective antiwar film, as it details the heinous and subhuman ways in which the mere experience of military conflict can have on the mental state of those whom experience it. The main protagonist is a character so ravaged psychologically by what he experienced, he struggles to function in the present, routinely a slave to the destructive imagery seared into his psyche. His sense of morality feels fleeting or at least predicated and dictated to him by others, with You Were Never Really Here feeling at times like a battle of wills from within its main protagonist, a character who fights desperate to find a sense of moral purpose in this world. Joaquin Phoenix is per usual brilliant as Joe, the deeply troubled lead-character, crafting a performance that is full of pain and despair, as Ramsay's artistic designs offer up an impressionistic descent into the troubled psyche of this anti-hero, one that is brutal, visceral, and oddly compelling. The sound design, cinematography and staging all congeal well to elevate the impressionistic, tense tone of this piece, yet perhaps the best attribute is its streamlined approach, one which shows little interest in any form of exposition. This film gives no back story into this character, instead forcing the viewer to piece it together over the course of its running time, letting the viewer contemplate not only Joe's past, but also his present situation with an inquisitive mind. Is his current career rooted in an attempt to do good in the world? Does he do it out of self-inflicted anguish due to his past crimes against humanity via war? Is it simply a way to pay the bills and take care of his mother? Answers to these questions are never answered but they are explored through this course of this characterization, with Ramsay's being vague in the details yet concise in its deconstruction of a trouble man who struggles to find any sense of good at all in this world.
Featuring a non-narrative based formalism and a bare-bones budget, Adirley Queirós' Once There Was A Brasilia is a fierce piece of political filmmaking which uses the science fiction genre to elevate the visceral nature of its expression. Using non-professional actors, Once There Was A Brasilia is a free-flowing story about class revolt, an angry film which comments on the perpetual promises and failures of Brazilian democracy. Efficient economic filmmaking successful transforms a micro-budget feature into a larger-than-life science fiction epic, elevating the stakes onto an epic scale for a microbudget, which is ingenious given the film's not so coy real-world assertions. The sci-fi component is minimalist in design, with the filmmakers using a great amount of ingenuity; the way lighting and framing is used to make the film feel larger than life, even though its anger is very much rooted in non-fiction ideas. The free-flowing nature of the narrative does make the film begin to feel tedious, as pacing becomes a problem in the back half. In fact, one can't help but question if Once There Was A Brasilia would have been best served as a 30 minutes short as opposed to a 100 minute feature, as the film's fierce topical nature only feels deteriorated by a film that becomes overlong. Once There Was A Brasilia is brazen and bold, calling for a class revolt of the oligarchy but the film falls short at times in its political commentary, never stopping to question the true nature of statism in the first place, fixated on the will of the people, which almost always ends up meaning the will of I. The film never seems to truly wrestle with the ideas of authority philosophically, accepting that such a power structure is fine when its controlled by the good guys (or the masses, which are rarely the same thing). This wouldn't be a problem per se, but it's more just surprising when considering the film's ability to recognize the failings of democracy in Brazil, showcasing how no matter who wins the election, the same speeches are given about change, but nothing changes. A wildly creative, fiercely topical critique of Brazil, Once There Was A Brasilia is a fascinating work that should be seen, despite the faults of its overlong running time.
An astute, observational study of the transitional time period between young adulthood and middle-age, Dae-hwan Kim's The First Lap subverts the traditional South Korean family drama in a host of ways, revealing a startling honest portrait of adulthood that bristles with honesty, humor, and emotional resonance. The story of young lovers whom have reached a crossroads, stuck in young adult malaise in which domesticated life feels pedestrian and/or restrictive, yet the directionless nature of youthful exuberance offers no better reprieve, Dae-hwan Kim's The First Lap reveals two characters desperately attempting to understand themselves and what they want out of life. They are each confronted with the need to understand themselves and what they want, due to their prolonged relationship and the possibility of children; do they wish to focus on personal interests, companionship, or domesticated family life the most, they don't seem to know. Through the interactions this couple has with both sets of their parents, The First Lap exhibits the true nature of life itself, revealing that there is no right way or correct way to live, deconstructing how we are all individuals simply trying to do what we believe is best for ourselves and the one's we love. Paternal and maternal instincts are heavily explored in The First Lap, as the film raises a host of fascinating assertions related to what effective parenting is and what it means, recognizing that it is about sculpting the young, inquisitive mind but doing so in a way that lets them create their own identity and image, one in which they can forge their own path. The dramatic beats of the film are heavily related to the maternal pressures felt by Ji-young, whose mother is let down by her slow track in life. This struggle is beautifully juxtaposed with Su-hyeon's own problems, being the son of a blue-collar family, one in which his parents live nothing more than a loveless relationship, a fact which seemingly makes the young man ashamed of his family, at least when compared to Ji-young's successful, happily married parents. Exploring the dichotomy between the two parents, one loveless marriage, one happily in love, The First Lap subtly elevates the stakes of the young couples stagnation, showcasing the complex nature of a decision such as marriage and childbirth, decisions which will undoubtedly effect them for the rest of their life. Exploring how our individualistic nature is sculpted and molded intentionally and unintentionally by our environment and parental upbringing, The First Lap manages to be a family drama with larger ambitions, touching on existential level assertions about the human condition. The final scene of The First Lap is a simple yet profound sequence that playfully showcases the film's overarching message- The young couple out at night in Seoul, at some form of outdoor festival, finds themselves going against the crowd. They repeatedly adjust, thinking that the way the crowd is going must be correct, yet after each adjustment their perspective reverses, leaving them to constantly think they are going against the crowd. No matter how times they change direction, it seems the crowd does too; it's a silly, charming scene that establishes the two characters commitment to each other, but even more importantly it is a simple yet startling allegory about life itself, one in which the "right way" doesn't exist, reminding us that we all must find our own path.
Crafting a sensory experience using 3-D imaging with an artistry never truly seen before in the cinematic form, Blake William's Prototype is an experience that lives up to its brazen title-card; a film which feels like a first of its kind in many respects. Exhibiting complex compositions which take advantage of the technology, Prototype weaponizes the 3-D format, using its intrinsic benefits to create complex, layered visual formats, one's which only accentuate the hallucinatory, transfixing effect the experimental film strives for. While Prototype remains opaque, due largely to its intent being more grounded in the sensoral aspects of experimental cinema, Prototype from time to time offers glimpses of intention, being a reflection on the confliction between the mankind, industrial & technological progress, and the natural world, using the 1900 Galveston hurricane, as the catalyst to such an exploration. A cinematic experience in which the construction itself is worth the price of admission alone, Blake William's Prototype is an experimental film in which the density of its imagery offers a model into a more effective use of 3-D technology, one built on complexity and intricacy than the more cheap-thrills, escapist functions we see carried out with most films using the format today.
Being a narrative film composed entirely of CCTV surveillance footage, Xu Bing's Dragonfly Eyes could easily have been nothing but an arthouse gimmick, an interesting experiment but not much more. Fortunately Dragonfly Eyes is not only an intriguing artistic experiment but much more, as Xu Bing has crafted a memorable examination of contemporary China, one in which the old traditions and that way of life clash violently with the fast-paced changes to society brought by the economic boom and the promises of modernity. A peculiar love story, one between a two drifters which never fully develops in the traditional sense, Dragonfly Eyes is an affecting portrait of longing and identity, beautifully juxtaposing the internal struggle of it's main protagonists with the cold, chaotic gaze of the surveillance footage. The film's singular design takes some getting used too, but soon into the film's running time the narrative of two lost souls takes control, as the film sculpts its intricate and profound portrait of the impersonal nature of culture and Zeitgeist, one in which individuals are crushed under the momentum of the larger collective known as "society". Both protagonists in this story are individuals who struggle to find their place. They are uncomfortably with their identity, whether that be via physically or emotionally, and through their plight we witness the cold, sterile nature of society, one in which not everyone's needs can be met. Through its main protagonists, Dragonfly Eyes delivers a portrait of the collateral damage, a plea to society to not forget the more tranquil, empathetic aspects of humanity, ones that are often trampled by widespread consumerism. The cold detachment of the CCTV cameras are not only a creative artistic design but also thematically paramount in illustrating the film's thematic assertions, as the surveillance footage itself evokes the coldness of modernity, one in which people are nothing more than numbers or objects, discernible from each other on a massive scale. The internal struggle of our two main protagonists feel paramount in the scope of this story, yet juxtaposed against the CCTV footage their personal strife feels horrifically minuscule against the larger scale transformation of the culture as a whole. A powerful and relevant piece of cinema constructed in a singular way, Xu Bing's Dragonfly Eyes is a startling reminder of the no-boundaries, limitless nature of cinema at its best; an effective instrument that should be wielded to speak to large scale, complex socio-political-cultural issues pertaining to the human condition.
Love of all things cinema brought me here.