Duncan Jones' Warcraft is a film at war with itself, pun intended, being a fantasy adventure that is far too dark for young viewers, yet far too dumb for adult viewers, chugging along that painstakingly middling road which plagues most large blockbusters these days, as it attempts to appeal to everyone and in turn appeals to no one. The story is centered around the peaceful realm of Azeroth, a civilization of humans, elves, and dwarves, that now stands on the brink of war due to the arrival of the a fearsome race of invaders: the Orcs. Fleeing their dying home, the orcs are led by Gul'dan, a powerful orc warlock, who unites the orc clans and forms the Horde, creating a magical portal to transport the Horde to peaceful Azeroth. Intent on only the survival of the orc species, Gul'dan leads a ruthless attack on the peaceful kingdom, intent on colonizing the world for his brethren. As the war begins to rage, heroes from opposing sides emerge, recognizing that peace among species is the only way for mutual survival, a realization which leads the dissenting Orcs to challenge Gul'dan, the powerful warlock who has been corrupted by mysterious force known as fel magic. Duncan Jones' Warcraft is a big dumb fantasy film and I was enjoying it for awhile, until unnecessary plot twists and convoluted storylines begun to grab a hold. My 12 year old self would have had an Aneurysm at the sure scope of this film, and Duncan Jones deserves a lot of credit, early on, for creating this world of rich textures and variable settings, one that quite frankly left me compelled to keep watching. Perhaps one of the biggest problems with Warcraft is the orc characters are way more compelling than their human counterparts, with nearly every character from the world of Azeroth being largely uninteresting and one-dimensional. The film starts completely from the perspective of the Orcish horde, highlighting Durotan, the chieftan of the Frostwolf Clan, and his pregant mate Draka, two orcs simply want the best for their family. Despite their doubts about Gul'dan, they join the horde, admitting that it may be the only way for them and their child to survive. This story arch is by far the most compelling, yet Warcraft rapidly tries to shoehorn in far too many other narrative threads, creating an experience that is overstuffed. The visuals of Warcraft can be stunning at times, but the overly cartoonish action did begin to wear out its welcome hastily, looking more like a video game than live action, which left wishing I could plug in a controller and participate in the carnage. The finale of Warcraft is really the final nail in the coffin though, an absolutely ridiculous ending that essentially resolves very little related to the psychotic Gul'dan. Without going into details, lets just say the ending makes no sense and logically offers very little reprieve for peace in the grand scheme of things. A large scale, CGI-fest, Warcraft is a fun, dumb fantasy adventure film early on, but unfortunately the film gets far too expansive when it comes to plot twists and narrative threads, becoming a convoluted mess at times, with a laughably bizarre ending.
Stark, humanistic, and utterly transfixing, Sharunas Bartas' The Corridor is a tone poem about the contemporary state of Lithuania in post-communist depression. The film is enigmatic and deeply personal, oscillating between the interior canvases where Bartas himself is in a haze of contemplation, and the cold, grey exteriors of the capital city of Vilnius, where the general mood is despondency and mourning. The film's structure is quite opaque, but the film does seem to adhere to some semblance of time, moving from the early morning through the long day, observantly exposing the viewer to events that unfold out throughout the day, including a funeral and celebratory type party. Being no scholar when it comes to the history of Lithuana, Sharunas Bartas' The Corridor was a film that left me with more questions than answers, providing an intense experience full of sadness and mourning. Featuring luminous black and white cinematography, The Corridor is enigmatic yet intimate, an observant eye that forms a tight connection with its various subjects, including a small boy who seems to be utterly alone, as well as Bartas himself who pears from his window into the coldness of the environment he inhabits. The film is full of symbolic imagery, some which was admittedly over my head, but what remains utterly enchanting about The Corridor is the intimacy the film creates, one that evokes a deep sense of desperation, despair through its compassionate, sympathetic lens. Understated, The Corridor is a film that doesn't attempt to provide specific answers to the modern state of Lithuania, only offering up a humanistic experience full of compassion and an observant eye. Going into this film completely cold, outside of the admiration I've had for the few Bartas fiilm's I've already seen, The Corridor is a film that doesn't completely work for me, but regardless of its opaqueness, this is cinema at its purest form, visually attempting to contexualize the contemporary state of Lituana in post-communist era.
A colossal hit worldwide, Stephen Chow's The Mermaid was completely dumped stateside and its a real shame, as the one-of-a-kind filmmaker has created another truly singular vision that defies conventional genre classification, delivering a thoroughly entertaining film from start to finish that also bringing to the forefront an important message about environmental conservation. The film is centered around billionaire Xuan, a land developer whose latest project Green Gulf Bay promises to make him very rich. Xuan has little interest in anything outside of money, pushing forward with the project at a rapid rate, showing no regard for anything but financial success. Unbeknownst the Xuan, Green Gulf Bay is where mermaids live in secrecy, the last of their kind due to mankind's penchant for greed over conservation. In an effort to protect the remainder of their species, the mermaid collective sends Shan, a young, beautiful mermaid, to seduce and assassinate Xuan, with things getting far more complicated when the two fall in love with each other. The world and mythology which Stephen Chow's The Mermaid creates is wholly immersive, full of imagination and creativity, making it a film that as one can't help but smile at due to the creative energy pumping through every frame. One thing that has always stood out to me about Stephen Chow's films is the spontaneity and energy they evoke, with The Mermaid being no exception in its ability to seamlessly transition from comedy to drama to romance. The flamboyant nature of excess is something Stephen Chow's filmmaking style embraces, which in turn gives The Mermaid such vitality in its vision, having an aura of unpredictabiliy, improvisation, and endless charm. The uncertainty in the humor is what gives the film so much energy, having an idiosyncratic style all its own, making it completely common place for comedy and drama to live in the same space, much like life itself. Make no mistake, The Mermaid wears its environmental message on its sleeve, being blunt but never too didactic, understanding the importance of remaining imaginative and playful while commenting on humanities penchant for greed and destruction. It's a minor miracle that a film this complex, from a genre and tone perspective, works so well, seamlessly going from absurdist humor to social commentary, with Chow's skills as a storyteller in full display. With populace cinema being so by the numbers and bombastic these days it's a real shame that The Mermaid wasn't even given a chance to succeed in the United States, being a film that should be able to appeal to all audiences. It's a film that impressively balances genres and tones, being absurdist and socially important, but perhaps the true reason the film works so well is simply due to Stephen Chow's infectious storytelling, one that seems to always put having fun as the #1 priority, no matter its more complex intentions.
While there have been quite a few documentaries made from inside North Korea, none of them come close to the access and artistry provided by Vitaliy Manskiy's Under The Sun, a truly harrowing portrait the hermit kingdom. Over the course of a full year, the film documents the life of an ordinary Pyongyang family, one whose daughter is just now joining the children's union, and has been chosen to take part in one of the famous "Spartakiads" dance troops. The film was completely overseen by the North Korean government, who viewed this film as a great propaganda tool to demonstrate the success of their way of life, which only makes the film's ability to capture the starkness of this oppressive regime all the more impressive. Under The Sun is truly a masterclass in visual storytelling, a film that is forced to rely so heavily on its visual artistry due to the government overseeing every detail. Every scene of this film is scripted, staged, and overseen by the North Korean government and yet, the chilling reality of this oppressive, communist regime is felt in nearly every frame. Everything in this film feels cold, desolate, detached, and manufactured, with the foggy, grey skies perfectly evoking the detachment and coldness this oppressive regime has created, one in which many citizens feel like they are sleepwalking through life. The portraits of both Kim Jung-Il & Kim Ill-Sung are oppressively prevalent throughout Under The Sun, being both in public spaces like train stations and schools, but also in the families' home, as Under The Sun visually evokes the prevalence of these portraits in a borderline 1984 perspective, one in which the nations deceased leaders continue to watch over its people and control their lives. Intertitles added in post are truly the only aspect of Under The Sun that wasn't approved by North Korea, which is used sparingly to provide context into what exactly we are seeing. For example, at one point the film documents the father's "stellar" work as a prestigious engineer at the garment factory, with intertitles appearing to explain that the government changed his job last minute to this more presigious offering, intent on providing the most positive perspective possible. The most harrowing aspects come in the young girl's indoctrination into the North Korean way of life, with the classroom sequences being truly surreal due to the way they "educate" their citizens. Education is completely rooted in regurgitation of the various lies and propaganda sold by the regime, with the children reciting word-for-word back to their teachers exactly what they are told, a practice that is completely divulged of critical thinking. The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be lit, yet Under The Sun captures how this form of intelligence is non-existent in this country, where everyone simply regurgitates what they are told. Perhaps the most stunning aspect of Under The Sun is simply how devoid of emotion the people of North Korea are, operating almost like robots as they go about their day-to-day. In one scene the young girl has a bit of an emotional breakdown, crying due to her frustration around not being able to pick up the dance routine quickly. The scene is fascinating because it feels out-of-place, one of the rare instances throughout the entire film where an individual, not the collective is documented, with the young girl's emotion being hers and hers alone. The final scene of Under The Sun is particularly tragic, a scene in which the mother attempts to cheer up her daughter for the sake of this perceived propaganda film, telling her "think of something funny". The daughter's response being "I can't", a harrowing moment that captures the void of free will left under this collectivist, oppressive regime. The states oppressive regime feels tangible throughout Under The Sun, a film that says one thing but shows another, being a truly powerful and important portrait of the hermit kingdom and its truly draconic way of life.
Matt Ross' Captain Fantastic is a missed opportunity, a film that touches on a host of insightful discussions about paternity, collectivism vs. individualism, education, and corporatism, only to squander nearly every one of these commentaries for the sake of forced sentimentality. The film opens in the forests of the Pacific Northwest, where Ben, a devoted father, raises his six kids outside of mainstream society, giving them a regimented and rigorous physical and intellectual education. Raising his kids to be completely self-sufficient from the system, Ben finds his world turned upside down when he learns of the suicide of his wife, who had been living away from their secluded paradise due to mental illness. Intent on making sure his late wife's wishes are respected at the upcoming funeral, Ben is forced to leave the forest and enter society again, taking his six children along who have never stepped out of their secluded slice of paradise. Built in the same vein as a film like Little Miss Sunshine, Captain Fantastic is a crowd pleasure, a film that delivers a nice balance of comedy and drama. The central heart of the story is about family but also Ben's internal struggle as a man who has become so stubborn and disenfranchised with what he perceives the world has become that he goes to far at times for the sake of protecting his children from experiencing things first hand. The strength of the film is in its depiction of what it means to be a good parent, exhibiting the delicate balance that exists between providing values to one's children while giving them the freedom to be their own person and learn by themselves. In the beginning of Captain Fantastic, Ben is a character who has a very authoritarian grip of his children, with everything they read, write, and do part of his designed regime. It's only after the family ventures out of their seclusion that the children are treated to an opposing point of view, one that subtely begins to challenge Ben's strict, worldview. Intelligence and education for that matter are not simply regurgitation, and the film captures that quite vividly through Ben's oldest son, a character whose highly well versed in his father's teachings but a mere child when it comes to understanding human nature and the nuances of how we interact, think, and feel. Honestly, I don't think the filmmakers saw the true power in this aspect of the film, considering how it ends, but Captain Fantastic does touch on the importance of real world experience, as book smarts tend to only supply one piece of the puzzle. The juxtaposition of this families lifestyle with those of conventional society is where the film achieves most of its humor, with many of the laughs coming in the middle of the film when Ben's children are exposed to modern society for the first time. The main problem I have with Captain Fantastic is it doesn't ever have the balls to completely state its beliefs when it comes to lifestyle, opting instead to stay focused simply on its narrative about the importance of family and love, something that was probably smart for commercial reasons but utterly unsatisfying considering its setup. If you are a fan of films like Little Miss Sunshine than definitely see Captain Fantastic, as it checks most of the same boxes, being a dramedy about family, just keep in mind that if you are looking for anything more complex, it's probably best to stay away due to the film's elementary views of such complex discussions centered around collectivism vs. individualism, education, and corporatism/cronyism/capitalism.
Kuba Czekaj's Baby Bump is an ultra-stylish, surrealistic coming of age story focusing specifically on sexual identity. Told through the lens of 11-year-old Mickey House, a young boy who is befuddled by the recent changes his body is experiencing, Baby Bump is a blend of Walt Disney and the work of David Lynch, a singular vision of adolescence and puberty that is as befuddling at times as it is transfixing. Mickey House is a character struggling to understand exactly who he is and what he is becoming, a loner character whose only guidance, and I use the term loosely, comes from a single-mother who routinely does sexually-driven cam shows as a way to pay the bills. At school, Mickey is an absolute loner, though he is left alone more so than not due to his successful business - one in which he sells clean urine to his classmates so they can pass drug tests. Subtlety isnt exactly Baby Bump's strong suit, as right from the get-go the film does a lot to establish Mickey House's seclusion and wandering mind. The root of Mickey's confusion is his mother, a character who makes her living based off of her feminine figure and attractiveness, someone who nearly every male character in the film finds attractive. The film takes on a borderline Oedipus complex at times, but it's merely another example of Mickey's confusion over his body and his sexuality, as he struggles to understand the pubescent feelings and bodily experiences he is going through. Intentional or not, I'd argue the film captures the importance of the nuclear family, or at least a strong male presence in the life of every child, as Mickey's confusion is driven mainly by his disdain for those who pursue his mother (the school security officer, his older classmates who reference how hot his mother is), as the young boy even has borderline masochistic visions about detaching his own sexual organ, due primarily to him viewing it as something unnatural, monstrous even. Baby Bump is bombastic with style and while the film delivers rather consistent outrageous and perversive comedy, it does have a negative impact on the film's overall pacing, being too stylish for its own good at times in a way that makes the film feel uneven and sporadic. Though the surrealist nightmares that blur the line between reality and fantasy are certainly bound to be the most memorable, the use of split screen throughout Baby Bump is one of the film's more nuanced decisions that stood out to me. While one could argue the split screen was merely used as a way to capture the actions of Mickey and his mother simultaneously, I'd argue it's a decision that is more than just rooted in economical filmmaking, as the split screen serves as an effective tool, especially early on, at capturing the disconnect between mother and son. A film that is sure to frustrate some viewers due to its bizarre, expressive surrealistic style, Kuba Czekaj's Baby Bump is a singular vision of the overdone coming-of-age narrative archetype, being a transfixing study of the importance of being comfortable in ones' own skin.
Robert Rossellini's Rome Open City is a harrowing ode to the brave men and women who stood up to Nazism in arguably the darkest time in Italian history, an emotionally powerful story of the importance of principles in a time of systematic oppression. While re-watching Rome Open City for the first time in years, one of the first things that struck me is the subtle sense of fear and anxiety gripping the city of Rome, as Rossellini effectively captures this false sense of freedom, one in which Romans can walk the streets "freely" yet find their whole lives, from food rations to curfew, dictated by the Nazi occupation. This aspect of the film is most deeply felt through the characters of Don Pietro, a priest who is secretly supporting the resistances cause, and Pina, a war-torn widowed mother, who is soon to marry Francesco, who unbeknownst to her is a member of the resistance. Don Pietro is primarily used as a communications carrier for the resistance, a man who uses the cloak of his theology to protect him from the same amount of strict scrutiny many Italians feel every day by the Nazi occupation. He is helping a partisan cause, putting himself in extreme danger in nearly every scene early on in order to help the resistance pass sensitive communication. Pina on the otherhand is a bystander when it comes to the shadowy game of cat and mouse between the Nazis and the resistance, a woman who ends up caught in the proverbial cross-fire so to speak, leaving Francisco distraught and blaming himself for her demise. One of my favorite scenes that captures this oppressive nature of the occupation is a simple enough sequence in which Pina argues with her sister, and what I perceive to be other members of her family, their catty infighting and the increased tension it brings being a direct result of the occupation, which has increased angst and anxiety among everyone involved. Near the end of this sequence of infighting, Francesco laments to Pina, "the winter will eventually end, summer will come, and we will be free", offering a semblance of hope and faith, but unfortunately Pina herself will not come to see this day. Rossellini's film is a shockingly authentic experience, considering it was made in the ruin of World War II, with the bombed out buildings towering over these characters serving as a genuine reminder of the reality of this horrendous war. Rossellini's direction is not overly stylized, being much more grounded in neorealism, with one of my favorite sequences being the Nazi raid, one that leads to Pina's unfortunately demise. Rossellini's use of the apartment complex's stairwell is arresting, as the filmmaker uses extreme high and low angels and tight compositions throughout this sequence as visual tools to evoke the restrictive nature these characters find themselves in, one in which their lives are oppressed by their occupiers. Of course, the most memorably aspect of Rome, Open City is its finale, one that finds members of the resistance, Francesco, Giorgio, and Don Pietro, captured by the Nazi regime, who begin to resort to torture in an attempt to get the information about the Resistance's operations they are looking for. Without going into too much detail, lets just say the whole sequence is a masterclass in dramatic execution, a truly powerful and tragic sequence that finds Don Pietro, played brilliantly by Aldo Fabrizi, pushed to the edge due to the torture of his colleagues, unwilling to betray his principles and what the Resistance stands for, no matter the cost. A brutal and harrowing portrait of Rome during the Nazi Occupation, Roberto Rossellini's Rome Open City is powerful portrait of the importance of standing up for ones principles while also serving as a touching ode to those who died doing so.
Taking place in Poland during the winter of 1945, Anne Fontaine's The Innocents tells the story of Mathilde Beaulieu, a young French Red Cross doctor who is assisting the remaining French survivors of World War II. One cold afternoon, a Polish nun arrives in the hospital, begging Mathilde to come to her convent for reasons she won't explain. On arrival, Mathilde learns of the advanced state of pregnancy among several of the sisters of the convent, victims of German and Russian soldier's sexual brutality. Anne Fontaine's The Innocents is a balanced story about religion and humanism, touching on the hypocrisy and antihumanism of fundamentalist religion, while also making sure to comment on the state of opression religion can face from the state and the secular world. The Innocents exposes how they are really two sides of the same coin, being a film that at its core is about humanism and the need for empathy and compassion. The film is definitely compelling and has some powerful moments, but I'd be remissed if I didn't mention how dull it can be for stretches, mainly due to their being so many similar films before it, specifically when it comes to exploring the relationship between humanity and faith. Mathilde's relation with one of the nuns is the emotional core of the film, with each character coming to a higher form of enlightenment and perspective thanks to their varying viewpoints when it comes to god. These two characters have a higher appreciation for humanism after going through this powerful and somewhat tragic story of religious guilt, sexual oppression, and faith. While the film does struggle with pacing and a tad of forced sentimentality towards the end, Anne Fontaine's The Innocents is a well told story of oppression, guilt, and humanism, touching on many similar ideas to the vast array of nun films before it, albeit doing so in a well crafted and thoughtful way.
Nathan Williams' If There's A Hell Below is a damn near masterclass in atmosphere and tension, being a film that shows little interest in spelling things out for the viewer, instead offering a narrative of endless intrigue, claustrophobia, and a foreboding sense of dread. The story of If There's A Hell Below is rather simple, centered around the meeting between Abe, an ambitious young journalist, and Debra, a mysterious woman who claims to work in national security. Insisting on meeting Abe in the desolate fields of the American Midwest, Debra indicates she has a serious revelation that needs to be leaked, offering no more details to Abe, or the viewer for that matter, as to what exactly is going on. Mystery and intrigue are a major ally of If There's A Hell Below, as the film relies heavily on preconceived narrative assumptions to build its tension early on, namedropping terms such as "Snowden" in a way that gives the viewer no real information, but helps contextualize the situation, only fueling the imagination of the viewer as to what exactly is going on. The specifics don't matter, and they are deliberately avoided by the filmmaker, as Nathan Williams' focuses instead the circumstances of the situation these two characters find themselves in, a potentially life-and-death situation with zero ability to even comprehend whether they are safe and not. These characters are being watched, and we the viewer don't know how, don't know why, but we know they are being pursued by someone, with the vagueness letting the viewers imagination take hold. The setting is wide open, set in the vast plains of the American Midwest, yet the whole film feels incredible claustrophobic, with the cinematography meticulously juxtaposing the vastness of the setting with tight compositions such as pov-style dash cams from inside Abe and Debra's vehicle, evoking a great sense of uncertainty and helplessness, one in which us as the audience feels completely unable to comprehend the danger coming, yet we know it is there. If There's A Hell Below cultivates an environment of uncertainty through both dialogue and atmosphere, one where the viewer is just as in the dark as Abe, the idealistic journalist, forced to imagine the worst as we witness the escalation of the pursuit of these characters. If There's A Hell Below may be irritatingly vague to some viewers who want more explained, but what Nathan Williams and company have created with this film is a powerful study of helplessness and foreboding dread, a film that understands how less can be so much more in creating its story of two characters who are being pursued by nearly mysterious forces we simply can't comprehend.
Alex Gibney is what I consider a popcorn documentary filmmaker, a director whose documentaries are always well crafted and told but for the most part lack the nuance and subtlety necessary to be profound. His latest film Zero Days is no exception, a documentary detailing the development of the Stuxnet, an advanced self-replicating computer malware jointly designed by the U.S. and Israel, designed to infiltrate and disable the Iranian nuclear power plant. Zero Days is a film shot and directed in a way to evoke the aesthetic and tension of an espionage thriller, a documentary thats narrative plays out like a mystery for as long as possible, detailing the sophistication of Stuxnet. Gibney does his best as filmmaker early on, sometimes to a comical degree, like a scene where a baloon bursting is documented in such a way that it feels like an action set piece. The one thing that has always bothered about Gibney is that his arrogance can be felt in his films at times, excuding so much confidence thst he is holdijg your hand and showinf you rhe light. When Gibney brings in a unanimous NSA source is when the film does get more intriguing, as Zero Days draws parallels of how the cyber age of military conflict is among us, and given the intangible nature of this type of warfare, the world's nation states have been slow to react accordingly with treaties and agreements similar to those done with biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons. All this is rather absorbing but the most compelling aspect of Zero Days is the debate about secrecy when it comes to Top Secret documents, arguing that while government secrecy is still important in some aspects, like when it comes to the safety of it's operatives, cyber warfare has create larger concerns. The fundamental problem with secrecy as it relates to cyber warfare, is that all the classified information has made it nearly impossible for us to have a democratic conversation about the defensive and offensive use of cyber weapons, when mature conversation is needed considering the power of code in the modern age we live. Make no mistake these weapons could be just as deadly as any tyoe of physical attack, and can be replicated by nations around the world given the nature of code, and the cyber arms race happening in countries around the world.
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