REVIEWS AND BLOG

Personas Non Grata

Directed by Brooklyn-based Alvin Adadevoh and Amber Lee, the documentary short Personas Non Grata creates a prismatic portrait of an international performance art collective. With an introduction that briefly describes the fall of the Soviet Union and the “new societies [that] grew out of it,” the film establishes its social consciousness and anti-totalitarian principles before diving headfirst into a cinematic collage of conceptual performances.

This surreal aftermath to suffering, alluded to in the opening, is what the actors and directors seem to concern themselves with going forward. The camera never lingers on any one particular moment, remaining frenetic and up-close, traversing the staged action and tightly framing itself on the fine details of the group’s extravagant set pieces. Toy soldiers are torched until they become distorted clumps of their former plastic selves; an angel-winged figure is covered in confetti while clutching a golden brain under bubble-gum-pink lighting; animal skulls are arranged on a nude woman’s torso and spray-painted chrome; an anonymous musician with a paper-bagged face strums thunderous–sometimes startling–chords on an electric guitar in the background. All of this culminates in a final bombardment of the senses, where a man with a megaphone shouts diatribes in the actors’ faces while they smash their props with blunt objects and ready a branding stick to imprint a man’s skin with an X scar.

This showcase of ideas is able to capture the spirit of the collective’s art because it does not overtly politicize itself or lay bare the philosophy of their work, but rather fragments it all in a cinematic way—the interviews are understated and sparsely placed between the imagery to just slightly add whatever context is needed. A couple of actors will describe the unpredictability of their process, and the excitement that comes with it, someone else will touch upon the like-mindedness of the people involved and their setting out to “create a new school of art,” but these moments of dialogue never detract from the visceral, intimate footage of their performances whipping across the frame in appropriately disorienting ways. We get to see every last component of the piece, but never any single component for too long. The collective aspect of this group of artists, as well as their assault on conventionality on the stage (or rather in the “space” of a venue), are thus emulated in the anxious movements of the camera and the heightened shadows or deep hues of the cinematography.

Additionally, the sound design fluctuates between a soft, industrial thumping in more singular moments and boisterous, overloaded cacophonies in the larger gatherings (like the skin-searing finale). The filmmaking at-work in Personas Non Grata accomplishes what might be otherwise lost in-person; for a type of experimental art that seems to aim for alienation and distance to spark critical thought, the medium of cinema develops an immersive, trance-like quality through its audio-visual flourishes, a quality that makes this kind of elliptical contemporary performance suddenly more accessible, or at least approachable.

Adadevoh, Lee, et al. are ultimately able to present this underground collective’s work in an aesthetically innovative way that is sometimes humorously over-the-top in its choreography and other times quietly intimate or even dream-like. What Personas Non Grata does is take that opening line about “society” and use it to its best effect; the humans behind the jarring performances, their physicality in the moment, the artistry of the costumes and props and how they are used or manipulated, the attitudes of these ideas and how they are conveyed as an artistic whole. All of this is achieved by steering away from exposition or statement or anecdotes and instead allowing the visuals on-screen to simply speak for themselves. Therefore, what could have been nothing more than an introduction to a performance troupe or a manifesto for their intellectual aims is elevated to a performance art piece that stands on its own, capturing the essence of Non Grata in a truly cinematic, rather than dramatic, light and bringing a new dimension of understanding to their experimental process.

In the end, is this “proof of concept” a strange experience? Yes. Is it as enigmatic as the collective it follows? In many ways. Was that vaguely heart-like organ in the actor’s hand a real one? Possibly. Did they really brand that guy’s chest? Pretty sure. Will this curious hybrid of a film leave you with not only a desire to see more but also a burning, contentious urge somewhere deep inside you? Absolutely.

By Blood

Behind the cold and harsh walls of medieval castle lives a king. He has built a legacy with ruthless violence and bloodshed. But now, when death creeps around the misty hills surrounding the castle, the ill king is faced with burning fear. Are his successors – who have lived in the deep shadows of his success – capable to endure the legacy that he has built? Is he ready to fade away from the honor and accomplishments that are the essence of him?

When the last scene of a French historical drama “Par le Sang” fades into black, we know. We know the pain of a dying king in an era when the king materialized the fortune and the code of the castle and when average life expectancy rarely reached forty. And we know the significance and ache of bloodline flowing amidst the stones, shields, and swords making the reality of the Middle Ages. Writer-directors Jonathan Delerue and Guillaume Enard – the hardworking rising stars of French cinema – take us to the historical tour with cinematically polished way.

The tour starts with a fearful arrival of a dark knight. He stops near the rocky hills of the castle, just in the line of sight for its residents, the king Mort-Lieu and his family. The arrival of a threat amplifies Mort-Lieu’s fear of death and causes conflict within the hierarchical dynamics of the family. And so the artistically beautifully built stage is set for the battle of honor and legacy.

The clearly structured narrative of “Par le Sang” points to the ability of the authors to create strong, straightforward and psychologically precise stories that carry the weight of their historical contexts. The film combines solidly written dialogue with top-notch visuals to vitalize the heavy setting of the era. As the story advances and introduces the stylishly choreographed fighting sequences, the notion that the authors have good control over their vision will be further confirmed. Furthermore, the solidly assembled cast gives an overall good era-specific performance.

Every detail is well put together and has significance to the narrative. For example, the violent acts encapsulate the thoughts and feelings the characters are incapable to communicate in another form, while the beautiful and natural lightning design pinpoints the emotional dynamics of the story. The solid camerawork works sensibly with the lightning design as well as with the clean set design creating absorbingly historical settings. The portrayal of the Middle Ages is therefore familiar but also nuanced.

Although as an historical drama “Par le Sang” lacks socially and politically relevant narrative or thematic connections to the present of the moviegoer, the psychological currents that the characters undergo are recognizable. “Par le Sang” effectively presents the aches of dying patriarch and the agony of a neglected son without being a passive dialogue-heavy stage play. And thereby “Par le Sang” displays the morality of a man of the era with style and detail making it cinematically polished piece of historically and psychologically sensitive filmmaking. With films like “Par le Sang”, the past will never fade away.

Littoral

Littoral translates as close to the shore of a sea or lake, a place that has deep meaning for many people. Many of us make memories on the beach or on the coast of a body of water. Those images and feelings can stay with us throughout our life, and in this film we see that for one woman, her only memories are those of the times she spent next Urmia Lake.

Littoral is an interesting and complex look into the human psyche and the effects of climate change as we watch the lake dry up as the film progresses. The protagonist watches as her treasured childhood memories dry up along with the lake and at points the film is truly heartbreaking. We see how important this place is to the protagonist and the effect it has on her when she realises she barely recognises it. Her only memories are those of her as a child around this lake, and now it faces complete desolation.

The film is profound in it’s portrayal of climate change and what we are doing to our planet. Often it is easy to dismiss the changes that are happening, until they happen to something o somewhere that is personal and meaningful to us. Here the film clever links the topic of climate change to that of a womans’ declining mental health in an intriguing juxtaposition.

The film has a definite style all of it’s own which helps its stand out and deliver it’s message rather than being just another documentary about climate change. It demonstrates the personal effects of the changing planet rather than the wider effects and that makes it all the more touching to watch.

The colouring, editing and cinematography work together to create a film that is stylish and memorable, as well as affecting. The performances are heartfelt and the lead female takes us through all of her emotions on her face as we travel along her journey.

A beautifully captivating film that both inspires and devastates.

Whales

Family dynamics are always an interesting and intricate topic for films, but it can also go hideously wrong if the dialogue or narrative is poorly developed. When making a film that is focused on relationships it is imperative to make those relationships dynamic and well developed, otherwise the film feels flimsy and paper thin. Whales is an example of how to do this perfectly.

The film doesn’t rely on anything other than it’s characters and story, yet the settings are beautiful and the sound/music is understated but beautifully placed to aid emotion and pace. The music is perfectly chosen yet doesn’t detect from the interactions between the characters and their conflict. The rough unstable setting of the coast and sea mirrors the instability and turbulence of the relationships between the three main characters.

The three main characters are dealing with grief whilst also trying to navigate a new dynamic now that the third person has arrived, causing the conflict and rift between them all. Each character deals with their own problems whilst also trying to find out where they sit within this new situation and this is done via excellent dialogue and stellar performances by the three actors.

The production value on the piece is outstanding and each and every scene is shot with aptitude and thought. The whole package comes together to create a piece of film that is intriguing and encompassing. Performances from actors that hold the audience and bring to the surface raw emotion and very real experiences that resonate with the audience.

Whales is a strong narrative driven character study that utilises strong characterisation and well developed plot to investigate relationship dynamics within a unique situation. It avoids all of the usual cliches and tropes to deliver a film that stays with the audience after the credits roll.

Voyeur

It’s quite often the films with a simple concept that are the most impactful, because they are the ones we can so easily relate to. Voyeur takes an incredibly mundane, everyday idea of watching someone through a window and intertwines with something so true and heartfelt that it flips our expectations and turns into something incredibly personal and touching.

Voyeur is the perfect name for this piece. Not only are we, the audience, the voyeurs into the protagonists life but she is a voyeur into her family life at a time when she feels she should have a leading role. She gets snippets of information about her family much as we get snippets of information from the times we see her through the window. A clever way of mirroring story to theme.

The lead actress portrays the role with an ease and reality to the emotion that is endearing and heartfelt. Given that we get little context to the what is happening, and the limited insight we get into her life, the writing is so well done that we still develop a relationship with the protagonist and feel an empathy to her situation, not least because it is presented in a way that the audience can relate to.

The success of this film lies mostly within the simplicity of the way that it is presented. Nothing is put in the way to distract us from the narrative and the lead characters emotions. The whole film relies on the performance and the script, which works. We are drawn into this world from the outside, but what works is that we are kept on the outside. That is what creates the intrigue.

The fact this film deals with such an emotionally wrought topic in such a straightforward manner without overplaying the drama is what makes it so delightful. It doesn’t make an issue out of the topic and instead deals with it isn an honest and relatable way.

Sketches

Films that have their basis in reality, or are in their essence a documentary, can often walk a fine line between factually interesting and boring. This can be avoided by creating something unique and diverse. This is what Sketches does. It takes a concept that has the potential to be mundane and turns it into something that holds the audiences attention.

The film does this by utilising a variety of techniques to tell it’s story. The voice over helps to tell the story without watching a face on screen, instead we are offered a variety visuals to help whet our imaginations appetite. Fictional film pieces are accompanied by archive footage, home video and beautiful sketches images.

The decision to use a variety of devices to tell this story is heavily reward by it’s effectiveness. It creates a film that entertains as well as informs. The artwork used is beautifully made and used perfectly within the film. It creates a unique piece that is a pleasure to watch.

The production quality is excellent given the variety of mediums that are used. Despite using a variety there is still a realism and honesty to the piece that runs through each different medium.

The voice over is honest and feels more like a conversation than a factual piece of text and offers a more human perspective that is often times missed in documentary style films, it helps to make the film feel more accessible and less formal which in turn helps the audience to connect to it.

Overall this is a well executed piece of film that provides strong visuals along with a well constructed narrative. It’s unique use of styles keep the audience intrigued and invested in the film which is difficult to do within a factual piece, yet here it is achieved and achieved with gusto.

Lilly Black

The atmosphere of a film has a huge part to play in how the themes and plot of the film are received and understood. The colours, lighting and sound should all work to emphasise the emotion of the film, and here we see an example of how that can work in a way to enhance the rawness of a film.

The film feels gritty and laid bare much like the characters within it and it adds to the realism of hat we are shown. Tis realism is furthered by the display of seemingly mundane activities such as eating or watching TV interspersed within more dynamic scenes.

The dialogue is sparse but meaningful and delivered in a human and realistic manner. The settings used aren’t heavily dressed up and reinforce the realism and grit of the piece, which works well to tie in with the rawness of the narrative.

The film makes no apologies for what it is which only adds to its appeal, and its almost noir like quality. The relationships and characters are well developed within the film and the main characters motivations and drives are well established from the beginning.

The sound quality is grainy and rough which really adds into the overall aesthetic of the piece rounding off the overall effect that is achieved. Overall, the film achieves what it sets out to and feels like a harsh portrayal without any apologies for that. It’s a refreshing change to see a film that focuses on story rather than how to impress audiences with ridiculous CGI or other visual effects.