Ti West's In A Valley of Violence could be described as a deconstruction of the Western genre, a film that plays in the space of desolate landscapes, rampant machoism, and loose morals, delivering a story that is both thrilling and darkly comedic. The story is centered around Paul, a mysterious drifter, who is in route to Mexico with his best friend and trusty sidekick, Abbie the dog. Stopping in the desolate town of Denton, a place which has been dubbed by locals as a "valley of violence", Paul is confronted by Gilly, the troublesome, headstrong son of the town's Sheriff. Wishing to avoid confrontation, Paul is drawn into fisticuffs with Gilly, though he leaves the town before the violence escalates. When a brutal act of violence is committed by Gilly and his cronies, it forces the hand of Paul, with the quiet, seemingly peaceful man being dragged back to the town, seeking vengeance for the wrongs committed against him. In A Valley of Violence is stripped down story of vengeance, a film that tells the story of a man who was so desperately trying to escape bloodshed and death only to find his hand forced by the environment which he inhabits. Ethan Hawke's Paul is a deserter of the American Calvary, a man who is attempting to flee the bloodshed and genocide committed by his hands against the Native American people. When violence is brought among him by these local misfits, Paul's inner-aggression is unleashed on the small town, as he is unable to let the actions of these men go unpunished. Viewed as a coward by the misfits of the town, who pick with the wrong man, Ti West's film playfully deconstructs the stupidity of testosterone-fueled machoism, capturing the absurdity of it all through humor and playful violence. In A Valley of Violence is as much a dark comedy as a brooding revenge thriller, a film which offers a heavy dose of self awareness about its story, where the main protagonist is the real danger to the characters of the story, with it becoming quite apparent early on that Gilly and his cronies are no match for the quiet, steely-gazed Paul. Introspection is not the film's strong suit, as I'd argue the film never fully develops the emotional weight such violence and death has on the psyche of a man, outside of one skillfully directed flashback sequence, but what the film lacks in nuance it makes up for in comedy and furor, with TI West delivering a dark comedy that is highly entertaining and intelligent in its deconstruction of masculinity. James Ransone, who is probably best known for his role as Ziggy on The Wire, delivers another memorable role as Gilly, a man whose thick maschoism slowly peels away, only to reveal a man who deep down is weak and pathetic, having a place at the table thanks to his father's role as sheriff of the town. Gilly is a character who himself has never experienced true bloodshed, a character whose machoism is simply a veil of his underlying insecurities, someone who quickly finds him outmatched by Paul, a man who swore to himself he would never kill again. Paul on the otherhand is a character who has truly experienced the psychological toll of violence, and the way he essentially manhandles Gilly and his fellow local cronies is both thrilling and comically executed, with John Travolta's role as the Sheriff, a man stuck in the middle due to the stupidity of his son, being another memorable aspect of the film. Managing to balance both its comedic, dramatic, and action elements quite well, Ti West's In A Valley of Violence playfully uses the western genre to deconstruct the shortcomings of faux-machoism, being a film that is sure to entertain from start to finish.
Brash, brazen, and vicious, Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Beware of A Holy Whore routinely oscillates between utter-chaos and tepid-lethargy, detailing the semi-autobiographical experiences Fassbinder had while making Whity earlier in the same year. Focusing on the behind-the-scenes dysfunction of the filmmaking process, Beware of A Holy Whore features dry wit and deadpan humor which certainly won't appeal to all viewers, but for those willing to give the film a chance, the film offers a singular look into the chaotic nature of filmmaking, finding the humor in a situation where egos routinely run high and creative types work together to create a singular vision. While films about the filmmaking process tend to be one of my least favorite genres, due primarily to their pretentious nature and self-importance they almost always breed, Beware The Holy Whore is a film that bucks that trend, divulging into near self-parody throughout its running time, as Fassbinder shows an ability to laugh at the absurdity of the creative process, capturing the chaotic nature of a helliish production. Beware The Holy Whore is a love letter to cinema, displaying the passion, pain, and obsession it takes to create art, detailing how artists themselves fall victim to the same emotions, insecurities, and ego-driven decisions as everyone else, with Fassbinder displaying this through the chaotic nature of his semi-autobiographical narrative. The film doesn't seem to suggest that this has to be the norm, but it also captures how creativity tends to messy, pinpointing how the filmmakers who create fall victim to the same shortcomings of humanity as everyone else. Technically speaking, Beware The Holy Whore is a beautifully composed film, with Fassbinder's penchant for carefully staged sequences of chaos, use of mirrors, and vibrant color palette bringing this chaotic dance to life, juxtaposing the ugliness of these egocentric characters with the beautifully-rendered photography. Beware of A Holy Whore manages to touch on the communal aspects of filmmaking, detailing how jealousy, ego, competition, and despair routinely make their way onto this chaotic production, detailing how the communal experience of filmmaking is rarely as straightforward and civil as many suggest. Beware of the Holy Whore doesn't suggest these things are necessary inherent in the filmmaking process, nor does it perpetuate the idea that they are completely avoidable, instead the film merely focuses on Fassbinder's failed production in all its chaotic glory, being a film the sees one of the most respected filmmakers in the entire world focus on his own struggles as a creative, exhibiting the pain and fragility of the creative process while touching on the profound desire in which all creatives should have to create something truthful about the world in which we inhabit.
Benny Chan's Call of Heroes is a lavish martial arts epic with a moral core, a film thats extravagant action set-pieces are equally matched by its strong characterizations and thematic elements centered around the unbiased nature of justice. Taking place during the warlords era in China, Call of Heroes focuses on the small town of Pucheng, which sits dangerously close to conflict. Led by Sherrif Yang, the guardians of Pucheng are sworn to protect the townspeople from conflict, but when the cruel commandant Cao's young, diabolical son arrives in town, he murders three of the townspeople in cold blood, including a young innocent child. Held for murder for his heinous act of violence, the son's father soon gets word of his incarceration, sending a large military unit to strike fear into the heart of the townspeople and demand the release of his son. While Sheriff Yang holds firm on his dedication to justice being served, the fear of invasion from Cao begins to corrupt the moral compass of the townspeople, testing the resolve of Sheriff Yang's dedication to what he believes is right. While Sheriff Yang's fellow guardians stand by their master, an unlikely ally in the form of Ma Feng emerges, a mysterious wanderer who is given the opportunity to correct his own past mistakes for the sake of justice. Benny Chan's Call of Heroes is a throwback style martial arts epic, a film which features a very serious story about justice and integrity while maintaining a relatively light, playful tone throughout its running time. It's violent and dark, yet silly and playful, featuring a tone which manages to balance both elements surprisingly well. Call of Heroes features a rather typical narrative archetype- the story of the unlikely hero in Ma Feng, a man who has spent his recent years as a vagabond due to his past failings. A martial arts master, Ma Feng is on the run from his past, as we eventually learn that he himself has fallen victim to the whims of a powerful, rich warlord, betraying his own moral compass for the sake of his dedication, commitment, and loyalty to his master. It's through his relationship with Sheriff Yang that Ma Feng is given a chance to correct his past mistakes, being a pawn of no man's agenda, Ma Feng can now fight for justice and his own moral code, doing so against great adversity, including an old friend who stands in the way of him and justice. Featuring Sammo Hung as the action director, Call of Heroes' fight choreography and action set-pieces are well-staged and impressive, with the filmmakers often using speed ramping, wires, and some well orchestrated camera movements to place the viewer in the thick of the action. While most martial arts films feature very impressive fight choreography, in Call of Heroes the camera flows with the action in ways I personally haven't really seen before, making it an intoxicating ballet of movement and violence. The performances in the film are all around adequate, but Louis Koo's portrayal of the diabolical son of a tyrant really stands out, with the actor playing the character over-the-top, a deliciously evil portrayal of a character whose gotten everything he has ever wanted in life and shows absolutely no appreciation for the precious nature of life itself. While the film's message about justice and principles isn't anything unique or revelatory for the genre, Call of Heroes is an exciting, well-paced martial arts film that manages to balance its dramatic tone with its comedic flourishes, delivering a memorable experience that should be enjoyed by any fans of the genre.
Michel Franco's Chronic is a stunning, minimalist study of death, suffering, and depression, a film in which its exquisite craft is matched by its deeply personal examination of the profound impact which death has on all of us. The story of David, a meticulous and efficient home care nurse who works for terminally ill patients, Chronic is a narrative that unfolds organically, featuring a screenplay that manages to be mysterious, yet engaging, never falling victim to a didactic approach of storytelling. David is a character who is awkward and reserved in his social life, a man who routinely avoids alone time, taking double-shifts to stay with his terminally ill patients even when he is not required too. Chronic is a slowly unfolding psychological study of man who himself is suffering great pain, a man who seemingly lives a life of complete solitude, who shows great attachment to his patients in a way that simply doesn't feel normal. The film wisely remains detached from the true explanation for David's demeanor for much of the film, but thanks to a terrific lead performance by Tim Roth, and Franco's skilled direction, the character's inner turmoil is felt far before the audience learns of the true reasoning for David's internal pain. Featuring a static lens, Franco's minimalist cinematography evokes the emotion of its story, often holding on a single composition far longer than is typical, a cinematic device that beautifully mirrors the stillness and coldness of David's character, someone who we come to learn has long someone of his own. The film features absolutely no form of musical score, with the cold silence evoking the inner pain, sadness, and loss of hope that many of these characters experience, particularly David who himself feels caught in a state of chronic depression. David is a character of dealing with great internal pain, and through Franco's direction and a well-written screenplay, the film slowly reveals the reasons of his anguish, deconstructing a man who has experienced loss of his own due to death in his family. David sees his own suffering in every patient he provides for, with his dedication to them serving as a form a therapy for a man who still struggles with the death of a loved one. Chronic is not an easy film to experience, but it's an important one, a film that examines death with biting honesty, a reflective experience which captures the various emotions that individuals experience when facing their oncoming, unavoidable demise. The regrets, second-guesses, pain, and suffering are presented in a way in which over-sentimentality never even comes close to being an issue, partly because the film embraces the concept that death as merely a part of life, no matter the great pain it routinely causes for so many individuals. Chronic may be one of the most honest and insightful examinations of depression every committed to celluloid, detailing a man in David who is stuck in a perpetual state of despair. His quiet silence merely hides the great sense of hopelessness he feels inside of him, with his exterior presence being one of great human empathy towards the patients he cares for. Without going into details, the ending of Chronic is almost guaranteed to leave the viewer breathless, a potent and powerful conclusion to a film that attempts to peer into the soul of an individual who has long been suffering due to loss, providing the perfect conclusion to a film which touches on such heavy concepts with complete honesty. Beautifully crafted, Michel Franco's Chronic is one of the more powerful films I've seen dealing with death, suffering, and depression, examining the impact which this part of life has on the human soul with biting honesty, and genuine feeling.
Paced more like a thriller than a traditional documentary, Robert Kenner's Command and Control provides an in-depth look at the risk of human error associated with Nuclear Weapons, detailing the extreme dangers that still exist to this very day, a byproduct of the mass production of these weapons at the height of the cold war. Focusing on one particularly case in Arkansas, in which a small mistake lead to near catastrophe at a Titan II missile silo, Command and Control is a harrowing examination of these systems and their shortcomings, linking humanities mutually assured destruction associated with nuclear weapons with the possibilities of self-annihilation. Command and Control details the immense power of these types of weapons, detailing how they have always been on the verge of slipping out of our control. From the South Pacific tests, which had blast radius' three times the size of what was expected, to the alarming amount of nuclear weapon based accidents that are quietly swept under the rug by the US government, none of which ended in catastrophe thankfully, Command and Control is a film that details how man's propensity to strive for bigger and better weapons often leads to miscalculated risks. The film details the arms race of the Cold War, exhibiting how the US government gave defense contractors and other manufacturers essentially blank checks, but the film's most interesting aspect is the distrust in which one should have for our government, one which routinely lies about the true dangers that exist on the homeland. Detailing this one particularly case, in which a nuclear device could have easily gone off in Arkansas, Command and Control is compelling story of the government's desire to hide the risks of such devices being so abundant on our soil. Blaming human error for every accident and incident, the US government routinely discharges those it deems responsible for such near catastrophe, but Command and Control makes a convincing argument that it's not a question of if but a question of when one of these nuclear devices will accidentally detonate over United States soil, arguing that government itself will never admit true flaws of weapons of mass destruction that were created out of haste, due to the cold war. Harrowing, compelling, and ultimately down right terrifying, Command and Control is an informative documentary about the true nature of these types of weapons, focusing on how our own weapons of mass destruction could cause massive casualties to our citizens.
Andrea Arnold's American Honey is a raw, visceral coming of age story about Star, a teenage girl who lives a impoverished life, a victim of her own environment. Coming from a broken home, Star is more a parental figure to her younger brother and sister than her own parents, a character who is forced to fend for herself due to her negligent mother and sexually abusive father. Through a chance encounter with Jake, a member of a young magazine sales crew, Star sees her way out of her restrictive lifestyle, joining this band of misfits as she attempts to make a life for herself outside of her downtrodden circumstances. American Honey is a vibrant, albeit flawed examination of teenage angst and hope, documenting the toxic young love that exists between Star and Jake. Star is a character who enters this scene of hard partying and personal freedom, but the more time she spends with the crew, the more it becomes clear that she is still a slave to those who employ her. Much like its naive protagonist, American Honey can be a meandering film at times, detailing the nature of its characters, many of which dream of one day finding a piece of happiness through the money they earn as magazine salesman. The toxic relationship that exists between Jake and Star is the central aspect of the story, two characters who share a mutual attraction for one and other but are routinely torn apart due to their need to make money for their boss, Krystal. Their desire to make as much money as possible routinely puts them at odds with each other, creating a jealousy and angst that only threatens to derail their love for each other. While Arnold's coming of age story is explosive, singular, and unapologetic, the most interesting aspect of American Honey is how Krystal holds control over these two characters, the boss of the operation who makes sure her employees are driven to make as much money as they can. While the film's intentions seem to be set on deconstructing the inherent evils of capitalism, a society that is dictated by consumerism and monetary gains, one could certainly argue that the film could just as easily be a commentary on the troubles of big government. While I'm sure that is not the intention of the story, it's one worth exploring, as Krystal, the boss of the operation, could just as easily be an allegorical character for the government, being a character who has control over all of the youth of her operation, giving them a place to stay every night, food to eat, but effectively owning them, taking three fourths of the money which each of the make. The characters don't seem to have the option of quitting in this particular environment, stuck with Krystal, a character who takes care of them as long as they are paying her a large percentage of their earnings, aka taxes. These kids have no parents to help them, only Krystal, a character who may take care of them on the surface, but only as long as they are paying their dues to her. Either way you interpret this aspect of the film, American Honey presents a main protagonist in Star who becomes consumed by the notion of making as much money as possible, which leads to conflict between Jake, as each character routinely chooses monetary gains over their shared love for one and other. It's only towards the end of the film that Star begins to recognize the true importance of empathy and sacrifice, recognizing that enriching herself monetarily will never fulfill her human desire for empathy, love, and good will. It's always interesting to see an outside perspective of American life, and American Honey certainly doesn't disappoint, painting a unique vision of American life, one steeped heavily in christian imagery, drift-less youth and broken families. Jake and Star are well-developed characterizations for sure, but the film routinely relies too much on caricatures of American life, with many of its side characters being far too one-dimensional, often feeling like lowbrow stereotypes of the south. Perhaps the film's most prudent message is about the importance of family and parental guidance, as all of these characters seem to come from broken homes, victims of their environment due to the negligence of their parents. Star is a character who has never had a parental figure that showed any tpe of sacrifice or guidance, with both Krystal and her actual parents in the beginning of the film choosing to take care of themselves first, before others. It's only through a chance encounter with a group of young children, who have a drug-addict mother, that Star is awakened to the importance of responsibility, empahty, and sacrifice, something which she could have learned earlier if she had only received better guidance. Well-acted, stylish, and vibrant, Andrea Arnold's American Honey is a singular coming of age story by the talented English filmmaker, which offers a unique perspective of American life from an outside perspective.
Love of all things cinema brought me here.