The Mountain

 

Cast: Tye Sheridan, Jeff Goldblum, Udo Kier, Denis Lavant, Hannah Gross

Director: Rick Alverson

Running time: 1 hour 48 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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The films of Rick Alverson have always prided themselves on a kind of erasure. The Comedy and Entertainment were both confrontational works which purposefully alienated audiences because character depth, narrative, and clarity were left out completely. Many filmmakers use ambiguity in order to conjure a mood which ties into an overall thematic construct, but Alverson isn’t interested in that. His films are boldly anti-narrative and anti-clarity; meaning that for him, standard narrative structure is a lie created by a certain system of thought. His most ambitious project yet, The Mountain, doubles down on this concept to hypnotic effect. It’s a film likely to frustrate and baffle many, but here again, Alverson is testing the complacency of how we process stories.

The film takes place in 1950s Upstate New York and follows Andy (Tye Sheridan), an introverted loner who lives in the shadow of his strict figure skater instructor father (Udo Kier) while haunted by the loss of his mother to an institution. Early on, Alverson submerges us into Andy’s headspace; holding on wide shots where he stands placidly in a hallway or cleans an ice rink. Once Jeff Goldblum’s Dr. Wally Fiennes comes along looking for a portrait photographer for his lobotomy patients, he zeroes in on Andy as the ideal candidate. What initially follows is a strange student-mentor road movie where Andy and Dr. Fiennes travel to a series of asylums, and we expect (as per narratives of this kind) that this relationship will either grow deeper or break apart. Instead, Alverson’s film becomes more obtuse as it goes along, offering little in the way of satisfying character arcs or closure. However, the vision of 1950s America as a landscape where quiet desperation gradually gives way to despair is captured brilliantly.

Working with cinematographer Lorenzo Hagerman, Alverson shoots everything like a rigid painting, with characters artfully posed within the frame. When the camera does move, it’s usually a slow dolly pushing in on objects or people like a creeping fog. Robert Donne’s eerie score guides the turgid pacing, reinforcing this idea of postwar America as a breeding ground for psychological anguish. The performances, too, are of a piece with Alverson’s vision. Sheridan slumps his shoulders and holds his head down, often refusing to make eye contact with others, and despite minimal dialogue, he creates a deeply sympathetic character. Meanwhile, Goldblum strips away his innate kookiness as a man obsessed with his work but also tortured by it, as we only get his charisma in fits and starts. There’s a disorienting menace to Goldblum’s work here which he rarely gets a chance to exercise, and as the film moves away from his relationship with Andy into a subplot involving weirdo Frenchman Jack (Denis Lavant), we start to see the cracks in Dr. Fiennes’s calm facade.

The material involving Lavant’s unhinged father and his institutionalized daughter, Susan (Hannah Gross) takes The Mountain into uncharted territory, where many will claim Alverson loses the thread. However, the scenes between Gross and Sheridan are heartbreaking in how they tap into the idea of two damaged souls seeking solace. This subtle emotionality is counterbalanced by the high wire lunacy of Lavant, who feels like he’s beamed in from another planet, but this juxtaposition is purposeful. Jack is no more sane than those being prodded in Dr. Fiennes’s invasive procedures, and by extension, Andy’s grip on reality is slipping. The film’s third act reaches towards madness and despair, but there’s also something transcendently beautiful about the final frames.

The Mountain doesn’t end with an overriding message regarding mental illness or unhealthy relationships, but it does show us how one’s sense of reality can be skewed. As Andy snaps photos of the institution patients deemed “unwell”, there’s a genuine statement about representational art going on here. Alverson’s removed aesthetic is inviting us into this conversation too, since we are always looking to connect emotionally or intellectually to a work of art. This is best summed up by a drunken Jack monologue where he tells Andy, You look confused. What confuses you? Art? Art is a thought for which there is no other form in the whole wide world. For Alverson, narrative and closure are smoke screens. It is not the job of art to tell a coherent story where connections are explicitly understood and we all walk away feeling like we got the entire picture. By contrast, art opens a window for us to think, argue, and dissect, and The Mountain spreads its arms to such connections and then willingly pushes us off the cliff.







Purple Mountains

 

Purple Mountains

8

Berman’s Brave New World

by Jericho Cerrona

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In 2009, David Berman quit music. As a cult icon fronting lo-fi indie group Silver Jews in the 90s and 2000s, the man could have kept making albums (along with a book of cartoons, documentaries, and poetry), but instead, he spent a decade going after his corporate father, Richard Berman. Within the familial discord there was also reflection, loss, martial strife, and a rekindled love of reading. As a purveyor of bummed out poeticism, Berman’s work sits nicely alongside troubadours such as Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, and Bill Callahan. Like those artists, Berman weaves narratives rife with malaise and the idea of being fucked by the universe. He’s also self-aware, and at times, very funny.

There’s a full band this time out utilizing members of psych rock group Woods to fill out the rustic sound, and the results are more lush and orchestral than anything in Silver Jews’s back catalog. Still, despite the sonic upgrade, this is sad bastard music. Kicking a prolific drug addiction, conversion to Judaism, a failed marriage, the death of his mother; Berman’s life over the past decade has been almost as scattered as previous decades, but Purple Mountains finds a surprising vulnerability amidst the pain.

Make no mistake, Berman is still as depressed as ever, but there’s an openness here which finds the singer-songwriter unfurling a laundry list of foibles and insecurities without ever coming across misanthropic. Our failures are what makes us human, and Berman is a canny enough songwriter to match that notion with jaunty melodies. One might even mistake opener “That’s Just The Way That I Feel” for an upbeat riot; with its honky-tonk piano, saloon organ, and rollicking groove, but the lyrics depict a man in complete free-fall. Things have not been going well/ This time I think I finally fucked myself Berman sings in his gravely croon, and when he laments When I try to drown my thoughts in gin/ I find my worst ideas know how to swim, we are fully in the realm of a psychological spiral.

The largest weight on Berman’s fragile heart is his disintegrated marriage to Cassie Marrett, who was part of the Silver Jews touring band back in the mid 2000s and whom Berman claims saved his life. Marrett was by his side through some of his darkest days; including suicide attempts and heroin addiction, and this union seems to have set him on a more hopeful path. However, as evidenced by the bittersweet ballad “All My Happiness is Gone”, the gulf between them has become insurmountable. With mordant wit, Berman dictates a scene where his estranged lover is moving on while making new friends as he watches placidly. This is a genuine vision of an introvert; someone who doesn’t want to alienate those around him, but can’t help but feel insignificant in the company of so many bright faces. On “Darkness in Cold”, this sentiment comes full circle with the realization that his wife is going out with a new beau as he looks on in resignation. There’s never a sense that Berman is shaming the woman he loves or even disapproving of her actions. Rather, he berates himself for not being able to make her happy with lines like she kept it burning longer than I had right to expect.

To say Purple Mountains is simply about Berman’s struggle with a failed relationship is reductive, though, since the first foray into writing again post Silver Jews was brought about by the death of his mother. The utterly gorgeous “I Loved Being My Mother’s Son” is a prime example of this; a direct elegy for the one person who knew him best. Berman never allows his lyrics to become saccharine, even as the Americana stylings of the instrumental give off an almost uplifting vibe. It’s a mournful song, to be sure, but it also transcends so many confessional ballads dealing with deceased loved ones in that it nails the absurdity of existence to begin with. The futility of mortality is examined even further on “Nights That Won’t Happen”, a slow tempo bummer that, according to Berman, details his regrets of not being there for a drug addict friend before he passed away. Truthfully, death haunts nearly every song here; the inevitability of it, the depression regarding aging, and the idea that all one’s accomplishments will be lost to time.

Whatever the case, there’s no question that Purple Mountains will not suffer such a fate, resting triumphantly alongside the best Silver Jews albums. It’s a Berman creation through and through; sardonic, playful, sad, funny, and brimming with fractured narrative vignettes. Through all the pain and defeat, there’s a sense that Berman is transitioning into a new phase. When he sings If no one's fond of fucking me/ Maybe no one's fucking fond of me on closer ”Maybe I’m the Only One For Me”, it’s less dictating an ideology than it is about self-acceptance. Berman isn’t asking anyone to feel sorry for him because he isn’t feeling sorry for himself, and for all its downbeat introspection, Purple Mountains ultimately emerges as the ultimate “self-care” album.

The Art of Self-Defense

 

Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola, Imogen Poots

Director: Riley Stearns

Running time: 1 hour 44 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Deadpan irony used to be a hallmark of cinema during the 1990s (think Slacker, Clerks, the works of Jim Jarmusch, and any number of angst-ridden indies like Reality Bites). They usually centered on a lonely male protagonist floating through a depressing existence. There was inevitably a female love interest (mostly there to reinforce the nerdy male’s journey of self-discovery) and occasionally, our sad American man got the girl and fulfilled his dreams. Writer-director Riley Stearns’s The Art of Self-Defense uses many of these tropes and attempts to invert them by centering his story inside a karate dojo where toxic masculinity thrives. The film’s time period is never explicitly established, but one can surmise from the clothes, blocky computers, and lack of cell phones, that we are squarely in the realm of the early 90s.

The obvious connection here is to 1999’s Fight Club; David Fincher’s epic satire about consumerism and the toxic American male, but The Art of Self-Defense lacks the daring of that film in that it never really implicates the audience. We are invited to dismiss account auditor Casey Davies (Jesse Eisenberg), as a pathetic loser early on, and then revel in his eventual rise to douchey masculinity. There’s a lone female character here too, Anna (Imogen Poots), a children’s karate instructor stuck at the bottom of the dojo’s patriarchal hierarchy, and while Stearns attempts to subvert the idea of her being a simplistic love interest, she’s nonetheless little more than a thematic signpost. The film’s central dynamic rests in the push and pull between Casey’s meek loner and the uber masculine studio sensei (Alessandro Nivola), a man who rules with a chauvinistic iron kick.

Eisenberg is ideally cast as a socially awkward introvert looking to become what intimidates him, but the character is just a construct. His search for meaning is brought about after he’s mugged and brutally beaten, and the sensei’s no-nonsense masculinity is an appealing way to harness his hidden rage. Soon after joining the dojo, Casey is getting custom-made yellow belts, switching from listening to adult contemporary to metal music, and refusing to pet his dog for fear of coddling him. Nivola has fun rattling off Stearns’s arch dialogue and Poots delivers some fleeting moments of genuine emotion, but the problem here is one of tone. Many will claim a Yorgos Lanthimos influence, what with the way characters speak in a flat monotone, but the film more closely recalls the early work of writer-director Neil LaBute, whose In the Company of Men and Your Friends & Neighbors were stark examinations of toxic masculinity with a satiric edge.

However, The Art of Self-Defense never really complicates our feelings toward the subject matter in the way LaBute’s best films did. Instead, Stearns seems content to coast on purposefully stilted comedy interrupted by moments of grisly violence. Since the tone remains at a constant flatline, the instances of brutality feel ineffectual, but more importantly, predictable. We know exactly where this story is going, and Stearns doesn’t trust us to take the narrative in more transgressive directions.

Ultimately, the film’s dissection of what it means to be a man is no more insightful than the things its poking fun at, and seems especially galling given how it attempts (rather feebly) to place the power back into the hands of the disenfranchised female character by the end. There’s no legitimate point of view on this material and no real insight into these characters, and if we simply accept the fact that the whole thing is allegorical, then The Art of Self-Defense is about as provocative as a blunt-force kick to the groin.




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Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood

 

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Emile Hirsch, Margaret Qualley, Timothy Olyphant, Julia Butters, Austin Butler, Dakota Fanning, Bruce Dern, Luke Perry, Damian Lewis, Al Pacino, Lena Dunham, Kurt Russell, Scoot McNairy

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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It was the end of times. It was the beginning of times. It was, to put a finer point on things, the year the culture shifted. Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood locates the demise of square-jawed Old Hollywood and the birth of the more dangerous breed of 1970s New Hollywood. In many ways, this is the writer-director laying out a staggering culmination of his pop culture obsessions (blaxploitation, kung fu movies, corny 50’s TV shows, spaghetti westerns) while making his best work since 1997’s Jackie Brown. It’s a surprisingly elegiac film from a director known for juvenile posturing and shock tactics, carrying a thoughtfulness rarely seen in his back catalog.

Of course, the guy hasn’t gone completely square, but the conservative nature of the film (those damn hippies!) and fondness for classic pre-60s ephemera means that Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood carries a surprisingly fragile heartbeat. No one would ever accuse Tarantino of being an emotional filmmaker, but the central friendship between fading TV star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), and his best friend and longtime stuntman, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), is keenly felt throughout. In fact, the entire film can be read as a metatextual commentary on Tarantino himself; a guy who brazenly burst onto the scene in the early 90s with Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction; two movies which shook up the sagging American movie industry. Now 56, Tarantino is no longer the hip youthful juggernaut, but the middle-aged auteur watching the industry shift yet again under the weight of streaming algorithms.

Much of the film’s early section involves lavishly recreated areas of the Sunset Strip as characters speed around corners in their cars while blasting various pop hits. In the purview of such scenes are the long-haired hippies and young female wastrels hanging at bus stops or rummaging through trash cans. It’s a heightened vision of neon signs and iconography, but Tarantino is smart enough to simply luxuriate in these details. As per usual, he’s in no big hurry to hit plot points or push the narrative along.

Dalton and Booth are both fictional characters, and yet the world of kitschy Hollywood TV shows and B-movies they populate did exist. However, as he’s demonstrated to varying degrees in all of his films, Tarantino isn’t after realism or authenticity. He is a supreme lover of movies, and his particular geekdom gets the full treatment here, from reproductions of cheesy commercials to the western TV series Dalton is shooting in which he portrays a snarling villain. From Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill, to Inglorious Basterds, the world of a Tarantino film only factors in modern day relevance or historical veracity insofar as it relates to other movies and how those things can be inverted through his very distinct lens.

Dalton could be a stand-in for Tarantino, particularly in a scene in which he picks up some method acting tips from a precocious 8-year-old (Julia Butters) after relating a story about an aging cowboy who suffered an injury. As Dalton begins to break down, we are invited to laugh at his self-pity, especially because Butters rattles off some feminist-leaning wisecracks, but also because it represents Tarantino’s feelings about himself. He’s now the fading star on a comeback trail; the one who no longer has a place in our more progressive age. Whatever the case, Dalton and Booth’s exploits are occasionally interrupted by a secondary storyline, where the real-life Sharon Tate (Margo Robbie) lives next door to Dalton with her famous filmmaker husband, Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), and trusted pal/former lover, Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch). This thread generated most of the early buzz regarding Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, with speculation that Tarantino was making his epic Manson family movie, and while that aspect does factor into the overall plot here, it’s not chiefly the director’s concern.

This is a good thing, because Tarantino’s gifts have always been in writing and characterization. While Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood doesn’t have the crackling pop-culture heavy dialogue of something like Pulp Fiction, it does emerge as a more subtle writing accomplishment. Instead of giving Robbie a juicy monologue, there’s a fascinatingly self-reflexive moment where she goes to a screening of Tate’s 1968 film The Wrecking Crew and reacts along with the crowd. Watching Robbie as Tate watching the real Tate onscreen is some kind of strange magic trick; suggesting decades of celebrity culture through the prism of voyeurism. For all of Tarantino’s strengths, his characters rarely feel like real people, but here, there’s a mixture of genuine emotional investment and artificial movieness. It’s the last film since Jackie Brown in which the characters feel like they have their own voices rather than just being mouthpieces for Tarantino’s arch sermonizing.

Of course, the two storylines here must converge, and the film’s final 45 minutes will be divisive in how it handles real-life tragedies and over the top violence, but had the previous two hours not been as thematically rich, the historical revisionist finale may simply have played as yet another cheap Tarantino shock tactic. However, there’s an attempt at auto-critique here, as evidenced by a scene of the Manson clan arguing inside a car where one member exclaims “If you grew up watching TV, you grew up watching murder. My idea is to kill the people who taught us to kill!” Touché, Mr. Tarantino.

The violence in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood ends up being physical, sure, but the film is ultimately more interested in a spiritual violence that permeates when one generation is pushed out to make way for a new one. Dalton and Booth’s touching bond (exemplified by DiCaprio and Pitt’s self-aware, brilliant performances) strains against the tides of the changing times but persists nonetheless through a haze of hippie smoke, dashed dreams, and alcoholism. Tarantino may be lamenting the sociocultural shift from Old Hollywood into the psychedelic era of drugs, activism, and political upheaval, but he’s not necessarily saying the previous generation was operating in reality either. One could accuse Tarantino of nostalgia pandering, but what he’s really after is this idea of how pop culture has been filtered down by the counterculture. It’s all a dream if it never happened, with Dalton and Booth limping off into the sunset, kind of like a midlife crisis.




The Flaming Lips

 

Kings Mouth: Music and Songs

6

Disembodied heads and children’s lullabies

by Jericho Cerrona

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The Flaming Lips never wanted to be famous, and it could be argued that after 15 studio albums, fame still eludes them. Still, they’ve collaborated with the likes of pop superstars Ke$ha and Miley Cyrus, so that counts for something, right? Beginning life as an alt psych band in the late 80’s before landing a hit single with 1994’s “She Don’t Use Jelly”, the Lips seemed forever on the verge of being “the next big thing” for most of the 90s. It wasn’t until 1999’s The Soft Bulletin and 2002’s followup Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots that the Oklahoma weirdos broke through with mainstream acceptance and universal critical acclaim. A series of wild, hallucinogenic live shows and Grammy nominations followed, cementing the band as that rare outsider art crossover act. The fallout from such success, naturally, was more outsider left-turns into self-indulgence. Bizarre 24 hour-long songs, experimental double albums, covers of Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band and Dark Side of the Moon, and those aforementioned collabs with pop divas became the norm. The Flaming Lips never wanted to be famous, sure, but they were perhaps trying too hard to be gonzo and lost the thread.

With Kings Mouth, Wayne Coyne and company have returned to a more gentle form of psych rock/electronica with a concept album in conjunction with a children’s book and massive art exhibit. Initially released in a limited vinyl-only edition on Record Store Day, the album is in many ways a return to form, and shockingly, the first time the band has ever made an album with a complete narrative through-line. While there are occasional forays into proggy soundscapes (“Mother Universe”), on the whole, the record is much more straightforward. Of course, this is also admitting that the conceptual framework involves a monarch’s giant disembodied head swallowing galaxies as narrated by The Clash’s Mick Jones.

Like most Lips albums, Kings Mouth is grabbling with the big ideas; life, death, mortality, love, and the mysteries of the universe, but there’s a lightness of touch this time that may even surprise diehard fans. Truthfully, there’s a lot here which recalls Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, with songs like the digital-folk ballad “The Sparrow” and the woozy funk-pop of “How Many Times” coming instantly to mind. However, more cinematic tracks such as the reverb-heavy dirge “Electric Fire” and the Tangerine Dream-esque “Funeral Parade” are cut from the more sonically bold side of the band, ala 2009's Embryonic. In any case, Coyne, Steve Drzod, and Michael Ivins disappear far less up their own asses here than on their last release, 2017’s cosmic flop Oczy Mlody.

Unlike that album, which lazily recycled autotune, pitch shifting, and wannabe hip-hop beats, Kings Mouth feels much more sincere. Coyne’s wispy vocals persist, but there’s very little moaning about the state of things. Perhaps his recent marriage and birth of his first child has given him a rosier outlook. Whatever the reason, tracks like “How Can a Head” feature swirling violins, blippy electronics, and an almost blissful attitude. “Giant Baby” is essential a warped children’s lullaby, which is on brand, but it never feels contrived. Less successful are the droning interlude-style songs, like “Dipped in Steel”, which is basically just Jones talking nonsense over plucked guitar chords and warm keyboards, and the washed out, effects-heavy “Mouth of the King”.

The Flaming Lips never wanted to be famous, and Kings Mouth won’t push the needle on that front. Nor will it feature heavy rotation on Spotify playlists. The whole idea of a concept record in 2019 is laughably admirable, as only a small percentage of the population even bothers with full-length albums anymore. To that end, the Lips are still doing the same thing they were doing back in the mid 90s, only now with more grey hair and back pain. More importantly, Kings Mouth is the sound of the band loosening up a bit after the ill-advised Miley Cyrus phase and the navel-gazing mess of Oczy Mlody. It is, for better or worse (mostly better) a true Flaming Lips experience, widespread acceptance be damned.

Thom Yorke

 

ANIMA

7

I, Yorke

by Jericho Cerrona

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The idea of dystopian vibrations coming from living in a technologically advanced society has always been a major component of Thom Yorke’s work. For years, Radiohead distilled the idea of being swallowed by the impersonal void of techno-babble, especially on albums like OK Computer, KID A, and Amnesiac. Yorke’s solo work has also dabbled in this area as well, combining his fear of the future with a more pronounced emphasis on downtempo electronica. ANIMA is certainly the songwriter’s most expansive release yet, and also his darkest and most disturbed. Fans who may have been put off by the restrained tone of 2014’s Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes will find much more to chew on here, as the album takes some of the blippy soundscapes from Yorke’s excellent 2006 solo debut Eraser and adds notes of dark avant-techno.

From a production standpoint, ANIMA is a triumph. Yorke and longtime producer Nigel Godrich dig into a variety of layered compositions (it isn’t simply glitchy beats and synth stabs), and everything is balanced to the point of being awe-inspiring. Perhaps such a meticulous aesthetic approach isn’t a surprise given someone of Yorke’s talents and means, but the record sounds incredible. In that sense, ANIMA is the perfect “headphone” album experience.

One of Yorke’s strongest assets as a songwriter is his ability to meld melody with abstraction, and that tension is held on a razors edge throughout ANIMA. Opener “Traffic” has a pulsating electronic groove and standard song structure, but on “Twist”, the bustling bass line and skittering beat segue into into warm synth patches and choir-like chants. “Dawn Chorus” strips things back to brilliant effect using only a delay-soaked piano, airy synths, and Yorke’s downtrodden vocals. It’s one of the album’s simplest songs, but also one of its best; tapping into that melancholic balance between hope and dread. On the whole, ANIMA is dense but not overly cluttered. Whereas younger artists working in the electronic genre often tend to blow out their sound and overcomplicate things, Yorke proves the adage that less is more.

There is something about Yorke’s music that has always felt like an alien observing the mundane activities of the human race, but here, there’s a genuine openness absent from much of his past work. It’s almost as if the Orwellian fears of a society bereft of human empathy dictated by machines is now upon us, and Yorke, who has been sheepishly reacting to such a future for decades, has come full circle. The social network and the neural networks of our subconscious are intertwined. The robots may be making music now powered by AI, but there’s no mistaking the human touch at the heart of ANIMA.

Perhaps the greatest collision of these two worlds is the music video short directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, which takes three songs from the album and reimagines them as a kind of choreographed dreamstate. It’s a stunning vision, and all the more alarming that it finds its home on the almighty Netflix algorithm. If ANIMA doesn’t quite reach the heights of Yorke’s work with Radiohead or even the crisp accessibility of Eraser, it’s not for lack of effort. This is the end of all things, after all, and Yorke will go down mumbling into the void.


Midsommar

 

Cast: Florence Pugh, Will Poulter, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper, Wilhelm Blomgren

Director: Ari Aster

Running time: 2 hours 27 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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With just two feature films, writer-director Ari Aster has proven he can weave troubling tales of psychic damage, familial grief, and cultish terror. The idea of mass hysteria, and how it connects to the hysteria within the self, is a major component to Aster’s latest creation, Midsommar. Whereas his previous film, Hereditary, was mostly a self-serious dirge into the abyss until letting loose for a Rosemary's Baby-esque finale, Midsommar doubles down on the folkloric horror tropes. It also, rather surprisingly, uses a heavy dose of dark humor to lessen the blow of some of Aster’s more attention-grabbing flourishes.

The film begins in a similar tonal place as the first half of Hereditary, with our central character, Dani (Florence Pugh) dealing with a horrific family tragedy. Her deep anxiety is channeled onto her longtime boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), who is emotionally detached and looking for a way out of the relationship. His pack of douchey grad-school friends are no more sympathetic, including Josh (William Jackson Harper), Mark (Will Poulter), and Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren). Their plans are to visit rural Sweden to observe a commune’s summer solstice festival in hopes of writing their graduate thesis’s on the subject, and Christian invites Dani to tag along more out of guilt and obligation than anything.

The film’s opening stretch is dread-inducing, with Aster employing many of the same stylistic tricks used in his first film; (long tracking shots, fancy camera movements, discordant music swells, dimly lit compositions), but once the group arrive in Sweden, Midsommar opens itself up to a pastel-colored visual palette. We know from the outset that these smiling flower people are up to something, and Aster doesn’t really try to hide that fact. Instead, the film becomes a fascinating case study in male privilege. Dani, still reeling from tragedy, can sense right away that all is not well here, and yet all of the men rationalize obvious red flags by appealing to their anthropological studies and cultural ignorance. Meanwhile, Dani continues to feel isolated from the group as well as herself.

Amidst pagan rituals and white robe-wearing hippies, one can sense Midsommar situating itself as the ultimate breakup film. Christian and Dani are obviously on the verge of ending things, and yet neither can accept the fact that it’s over. Dani’s piercing guttural screams, which come early and are repeated often, become the film’s heartbeat. There is no hope of mending things. There is no escape.

Aster’s triumph here is his ability to meld our anxiety as viewers to Dani’s fears. In some ways, the film is about a woman staking a claim to her autonomy. In a performance of raw nerves and searing emotion, Pugh taps into the same kind of anguish as Toni Collete in Hereditary, and yet we are never afraid of her. She always remains fragile and empathetic. As things steer into the realm of grotesquerie and horror, Pugh grabs the film by the throat and takes center stage. She is the real deal.

Shot by by Pawel Pogorzelski, Midsommar is brightly sun-drenched, which makes the inevitable descent into madness all the more disquieting. Using a combination of static shots and elaborate crane moves, Aster and his team of set designers and art decorators have created a truly authentic world here. The film takes its time; showing us a set of strange rituals from the standpoint of clueless Americans and then ratchets up the dread as the situations become more bizarre and violent. Even as the film is methodically paced and interested in stillness, Aster doesn’t skimp on the gore and melodramatic outbursts. Some of the film’s most indelible images are of extreme physical violence, but they are inexorably tied into the visceral nature of Dani’s emotional and psychological state. One of the most powerful sequences occurs near the end when Dani is overcome with tremendous pain, grief, and anger; wailing like a banshee as female members of the commune mimic her every movement and scream. In this one moment, the physical and the metaphysical become intertwined. As troubling as it seems, this may be the first time Dani has felt this fully alive.

Superficially, Aster has conjured a folk horror movie ala The Wicker Man, but he also taps into the anxieties of trying to process trauma. The scares come from a feeling of claustrophobia, of being disconnected from reality (cleverly visualized in some subtle psychedelic drug tripping scenes), and not feeling at home within yourself. During the heightened fire and brimstone finale, heavily aided by The Haxan Cloak’s gorgeously haunting score, Dani comes to a realization both liberating and terrifying. Pugh’s face during the final shot says volumes. It is the visual representation of the pageantry of pain; with the realization that the cure might be going through the flames and coming out a monster.




Movie Pick of the Week

Birds of Passage

Director: Cristina Gallego, Ciro Guerra

Year of release: 2019

Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Spread out over five chapters, Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra’s Birds of Passage has the outline of familiarity; displaying elements of narcotrafficking, feuding families, and inevitable bloodshed, but there’s also a cultural element which makes the film utterly singular. The collision of western and native cultures was perhaps the overriding theme of Guerro and Jacques Toulemonde Vidal’s Embrace of the Serpent, and that’s true here too, though clueless Americans are mostly kept on the fringes this time. Instead, the film shows an almost hypnotic fascination with ritual; so much so that the storyline involving the marriage of Rapayet (José Acosta), from the Wayuu tribe to the teenaged Zaida (Natalia Reyes) initially seems secondary.

The main thrust of the meandering narrative seems to be the dishonoring of tradition and how wealth can corrupt from the inside out. As Rapayet gets mixed up in the weed and arms trade, entangling himself in dangerous deals with his uncle Aníbal (Juan Bautista Martínez) while Zaida’s disapproving mother and village matriarch Úrsula (Carmina Martinez) stands by, we witness an entire culture’s way of life falling apart.

Ego, greed, and senseless violence have always been at the heart of family-linked mob stories, and Birds of Passage is like an ethnographic version of The Godfather truncated down and told in an elliptical fashion. However, there’s no glamorizing of criminality here, even as the particulars of the tribe’s rituals are handled with care. Gallego and Ciro Guerra instead present encroaching modernity as an inevitability that the Wayuu must adapt to, no matter the consequences. No one is innocent. No one is without blame. Everyone has blood on their hands. Tradition and familial pride are simply not enough to subdue the allure of fast cash.

Birds of Passage shows us the insidious nature of drug cartels and the corrupting power of wealth, but its more primarily about humanity’s urge toward self-destruction. The overarching message seems to be that when all the dust settles, no matter what tribe or community one belongs to, we only have ourselves to blame.



Music Pick of the Week

Mega Bog

Dolphine

Year of release: 2019

by Jericho Cerrona

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Multi-instrumentalist Erin Birgy has been crafting art-pop for nearly a decade now, and her latest release under the Mega Bog moniker, Dolphine, is perhaps the clearest distillation of her talents thus far. The album takes some of its inspiration from the late science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin, and there’s certainly an otherworldly atmosphere at play here. At moments, the sounds conjured bring to mind the pastoral folk of Toni Mitchell, the quirky arrangements of Cate Le Bon, the electronic sweep of Stereolab, and the psych-jazz experiments of Sun Ra. Of course, Birgy is very much doing her own thing, and the greatest triumph of Dolphine is its refusal to fall into easy genre categorizations.

From song to song, the unique mood almost resists standard song structure, while never deviating too far from a sense of melody. The smooth jazz folk of opener “For the Old World” is soothing at first, but then disconcerting woodwinds, scattering percussion, and eerie vocals crop up creating a sense of tension. Elsewhere, on “Diary of a Rose”, the lead guitar line instantly recalls Radiohead, while the song itself stops and starts, going from blaring jangle-pop to gentle strumming and whispered lines and then back again. “Truth in the Wind” is ethereal and jaunty, but one can feel a deep sadness just behind the witty metaphors. The death of animals and loved ones is a recurring central theme throughout, and no matter how colorful the compositions, Birgy is able to funnel darker emotions through her art.

That her art doesn’t fit neatly into an emotional catharsis or defining trait that we, as the listener, can easily identify, makes the record all the more transporting. The swirling horns, electronic flourishes, strange vocal noises, and Birgy’s stream of consciousness lyrics gives off the impression of an apocalyptic dream on “Shadows Break”, while the charming duet with recently deceased Georgia musician Ash Rickli “Spit in the Eye of the Fire King” brings the New-Agey pastoral vibes back once again. That’s the thing about Dolphine; it’s a record which gives you the full spectrum without every explicitly telling you what part of the spectrum you are actually listening to.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco

 

Cast: Jimmie Fails, Jonathan Majors, Danny Glover, Mike Epps, Rob Morgan, Tichina Arnold, Finn Wittrock, Maximilienne Ewalt, Thora Birch

Director: Joe Talbot

Running time: 2 hours

by Jericho Cerrona

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Holding onto the memories of childhood is a central component in the alchemy of nostalgia, and Joe Talbot’s debut feature, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, understands the difference between holding on and letting go. The film is steeped in a heightened atmosphere of sun and fog; with Adam Newport-Berra’s cinematography presenting San Francisco as both dreamlike and harsh, favoring hazy visuals which accentuate the whimsical tone. However, Talbot isn’t simply after pat nostalgia here, as the rallying cry against gentrification and the state of the urban black experience remains a central theme. The film is a high-wire act; part droll comedy, part tale of male friendship, and part downbeat ode to a disappearing way of life. Mostly, The Last Black Man in San Francisco feels alive and malleable in a way few films do, even on the independent scale.

When we first meet our mismatched pair of friends Montgomery (Jonathan Majors) and Jimmie (Jimmie Fails), they are waiting at a bus stop across the street from a preacher standing on a milk crate ranting against the ills of modern society. Meanwhile, a Hazmat crew rummages the area cleaning up after an unspecified toxic situation. Fed up with all the commotion, Mont and Jimmie hop onto a skateboard and decide to hightail it into the city rather than wait for the bus. This is San Francisco.

The sight of two grown men skateboarding down city streets is undeniably humorous, but the film also seems aware of this. There’s something about these two friends which strikes one as juvenile, and yet there’s a genuine intimacy there. The harkening back to youthful dreams isn’t simply immaturity, though. There’s real pain, regret, and sadness here too. These are two men trapped in a physical, mental, and emotional space which resists authentic change. Once the thread is introduced of Jimmie taking trips into the city so he can touch up the paint on the exterior of his childhood home which his family lost possession of in the 1990s, it’s clear there’s more going on here than simple nostalgia.

Jimmie is under the impression that his grandfather built the house in 1946, back when many Japanese residents were relocated to internment camps. A myth around the “first black man in San Francisco” took hold, crystalizing Jimmie’s belief that he has a moral right to the house, even if it is now owned by a white woman (Maximilienne Ewalt), who irately throws fruit at him whenever she spots him fixing the window trim. The notion of families being destroyed and split apart because of institutional racism is one of the main thrusts of Talbot’s film, but these ideas are presented lyrically rather via soapbox messaging. The extraordinary performances also help, including newcomer Fails as a young man unable to break free from being pushed out of his true home. A scene where he visits his embittered father (Rob Morgan) has a legitimate awkwardness which requires a quiet sensitivity from the actor, and there’s an equally heartbreaking moment where he runs into his mother on the bus which speaks to the character’s feelings of abandonment. Majors has a splashier role as the aspiring writer dressed in ‘50s era business clothes, but he never overreaches with a character who could have easily been twee, bringing an off-kilter rhythm and unique line delivery to his scenes. Mont is also caught in state of arrested development, but he exudes such sincerity that his co-dependent relationship with Jimmie never reads as unhealthy.

Eventually, an inheritance dispute arises which leaves the Victorian-style home in a limbo state, and naturally, the two pals move out of Mont’s dad’s (Danny Glover) cramped space and into the house. Using a form of “squatters rights”, along with the ideological justification of ownership, Jimmie and Mont begin acting out an urban fairytale in which two low-income black men are living freely in one of the city’s most expensive (and almost exclusively white) neighborhoods. There’s a subplot involving some of Jimmie’s old friends who gather talking shit outside Mont’s dads spot and a tragic circumstance surrounding that group, as well as a thread involving Mont struggling to write a play which will eventually come full circle, but narrative momentum is not the main concern here. Instead, the idea of letting go of the past and forging ahead, even as others around you seem to deny the very existence of that past, is at the heart of the film.

The elegiac finale; which takes on the tenor of a dream caught in the swirl of pensive reality, suggests there’s no true home for someone like Jimmie. This displacement, which mirrors the displacement of countless African Americans in San Francisco and other major cities, is perfectly summed up in a late scene where Jimmie counters the complaints of a white woman (Thora Birch) on the bus with You can only hate San Francisco if you love it. What a bittersweet statement, and what a beautifully bittersweet film.

Pasolini

 

Cast: Willem Dafoe, Ninetto Davoli, Riccardo Scamarcio, Valerio Mastandrea, Adriana Asti, Maria De Medeiros 

Director: Abel Ferrara

Running time: 1 hour 27 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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The biggest surprise regarding Abel Ferrara’s film about the final days of master Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini (Willem Dafoe) is just how meditative it is. Given Ferrara’s track record with portraying the excess, grime, and shock of the human condition in films like Bad Lieutenant, The Addiction, and Welcome to New York, Pasolini is notable for treating its subject with a lack of exploitation. This is a measured portrait of an artist; focusing more on Pasolini the man than Pasolini the director, though Ferrara understands there’s actually no distinction between the two. Pasolini’s work came from his soul, body, and mind, but the actual process of creation was often mundane. This is one of the great triumph’s of Ferrara’s film; it views the artistic process as ordinary and never devolves into worshipful biopic clichés.

Pasolini isn’t structured like a traditional biopic (there are no flashbacks or “greatest hits” demo reels here), and in terms of the filmmaker’s actual output, very little is broached. There are a few scenes of Pasolini putting the finishing editing touches on Sálo and then subsequently responding to controversy surrounding the finished film, but Ferrera seems more interested in the natural rhythms of the director’s daily life. Pasolini’s interactions with family members and friends have a loosely naturalistic feeling, with the domestic details being what matters, not whether they are driving the plot.

In one moment, Pasolini is putting on a record during a family dinner to lighten the mood, and in the next, he’s responding to hostile reporters regarding his political views or cruising the streets for young male prostitutes. Of course, we know that Pasolini was viciously murdered after a night of cruising, but Ferrera never uses his subject’s sexual predilections as fodder for lurid sensationalism. Instead, Pasolini’s death comes suddenly; emphasizing the tragedy of a life cut short before his time. Rather than using his death as a plot device in terms of foreshadowing, Ferrera eschews pat moralizing to land on a more sobering note.

Truthfully, Ferrera doesn’t completely abandon Pasolini’s cinematic preoccupations, but he gets at them in a more interesting way than most biopics. Large sections of the film are dedicated to visual interpretations of Pasolini’s unfinished novel “Petrolio”, which are filmed with a mixture of Pasolini’s hand-held style and Ferrera’s own trashy aesthetic. A special nod is given directly by casting Pasolini’s former collaborator and lover Ninetto Davoli at the center of these sequences, with visual cues involving orgies and stilted performances further extending the homage. However, at no point does one get the impression that Ferrera is simply copying Pasolini’s stylistic flourishes.

Obviously, Pasolini would not work as well as it does without Dafoe, who holds the center of the entire production with a subdued, layered performance. Speaking fluent Italian and looking very much like the iconoclastic filmmaker, the actor goes beyond mimicry to inhabit the presence of the man. Ferrera wisely shoots many scenes in closeup, resting on Dafoe’s weary face as he jots ideas in his notebook or scans the darkened alleyways for companionship. There is never a moment where Dafoe is not fully believable in the role, and he refuses to play Pasolini’s final moments for maudlin sentiment. Like the film surrounding him, the performance is surprisingly nimble in navigating various modes without ever standing on a soapbox.

Some may view Pasolini as a disappointment since it doesn’t offer the traditional catharsis found in most movies of this kind. But then again, Pasolini was never a traditional artist, and his work always seemed removed from mainstream acceptance. Ferrera acknowledges this truth by making a film which honors Pasolini’s legacy without ever bowing to commercial sensibilities, which feels exactly right. Artists working within the same troubled society as us ultimately provides more hope than the typical addiction/recovery/rebirth narrative we often get saddled with. In that sense, Ferrera’s deeply felt film proclaims what we’ve known about Pasolini all along; genuine art is dangerous.





Tyler, The Creator

 

IGOR

8

Dr. Frankenstein meets his therapist

by Jericho Cerrona

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Tyler, The Creator is no stranger to contradictions. His post-Odd Future output has been both alienating and inviting; culminating in 2017’s Grammy nominated Flower Boy; an album many think is the most mature work of his career. Earlier albums like 2013’s Wolf and 2015’s Cherry Bomb may have felt like abrasive demos at the time, but in retrospect, they signaled the emergence of an artist who knew exactly what he was doing. At only 28-years-old, Tyler is undeniably talented, and many will claim his latest LP, IGOR, contains his best and worst tendencies; oscillating between moments of melodic bliss and lo-fi production. Honestly, it’s simply another addition to Tyler’s growing narrative of self-discovery.

Yes, IGOR is a breakup album, and yes, it features the requisite tales of heartbreak and loss, but it’s also attuned to the idea of gracefully bowing out when things have clearly reached the end. Throughout the album, Tyler embraces an alter-ego who seems to be viewing a disintegrating relationship from afar. It’s an understandable process for dealing with heartbreak—using an avatar who can voice sentiments locked inside—and this motif plays out over a series of tracks which range from mid-tempo breakup ballads like “EARFQUAKE” to therapeutic stompers such as “NEW MAGIC WAND”. Elsewhere, on cuts like “RUNNING OUT OF TIME”, Tyler seems genuinely interested in the betterment of his ex, complete with the closing lines You never lived in your truth/But I finally found peace, so peace.

There’s a loose, almost psychedelic vibe to IGOR which may turn off those who fawned over the bright accessibility of Flower Boy. The neo-soul production and Neptunes-inspired arrangements from that release are less prominent here, poking out mostly on slower R & B-tinged tracks like “A BOY IS A GUN” and the Kayne West-featured “PUPPET”. The use of wonky synth lines, low end bass, and metallic percussion are all over IGOR, to the point where an early 80’s inspired post-punk album very well may be in the near future. The best moments here combine Tyler’s skills with harmony (the “for real/for real/for real this time” refrain from EARFQUAKE comes to mind) and the menacing sounds of gutter hip-hop ala WHAT’S GOOD. Additionally, there’s a surprising beat change on NEW MAGIC WAND which continues Tyler’s obsession with pushing his songwriting beyond what is expected in the genre.

In the past, Tyler's ambitions have gotten away from him, particularly on 2015's Cherry Bomb, which boasted way too many sonic ideas than he could possibly fit into one cohesive project. Flower Boy was a deconstruction of his public persona as well as a radical attempt to understand how much private longings should be made public. Behind all the controversial verses and ego-stroking seemed to be a forward-thinking artist interested in sincerity, and IGOR cunningly splits the difference between the emotional openness of Flower Boy and the low-end noise of his earlier work.

This combination works brilliantly; with Tyler’s often pitch-shifted vocals creeping under the mix along with a discernible lack of highlighting guest spots; with the likes of Playboi Carti, Charlie Wilson, Jack White, lil Uzi Vert, Solange, and others making brief appearances here. While IGOR lacks some of the emotional clarity and crisp production of Flower Boy, it makes up for it with attitude and soulfulness. In a bold move, Tyler resists the urge to layer his album with playlist fodder. Instead, the songs here deepen with subsequent listens as the lovesick narrative becomes more apparent. To that end, when Tyler sings Are we still friends? on the neo-soul closer of the same name, the implications are clear; Tyler may be lonely, but he isn’t defeated.

Foxygen

 

Seeing Other People

7

The thing is…Foxygen are still around

by Jericho Cerrona

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Ever since Foxygen became the “next big thing” some 7 years ago before imploding in spectacular fashion, they always seemed on the verge of breaking up. Part of the duo’s appeal was their reckless abandon, endless partying, drug use, in-fighting, and classic rock sonic experiments. In many ways, 2014’s self-indulgent mess …And Star Power was the culmination of this fact, though the album was never less than fascinating as a snapshot of young musicians testing whatever goodwill they had built up within the industry. 2017’s Hang was an obvious course correction, seeing as how it embraced 70’s glam and Broadway theatricality to mostly winning effect. Now, Sam France and Jonathan Rado have returned with what is easily their most accessible collection of songs on Seeing Other People; an AM soft rock pastiche that’s part Springsteen throwback, part 80s-tinged breakup album.

If this is indeed Foxygen’s final record, it does have the feeling of something which barely registers as a statement. For years, France and Rado have attempted to bounce back after falling down in a coked-up stupor, but part of their mojo came from reinvention. Seeing Other People is more indifferent than anything Foxygen has done in the past, which makes it their most focused effort yet. However, while there are hints of swagger here, the duo’s pomposity is mostly relegated to the sidelines over the course of 9 tracks. In its place is an emotional vacuum of longing; letting the old ways die seems to be the most obvious theme, with France at his most world-weary.

Still, embracing one’s demise can be infectious, and in the case of opener “Work”, it translates like a yacht-rock stomper, complete with self-effacing lines like Well I have got this work/But I’d rather powder my nose instead. Here, Foxyen continue their knack for cynical songwriting while also holding their tongue firmly in cheek, as the drug-addled fallout of their pre-30s years is looked upon with a tinge of embarrassment. Of course, this doesn’t mean Seeing Other People is some kind of work of maturity, either.

“Mona” plays like sleazy 80s synth-funk and comes across like a lesser version of an Ariel Pink song. “Face the Facts” is a warped little electronic pop song with wonky keyboard washes and percussion, while the slowed down ballad “Livin’ a Lie” showcases the dashed dreams and bitterness of young musicians who got caught up in the music industry smokescreen. The album’s crowning jewel is the unabashed Springsteen homage “The Thing is”, a song which is simultaneously catchy, swaggering, goofy, and badass. France’s voice has always hinted at Bruce intonations, but it’s pretty much a copy and paste job here; while the twinkling pianos, violin stabs, and thundering drums fill out Rado’s production.

For every brilliant moment like this, however, Foxygen run into trouble when they mistake irony for feeling. There’s a case to be made that France and Rado aren’t really “breaking up”, but merely growing into their own as people and musicians. On the whole, Seeing Other People uses overly-processed sounds and winking retro production not to comment on this directional change, but to play dress up. The Stones, Iggy Pop, Bowie, The Boss, Velvet Underground, Marc Bolan, Fleetwood Mac; they’re all here reinterpreted through the Foxygen lens, but there’s only so far one can take pastiche. And yet, there’s a real tension here musically which mirrors the push and pull quality of two friends who have been making music together since they were 14. Ultimately, Seeing Other People glides along with a groovy charm which is easy to admire, but it could have been a great record had Rado and France truly bared their souls.

Music Pick of the Week

 

Cate Le Bon

Reward

Year of release: 2019

by Jericho Cerrona

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Welsh musician Cate Le Bon is nothing if not prolific. In between her last LP, 2016’s Crab Day, she collaborated with White Fence’s Tim Presley under the DRINKS moniker and performed production on Deerhunter’s latest release Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? Even with this in mind, her latest album, Reward, is nothing short of a revelation. While Crab Day centered around quirky arrangements, off-kilter guitar riffs, and recurring loops, Reward sees Le Bon pushing herself into more introspective territory; with most of the songs structured around piano, airy guitar, and beguiling vocals. Of course, that doesn’t mean Le Bon has sacrificed any of her idiosyncrasy. On the contrary; the added elements of sax, synths, and restrained percussion means these compositions feel even more organic.

Throughout the album, there’s a tension between absurdity and melancholy. Songs like orchestral opener “Miami” and soft rock ballad “Daylight Matters” are beautiful, but also intensely sad. The weirdo pop quirk factor gets turned up on “Magnificent Gestures”, which sounds like an alien funk song, and the Berlin era Bowie-esque “Mother’s Mothers Magazines”, which hems closer to the avant-pop repetition of her DRINKS output, but with more dynamic instrumentation. However, the greatest triumph of Reward is how Le Bon allows space within these layered compositions. Nothing seems too cluttered or over-produced. Every note, guitar lick, piano motif, and vocal refrain feels perfectly suited. Every song works to bring a larger context into view.

Many reclusive artists choose to shelter themselves from society, locking themselves in isolation in order to record something which speaks to feelings of loneliness, and the process of bringing Reward to life follows this narrative. Rather than simply sequestering herself in a cabin for a few weeks, though, Le Bon spent a year living in the Cumbrian mountains while making homemade furniture and writing music when inspiration struck. Unrequited love, emotional failure, and the need for personal reinvention are key themes here, but at no point does Le Bon give into ennui. When she sings Love is beautiful to me, love is you on closer “Meet the Man'“, for example, you believe her completely, and thats no small accomplishment.

Movie Pick of the Week

 

Booksmart

Director: Olivia Wilde

Year of release: 2019

Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Superficial readings of Olivia Wilde’s film debut Booksmart will label it the “female version of Superbad”, seeing as it how it focuses on two high school best friends who experience one wild night before graduation, but the similarities mostly end there. Truthfully, Booksmart is closer in spirit and tone to TV’s Broad City; a show about female friendship balancing grossness and sweetness in equal measure. What really sets Wilde’s impressive film apart from something like Superbad, however, is its undeniable affection for every person onscreen. While Greg Mottola’s R-rated 2007 movie felt smug and misogynistic, Booksmart uses gross-out comedy tropes while never becoming mean-spirited. This is a funny, heartwarming, and very cunning movie which uses the high school movie tropes of the 1980s, updates them for the Gen Z crowd, and then subverts expectations.

The film follows best friends Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), both of whom are intense practitioners of A+ grades in hopes of getting into elite colleges. To say they don’t party is an understatement; as their idea of a bonafide rager is late night study sessions at the local library. Molly is the feisty class president, Amy is the more shy feminist with a crush on a skater girl, and their school principal is played by the dopey Jason Sudeikis, who nearly gets harassed by Molly into arranging a budget meeting with the juniors on the final day of class. Joined at the hip for the past 4 years, Molly and Amy realize that nearly every other student, even the long-haired stoner Theo (Eduardo Franco) are getting into Yale or Columbia. This realization sets off a series of events where the girls decide to spend the last night before graduating attending an epic party.

Booksmart features the requisite drunken debauchery, wacky hijinks, and R-rated grossness that we’ve come to expect from the genre, but because it features two characters we care about (Feldstein and Dever both deliver star-making performances here), the film always feels empathetic to its core. Meanwhile, Wilde’s direction is confident and ambitious, although she does take some chances that don’t quite pay off, such as a claymation drug-tripping sequence which feels like a separate Vimeo short film and an over-reliance on non-diegetic pop songs. Still, these flaws aren’t enough to detract from the fact that this is a female-centered story which is allowed to be vulgar without sacrificing its warm heart. In an ideal world, Booksmart would be the game-changing hit the vastly inferior Superbad was, if only to show that one can be really into both Ken Burns documentaries and beer pong.

MA

 

Cast: Octavia Spencer, Juliette Lewis, Diana Silvers, McKaley Miller, Corey Fogelmanis, Luke Evans, Dante Brown

Director: Tate Taylor

Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Ma, the latest horror thriller from the Blumhouse brand is trash, but what kind of trash is it? The trailer promises meme-worthy sensationalism or at the very least, a creepy slice of pulp, but Tate Taylor’s film sadly offers neither. This is one of those cases where the casting of Octavia Spencer in the titular role as a mentally unstable woman harboring a painful past is really the only thing worth mentioning, since the script by Scotty Landes may as well have been written by one of the dim-witted teen characters populating a good portion of the running time.

The story centers around Maggie (Diana Silvers) returning to the hometown of her mother, Erica (Juliette Lewis), as she fits in with a group of fellow high schoolers. Soon they are attempting to score booze from the adult townsfolk, happening upon Sue Ann (Spencer) walking her dog near the local liquor store. Hesitant at first, Sue Ann eventually buys them the goods, but later rats them out to the local authorities by giving away their drinking hub. This sets in motion a series of events in which she convinces these underage kids to party in her basement, opening things up for a series of drug-addled high school ragers. Going by the nickname “Ma”, Sue Ann provides the party spot under the condition they don’t go upstairs. To say she’s up to something is an understatement.

But what exactly is this kindly, though seemingly lonely, older woman up to? Well, to say that Ma is harboring secrets is besides the point, since the film spends its first hour alternating between scenes of the teenagers reciting painfully wooden dialogue with Ma working at a vet clinic while obsessing over her new “friends” via social media. Once flashbacks of a young Sue Ann enduring high school bullying and assault back in the 1980s start rolling in, the film’s laughable conceit becomes clear. From this point on, Ma goes from being dull to offensive; using sexual assault in order stigmatize victimhood as a path toward mental illness. If one were being generous, you could say the filmmakers have good intentions here by showing how such experiences at a young age can warp a person’s self-worth and cause major psychological damage, but demonizing Ma as the defacto villain is beyond misjudged.

Spencer’s cunning performance allows for more nuance than would normally be afforded such a reductive character, but what is the point if the film she’s trapped inside is so inept on nearly every level? Taylor’s direction is clumsy, the teenage actors unbearable, and the aforementioned script is a hot mess of detours and laughable coincidences. Of course, the B-movie potential of the film’s central idea could have been wildly entertaining and possibly even subversive had Sue Ann simply been able to exist as a person in the world rather than being used a pawn for plot machinations. There’s even a dark “secret” she’s hiding upstairs (a thread introduced early which pays off limply during the ultra-violent finale), but the logistics surrounding her actions are so baffling that the whole thing comes off as a lame red herring.

Additionally, Ma could have leaned into political signifiers by embracing its racial elements—Sue Ann was seemingly the only black person at her high school and there’s even a token black kid in the present day teenage group—but the film is afraid of such implications. Taylor and company could also have just made a loopy genre movie giving an Academy Award winner the freedom to be deranged while using social media, but too much time is spent on high school romance, Luke Evans’s douche bag dad, and Maggie’s overprotective mom to truly lean into the Spencer show. In the end, Ma is little more than a half-baked revenge story in which a victim narrative is used as fodder for psychosis topped off with a weak social allegory. As such, audiences are better off drinking alone than spending any time with this scare-free, tonally confused turkey.














John Wick: Chapter 3-Parabellum

 

Cast: Keanu Reeves, Halle Berry, Ian McShane, Laurence Fishburne, Asia Kate Dillon, Mark Dacascos, Lance Reddick, Anjelica Huston

Director: Chad Stahelski

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Director Chad Stahelski leans even further into the mythology and creative action sequences of the improbable John Wick series with John Wick: Chapter 3 Parabellum; a self-aware riff on the absurdity of modern action cinema where Keanu Reeve’s retired hitman takes a beating and keeps on killing and killing, and then when he’s finished killing, he kills some more.

The attempt to top the meticulously crafted mayhem of the first two films is alive and well right from the outset, which picks up exactly where John Wick: Chapter 2 ended with our hero fleeing for his life after killing an influential crime lord. Meanwhile, Winston (Ian McShane) provides his old friend a grace period window before he’s “excommunicado” from the criminal safe space of the Continental hotel, even as the bounty of $14 million on Wick’s head mounts. During the film’s first 30 minutes, Stahelski and his talented team of stunt performers unleash some dazzling set-pieces; like a knockabout knife/hatchet fight that goes from playful to grotesquely comic, and a scene set inside a horse stable which features some unexpected equine weaponry. All the while, Reeves looks convincingly exhausted as he throws out the occasional deadpan one-liner in between imaginative kills.

While this opening stretch of John Wick: Chapter 3 Parabellum is breathlessly paced and excitingly choreographed, there’s a sense in which the franchise is starting to spin its wheels. Whereas the second film expanded the goofy assassin lore and added a few wrinkles to Wick’s backstory, Parabellum merely pads out the running time with over-extended plot mechanics and nonsensical detours. For instance, while it’s nice to see Halle Berry onscreen as an ex-assassin who owes Wick a favor, her character is so underdeveloped that when she abruptly vanishes from the film, you forget why she mattered to the story in the first place. Perhaps the most interesting new addition to the cast is Asia Kate Dillon as the Adjudicator, a no-nonsense messenger for a shadowy group known as “The High Table” who comes in to stir up the natural order. Her purposefully flat line delivery and steely gaze gives the film an arch tone which is welcome amidst all the blood-letting and shotgun shells to the noggin.

The baroque world-building of the series continues to both intrigue and annoy; some of the High Table material feels half-baked, for example, while Lawrence Fishburne’s underground homeless hitman lair feels almost secondary here. Still, the goings on at the Continental remain self-aware as ever, especially the keen performances of Lance Reddick and Ian McShane as the hotel concierge and manager, respectively. As far as John Wick himself, it almost feels like the character is a cartoon at this point, with Reeve’s innate charm and comic timing not being well utilized in this entry.

Of course, audiences come to this franchise for the action, and on that front, Parabellum delivers the goods. The variation from gun-based action to swords, knives, and martial arts (complete with several performers from The Raid films showing up for glorified cameos), is a step in the right direction, though the movie’s last half does drag a bit. There’s only so many set-pieces with variations on punch, kick, shoot, stab (repeat) that can be staged before everything begins to feel rote, and the inclusion of testicle-biting dogs and a sword fight blanketed by mirrors simply feels like minor tweaks to a formula that’s beginning to grow repetitive.

It’s no big surprise that at the end of John Wick: Chapter 3 Parabellum, our hero is left for dead as the criminal underworld tries to readjust. Leaving things open for a fourth chapter is a no-brainer, but it also presents an interesting challenge for the filmmakers. With each absurdly graphic dispatch, Wick grows more weary and defeated. How long can he keep this up? Is the entire population of New York secretly assassins? Where will our intrepid killing machine go next, Canada? As the franchise expands the mythology and attempts to top the previous action set-piece, the specter of John Wick as a man who lost everything he loved bent on revenge, dwindles. He’s essentially become a prop in his own films now, dwarfed by choreography, shattered glass, hacked limbs, brain splatter, and the need to exceed expectations.

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

 

Cast: Adam Driver, Jonathan Pryce, Stellan Skarsgård, Olga Kurylenko

Director: Terry Gilliam

Running time: 2 hours 13 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote opens with a title card that reads “25 years in the making—and unmaking.” It’s a wry commentary; referencing both the film’s torturous production history and thematic ideas embedded into the finished project itself. Its the kind of thing a filmmaker like Gilliam does well; using a preexisting text (in this case, Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote) and creating a dialogue with it. The idea of who owns art, how it should be translated, and the cyclical nature of stories is central to Gilliam’s take on what many believe is an unadaptable book. Instead of attempting the impossible, Gilliam chooses to use the novel’s heroic archetypes and graft his own sensibilities onto the framework. It’s a clever touch, and one that benefits from the director’s usual freewheeling style and manic quirkiness.

Don Quixote is played, in a winning bit of casting, by Jonathan Pryce. As it turns out, Quixote isn’t the iconic Cervantes character after all, but a poor cobbler named Javier discovered by egotistical director Toby Grummett (Adam Driver) while scouting for his student film. After a period of 10 years, Toby returns to Los Sueños to helm an expensive Quixote-themed commercial commissioned by his boss (Stellan Skarsgård), who wants to sign a contract with a Russian-led vodka company. During this early stretch, Toby is portrayed as an apathetic sell-out going through the motions, out of ideas and leaking money by the day. He’s a man caught inside a corporate machine which has strangled out any hints of creativity; a feeling Gilliam himself is well aware of over the course of his rocky career in Hollywood.

Burnt out and in desperate need of inspiration, Toby takes a motorcycle from the set and heads off in search of the town and villagers from his student film. What he finds is dispiriting; with former cast members either having died from illness, given into madness, or in the case of Angelica (Joana Ribeiro), a fetching teenager whom Toby had promised to make into a movie star, moving into the realm of escort service. Perhaps most tragic is his encounter with Javier, who so fully embodied the role of Quixote in the student film that he became deluded into thinking that he was, in fact, the legendary character. From there, the young director hooks up with the deluded Javier and the two venture off on a madcap quest where Toby unwittingly takes on the role of Sancho Panza.

Of course, Toby is a stand-in for Gilliam, but The Man Who Killed Don Quixote doesn’t simply work on a meta level. There are elements taken directly from Cervantes’s novel—Javier’s delusions of seeing windmills as giants, women cursed with beards, a knight covered in mirrored armor—but Gilliam takes these familiar episodes and alters the context, blurring the line between reality and artifice. This really comes into focus during the film’s final act, where our heroes end up inside a castle with inhabitants cast as whores, peasants, damsels, and royal knights dressed in period appropriate costumes. Toby suddenly takes on the mantle of noble savior swooping in to save Angelica, who is engaged to a wealthy misogynist Russian thug, and consequently, Gilliam seems to be playing this adventure yarn straight. Javier embodies the sacrificial lamb trope and Toby is exalted to hero status, but is the film really becoming the very thing it’s playfully satirizing?

Vanity and self-worship is a trap, one that Toby and by extension, Gilliam are not immune to. There’s a possibility that Gilliam is questioning his place within the cinematic pantheon here, using iconography from his past work and commenting on it (much like Fellini did in his later years). Like most of the filmmaker’s projects, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote has an odd rhythm and often gives in to self-indulgence; with inconsistent pacing, hit and miss visual gags, and several scenes where characters simply yell over one another. Still, such criticisms can also be read as reasons for Gilliam’s legitimate artistry. He’s a filmmaker always taking chances. Always throwing ideas at the wall. Constantly pushing himself to complete his vision, even if it takes 25 years, and there’s ultimately something hopeful about that.




Long Day's Journey into Night

 

Cast: Huang Jue, Tang Wei, Sylvia Chang, Lee Hong-Chi, Zeng Meihuizi

Director: Bi Gan

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Chinese director Bi Gan is only 29-years-old. His 2015 feature-length debut, Kaili Blues, was a major hit with critics and adventurous cinephiles, but remains mostly unseen. Exposure outside arthouse markets may still elude Gan with his followup Long Day’s Journey into Night, but it’s not for lack of ambition. Words like “virtuosic” and “audacious” will likely be tossed around here, and for good reason. This is a film which could only have been made by a young filmmaker enthralled by his cinematic heroes and willing to attempt technically daunting feats.

Moody, languid, and haunted by a sense of loss, Long Day’s Journey into Night is essentially an epic noir split down the middle into two very distinct halves. Initially, we are introduced to a former casino manager named Luo Hongwu (Huang Jue) who returns home to Kaili for his father’s funeral only to find himself caught up in locating Wan Quiwen (Tang Wei), a mysterious woman he once had an affair with back in the year 2000. Gan switches back and forth in time showing us glimpses of a relationship which, in noir tradition, could never truly survive. There’s also some clear Wong Kar-Wai worship here; what with Hongwu’s hard-bitten voiceover narration and hazy visuals of a world out of time, but Gan succeeds in capturing a hallucinatory vibe all his own.

All of this is to say that Long Day’s Journey into Night is a movie about how cinema can crystalize images and sensations. Gan isn’t shy about flaunting his influences, and there’s a self-reflexivity at work here which comes full circle around the film’s final hour; a 50-minute single take meant to be watched in 3D. Even as Hongwu ’s search for Wan continues spiraling; with his memories fractured and his life in shambles, the final act becomes less about the character’s inner struggle and more about our collective need to embrace the moving image as a means to an end. Using a combination of drone footage, Steadicam, and digital compositing, Gan pulls off a remarkable feat here; riffing on Hitchcock, Scorsese, and Tarkovsky in the process. While just as mind-boggling as something like, say, Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Birdman, Gan resists the urge to showboat in the same self-aggrandizing way because he’s clearly a young filmmaker raised on the love of cinema.

The idea of characters dreaming in movies and therefore, movies as dreams, is a central preoccupation of filmmakers; Akira Kurosawa, Federico Fellini, David Lynch, Wim Wenders, Terry Gilliam, Hitchcock, and many others have dabbled in such subject matter. During the final set-piece, Hongwu is trapped inside his own subconscious; leading us through realms of dream logic which mirror the real world only in theory. The film’s central idea is that dreams (like memories) are simply projections and only seem to offer us meaning. Hongwu’s life is a mess, and even if he found his long-lost love in the present time, what would that actually change for him? Multiple realties can exist, and as such, multiple choices with multiple outcomes. Long Day’s Journey into Night doesn’t so much answer Hongwu’s probing questions as it points him towards embracing the unknown. Kind of like the magic of the movies, if that even still exists.

Under the Silver Lake

 

Cast: Andrew Garfield, Riley Keough, Topher Grace, Patrick Fischler, Jimmi Simpson, Riki Lindhome

Director: David Robert Mitchell

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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It’s no great secret that filmmakers have a long-standing fascination with Los Angeles as a haven for grimy mysteries and conspiracy theories. Writer-director David Robert Mitchell, whose arthouse horror sensation, It Follows, was itself a pastiche of older films (particularly 80s slashers), has taken that fascination to its apex with sophomore effort Under the Silver Lake. For here is a picture which burrows so far into retro-fetishism that it eventually becomes a kind of post-postmodern take on LA’s obsession with itself. Sadly, the film also fawns over its own construction in a way which starts out humorously before dovetailing into an ideological muddle. While this might play for 19-year-old stoners who read into the film’s odd detours with geeky obsession, the rest of us will simply prefer to rewatch Rear Window, In a Lonely Place, Mulholland Drive, or any number of B-movie noirs Mitchell is attempting to emulate.

Our Philip Marlowe-lite hero this time is Sam (Andrew Garfield), a 33-year-old unemployed drag who spends most of his time moping around his apartment, dodging his landlord due to overdue rent, getting drunk, and spying on young beautiful starlets who flood in and out of his purview. Soon after meeting a stunning blond with a fluffy dog (Riley Keough), he becomes obsessed with her, which is further exacerbated when she abruptly goes missing. What follows is a shaggy dog mystery where Sam attempts to decode the clues found in pop tunes, old vinyl records, 70’s issues of Playboy magazine, and lavish hipster parties in order to track down his ingenue. There’s a dead billionaire, squirrels falling from the sky, a dog killer on the loose, and even an old rich songwriter who mocks our protagonist by claiming pop culture is "all silly and meaningless", which is an apt description for the film itself. The whole thing plays like a Thomas Pynchon novel mixed with The Big Lebowski and the work of David Lynch as directed by Nicholas Ray. The only thing missing is a scene where Sam looks directly into the camera and chides the audience for not getting all the references.

This is not to say Mitchell doesn’t have his own aesthetic. His work with cinematographer Mike Gioulakis is often effective; particularly in regards to capturing the golden wooziness of Silver Lake. However, despite Garfield’s best efforts to create a more earnest character as things slide into sub-Lynchian oddness, Sam is a prototypical slacker who not only punches children in the face in one scene, but also obsesses over young women in a way not dissimilar to our current state of “problematic men” hiding behind a nice guy persona. This makes the film’s trips down conspiracy theory rabbit holes all the more galling since we are supposed to root for Sam’s low rent sleuth as he chases down one MacGuffin after the next.

The notion of subliminal messages in pop-culture and that playing a vinyl record backwards, for instance, could produce a drug-addled epiphany is nothing new, and Mitchell’s failure to grasp the dopey humor in his conceit makes the film’s last half feel overly ponderous. While there are plenty of satirical gags (especially during the first act), one gets the sense that underneath the golden age references, Mitchell wants us to take all of this seriously. It’s one of those cases where a talented filmmaker is trying to concoct a cult classic rather than allowing such a descriptor to be grafted onto the work years later, possibly after midnight screenings under the influence. In that sense, it’s a weirdo lark made by someone who isn’t actually a weirdo, but merely playing at weirdness. Worst of all, it’s a film absolutely bereft of intellectual curiosity to even out all the self-regarding nonsense on display.

Under the Silver Lake does eventually lead somewhere, although its labyrinthine plot, which also features a crazed conspiracy theorist (played by Mulholland Drive’s Patrick Fischler, natch) and a lame climax involving a hippie underground cult, is purposefully anti-climatic. The point isn’t the destination, of course, but the hazy journey, and yet Mitchell flails to keep us interested in a wobbly narrative which drags on for 139 minutes. There may be a reading of the film involving the monopolization of “geek culture” (just look at those cash cow Marvel movies) and how it’s now a part of the greater entertainment industry, but Mitchell never investigates these ideas; only introduces them to scatter to the wind like a puff of bong smoke. The main drive here is artifice; how things look and sound (the score by Disasterpeace, for example, clearly evokes Hitchcock-era Bernard Herrmann).

This is all well and good, provided one desires a film without tension, stakes, or a melancholic streak underpinning all the nuttiness. It’s not enough to simply act and talk like a classic noir (or neo-noir), you must prove your existence beyond pastiche. This is a trick Brian De Palma mastered during the 1980s by taking obvious visual and story beats from past directors (mainly Hitchcock) and then reapplying them for that decade’s sleazy aesthetic. Mitchell doesn’t seem to have any grasp on the current culture—no 33-year-old hipster would ever dance to an R.E.M. song without irony—and his stabs at nostalgia feel just as contrived. Therefore, Under the Silver Lake is a lot like trying to decode hidden messages on the back of old cereal boxes; maddening and a waste of time.