While coming of age stories tend to be one of the most overused story archetypes in all of independent cinema, Felix Thompson's King Jack is a film that manages to elevate itself above most, due in large part to its detailed, complex characterization of its main protagonist. King Jack is about the importance of standing up to oneself and being yourself, sure, but where it's most interesting is its examination of loneliness and the effect it can have on the individual. Centered around Jack, a teenager who is living a life of near solitude, the film's greatest attribute is its ability to capture the vulnerability of loneliness, the angst it can cause, and the overall effect solitude has on any human-being.. A film that understands the importance of nuance and subtlety, King Jack never fully explains the situation in which Jack finds himself in, offering only details related to his damaged relationship with his older brother, the absence of his father, and a mother who is unintentionally neglecting her son due to her busy schedule as the single provider for her family. When Jack's aunt falls ill, his younger cousin Ben comes to stay with them, and the relationship that Jack and Ben form is the strength of the film, in that they are both characters' who feel a sense of dejection from the cruelties of the world. Through this slowly evolving relationship, King Jack captures how detachment by nature is dehumanizing, with Jack's loner status indirectly effecting his ability to form a healthy relationship with his cousin, Ben. The film beautifully captures the angst that can creep into any lonely individual, with Jack being a character who himself struggles at times to form any type of relationship/companionship due to his inherent selfishness, which is fundamentally scoped by his own loneliness. King Jack is far from perfect, as I found many of the characters outside of this main relationship between Jack and Ben feel underwritten and underdeveloped, particularly Jack's Mom & the primary antagonistic bully, but the film still manages to work thanks to the strength of its main characterization. Felix Thompson's King Jack is a great example of the importance of character over all else, being a film that manages to succeed on an emotional and psychological level, regardless of its shortcomings, because of its strong, well-defined central character.
Anna Rose Holmer's The Fits is a singular vision of the confusion of adolescence, the curiosity of the unknown, and the importance of finding oneself among the collective. Centered around Toni, an 11-year-old girl, who spends almost all of her time in the boxing gym with her brother, The Fits chronicles this young woman as she becomes infatuated with a tight-knit dance team, enamored by the confidence and power which they elicit. Toni works hard to learn the routines, splitting her time between the boxing gym and the dance troop, but when a a mysterious sickness begins to plague the team causing faiting spells and violent fits, Toni's desire to fit in with her new friends is challenged. A film that embraces the mystery and intrigue of its character's plight, The Fits is a one-of-a-kind coming of age story that spells out very little for the viewer, relying far more on the psychological atmosphere it's able to create, in delivering a impressive portrait of the inner psyche of a young girl who is trying to find herself. I wouldn't go as far as to call The Fits oblique but it certainly doesn't provide easy answers either, relying on surrealistic touches throughout to create an expressive portrait of the young Toni, evoking her inner psychology through use of sound and image. Toni is a character who finds herself essentially trapped between these very, societal perceived, masculine and feminine worlds in boxing and dance, with The Fits capturing how society, in a sense, demands conformity, dictated by the desires of the majority. Always maintaining a subjective lens, The Fits routinely juxtaposes these masculine and feminine worlds which Toni is caught between, stripping away societies preconceived notions of what men and woman should be, showing the similarities and differences which exist while simultaneously reminding the viewer that the individual never has to fit into the majorities' mold. My favorite example of this would be when The Fits juxtaposes the dancers getting measured and weighed for their costumes with the boxers' getting weighed for their upcoming fights, capturing how both groups go through similar routines, in regards to their physical status, to prepare for competition. Towards the end of this scene on of the boxers comes up to tease Toni for joining the dance team, her response being a punch to the gut, a simple action to the naked eye, but one that further subverts the preconceived notions related to femininity and masculinity. What makes The Fits such a compelling film is simply how unwilling it is to spell anything out for the viewer, welcoming multiple interpretations in its unique vision of adolescence. From the sound design, which feels more at place in a horror movie than a coming of age story, to its visual aesthetic, which always aims to subjectively capture its characters' psyche, The Fits is one of the most unique coming of age films I've seen in quite awhile, a film that trumpets the importance of maintaining individuality when entering into a collective, which in this case would be the dance team in Cincinnati's West End.
In the same vein of Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing, Federico Lodoli & Carlo Gabriele Tribbioli's Fragment 53, Liberian Notes is an exploration of Liberia's violent history through the eyes of seven different men, each sharing their cruel memories of the violence they witnessed. Fragment 53, Liberian Notes shows very little interest on the specific battles or confrontations these men faced, instead this is a film that wishes to evoke the very essence of war itself, delivering a terrifying and hypnotic look at the personal hell that these men experienced. Featuring the interviews of seven men, made up of eminent warriors, generals, and warlords in Liberia, Fragments 53 deconstructs the chilling effect war can have on the human psyche, with many of these men being almost aggressively apathetic towards their past actions, a shill of their former selves after being hardened by their experiences in the various Liberian armed conflicts. Any personal and historical context is intentionally left out of each of these seven self-portraits, with Fragment 53 reinforcing the impersonal nature of conflict, where death and violence is merely a part of the day-to-day for these men, each who have effectively been desensitized to the true value of human life. Through Fragments 53, Liberian Notes' visual design, the film manages to be both grandiose yet intimate, creating a hypnotic experience that is transfixing and affecting. During the interviews, Fragments 53, Liberian Notes maintains a continuous tightness of frame, the compositions evoking a sense of claustrophobia and uncertainty that serves as a subjective lens for these characters' as they share their past experiences. Between the interviews, Liberian Notes' punctuates the setting of these warriors using wider lensed photography, evoking the emptiness and tranquility of the setting around them, an effective juxtaposition between the deep-seeded scars resting inside these men's souls and that of nature, which is accustomed to such conflict as a part of existence. The seven self-contained portraits are book-ended by voice over of General Philip Wue's vision of the world, juxtaposing haunting imagery of nocturnal landscapes and death, a meditative and hypnotic statement that isn't optimistic, understanding that violence, death, and conflict are merely a very part of nature and life itself. Perhaps the most terrifying truth that Fragment 53 reveals is simply that humanity adjusts and adapts, even to extremism and violence, with many of the soldiers documented in this film being borderline apathetic (or desensitized) towards the extremities of their past conflicts. Providing a subjective lens for each of these warriors to express their past experiences, Fragments 53, Liberian Notes is a startling meditation on War which uses the violent, modern history of Liberia to examine the true nature and essence of war itself.
Chirs Sparling's Mercy is part home invasion thriller, part family drama, a horror/thriller that relies heavily on its mystery and intrigue to deliver its chilling tale of moral fortitude. Taking place almost entirely over the course of one chaotic evening, Mercy is the story of two sets of brothers which combined make up one fractured family. Returning to their childhood home to be with their mother on her deathbed, many of these characters haven't spoken with each other in awhile, and much of the first half of Chris Sparling's Mercy focuses on the mystery and intrigue centered around this family. Estranged and antagonistic, it becomes clear early on that the lines are clearly divided between these two sets of brothers, with Mercy remaining vague as to exactly why their is so much pent up animosity. It's clear that their animosity is only heightened by the presence of their seething father, which only two of the brothers, Ronnie & TJ share, hinting that much of this divide is fueled by old pain and resentment centered around their shared mother's first husband, the father of Travis and Brad, the two other brothers. As the night progresses, family secrets are revealed, with things taking a more sinister turn with the arrival of a a group of mysterious masked men. Mercy is a film that is intentional vague, almost too a fault early on, reluctant to give any type of true insights into why these characters have so much pent up aggression. Their anger on the surface is related to the four brothers decision whether to use an experimental drug on their mother, which could theoretically ease her suffering, but it becomes clear that their real infighting and distrust may have something to do with their mother's enormous inheritance, with each set of brothers showing concerns over where all her money will go when she does finally pass on. While the first half of Mercy is basically a tense, family drama, the second half of Mercy reveals itself as a home invasion style horror film, with this mysterious group of masked men only further complicating the exact circumstances of what is going on and who can be trusted. Mercy's horror elements are simply solid, with a few good moments of tension and jump scares throughout, but what makes its back-half excel is the way its told, providing different perspectives across the same similar timeline, a technique that manages to tell a rather simple story in a much more compelling, and interesting way. Once the home invasion begins, the timeline is fractured, much like this family, with Chris Sparling's screenplay slowly and intelligently revealing the true nature of these intruders and the fate of the family in a non-linear way. Without spoiling the film, Mercy is a story about greed, with the home intruders a representing cleansing presence by the end of the film, an old testament style brand of justice against the greed of all of Mercy's principle characters, a families whose intentions themselves are more sinister. A film that puts far more stock in its mystery elements than its horror lynchpins, Chis Sparling's Mercy is a fun little horror thriller that will surely keep you guessing from start to finish, even if you have a hard time showing any type of empathy for its characters.
Maria Goven's Play The Devil tells the story of Gregory, a gifted student from the lower class, who through hardwork and perseverance is the front runner to win a prestigious medical scholarship. While Gregory's grandmother couldn't be happier, Gregory secretly cultivates his desire to be a photo journalist, though he seemingly accepts the "reality" of his situation and the unliklihood of being able to pursue his passion. Enter James, an established and successful businessman, who begins to show an interest in Gregory, using his wealth and access in life to help Gregory, though it becomes clear that James does have romantic interests in the young man. James access opens doors but it also forces Gregory to confront his surpressed homosexuality, with James' gifts being a form of authority and power, that themselves become just another element of Gregory's oppression. Play the Devil is a film of many layers, touching on class, sexuality, religion, and individuality in its examination of Gregory, a character who has long been forced to live in a masculine dominated culture. There are many film's that touch on "coming out" or sexual oppression, but what stands out about Play the Devil is it is much bigger than that, being a film that is truly about the importance of individualsm, self esteem, and being comfortable with oneself, instead of relying on the collective aka societies expectation of what you should be. The film is really about the suppressive nature of authority, with money, societies' dominate form of sexuality, and preconceived definitions of masculinity being all oppressive representations of power and collectivism. Play the Devil ends in a way that may feel too open ended for some, but I'd argue it's the perfect ending for this story, as Gregory is faced with having to live with the guilt of what happened, guilt that at least in part, stems from his inability to be honest with himself and embrace his own individualsm. While Maria Goven's Play With The Devil does lack subtle and nuance in some of it's storytelling, relying on too much clear cut exposition, the film manages to elevate itself among mere LGBT film, making a much larger statement about societies' built in suppression of individualism.
Taking place in a small village located deep in the South Korean mountains, Hong-jin Na's The Wailing sees the filmmaker try his hand at the supernatural horror genre, delivering a memorable, atmospheric experience that sees the filmmakers penchant for engrossing and complex crime thrillers translate beautifully in this supernatural tale of Good vs. Evil. The story is centered around Jong-gu, a police sergeant and family man, who finds himself in the center of chaos when a mysterious, deadly disease begins to engulf this small, quiet community. The arrival of this disease perfectly coincides with the arrival of a mysterious outsider, a Japanese man, which creates whispers among the small community that he may be responsible. When Jong-gu's young daughter begins to show the symptoms of this deadly, mysterious phenomenon, the generally timid policeman is emotionally drawn into the action, intent solving the mystery and saving his daughter no matter what type of supernatural force he must face. The Wailing is another incredibly creative, complex genre-bender, that's narrative leaves the viewer constantly conflicted about what exactly is going on. Hong-jin Na takes advantage of the films supernatural elements, with a narrative that feels constantly in flux, and to be honest I can't think of a film that left me so in the dark about its outcome throughout. Twists and turns abound the narratice itself is fantastic, but the film is also full of interesting thematic ideals that subverts theology and faith, being a one of a kind take on the theology based subgenre of horror. The Wailing explores the concept of faith in such unique ways, commenting on the overwhelming importance of personal belief and conviction while also exposing humanities desire and need for rational explanations, with this small town routinely looking to man-made tonics, and xenophobia in an attempt to rationalize the horror they are experiencing. Tense, intelligent, unpredictable, and atmospheric, Hong-jin Na's The Wailing is motivated, in part, by man's fear of being unable to logically define their environment, tapping into the horror of that as Hong-jin Na delivers another singular vision.
Taking place approximately 10 years after the events of Days Of The Future Past, X-Men: Apocalypse finds Charles Xavier's School For the Gifted thriving as a place where mutant kind can feel at peace. All that changes though with the emergence of Apocalypse, the world's first mutant, who awakens from a thousands years slumber only to be disillusioned by the weakness of the world he finds in front of him. Intent on righting this perceived wrong, Apocalypse begins to assemble a team of the most powerful mutants, including a disheartened Magneto, intent on creating a new world in his image. X-Men: Apocalypse is a film that suffers from the same problems as almost all superhero movies these days, being a film in which the bombastic action and enormous set pieces get in the way of the character development. Introducing a lot of new characters, such as a young Jean Grey and Scott Summers, the character aspects of this film are often compelling, which makes the fact that character development always seems to fall secondary to action all the more frustrating. The action is obviously a essential aspect to the X-Men franchise, but with this film in particular it felt merely tacked on, bombastic, and lazy with the quieter moments centered around these young characters attempting to adjust being by far the most compelling characterizations of the film. I know it's an unrealistic desire, considering the studio system, but X-Men:Apocalypse left me pinning for an indie style storyline with these characters, one where their social struggles to both fit in with society and be comfortable with themselves not feeling second fiddle to cgi porn. To be fair, the action alone isn't to blame either, as the the whole film just feels far too overstuffed, touching on a lot of interesting ideas. I'd argue this could have been a much stronger story if split into two films, which would have given both the action and emotion of the story more time to breath. Humor me here, but one thing that really stood out about X-Men Apocalypse is just how much the main villain resembles the current state of American politics, with Apocalypse's new world order mentality appealing to the disenfranchised mutants who are suffering and in pain, like Magneto, whose become a disciple to Apocalypse because he has let his anger dictate his decision making. Bryan Singer's X-Men Apocalypse isn't a bad film by any means, just an overstuffed one, which is frustrating when considering the potential of some of the characters and the themes associated with the civil rights movement, something which the Xmen franchise has always been a representation of.
Making her directorial debut, Amber Tamblyn's Paint It Black is a fierce examination of grief, depression, and the importance of self, a film that certainly struggles at times with pacing and other issues, but is hard not to appreciate due to the filmmaker's passion for the themes and human qualities of the story shining through. Taking place in the aftermath of the death of a loved one, a young artist named Michael, Paint It Black is the story of two characters in Michael's girlfriend, Josie, and his mother, Meredith, each of which has been shattered to learn of Michael's death, a suicide I should add. For Josie, the mere attempt to come to terms with Michael's death feels insurmountable, a young, "semi-impoverished LA dreamer" (the film is kinda vague about her goals and her apartment is decent but cool) whose lost the person she lived with, seemingly spent almost every moment with, who she shared her life with. Meredith is of a completely different ilk on the surface, an accomplished pianist who lives in large house, a woman who quite viciously holds Josie responsible for her son's suicide, viewing her as the source of her son's torment. From there is where Paint it Black gets fascinating and somewhat frustrating, as Meredith and Josie form a complex and subversive relationship, where their distrust towards each other is in constant conflict with their need of one and other for solace in their time of grief. Using these two seemingly different individuals, Paint It Black is an honest portrait of the deep-seeded pain of grief, capturing how in times of extreme pain one has a hard time finding solace in the comforts of anyone else, particularly those who didn't share the same personal connection. Throughout this film both Meredith and Josie are essentially greeted with polite gestures of empathy yet they feel no solace, with Paint In Black capturing the insultingly simplistic nature of pleasantries in extreme grief. With both Josie and Meredith in this state of grief, the only chance of solace lies in each other, with their pent up aggression, due to this tragedy, being in constant conflict with their need for condolence from someone who truly understands their pain. In the film's examination of these two woman, Paint It Black also investigates the nature between self pity and ego, impressively balancing this with the importance of understanding the overbearing weight of extreme grief, exhibiting how these are not mutual exclusive concepts but just elements of the human experience, intertwined with one and other. The problem at times is that Paint It Black can be far too didactic in approach, whether its unnecessary expositional dialogue or unnecessary scenes completely, the filmmakers' don't rely on visual storytelling enough. That is not to say the filmmakers don't make a lot of daring and creative decisions throughout, as Paint It Black has some imaginative, expressionistic moments that visually capture the inner torment of these characters. The reason I found the film too uneven lies more specifically with the line the film totes between strange, psychological thriller and well-observed exploration of grief, as I at times found myself wishing Paint It Black went full out camp, with Meredith being one of the more memorable aspects of Paint It Black, for better or worse depending on your perspective, due to her vibrant performance. Janet McTeer gives a strange performance as the tormented mother, with Paint It Black getting quite a few unintentional laughs due her flamboyancy. I'd even argue the tone of the film even gets muddled when it seems to suggest Meredeth's borderline obsession and love for her son may be at least somewhat incestuous in nature. A film can certainly be both a thriller and a potent tale of humanistic emotions, but the tone of Paint It Black made me want it to completely embrace its madness, which in turn hurts the balance of the film's more humanistic intentions. Paint It Black's examination of grief is far more nuanced than its examination of depression, though I'd argue that didn't bother me that much considering it focuses on the aftermath of the suicide, though certainly acknowledging that their is a shared connection between the two of them. In the end, Paint It Black seems about the importance of keeping some form of empathy in times of pain, but also the importance of receiving it in return. There is a character Josie meets towards the end of the film, who also suffers in a way I wont detail, that represents a surrogate version of Josie herself, in a sense, someone who can share the same type of twisted relationship Meredith had with Josie, as the film seems to suggest that Meredith is finally becoming free of her grief and subsequent depression, due the extreme concord Josie was able to provide by the end of their twisted relationship. While Amber Tamblyn's Paint It Black can be frustratingly uneven and a bit didactic in approach, the film delivers a fierce energy in its study of grief, a cocktail of self pity, dependency, anger, empathy, and madness.
Josephine Decker's Butter On The Latch is an expressionistic nightmare, an impressive achievement for a first time feature that offers an oscillating trip into the psyche of a deeply fractured individual in Sarah, a character who seems to going through a lot of underlying trauma. Sarah has just arrived in the Californian forest of Mendocino and along with her friend Isolde they are attending a Balkan folk festival, where the two enjoy learning about the ancient folklore, mystical stories, and the traditions of this culture. Sharing a small cottage together, the friends seem to be bonding, reconnecting, and catching up on their own lives, as it's clear the two friends haven't spent much recent time with one and other. When Sarah meets a handsome stranger, her intimacy with this new-found man begins to cause a rift between her and Isolde, with this newly recreated form of alienation between the two friends triggering the past warts their relationship, inevitably leading to traumatic effects on the psyche of Sarah. Butter on the Latch is a film that will surely frustrate some viewers due to its refusal to spell out the circumstances of its characters, as Josephine Decker instead has created a film about mood and emotion, showcasing how the exact circumstances of this trauma are almost completely unnecessary in creating a powerful and intoxicating portrait of a fractured relationship. Butter in the Latch is intoxicating from the very beginning, opening up in an undefined city with Sarah, as she navigates her life. The aesthetic created by Decker in this opening is visceral and chaotic, exhibiting the volatility of this character in Sarah through playing with focus, aggressive handheld photography that gives off a dazed effect, and disorienting editing. Nothing is really defined in this opening sequence that almost feels like a series of character-defining vignettes, but thanks to the visual aesthetic, Butter on A Latch makes it very clear that Sarah suffers from some form of emotional stress, the exact reasons left intentionally vague. When Sarah reconnects with Isolde in the mountains is when Butter On The Latch really escalates its impressive visual storytelling, becoming far more subtle about the shared relationship, routinely and much more subtly using various cinematic tricks, such as burred compositions, obstructed framing, and other devices, to exhibit that relationship between these two characters has become somewhat fraught, regardless of their conversational decency.
Everything in this story is told entirely from Sarah's point of view, and from this point on, Butter On The Latch is a film that becomes a walking dream, a film that blurs the line between reality and the expressionistic psyche of Sarah. Becoming increasingly claustrophobic and nightmarish as the film heads towards its conclusion, Butter On The Latch never spells things out even in its finale, only providing some hints as to what exactly happened in these two character's pasts. What is somewhat clear is that Sarah is a character who can be/has been neglectful to Isolde, as the current intimacy she partakes in with the handsome stranger appears to be just the most recent instance of how she alienates her friend. The star of Butter On The Latch is without question its director, Josephine Decker, who has crafted an intoxicating, expressionistic nightmare, one that refuses to spell out the exact struggles of its character, opting instead to simply present to raw powerful portrait of fractured relationship and the underlying effects and trauma it can have on the psyche of its characters.
On the surface, Daniel Huillet & Jean-Marie Straub's Class Relations, an adaption of Kafka's unfinished novel Amerika, is one of the filmmakers' most accessible work, a rather straightforward narrative about Karl Rossmann, a German youth, who has been forced to leave his homeland after a scandal. Invited to America by his uncle, Karl attempts to start over in America, with much of the film's narrative chronicling the young man as he takes a succession of jobs, soon discovering that success in America isn't simply as easy as he expected it to be. Class Relations has a minimalist style of photography that relies heavily on long takes and a motionless lens, which combined with the fact that much of the performances in the film are stoic and expressionless, one certainly can imagine that this is a film that will frustrate many viewers, being a challenging experience, though that could be precisely the whole point. Using stark black and white photography that grows more nightmare-inducing in its expressionism as the film progresses, Huillet & Straub's Class Relations have crafted a capitalist nightmare that focuses on the pitfalls and shortcomings of this system, which finds young Karl Rossman caught in a never ending struggle to climb the class ladder in America. Make no mistake, Class Relations is didactic in its approach to explore the pitfalls of capitalism, and like any such film i'd certainly argue it never attempts to offer up a more practical alternative, but through this tale of unending obstacles for young Karl Class Relations offers up some powerful truths about capitalism, but also about power and authority, even suggesting that capitalism is merely a tool that lets humans reinforce their more devious penchant for authority or power. Class Relations reveals how authority is essentially a sadistic force, with the film's most incendiary commentary on the capitalist model is the false sense of hope a system based on paid merit creates. Throughout the narrative of Class Relations, the film focuses on quite a few characters, including Karl, who are being taken advantage of by their superiors, repeatedly told that if they work hard and know their place they will rise. Karl's interaction with his boss at the hotel, where he is effectively shamed for what is deemed as insubordination mirrors the opening of the film, where a older Stoker laments to the young, naive Karl about his struggles working under his supervisor and his dream of being free. Class Relations argues that Capitalism is built on this "learn your place, know your rule mentality" and yet the system is inhumane anyway, relying on individuals to not take advantage of the sadistic nature of authority. You either participate in this system, roll with the punches, or you attempt to live outside the system, much like two vagabonds which Karl meets one night, but either way one feels the oppressive nature of the capitalist model. One of the most compelling aspects of Class Relations, simply because I can relate to it, is how the film reveals the ludicrous nature of a system based off of paying ones dues, revealing how capitalism is built around an idea that everyone knows what they want to do with their lives from a very young age, an ideal that essentially goes completely against the very foundation of humanities constantly evolving psyche. To expect someone to know what they want to do with their lives from a very young age is a ludicrous endeavor, one which Class Relations reveals through the narrative of Karl. While the lighting seems to grow closer and closer towards german expressionism levels of dread as the film progresses, Class Relations also uses wonderful use of composition to tell its capitalist nightmare, often offering up a heavy dosage of the shot/reverse shot to document character interactions, a cold, mechanical choice of photography that perfectly evokes the disconnect between Karl Rossman and the capitalist world around him. Revealing how class and authority can strip away certain intrinsic human qualities such as empathy, Daniel Huillet & Jean-Marie Straub's Class Relations is a mesmerizing capitalist nightmare revealing some of the pitfalls of a system that goes against the very fabric of what makes us human.
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