Thomas Bidegain's Les Cowboys opens in the vast prairies of eastern France, where Alain, a central figure in the community, dances and sings along with his family at a Country community festival. Cheerfully taking part in the celebration, Alain quickly finds his world shattered, when he discovers that his sixteen-year-old daughter, Kelly, has gone missing. Searching desperately for any clue to his daughter's whereabouts, Alain learns of his daughter's relationship with Abdul Muhammad, an Arab man, sparking his own intuitions that his daughter was forced to leave against her will. Embarking on a quest to find his daughter, Alain's relentless search finds him venture into far off places in pursuit of his lost daughter, with his son, Kid, being the only individual willing to accompany him on this seemingly futile quest. Featuring a sprawling narrative that spans years and multiple perspectives, Thomas Bidegain's Les Cowboys is a masterclass in the economics of filmmaking, a film that manages to maintain its intimacy no matter the deep-seeded complexities of its story. The first half of the film focuses on Alain's growing obsession with finding his daughter, showcasing how this man is unintentionally sacrificing his own son's youth in an effort to find his daughter. Considering Kelly routinely sends letters updating her family about her new life, many of Alain's friends and family have given up the "search" but Alain relentlessly persists, convinced that his daughter's disappearance was not a choice. Alain's own prejudices have effectively blurred his judgement, with his daughter falling in love with a Muslim man and leaving the country seeming simply inconceivable to him. Even his own son, Kid, begins to see the flaws in his father's pursuit, but when Alain dies in a tragic car crash, Kid's desire to find his sister becomes reinvigorated, triggered at least in part by his own guilt about his father's death. From there, Kid heads down a similar path as his father, only to discover the error of his father's ways when he himself begins to neglect those in his life which he cares about. A film that captures the complexities of the modern world we live in, Les Cowboys is a film that offers more questions than answers, and rightfully so, never pretending to understand or grasp the various complexities of humanity, life and liberty. Preconceived notions and prejudice is one of the central aspects of Les Cowboys, a film that finds Alain's actions, though well-intentioned, destroy his family and indirectly take his own life. His son on the other-hand, through a rigorous experience, becomes able to accept his sister's life decisions, showing an ability to let go of his preconceived notions of his sister's relationship with Abdul and what it might mean, instead focusing on his own family and the new relationship he has begun with an Arab woman. Told through the perspective of Alain and Kid, Les Cowboys never fully explains Kelly's journey to the viewer, only presenting tidbits of the rocky ending to her relationship with Abdul, never covering up for him nor demonizing him. Les Cowboys instead understand that what's most important is that Kelly's relationship with Abdul was a choice of her own free will, for better or worse, with the film beautifully exhibiting how both Alain and Kid succumbed to their own prejudices related to a culture different than their own, emotionally blinded by their well-intentioned fear for their daughter/sister's well-being. A complex film that has lots to digest as it relates to the current state of terrorism, prejudice, migration, and culture, Thomas Bidegain's Les Cowboys is a humanistic story of hope and understanding, a film about the importance of letting go of what you can't control and preconceived notions, focusing on the positives of what one does have, with Kid, unlike his father, not letting his own preconceived notions of anger or frustration blur his ability to see the truth about Kelly's disappearance in the end.
Set in the beautiful bush of New Zealand, Taika Waititi's Hunt For The Wilderpeople is comedic and heartfelt story of friendship and family, centered around Ricky, a defiant city kid, who has just been assigned to a new foster home in the New Zealand countryside. While adjusting to his new life in the countryside is a bit of a culture shock, thanks to the loving Aunt Bella, Ricky finds himself at home rather quickly, though the cantankerous Uncle Hec doesn't exactly show the same affection for the newest member of the family. When tragedy strikes in the unexpectedly death of Aunt Bella, Ricky finds his new home life threatened by social services wanting to ship him to another home, forcing both he and Hec into the bush. With a national manhunt unfolding, Hec and Ricky are forced to work together, slowly forming their own semblance of family. Taika Waititi's Hunt For The Wilderpeople is very much a film in the spirit of Roald Dahl, a film busting with youthful exuberance and a sense of adventure, effectively transporting the viewer into the perspective a young character in Ricky, one who has never meshed well with authority figures. Creating a hyper-real sense of reality, Hunt For The Wilderpeople is a fantastical adventure that finds Ricky and Mic come across a host of unique characters along their adventure, with the film beautifully exhibiting how adolescence itself is a journey of self-discovery and parental support. Mic and Ricky's relationship isn't particularly a loving one at first, with Mic being a loner himself who shows little respect for authority, but one of the more touching aspects of Hunt For The Wilderpeople is how these two characters learn to confide in each other, forming a bond and coming to appreciate each other despite their reluctance towards any state of authority. Aunt Bella's seemingly endless love was the only authority each of these characters respected, and with her untimely death these two characters are forced to work together, leading to comical and touching results. Balancing both the film's comedic and dramatic elements to perfection, Taika Waititi has created another crowd-pleasing, touching story with Hunt For The Wilderpeople, a film that is consistently funny while also managing to deliver a genuine, touching portrait of adolescence and the inherent desire/need for companionship and/or guidance.
From Afar (2016) - Lorenzo Vigas
Lorenzo Vigas' From Afar is an observant, opaque relationship study between Armando, a middle-aged owner of a Caracas dental prosthesis business, and Elder, a young street kid, who Armando begins to show an interest in. Using a minimalist approach that features very little dialogue, Lorenzo Vigas' From Afar relies heavily on its visual aesthetic to slowly unravel the complexities of its characters, revealing a nuanced and challenging study of sexual repression and discovery that remains intentionally enigmatic about the background of its characters. With Armando taking a liking to the young Elder, paying him a large fee to be an object for the older man to masturbate too, From Afar observes these two characters somewhat toxic relationship, one formed out of quiet desperation and alienation, with each character providing something the other desperately lacks. While Armando provides Elder with financial assistance, Elder provides Armando a form of connection he severely lacks, with From Afar vaguely hinting towards a fractured relationship between Armando and his father, which one can only imagine stems from Armando's homosexuality. From Afar is sure to frustrate due to its aggressive opaqueness, but what Lorenzo Vigas has created is a tightly coiled mood piece of quite oppression, with these two characters' forced to hid their homosexuality in an environment where it is less than accepted. From Afar captures the toxic effect in which masculinity can have on sexual liberation, with Elder in particular maintaining a rough exterior toughness throughout, rejecting his feelings at first, hiding behind the tough, society defined masculine exterior. The conflicted feelings of Elder are a major aspect, as is Armando's exact intentions, with Lorenzo Vigas' From Afar heading to a highly combustible conclusion that is never fully defined or explained. Recommended only for those willing to navigate a more opaque character study that provides more questions than answers, Lorenzo Vigas From Afar is a quietly transfixing study of two desperate men, slowly and methodically revealing the toxic relationship that develops due to sexual repression, self-discovery, and angst.
Eva Husson's Bang Gang: A Modern Love Story opens with a bang, pun intended, featuring a well designed tracking shot that introduces the viewer to the world they are about to experience, one full of promiscuity, sex, and drugs. The sequence is designed to shock and titillate, documenting this wild party among various high school students, doing so before any form of characterization has begun. From there the film goes back to the beginning, introducing us to the lives of of these various characters, attempting to divulge exactly how all of these unique teenage characters went down a singular path. Bang Gang: A Post Modern Love Story is a film about the confusion and codependency of youth, specifically focusing on bewilderment as it pertains to love, lust, and companionship. While I'd argue the film doesn't bring anything particularly new to the table in this specific examination, Bang Gang is effective at capturing how one hides their true feelings under the veil of promiscuity, with both George and Laetitia, two of the primary female characters in our story, each turning to sexuality as a way to feel wanted and desired. I'm sure there are some that will fixate on the gender politics of this story, but i'd argue they are completely missing the point, as nearly all these characters, both male and female, struggle to express themselves due to their lack of parental guidance. At its core, Gang Bang is a film about the importance of people learning from their own mistakes, never making excuses for these characters actions while simultaneously acknowledging their lack of guidance. The way the film documents the parental figures throughout the film is one of the more interesting artistic aspects of the entire film, acknowledging their presence, though often regulating them to the background of the film. Whether it be keeping them in the background of the frame or literally having them outside of the composition entirely, Bang Gang visually captures the lack of guidance these characters have, never blaming the parents, simply showing them through the perspective of these teenage characters. While Bang Gang achieves much of what it sets out to do, I'd be re-missed if I didn't comment on how didactic the narrative can unfold at times, being far too forceful in design, particularly when it comes to the free sex & drug elements that seem to intentionally push the boundaries for the sake of scoping its themes. In fact, I'd argue one of the most fascinating aspects of Bang Gang is completely unintentional, being that it exposes the toxic effect which collectivism has on the individuals' ability to think for themselves. There is no better example of this than the character of Gabriel, a young, loner type character who harbors some resentment towards his parents. Gabriel is the only character in this story with any form of responsibility, an outsider due to his obligations when it comes to helping his disabled father. Due to his responsibility which the others lack, Gabriel is the only character who recognizes the toxic effect these sex parties are having on his peers, particularly George, who has essentially lost her self respect and identity due to wanting to fit in with the crowd. Gabriel's individualism is the spark that helps George reclaim her self, as Gabriel shows empathy towards George, valuing her for more than her external beauty. Far too didactic at times, Bang Gang: A Modern Love Story is a film that teeters on the edge of being too forceful for its own good, with the film's most interesting aspects being related to individualism and the importance of learning from ones own mistakes.
Xavier Seron's Death By Death is a bizarre, yet captivating, comical study of depression and insecurities, focusing on the exploits of a dispirited man who constantly wrestles with his own mortality. Stuck between a needy mother, and a girlfriend who wants to move in together, the young man suffers through an existential crisis, haunted by his mother's bout with breast cancer, among other paranoid fixations on mortality. Xavier Seron's Death By Death is a singular vision of the existential crises, a film that follows a man whose insecurities have led him down a constant path of paranoia and ambivalence towards nearly everything around him. The most striking aspect of Seron's vision is simply how tonally comedic the whole experience is, with Death By Death featuring a pitch black comedy that doesn't hold back in presenting the borderline nihilism of its character. The film doesn't look down on the character, quite the opposite, but at the same time Death By Death proudly finds the comedy in his situation, being a film that is a fine example of the importance of comedy, even in times of depression. Death By Death embraces the inherent selfishness that exists in all individuals, contrasting this sad sack's ambivalence and paranoia towards everyone around him with his inner empathy for that of his mother and his girlfriend, who eventually breaks up with him towards the end of the film. It's only after these characters are out of the picture that this character becomes emotionally effected, with Death By Death capturing the importance of being happy/appreciating what one does have, doing so in its own unique, brutally honest way. Shot in black-and-white, Death By Death features a rather unique cinematic vision, oscillating between surrealistic moments and tight, close-up compositions, both of which wonderfully capture the underlying emotions of its main protagonist. Deceptively smart about depression, insecurity, and mortality, Xavier Seron's Death By Death is a bold, brutally honest portrait of death and life, being a film that I could only imagine is going to accrue a cult following eventually due to the brazen, quirky, cinematic universe it is able to create.
The last film of Alexandr Dovzhenko, whose widow, Yuliva Solntseva went on to complete after his death, The Poem Of The Sea is a contemplative exploration of post war Soviet Union touching on various themes which include youth and maturity, nature and technology, and collectivism. Philosophical in nature, The Poem Of The Sea is a film that could certainly be described as one that bites off more than it can chew, delivering an expansive narrative with a host of characters which frequently oscillates between fantasy, reality, and memory. The film is centered around the construction of the Kakhovskaya hydroelectric power station, a massive project for the betterment of the collective that forces the permanent closure of a small villages along the banks of the Drieper river, an area that will be underwater permanently with the creation of the Kakhovskoye Sea. The Poem Of The Sea is a powerful study of renewal and rebirth, documenting both the young and the old as they push forward for the better of their "fatherland". For the senior generation, who still feels haunted by the dark days of World War II, the destruction of their small village is very hard for them to accept, reluctant to see their homes destroyed, with the filmmakers routinely exhibiting their past memories through the striking, and often poetic sequences that beautifully juxtapose their individual experiences with that of the needs of the collective. The reverse is true for the youth, who effectively wish to smash down everything old with enthusiasm, embracing the new brighter future with open arms. The conflict of progress/innovation with tradition/history is at the center of The Poem Of The Sea, a film that at its core is about transformation and resurrection. In Poem of The Sea, nature itself is a character, with the vast sea and open waterways being representative of the old and the new, serving as a symbol of the progress of the Soviet Union through the completion of this new waterway. Alexandr Dovzhenko & Yuliva Solntseva's The Poem of The Sea is very uneven, and muddled with too many characters, but the films beautiful cinematography and poetic exploration of progress is philosophically dense and transfixing nonetheless.
Yang Zhang's Paths of The Soul is a stunning documentary chronicling the journey of a group of Tibetans as they pilgrimage to Lasa, the holy capital of Tibet. The first 15 minutes or so of the film take place before their pilgrimage begins, with the filmmakers spending the time to introduce the viewer to these character's environment. From a visual perspective, Paths of the Soul relies heavily on wide lens cinematography to capture the immense solitude of these characters who are utterly secluded in the mountains where they have a simple form of tranquility. Once these character do begin their pilgrimage, one that spans 1,200 km by foot, the scale of this expedition is felt in every frame of Paths of the Soul, serving as a strong reminder of the power faith can have on the individual. Making their journey more utterly disparaging, from an outsider's perspective, is their whole expedition involves them doing something called Kawtow, where they repetitiously prostrate themselves onto the ground via individual hand planks, creating a praying motion as they make this pilgrimage. Documenting them night and day, Paths of The Soul is a fantastic observational study, as the communal nature of this community begins to stand out, at least for someone like me who comes from the western world whose ideology stand for more individualist independence. One could argue it's by necessity, as these men, women and children venture over 10 months to their destination facing intense obstacles along the way. Their journey is full of beauty in the birth of a child, and despair in the death of a senior member, with Paths of Glory effectively capturing the full array of human emotion as these characters work together to complete their pilgrimage. The clash between the modern and the ancient world is also captured, with a significant part of the Tibetans journey being along a road way, where they are routinely passed by large Chinese trucks and other vehicles, reminders of the modern age. Above everything else though, I found Paths of Souls a fascinating study of the power of faith, with the Tibetans going through a lot and never showing much panic. There is a car accident that seriously damages their tractor, they don't panic, showing a docile nature that is without question directly related to their faith. It may be perceived as a weakness by some, but for those people I'd even suggest that must mean ignorance is bliss, as Paths of Glory demonstrates how relatively free of fear these characters are due to their religious faith. A powerful study of the human condition that is beautifully photographed, Paths of the Soul is a film that touches on every emotion in the human lexicon, being a powerful study of humanity and faith.
Drawing heavily from the 70s Italian horror masters, Anna Biller's The Love Witch is a modern technicolor dream, a vibrant and fierce feminist vampire story. A beautiful and young witch, Elaine, is a woman who struggles to find a man that will love her for more than her visual appeal. In her gothic-technicolor infused apartment she creates spells and potions, picking up various men with her powers of seduction. Elaine is convinced that fulfilling a man's needs through physical lust is the only way for a woman to find love, but when her potions begin to work to well she ends up with men who become very sensitive, leading them to become victims of Elaine's wraith. Anna Biller's The Love Witch is a highly entertaining experience, a film that goes for broke in its lavish technicolor aesthetic, capturing the look and the feel of the era in cinema while being both satirical yet appreciative as it comments on various aspects of our patriarchal-based society. Female sexuality is one fascinating themes of The Love Witch, as the film draws parallels between witchcraft and really any religion, all of which were established through patriarchy and a very barbaric perspective of female sexuality. One example of this is the presumed leader of Elaine's witch clan, a male,who explains to Elaine that woman must seek their empowerment through their visual beauty. There is also a scene where the townsfolk in a bar begin to go chant "Burn the Witch" a rather obvious parallel to the Salem Witch trails which saw many woman burned alive for reasons completely out of their control. Through Elaine's journey in a film that features intentionally stoic action, cold line delivery, and a borderline exaggerated reality in the way men and woman communicate, The Love Witch explores how empowerment through sexuality is still a form of feminine oppression, in the sense that they are doing something more for someone elses wishes than their own. This is a film that essentially flips the stereotypical gender roles, exposing the absurdity on both sides of the toughness of masculinity and the sensitivity of femininity, butt make no mistake The Love Witch also flips the script on the typical consequences of our perceived patriarchy. Using her love potions, Elaine is doing the exact same thing that men do, when they treat woman simply for their bodies. Elaine stripes of their free will as they fall madly in love with her, having her way this time instead of males when it comes gender roles. The reason one simply can't deny that the film acknowledges the stupidity of these pre-defined gender roles, cutting both ways, is Elaine's comment after her first lover, a college professor becomes incredibly emotional about his love for her, calling him "a pussy", annoyed by his constant emotional state. While this film may sound too dense for many viewers I couldn't recommend it enough just on a pure comedy, satire level, as Anna Biller has crafted a very enjoyable throwback film that's script is sharp and gleefully stoic.
Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is a genuinely funny satirical take down of our celebrity obsessed culture that is both juvenile and surprisingly astute when it comes to the vapid nature of contemporary pop culture. Told in documentary style, the film follows the meteoric rise of conner4real a rap legend who made his name as a member of The Style Boys only to spin off his personal into a successful solo act. Conner4real has just released his newest album, which features his own writing and producing, but when it fails to sell records conner4real goes into a major tailspin, as he sees his fame and celebrity collapsing under his feet. His only way to even possibly bounce back? A reunion with his old rap group, The Style Boys, a relationship conner4real fractured in the first place due to his ego. From the same minds that brought us Lonely Island on SNL, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping takes the bombastic approach to comedy, delivering a barrage of jokes that don't always work, but I'd be lying if I didn't say I laughed throughout the film's running time. I won't go into details, but some comedic setpieces in Popstar do standout from others, including a memorable spoof of TMZ. The songs throughout also vary somewhat in comedic quality, but one of connor4real's songs, Not Cry, is one of my favorite satirical moments of thr film, a not so subtle dig on Macklemore and really pop cultures arrogance towards shaping social issues. Through it's juvenile comedy Popstar also comments on the corrosive aspects of power, showcasing how it can breed ignorance, and strangle collaboration. Loaded with cameos, including a memorable small roll for Justin Timberlake, and a satirically sharp examination of the excess and vapidness of contemporsry pop culture, Popstar is an enjoyable comedic mockumentary that should keep most viewers entertained from start to finish.
Taking place in 1932 Vienna, David Ruhm's Therapy For A Vampire is a highly entertaining comedy about renowned psychiatrist, Sigmund Freud, taking on his newest patient, an older gentleman who happens to be a vampire. Like any good film of a similar ilk, Therapy For A Vampire succeeds far more than it doesn't due to its ability to play with the various tropes of the vampire lexicon, providing creative comedy out of pop-culture knowledge of what a being a vampire entails. For starters, this vampire who visits Freud is deeply depressed, struggling with the fact that he doesn't have the same existential crisis as all humans, pining for a love he lost while he feels entrapped for eternity with his wife who he has grown tired of. His wife is terribly vain, incessantly complaining about not being able to see herself in the mirror, even resorting to pestering her husband for complements about her looks in an attempt to fulfill her narcissism. When this deeply unsettled couple meets another young couple in Viktor, a young painter who specializes in portraits, and his girlfriend, Lucy, who bares a striking resemblance to Viktor's past love, a deadly game of cat and mouse begins. Therapy For A Vampire is just as much about relationship dynamics as vampires, being a film about two characters in Viktor and Lucy who clearly care for each other, but constantly squabble due to their various insecurities and oppressive antics. An artist, Viktor is a character who strives for perfection, an inherently selfish individual on some levels, who drives Lucy crazy due to his pre-conceived notions of what she, as a woman should be. Through their insane encounter with the Count and Countess, Luke inevitably realizes that there is no normal, as it becomes apparent that Therapy For A Vampire was cleverly using the vampire figure as a storytelling device related to the fallacy of normalcy in humanity. Make no mistake though, Therapy For A Vampire is a lot of fun, where even if you don't want to look beneath the surface you are bound to have a good time. It has very little violence but when it comes to gore the film doesn't hold back, delivering comical levels of blood splatter in a few memorable scenes. Considering the supernatural qualities of the story, and what I perceive was a rather small budget, Therapy For A Vampire also features some great examples of economical filmmaking throughout, whether it be through use of composition or off-screen action. Featuring one ongoing gag centered around Vampires' compulsive desire to count, which pays off in spades comedically during the back half of the film, Therapy of A Vampire is a charming, funny piece of filmmaking that uses the vampire mythology to deconstruct the very idea of normalcy.
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