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PFF24: The Treasure (Corneliu Porumboiu, ROU/FRA)

Costi (Toma Cuzin) is husband and father of one living happily and humbly despite a looming economic crisis. When propositioned by neighbor Adrian (Adrian Purcarescu) for cash, Costi politely turns him down out of necessity. When Adrian returns with a rumor of buried treasure on his family’s revolution-era estate grounds, intrigue sets in and the duo agrees to satisfy their joint curiosity. Barring the inherent absurdity of digging for treasure, Costi and Adrian set out with hopeful skepticism and a metal detector to get to work.

Having not familiarized myself with Porumboiu’s purposefully deadpan style, I found myself enamored with The Treasure‘s steadfast manner of presentation. Fueled by subtle commentary on Romania’s floundering economy, the transpiring treasure hunt can be aptly described as absurdly innocuous. Punctuated by an equally subtle sense of humor, the slightness of narrative transcends banality thanks to the assured personality Porumboiu injects into the proceedings.

The Treasure is a breezy exercise in exemplifying the filmmaker’s subjective and tonal proclivities. For as “uneventful” some may deem Costi and Adrian’s sole tribulation, the film is all the better for remaining decidedly uncomplicated in the employment of its central themes. It also culminates in what I consider to be one of the most uplifting scenes featured in anything I’ve seen this year, and the smile it helped plaster across my face alone speaks volumes about how simply entertaining Porumboiu’s latest is.

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PFF24: 45 Years (Andrew Haigh, UK)

A blissfully wedded couple lives a modest life in a comparably modest suburban town. On the cusp of their 45th anniversary, a mysterious letter addressed to the husband Geoff (Tom Courtenay) details the unthinkable: a former flame thought forever lost in a tragic hiking accident has been found, preserved in an icy tomb. Despite the length of time separating the present from his last memory of her, Geoff and his wife Kate (Charlotte Rampling) become increasingly affected by this startling turn of events to little gain. Only a mere week will tell if this formerly idyllic marriage perseveres or is steadily upended by undisclosed truths.

Andrew Haigh’s sophomore feature is a discernible departure from his preceding Weekend in that it forgoes burgeoning romance in favor of longstanding marriage and singular complexity of scenario. 45 Years finds strength in its beautifully restrained trappings, echoing Kate and Geoff’s quiet existence with a calculated method of storytelling that avoids melodrama while remaining undeniably moving. The film thrums with a slow-burning uncertainty that unsettles but not in a traditional sense, taking care in examining Geoff’s existential turmoil in the wake of receiving the news at the film’s forefront.

There’s an assured sort of procedurality to 45 Years‘ progression as both Kate and us as viewers question the validity of the relationship that’s defined a bulk of her life. Haigh’s focal acuity in employing something as simple as Kate’s thousand-yard stare to convey inner anguish is stellar, as is 45 Years‘ avoidance of hammy dramatic tropes that procure easy answers. Kate and Geoff’s situation is uniquely oppressive in scope, the delicacy of which is handled via deft subtlety that packs as much of a wallop as anything louder and overwrought could and assuredly has.

Decidedly plodding as it is, 45 Years‘ sensitivity in dissecting this couple’s newfound hardship is at once excellently rendered and quietly devastating. Haigh’s refusal to bash us over the head with emotional bombast establishes the film’s laudable sense of self at frequent intervals, remaining effectively contemplative of the situation in play and how dire Kate and Geoff’s predicament really is. 45 Years is undoubtedly a modest triumph in purely humanistic storytelling that has no trouble in finding and maintaining its footing in terms of scope.

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PFF24: Entertainment (Rick Alverson, USA)

In consecutively subverting convention, Rick Alverson has tacked his absurdist singularity onto his latest feature for better but mostly for worse. Entertainment follows bitter middle-aged comedian’s (Gregg Turkington) tour through the desolate American Southwest. Performing for almost no one in between failed attempts at reconciling with his estranged daughter, the man’s dwindling sense of purpose as loneliness silently crushes him becomes more oppressive on an increasingly bizarre journey from venue to venue.

Alverson’s follow up to 2012’s rather excellent The Comedy forgoes offbeat humor and incisiveness for something decidedly plodding and self-indulgent. In following The Comedian throughout a fruitless journey across abyssal landscapes, Entertainment struggles to combat the simplicity of its themes with increasingly surreal set pieces. It’s hard to imagine things going anywhere but up from the film’s opening prison sequence, yet this assumption is quickly squashed as Turkington’s squirm-inducing onscreen persona traipses to and fro, much to our mounting discomfort.

Entertainment isn’t entirely without merit as The Comedian’s live act remains unfailingly hilarious. These performances are an almost too-sharp departure from the film’s more startlingly abstract moments – of which disturbingly culminate in a rest stop restroom – but do enough to elevate what’s ostensibly a self-aggrandizing character study devoid of imitators to its own detriment. Whether this reads as either misguided or reductive, there’s no arguing that the film’s singularity is decidedly black-and-white in terms of accessibility and broad appeal.

Entertainment is worthy of note thanks to its acutely subversive personality and not much else. Its darkly comedic sensibilities remain effective as the dissection of The Comedian’s crumbling offstage existence remains more disconcerting than sympathetic in scope. Many may argue in favor of Alverson’s vision and the end result it’s yielded, yet Entertainment remains too hard to recommend to those not enamored with The Comedy or the divisive manner in which he fleshes out his films’ core subjective through lines.

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PFF24: Brooklyn (John Crowley, IRL/UK/CAN)

Brooklyn is an unfathomably mawkish period drama centered on Irish immigrant Eilis Lacey’s (Saoirse Ronan) life anew in the titular New York City borough. She remains reasonably unburdened by everything until the handsome young Tony (Emory Cohen) – a suitably attractive Italian local – almost instantaneously sweeps her off her feet. Eilis continues to battle waning homesickness in the coming days until an unforeseeable tragedy brings her back to her native Ireland and a potential new suitor, forcing her to inevitably make a firm decision about an increasingly uncertain future.

Please believe me when I say that Brooklyn‘s tidy disposition borders on disgraceful. In giving credit where its due, Nick Hornby knows just how to pander to a particular audience to staggering success, as in the man sitting to my immediate left wept uncontrollably at several key latter act moments. The film’s entirely saccharine nature works to its advantage in this regard only, failing to captivate those like yours truly once any semblance of mid-century reality is taken into consideration.

I’m not trying to dog the film for being decidedly idealistic in its telling of Eilis’ story, yet for her to remain this completely unhindered by anything but seasickness in the midst of uprooting her life is hard to overlook. Barring the forced sympathy card that serves as Eilis’ return trip impetus, Brooklyn as a mere love story set against a timely situational backdrop is still glaringly rote. Girl meets boy and the two hit the ground running toward a very serious relationship, of which is rendered just strong enough to tug at your heartstrings when the two are separated.

It isn’t out-and-out unbearable as a lavishly rendered slice of young love in a particular time and place, but Brooklyn is only a cut above similarly stilted sap that streamlines itself to accentuate its elementary-level sentimentality. The desired result is one that’s partially shameful in intention even if the film’s earnest production values suggest otherwise, leaving me mostly disappointed in pondering what could’ve been should the narrative not have steeped itself so fervently in conventionality. Brooklyn is a steadfast tearjerker for sure, meaning it already has and will continue to find its intended audience as countless comparable efforts have proven time and again.

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PFF24: Evolution (Lucile Hadzihalilovic, FRA)

Having not seen Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s preceding Innocence, my implicitness in trusting her eagerly anticipated and long-gestating follow-up wasn’t misplaced, but the viewing experience was a polarizing one to say the least. Set in an alternately eerie and idyllic French coastal village, young Nicolas (Max Brebant) is startled to find what he identifies as a dead boy pinned to the ocean floor. When his mother shrugs off the incident, Nicolas becomes more and more inquisitive of the nature of his existence until he’s ushered to the local hospital with the rest of the local boys.

Evolution is probably one of the most literally nightmarish things I’ve laid eyes on. Evoking traditional body horror elements that mesh with alternately breathtaking and ceaselessly disturbing set pieces, the film’s deliberately languid pacing only serves to further unsettle as deafening silence punctuates the halls of the decrepit hospital as a centerpiece. Despite what precedes this change of setting being all but conventionally steeped in mysterious procedurality, Evolution‘s latter half is both bleak and hauntingly non-ethereal.

Hadzihalilovic’s aesthetic proclivities tend to overshadow what Evolution lacks in terms of accessibility and straightforward narrative. The decidedly singular proceedings fall into a predictable rhythm of atmospheric exploitation preceding moments of genuine discomfort, the latter of which often culminate in surgically-inclined crescendos that had quite the effect on yours truly. For as affecting as these moments are, the film has a hard time sustaining itself on account of how omnipresent its minimalistic sensibilities are throughout.

Evolution ranks high among more uniquely disturbing viewing experiences I’ve ever had. Hadzihalilovic’s combined use of atmosphere and imagery yields its intended effect, yet it can’t comfortably coast along on this merit alone on account of an oppressiveness of slow-burning repetition. It’s a hard sell for sure, but Evolution‘s particular merits work entirely in its favor as it rests comfortably among comparable body horror canon members.

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PFF24: Victoria (Sebastian Schipper, GER)

Flaunting an undeniably dexterous single take conceit, Victoria follows the titular twentysomething on a fateful two-plus hour jaunt through the streets of her non-native Berlin. An initially innocuous run-in with an inebriated quartet of locals yields the debauchery you’d expect it to, that is until a phone call upends the festivities tenfold. What ensues is a dice roll of dire proportions when Victoria becomes an unknowing accessory to the scheme the lot of them are forced to execute.

The word “gimmick” can often come off as reductive based on context. As a solely technical accomplishment, Victoria‘s ability to breezily exploit its strongest attribute is impressive in and of itself. In fact, one needn’t see the film in order to buy into the buzz surrounding what’s ostensibly a rote heist thriller bolstered by tension in real time. Gimmicky or not, what transpires is still engaging albeit a victim of its own design in terms of a streamlined narrative best suited for the film’s inherent visceral integrity.

Beyond the obvious, Victoria doesn’t have much else going for it. The performances are fine but the narrative isn’t, opting to paint Victoria as a naive, weak-willed hyperbole of exactly the woman these guys needed to help them in a pinch. It’s not an entirely insulting caricature, yet grating enough given how genuinely stupid the lot of them are. In handling what could very easily become a matter of life and death at any moment, the choices they make belie the film’s more sophisticated trappings, even if they’re all drunk, high, reckless and in the throes of an adrenaline rush.

Victoria does a great job at masking its inadequacies with one-third of the tagline on its poster. The excellent execution of concept is unsurprisingly its crowning attribute, greatly overshadowing just how necessarily bare bones the proceedings are to ensure the utmost smoothness of presentation. It’s agreeably impressive and worth lauding as a fundamental cinematic achievement, but Victoria doesn’t stand tall as a pinnacle of contemporary excellence.

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PFF24: Mountains May Depart (Jia Zhangke, CHN/JPN/FRA)

Mountains May Depart is Jia Zhangke’s insular tale of life and love spanning three consecutive time periods. Beginning with a focus on a love triangle between young Tao (Zhao Tao) and two potential male suitors – one a white collar coal miner, the other a wealthy investor – the film transitions to the present before coming to a close in the year 2025. As time goes by, these same individuals drift in and out of each others’ lives as organically evolving change becomes something of a centerpiece, for better and for worse.

For those familiar with A Touch of Sin, let it be known that his latest is a drastic departure in terms of subjectivity and tone. Mountains May Depart is a wholly accessible yarn steeped in basic human relationships and the ebb and flow of life itself. Shot in three different aspect ratios indicative of the time period in question, Jia’s decidedly slight illustration of each scenario exudes earnest sympathetic vibes that help transcend the banality of the various goings-on.

The nuanced advancement of the narrative from scene to scene feels a bit sluggish given the ordinary disposition of what transpires, however the sensitivity directed toward the film’s subjects is enough to procure and sustain our respective investment levels. With the first two-thirds being entirely enjoyable, viewers will undoubtedly have a hard time transitioning into a final third that features a hokey, English-speaking teenage Dollar and Sylvia Chang’s Mia: Dollar’s teacher and soon-to-be lover. Barring the quality of the central performance, investment rarely dwindles as Dollar’s existential uncertainty as a burgeoning adult rounds out the platter of life’s messiness that the film employs as its thematic through line.

It’s easy to pinpoint why Mountains May Depart‘s existence as an ostensibly run-of-the-mill character drama could earn a fair share of detractors. The success of Jia’s latest is immediately contingent upon our respective investment levels and, despite a palpable earnestness and uniqueness of presentation from segment to segment, what transpires consciously sidesteps melodrama to remain low key albeit effective. There’s little to read into, but to be honest, this slice of unfettered human interconnectivity through the times hit nearly all the right notes despite the predictably varying quality of its entirety.

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PFF24: Mustang (Deniz Gamze Ergüven, FRA/GER/TUR/QAT)

Mustang is Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s debut feature about a Turkish sisterly quintet coming of age in an oppressively conservative household. The girls long for contemporary normalcy on a day-to-day basis, constantly rebelling to little avail as the consequences of their behavior grow more and more severe. Only time will tell if the sisters’ resilience will triumph in the face of adversity as the allure of the outside world grows stronger every day.

Barring obvious parallels to The Virgin Suicides, Mustang‘s primary appeal is contingent upon one’s inherent fascination with cultures not our own. The core sisters – having lost their parents years prior – are at the mercy of their wildly conservative relatives that have a hard time with leniency despite the changing of times. Predetermination and purity are the behavioral cornerstones to abide by and, rest assured, stepping the least bit out of line yields the most dire of consequences. In the girls’ case, an innocuous aquatic romp with male classmates after school garners an indefinite prison sentence set within the confines of their isolated mountainside estate.

The routine motions the girls go through on their road to maturation are elevated by the film’s appreciable personality. Although the repeated instances of situational rebellion are entirely familiar in scope, the script is imbued with a genuine concern for each character to varying degrees of engagement. While these girls are undeniably miserable as a result of their unending solitude, Mustang‘s narrative does well enough in avoiding all-encompassing gloom-and-doom consequence until it goes irrevocably off the rails in its latter moments, losing sight of its earlier, better former self as it staggers toward what’s an agreeably tidy conclusion.

Without nitpicking, I’m confident in saying that Mustang is a serviceable debut that undeniably exudes promise from Ergüven. It combats familiar subjectivity with a singularity of setting that feels personal and remains engaging despite its shortcomings. While I didn’t connect with the proceedings as much as others, the film’s incisive gaze into the lives of these sisters is one of note, even if a fumbled latter-act crescendo pales substantially in comparison to what precedes it.