Playful in its deconstruction of contemporary, domesticated, American life, Kelly Reichardt's River of Grass is a stunning debut feature which declared the arrival of one of America's premiere contemporary filmmakers. Taking place near the Florida Everglades, River of Grass documents the life of Cozy, a disenfranchised housewife, who shares no love for her husband as she spends most of her efforts attempting to merely pass the time of her boring, lonely existence. Neglecting her children, Cozy's only sense of happiness comes in moments of grandiose fantasy, where she envisions herself as a dancer or gymnast, roles known for their independence and freedom in form. One night, Cozy meets Lee, a directionless, homeless man who appeals to Cozy due to him having the one thing she wants, freedom. The two quickly get embroiled in a odd partnership, one in which their frustrations about the world they live in binds them, along with mistakenly thinking they've committed a murder. Together the two attempt to escape from society, for lack of a better descriptor, though it becomes apparent quite quickly that they are short on actual ideas. Kelly Reichardt's River of Grass is a film that subtly skewers contemporary consumerism and the traditional preconceived notions about what a woman should be in American society. The film paints a full portrait of this character Cozy, establishing her as a woman who has essentially drifted through life, marrying her husband due to the fact that he loved her, and she figured that in time she would grow to love him too. River of Grass creates a portrait of a woman who feels trapped due to her passive demeanor, with the actions that follow being a rebellion of her traditional, family lifestyle which helps her find her underlying independence. Lee and Cozy are both characters disenfranchised by societies' design, from the feminine expectations of family, to the consumerism and materialism embroiled into American society, these characters feel empty inside and meaningless. Much of this is accomplished through Reichardt's direction, which visually evokes society as this overbearing presence, one in which American life, from Christianity to consumerism, feels like an abrasive force on these characters who are dissatisfied with the way their life has unfolded. While there is really no violence in River of Grass the film pulsates with an undercurrent of disdain, depression, and frustration, as these disenfranchised characters struggle with solutions to their woes. Featuring a potent tale of one woman's need to free herself from the oppressive shackles of domesticated, American life, Kelly Reichardt's River of Grass is a stunning first feature that is complex, stirring, and playful in its subversive tale of the domestic, American dream.
Gan Bi's Kaili Blues is a film that is nearly impossible to quantify, a singular vision that's remarkably assured while being elusive in its evocation of time, memory, and humanity. Centered around Chen, an ex-convict in his perceived late 40s or early 50s, Kaili Blues documents his modest life working at a medical facility in Kaili, as he attempts to re-assimilate back into society, but more importantly reconnect with his half-brother and come to terms with the recent death of his mother. Featuring a voice over which routinely recites poems set in a world of solitude and sorrow, Kaili Blues is a contemplative study of a soul-searching and redemption, opaquely exhibiting a sense of how expansive life is, with humanity feeling miniscule in the grand scheme of time and space. Kaili Blues documents a soul adrift, showing a remarkable ability to delivery soul-stirring contemplation in such economic ways, evoking a true sense of solitude and sadness in this character which merely would not be achieved through didactic, more dialogue driven ways. Kaili Blues can be so internalized that it takes on a science fiction type atmosphere, as it documents a character who is trying to readjust in a world that waits for no one. Playing with time and memory, Kaili Blues is a film that is best to simply let wash over you, revealing its main protagonists psyche through a complex network of his experiences. Nothing at all is spelled out or told to the viewer, outside of tone poems, with Gan Bi creating a film that feels universally human. The film captures how experience and memory haunt and shape the psyche of an individual, delivering a potent portrait usually only seen in well-made documentaries. Visually Kaili Blues is nothing short of striking, featuring an observant lens hellbent on documenting the environment in which this character inhabits. Kaili Blues's slow pans and oscillating photography beautifully documents the dingy-lit hallways and deteriorating interiors which Chen inhabits, while also capturing the vast, expansiveness of the outside landscapes, with China's south-central Guizhou province being one of subtropical highlands. This juxtaposition of constriction and expansion beautifully exhibts the tale in which Gan Bi wishes to tell, one where Chen's internal struggles are only exacerbated by the coldness of the large world which we inhabit that is called life as we know it. The visual design of Gan Bi's Kaili Blues evokes the mood and emotions of its main protagonist, with the voiceover providing further context, together making Gan Bi's Kaili Blues a truly stunning, singular piece of cinema that should not be missed by fans of more challenging, obtuse cinema.
Alice Winocour's Disorder is a subtly powerful tale of one man's struggle to get back to living a normal life, one in which the threat of violence and death doesn't surround him at every turn. Effectively discharged from the army due to his struggles with PTSD, Vincent has recently return to France after serving in Afghanistan. Struggling to adapt the relative tranquility and struggling with bouts of inadequacy, Vincent takes up a job as part of a security detail for a wealthy Lebanese businessman, a job he views as temporary, still holding out hope that he can rejoin the front lines, so to speak. Featuring a strong perfromance by Matthias Schoenaerts, Vincent is revealed as a character who is still completely engaged in the world where danger lurks around every corner, a character who is always looking for the next potential threat. When the husband leaves town for a few days, Vincent finds himself responsible for the man's wife, Jessie, and their young son, Ali, which becomes more of a challenge when it is discovered that this man's business may not have been exactly with the most friendly people. Alice Winocour's Disorder is an extremely well-crafted film, using both visual & sound design to tell this tale of a man who may be forever changed from his time in Afghanistan. The first half of the film makes its bread and butter in perception and intrigue, with the filmmakers intentional making it unclear how much danger actually exists in Vincent's line of work, exhibiting his always intense demeanor with that of a relatively tranquil and fun-loving dinner party,with Vincent persistently scanning the landscape for potential threats. The voyeuristic nature of security detail is emphasized through the filmmaker's use of photography, emphasizing the mystery and intrigue centered around the wealthy businessman dealings but also the underlying sense of paranoia which Vincent is a victim of, a man who sees a potential threat of violence lurking around every corner. Disorder's stylistic choices when it comes to expressing Vincent's struggles range from high pitch frequencies to low monotonous bass thumping, effectively assaulting the viewer in an attempt to place the audience in the headspace of this character who at times feels like he has more in common with an abused dog than a human being due to his quickly combustable nature.. Alice Winocour's stylistic flourishes never feel stagnant, abrasive, or overused, as the fillmmakers effectively create an atmospheric sense of torment and paranoia. While Disorder is not a film with a ton of action, when it does come the filmmakers deliver with a few sequences of abrupt violence, which left met startled and grasping for air. Disorder is a film that explores whether a character such as Vincent can ever recover from his struggles, suggesting that he may never be able to live a life of tranquility where he can relax and care for others on a human level. The heart of the film is centered around Vincent's struggle, with his downright near paternal nature of his profession serving as a catalyst for rehabilitation. Featuring two strong central performances from Matthias Schoenaerts & Diane Kruger, Alice Winocour's DIsorder is a sensory-fueled experience about a man's struggle to get past his underlying combustibility, with the relationship he slowly forms with Diane seemingly his only chance in the short term to rehabilitate into society and fine some semblance of peace in his war-torn, combustible psyche.
Daniel Raguissis' Imperium is a film that had me really concerned early on, exhibiting an opening sequence that didactically reminds the viewers white supremacist groups are very much terrorists on the same level as the stereotypical muslim ones from the middle east. Focusing on Nate Foster, an idealistic FBI agent who goes undercover in order to take down a suspected white supremacist terrorist group, Imperium offers up a rather amusing little thriller with a surprisingly important distinction in the characteristics of fascism, and what truly defines it. Imperium takes the viewer into this dark, angry, hate-filled world, exhibiting how fascism really is simply a biproduct of extreme feelings of victimhood, something which all of us as human beings are susceptible to when pushed for long enough. That is not to say that all white supremacists suffer from victimhood, but it illustrates how this type of movement garners supporters even when it is extremely hateful.. As Nate goes deeper and deeper into this toxic ideology, Imperium juxtaposes the various types of white supremacists, with the Aryan Alliance and less organized skinheads being far different from the blue collar type who are much more sophisticated, well-manned, but just as bigoted and grotesque in their beliefs. The in-fighting between the various sanctions of the white supremacy movement was one of the more unique elements of Inperiusm, capturing how their only real shared view is the hate they have for everyone who doesn't have the same skin color. Considering the subject matter the story itself is compelling, with one narrative turn, if you will, which left me surprised, reinvigorating me in a sense from a narrative that felt like it was starting to crawl to the finish line. Imperium sporadically touches on the paranoia centered around being undercover with a few visceral sequences, but overall film never quite create the atmospheric tension necessary for these types of films to truly flourish.
David Mackenzie's Hell or High Water takes place in the barren terrain of West Texas, where two brothers, Tanner & Toby Howard, concoct a desperate bank robbery scheme in order to save their family's farm. After the recent death of their mother, Toby, the younger brother and brains behind the operation, is determined to not let the house foreclose and become property of the bank, resolute at all costs to pay off his mother's debt. Enlisting Tanner, a man who has been in and out of prison his whole life, the two brothers set out of a cross-state bank robbery spree, with Marcus Hamilton, a soon-to-be retired Texas Ranger, hot in pursuit. David Mackenzie's Hell or High Water is a harrowing portrait of impoverished, rural life, exhibiting a tale of hopelessness, sacrifice, and financial exploitation of the underprivileged class of society. Well-crafted, Hell or High Water's greatest attribute is the overall sense of hopelessness that strangles the life out of nearly every character in the film, depicting the decaying state of small town America, one in which nearly every character seems caught under the vice grip of the financial institutions. Visually the film evokes this hopelessness through an observant eye, routinely focusing on the stagnation of these small decaying towns, which is beautifully supplemented with the use of wide angle compositions of barren landscapes, a decision that visually evokes a feeling of insignificance about these characters who are caught up in a world that feels far too big for them to fight against. The problem with Hell or High Water is the film's message centered around the financial institutions self-serving greed and lack of accountability is portrayed in overly simplistic and didactic ways, with the filmmakers almost lazily expecting the viewers to accept that the brothers have been terribly wronged by the banks, with very little explanation, outside of merely stating that they were. It's not a huge problem in the grand scheme of things, thanks to Hell or High Water's powerful tale of sacrifice and self-loathing that unwinds, but it's always a tad concerning to me when screenplays rely too heavily on the preconceived notions of its audience to fully flesh out its narrative and thematic ideals. The thematic strength of the film is centered around the character of Toby, a character who essentially goes against his own moral judgement in order to secure a future for him and his family. Toby is a character who is over his head, unwilling to stop but also struggling to control the more volatile nature of his brother, a character who shows much more of a penchant for violence. Hell or High Water hits a high watermark in its conclusion by examining the underlying morality of Toby's actions, not condoning them nor celebrating them, understanding though that his actions have indirectly lead to the death of others, no matter the fact that he was driven their due to desperation and financial greed. We leave Toby simply wondering how much these lives will indirectly guilt this man, with Hell or High Water adding a degree of introspection and self-loathing centered around the conflict between personal self betterment and larger aspects of morality. David Mackenzie's Hell or Hight Water paints an effective portrait of Toby as a character who is stuck between a rock and a hard place, opting to essentially sacrifice himself for the betterment of his family.
Taking place in Heidelberg, Germany, Chad Hartigan's Morris From America follows Morris, a 13-yr-old African-American boy who had no choice but to move to Germany due to his father's profession. A fish out of water story at first, Morris From America juxtaposes the cultural clash between Morris, raised on American Hip Hop, and the German kids at the youth center, evoking a sense of solitude in Morris, who simply doesn't fit in with the other young boys. Katrin, a German girl, draws the eye of young Morris, encouraging him to open up more and share his rapping, though her true intentions remain somewhat vague. As Morris begins to open up, due to his hankering for Katrin, he becomes further alienated from his father, who himself struggles with the death of his wife and feelings of inadequacy and guilt about bringing his young son up in a foreign environment. Part coming of age story, part evocation on the importance of paternity and parenthood, Morris From America is a well-written, well-acted, character study of a young boy trying to find himself. The coming of age element of Morris From America is tender, charming, and honest, depicting a 13-year-old who is beginning to discover his sexuality, with the mounting frustrations due to being in a foreign land arguably accelerating his desire for companionship. The relationship he begins to form with the slightly older Katrin is one of the more gripping aspects of the film, with Chad Hartigan intentionally keeping Katrin's true intentions a bit of a mystery as to why she has taken an interest in young Morris. Oscillating between acts of tender caring and moments of self-serving decision making, Katrin is a character who is very hard to peg, making her relationship with Morris all the more intriguing, as we the audience struggle to be certain as to whether this young woman is someone who can be trusted. As Morris grows closer to Katrina, he drifts further away from his father, sharing less and less about his personal experiences. It's only when Morris is betrayed, though his actions certainly deserve their fair share of the blame, that the young boy is forced to share more about his feelings with his father, opening up about his inner turmoil related to being in a place in which he feels all alone. The father-son relationship, what these two characters are going through, is very similar, with both Morris and his dad being characters who are in a place of solitude. It's through communication that the two ultimately bond with one and other, realizing that both of them have to stick together in order to flourish, with Morris From America creating a powerful portrait of the importance of parenthood, paternity, and communication, as these two characters each must stick together after the tragic death of their respective wife/mother. Featuring a screenplay that is honest and nuanced in its fish-out-of-water/coming-of-age narrative, Morris From America is a tender and funny comedy about the importance of family, communication, and parenting.
For Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg's latest film, Sausage Party, the creators of such films as Pineapple Express and This is The End try their hand at animation, delivering a subversive, ultra-raunchy comedy which manages to have an underlying heart of gold about the importance of love and acceptance. Taking place primarily in the confines of a Grocery Store, Sausage Party crafts a world where various household products have a mind of their own, living happily in the supermarket where they view human shoppers as their gods and masters, anxiously awaiting to be selected for the afterlife. When a botched trip to the afterlife leaves a sausage named Frank and his girlfriend, a bun named Brenda, stranded on the grocery store floor, Frank's vision of the world around him comes crashing down when he learns the horrifying truth about the human masters, that they will eventually come to slaughter him for human consumption. Attempting to warn all the others in the grocery store of their true fate with the gods, the panicked sausage must unite all the perishables together in an effort to fight back against the human masters. Sausage Party is the type of film that is bound to make some individuals uncomfortable, being an abrasively humored comedy that deems nothing off limits. Making fun of all races, cultures, and creeds, Sausage Party effectively teases all of humanity, doing so with the purpose of showcasing our petty differences and the stupidity which tends to be associated with human conflict. From the bickering between Taboon bread and a bagel being a symbolic representation of the current Israel-Palestine conflict, to the film making fun of European imperialism and every race imaginable, Sausage Party cleverly skewers humanities constant combativeness and cultural differences, arguing that tolerance and acceptance are paramount and a biproduct of a secular-based society where humanity empowers itself to be better. Nuance isn't something Sausage Party concerns itself with, instead going right for the jugular in its rather blunt evocation of the importance of tolerance, and more importantly love between our fellow man. Sausage Party is far from profound or particularly nuanced, seemingly suggesting that religion is the only reason for humanities' confrontations, but the film's heart is undoubtedly in the right place, hoping for a world where love triumphs over hate. While Sausage Party should appeal to any fans of raunchier comedy, don't expect a laugh riot, as this film skates by more on its clever juxtaposition of humanity with that of perishables in a supermarket, being constantly fun and entertaining with a few shockingly outrageous sequences of hilarity. From a strictly comedic perspective, the finale of Sausage Party is outrageously funny, a sequence which I won't spoil here, but lets just say it left me reminded of the iconic sex scene in Trey Parker and Matt Stone's Team America: World Police. Don't let the animation fool you, Sausage Party may be the filmmakers most raunchy, non-PC, film to-date, being a cleverly made film that uses shock humor and subversive violence as an allegory for the importance of peace, love, and understanding in humanity - a plea for all of humanity to get over our petty differences.
Rolf de Heer & Peter Djigirr's Ten Canoes is an eye opening film about Australia's Northern Territory, a film that is part history lesson, part anthropological study, but most importantly a poetic examination of the univeral nature of storytelling, examining how important stories and tradition are to shaping values and balancing the internal selfishness of humanity. Focusing on an elder of an indigenous tribe who shares a story about his people and his land, Rolf de Heer has crafted a film which feels like it defies typical genre classifications, exhibiting an observant eye that gives the film a documentary-type atmosphere, only to reveal its more drama-based narrative after its idyllic opening. The opening pairs narration with an observant lens, simply wishing to encapsule the enivonment of its subjects, as Ten Canoes documents the vast swamp land, the marsh, and the way of life of this tribe, establishing how the the land itself is a spiritual force for these tribal people, a force that provides and takes away. When the narrative picks up, centered around a young man's envy towards his older brother's wife, the camera takes on more of a cautious observer role, unwilling to distrupt its subjects while it documents its moralistic tale. Universal yet specific, Ten Canoes manages to provide an intricate look at this unique forgotten culture while simulatenously exhibiting the universal importance of stories in any form of culture or society, a film that poetically deconstructs how stories and language play an important part in teaching values. The guidance which they provide, the lessons they teach, Ten Canoes exhibits how the more ancient the story, the more universal the knowledge, showcasing how the seeds of time tend to wash away cultural differences and reveal our true shared humanity, the strengths and weakness of our species. Without going into details, Ten Canoes ancient, moralistic story is quite a harrowing tale, yet the film manages to never feel didactic due in large part to the filmmakers spontaneous approach. The whole film is narrarated, yet it never feels like a old, boring history lesson due in part to the filmmakers deflecting or interrupting the narrators flow, doing so to find the organic humor in day-to-day happenings of life. It's a simple decision that pays major dividinds, humanizing these characters in a way that makes the whole story feel more universal, slighly more playful yet still respectful, and very honest about our shared humanity. Remarkably balancing the documentation of this ancient cutlure with its powerful theme about the importance of storytelling, Rolf de Heer & Peter Djigirr's Ten Canoes is a singular vision that should not be missed.
A quietly haunting portrait of childhood, Philippe Lesage's The Demons is a bold and startling vision of the fragility and vulnerability of a child's psyche, focusing on how youthful exuberance often overshadows or hides the underlying fear and internalized insecurities of youth. Focusing on the the exploits of Felix, a 10-year-old boy, The Demons is a nightmare of festering fear associated with the unknown, establishing early on how large and complex the world can be, and the angst, anger, and fear, it can cause in those individuals who simply have yet built the psychological acumen to grasp it. The Demons wastes little time establishing its main protagonist as a character who is anxiety-ridden and fearful of the world around him, exhibiting how much of his agitation stems, at least initially, from the combustible relationship of his parents. Slowly paced yet assured in approach, The Demons exposes how Felix's parents tumultuous relationship effects Felix's psyche, which leads to him alienating the friends he does have, further creating despondency towards nearly everything around him while simultaneously elevating his own insecurities and overall sense of fear. Insecurities related to everything from sexuality to mortality begin to become bumbling to the surface, with Felix's little bit of resolve and understanding coming from his two older siblings, each of which serve almost as proxy parents, as they attempt to explain the world to the mind of their young, impressionable brother. Learning that the director's background is in documentaries was no surprise after witnessing the superb craft of The Demons, a film that does a wonderful job of relying on visual storytelling to tell its tale of underlying instability. The film as a whole takes on a rather minimalist approach when it comes to dialogue, with the filmmakers trusting mise en scene, composition, and an overall sense of observational photography to embody this bold and alluring story. Perhaps the best comparison for The Demons is the work of Michael Hanake, as the film watches with such implacably, revealing the underlying darkness and potential danger in such subtle, yet intricately detailed ways. I would argue that that music itself may be a little overbearing at times, but its subversive design, while blunt, does take on an almost Lynchian quality throughout the films' running time, elevating the overall atmosphere of a film that otherwise is very understated in its storytelling technique. Perspective is a major aspect of why The Demons thrives in this regard, as Philippe Lesage beautifully blends Felix's fevered imagination with the harsh realities which he is forced to inhabit, exhibiting the toll which fear and insecurities can take on an impressionable mind. While Felix's insecurities and fears are the driving force of the story, the back-half of the film changes its focus to swimming instructor Ben, an older character, who seems to be struggling himself psychologically. While up to this point, the evil and darkness in Felix's story simply lurked in the background, festering underneath the surface, but it's with Ben that The Demon's reveals true horror and shock, though one would argue it does so in a way that is completely void of judgement. Without going into details, lets just say that Ben is a character whose internal insecurities have led him down a road that ends in explosive violence and gut-churning horror. Outside of the underlying insecurities of each character, the thematic link between Felix and Ben's stories feels a bit opaque at first, and while it certainly is up to interpretation, I'd argue that Ben's character is used as a form of foreshadowing, a symbolic representation of the dangers facing Felix if he doesn't find more guidance from those around him, mainly his parents. Its simplistic to call The Demons' a cautionary tale about the dangers of ineffective parenting, but at the same time it's hard to deny the thematic connection between the fragility of a childhood's psychology and the fears of the vast, complex world around them, withFelix's overall lack of guidance, outside of his siblings. Oscillating between tenderness, exuberance, horror, and brooding pathos, Philippe Lesage's The Demons is a film that very much embraces the "go big or go home approach", delivering a bold, superbly well-crafted study of childhood psychology, and the deep, piercing effect insecurity can have on one's overall nature.
A filmmaker known for making animated films with rich, intelligent sociopolitical themes, Sang-ho Yeon's latest film finds the filmmaker turn his attention towards more blockbuster-oriented fare with Train to Busan, a harrowing zombie thriller that follows a group of passengers trapped on a bullet-train, fighting their way through the South Korean countryside as a viral outbreak threatens the entire country. Train to Busan is just the latest film out of South Korea that completely embarrasses Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking, being a tight, intense, and heartfelt blockbuster that manages to be compelling from start to finish while also understanding the importance of pacing and coherence. The film is centered around Seok Hwa, a fund manager, who works long hours in order to provide for his daughter. Seok's hardwork comes at a cost, as he has unintentionally neglected his young daughter, Soo-ahn, who feels unwanted and views her father as a selfish, self-centered man. On his daughter's birthday, Seok-Woo promises to take his daughter to her mothers (his ex-wife) in Busan. Boarding the KTX, a bullet train that runs from Seoul to Busan, the father and daughter soon find themselves in the fight of their lives when zombies overrun the train, the result of a biotech outbreak that will threaten the entire country, if not all of humanity. Taking place mainly in the confines of the bullet train, Train to Busan is a film that manages to be both expansive in scope, yet intimate in design, with filmmaker Sang-ho Yeon capably striking a great balance between these two elements throughout its fevered running time. The tight confines of the train only help the tension and horror of the situation these characters find themselves in, with Sang-ho Yeon's directly creating a great undercurrent of ominous, approaching dread on the train early on, before the chaos begins. The zombies in Train to Busan are like feral animals, beings with no consciousness whose only purpose is to feed on the living around them. While this is far from a foreign concept, likening to a cross between the zombies of World War Z and 28 Days Later, Sang-ho Yeon does enough to differentiate his film, routinely relying on speed ramping to give the film a more chaotic, explosive feeling of violence. Built around the archetype of big budget disaster films, Train to Busan features a large ensemble cast, telling its tale of survival that finds a group of passengers coming face to face with their own potential demise. The country is falling apart, humanity itself is threatened, but yet the center conflict of Train to Busan remains its heartfelt story of father and daughter, one which finds Seok-Woo show his daughter the true meaning of sacrifice and importance for empathy towards all of humanity. Sang-ho Yeon's tale is gripping and intense sure, but perhaps the film's most compelling attribute is its cry for more compassion in humanity, using not only Seok-Woo's story, but those of other passengers to detail the overall importance of human-beings remembering their shared empathy in times of life and death. Sang-ho Yeon's film acknowledges the primal, inherent selfishness of man when the survivalist mindset kicks in, yet it begs for humanity to reject this ideal, pleading that our shared humanity and empathy for each other is what makes us human. For a zombie-apocalypse thriller Train to Busan is intelligent, heartfelt, blockbuster filmmaking, being a film that brings the blood-drenched thrills but never loses focus on the heartfelt humanity of its characters, an element that seems to be sorely lacking these days in most large scale blockbusters.
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