Mandy

 

Cast: Nicolas Cage, Andrea Riseborough, Linus Roache, Ned Dennehy, Olwen Fouéré, Bill Duke, Richard Brake, Line Pillet

Director: Panos Cosmatos

Running time: 2 hours

by Jericho Cerrona

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If writer-director Panos Cosmatos’s previous feature, 2012’s Beyond the Black Rainbow, was an hallucinogenic pastiche of the films of David Cronenberg and John Carpenter’s Dark Star, then his latest plunge into 80’s Astro lamp psychedelia, Mandy, should have fanboys tripping big time. Though superficially a revenge thriller in which Red Miller (Nicolas Cage) must avenge the brutal murder of his lover, Mandy (Andrea Riseborough), the film is much more concerned with pop-cultural artiness than streamlined genre thrills. Though set somewhere in the California wilderness circa 1983, the film could just as easily take place within the pages of Heavy Metal magazine.

During the film’s opening stretch, Cosmatos allows us to spend time with Red and Mandy as they lounge around their quiet home. Red is a blue collar worker who cuts down trees, enjoys a good smoke, and indulges in Eric Estrada knock-knock jokes, while Mandy comes off like a former D & D fanatic lost in her horror/fantasy paperback novels. Cage and Riseborough have an easygoing chemistry which helps humanize characters who could have come off like accessories amidst Cosmatos’s over-determined visual style. Set to the synthy drone of late composer Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score and filled with neon reds, pink/white hues, and protracted slow zooms, Mandy is retro wankery that somehow overcomes its influences.

Once cult leader Sand Jeremiah (Linus Roache), enters the picture, things take a turn toward the twisted. Mandy is kidnapped by the cult, forced to take a potent drug cocktail, and endure a druggy monologue about sexually enslaving women. During this sequence, Cosmatos overlaps imagery with a variety of cross dissolves; saturating the frame with pinkish hues at a delayed pace. The scene ends with Jeremiah revealing his flaccid member, to which Mandy howls in mocking disgust; emasculating the leader’s messiah complex. Here and elsewhere, the film is commenting on the absurdity of the male ego and the ludicrous lengths it will go to get what it wants. At the other end of the wounded masculinity spectrum is Red; a former alcoholic who witnesses the vicious murder of his partner and must inevitably go on a mission of vengeance.

Along with the death cult, there’s a ghoulish biker gang recalling a mixture of Hellraiser and Mad Max who have been warped by a hallucinatory strain of LSD. Of course, Red gathers a variety of weapons in order to embark on his killing spree, and one key scene has him meeting with an arms dealer (Bill Duke, chewing scenery), who fills him in on the fantastical exposition regarding the demonic roving bikers. From here, Mandy transforms into a ultra-violent riff on male loneliness; complete with a scene in which Cage, clad in his underwear and swinging a bottle of whiskey inside a bathroom, has an emotional breakdown. Though this moment may appear locked into the meme-worthy pantheon, Cage actually melds his live wire outrageousness with notes of primal sadness. As the film moves on, his performance becomes more mournful and heartbreaking. Sure, there are the obligatory “big” set-pieces; like a chainsaw duel which ends in a particularly satisfying geyser of blood, but the film becomes more emotionally resonant as we witness Red falling deeper into the abyss.

Mandy is a phantasmagoric cinematic experience; slow, hypnotic, violent, and melancholy. Cosmatos’s excessive formalism will not be to everyone’s tastes, and there’s a sense in which some of the experimental notes of Beyond the Black Rainbow have been excised for a more straightforward revenge narrative here. Still, Cage holds the entire thing together as a man purging the hate in his heart only to lose his soul completely. Ultimately, we are locked into his blood-soaked face and white bulging eyes as he stares off into oblivion. Resurrected in retribution. Lost in grief.




Damsel

 

Cast: Robert Pattinson, Mia Wasikowska, David Zellner, Nathan Zellner, Gabe Casdorph, Joseph Billingiere, Robert Forster

Director: Nathan Zellner, David Zellner

Running time: 1 hour 53 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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David and Nathan Zellner have long been tweaking expectations; from the darkly comedic riff on childhood mental illness that was Kid Thing to the obsessive fairy tale of Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter. Often compared to the Coen Brothers (not just in terms of the familial pairing), the Zellners have quietly built a name for themselves on the indie circuit by couching melancholy behind deadpan quirk. Their latest film, Damsel, also arrives with a meta take on a specific genre; in this case, an attempt at deconstructing the Western by showing the foolishness of the male ego by switching up narrative mechanisms at the half-way point. The results are admirable, if contrived; playing like a protracted sketch in which the Zellners have nowhere particularly compelling to take their atypical premise.

Robert Pattinson stars as Samuel Alabaster, a dim-witted wanderer who strides into a small town with a miniature pony named Butterscotch in tow. He’s looking for a man of the cloth to officiate his wedding to his true love, Penelope (Mia Wasikowska), whom we glimpse only briefly in flashback during a rather spirited dance sequence. The pastor in question, a vagrant named Henry (David Zellner) is a drunken mess, lying prostrate near the ocean when Samuel approaches him with an offer he can’t refuse. Thus, the two men set off on a journey through the wilderness to find Penelope, whom we later discover has been taken captive by brothers Anton (Gabe Casdorph) and Rufus Cornell (Nathan Zellner), or so Samuel claims. As played by Pattinson with a deluded kind of earnestness, Samuel is the type of dandy who makes big romantic proclamations, but whose grip on reality emerges as teetering on the edge of mania. In this way, the Zellners cleverly unmask the inanity of male pride and the Western’s themes of honor and dignity.

Damsel makes an abrupt tonal shift around the half-way mark once Wasikowska’s fiercely independent fiancé gets involved, leading to a sequence of tragicomic violence which moves the film into more uncertain territory. However, for all of Penelope’s reserve and quasi-feminist speeches, her character is ultimately a hollow cipher on hand to represent an ideology. Though there’s a welcome revisionist streak as the film shifts to the female perspective, the Zellners don’t know what to do narratively since they haven’t fleshed out the character of Penelope beyond broad brush strokes.

Despite gorgeous widescreen cinematography, an evocative score, and game performances, Damsel feels underdeveloped to the point of superfluousness. The film points out the inherent sexism and racism of the old West (and many classic Western films, generally), but then botches the second half twist by not fully investing in the interior life of Wasikowska’s one-note crusading heroine. Sure, she’s a “damsel” who doesn’t need saving, but does she want, and more importantly, who is she? The film, much like real life, doesn’t seem to care.







The Predator

 

Cast: Boyd Holbrook, Trevante Rhodes, Jacob Tremblay, Keegan-Michael Key, Olivia Munn, Sterling K. Brown, Thomas Jane, Alfie Allen, Augusto Aguilera, Yvonne Strahovski, Jake Busey

Director: Shane Black

Running time: 1 hour 41 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Shane Black has spent his entire career trafficking in wisecracking machismo; from writing the screenplays for 1980s action movies like Lethal Weapon to ironic 1990s deconstructions of the genre such as Last Action Hero. His directing work includes 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and 2016’s The Nice Guys, two films which traded on audiences having a working familiarity of his career in Hollywood. His connection to the Predator franchise is also more than simply casual; having starred in a bit role as radio operator Rick Hawkins in the original 1987 film. Known for razor sharp dialogue, elaborate crime plots, and male camaraderie, Black’s latest directorial effort sees him tapping into some of that same cinematic mojo. For all its over the top gore and knockabout comedy, The Predator is mostly about male posturing under the guise of surviving planetary alien invasion.

The Predator has a plot (perhaps too much plot), but like most films of this type, the plot doesn’t matter. Things begins in earnest when a Predator space vessel plummets to earth and crash lands deep in a Mexican forest. Enter black-ops American sniper Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook, channeling Colin Farrell by way of Charlie Hunnam), who discovers the downed ship and naturally steals some of the scattered alien tech. For some reason, he ends up shipping the stolen equipment to his estranged ex-wife Emily (Yvonne Strahovski) and autistic son, Rory (Jacob Tremblay), and since the kid is “on the spectrum”, he quickly decodes the alien language. If this setup sounds ludicrous, Black doubles down on the inherent goofiness of his central conceit by having Quinn deemed mentally unstable and placed inside a van en route to a high-security facility. On board, there’s a predictably rag tag group of misfits, including Tourette vet Baxley (Thomas Jane), Nebraska (Trevante Rhodes), an officer with suicidal impulses, and Keegan-Michael Key as the comic relief sidekick Coyle, among others. In classic Shane Black fashion, these are vulgar-mouthed delinquents who are all stereotypes right out of 80s action movie pantheon. Whether or not this ironic bid for nostalgia to a simpler time where “men could be men” is to one’s liking is debatable, but there’s no denying Black’s absurdist thrill in harkening back.

Of course, there’s also a cocky research agent, Will Traeger (Sterling K. Brown), who basically enters and exits scenes with a resume of quippy one-liners, and a civilian scientist, Casey Bracket (Olivia Munn), eventually joining up with Quinn’s escaped group of self-described “loonies”. Black lets many scenes play out with ping-pong dialogue and self-referential bits of humor which more or less works in the hands of such a game cast. Occasionally, he injects doses of graphic violence and standard action beats into the narrative whenever the Predator shows up, accompanied by Henry Jackman’s throwback score, which liberally borrows themes from the original film.

At a certain point, once a larger Predator is introduced, things completely loose all sense of narrative coherency. At times, the film seems edited to within an inch of its life; with characters disappearing and reappearing at will without so much as a single thought to geography or time constraints. However, Black’s propensity for midnight movie thrills; complete with inventive kills, loopy pratfalls, and rambling comedic tangents, keeps The Predator from trailing off into tedium. There’s something comforting about a movie which gives you that thing sorely lacking in big action projects these days; a sense of ludicrous showmanship.

The Predator isn’t the least bit suspenseful or terrifying, but Black’s aims here seem to be more inward-looking. There’s a knowing sense of pessimism, even with the inclusion of some half-baked emotional beats involving Quinn and his autistic son, that permeates the need for these damaged soldiers to strike out against not only evil alien invaders, but also their own government. This is perhaps the film’s most crucial element, since Sterling K. Brown’s vainglorious agent essentially becomes the de facto villain. Therefore, behind the movie’s nonsensical framework about space aliens ravaging our planet, there’s an anarchic attitude about the role of masculinity just waiting to be disemboweled, scattered limb from limb, and strewn throughout the jungle.

Searching

 

Cast: John Cho, Debra Messing, Joseph Lee, Michelle La, Sara Sohn, Roy Abrahmsohn, Gabriel D. Angell

Director: Aneesh Chaganty

Running time: 1 hour 42 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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With the advent of social media, technology has given us a way to create mini narratives; fashioning our lives as a series of images, video files, and text-based “updates”. Therefore, it didn’t take long for filmmakers to utilize this trend for cinematic purposes, seeing as how narrative information can easily be dispensed through computer-based montages. Aneesh Chaganty's Searching begins with this in mind; stringing together a variety of pictures, videos, and other media depicting the childhood years of Margot (Michelle La). This provides a decade-long prologue following Margot as she grows up while dealing with her mother, Pam (Sara Sohn), who is diagnosed with and eventually passes away from cancer. Even though this introduction is effective in distilling thematic information, it’s also presented like a cloying Hallmark commercial; complete with twinkly piano music accompanying mawkish home video footage. Whether one sheds a tear or experiences a gag reflex is subjective, but it’s clear Searching wants audiences to feel something.

Or does it? Aesthetically, Chaganty’s film is similar to other tech-based experiments like the Unfriended series where the entire story takes place on a computer screen, but rather than lean into the horrors of what may be lurking on the Internet, Searching draws its dramatic thrust from B-grade thrillers and old fashioned murder mysteries. Margot's father, David (John Cho), is set up as a seemingly caring dad who misjudges his relationship with his daughter. Once she goes missing after attending a study group, David launches into full on sleuth mode like an iChat Sherlock Holmes; attempting to track down his daughter through Gmail, Facebook, Tumblr, and other chat sites.

Initially, Searching seems to be commenting on how technology allows us to hide our pain behind digital avatars, but honestly, the film is mostly a rousing digital age procedural. As David teams up with tough-minded Detective Vick (Debra Messing), the film’s first two acts serve as a virtual investigation where a distraught father follows a series of cyberspace clues. Was Margot some kind of criminal? Was she kidnapped and her identity stolen? Can David trust his brother Peter (Joseph Lee) who seems to be harboring a dark secret? Why is Messing’s detective so psychologically fragile? How many typing mistakes, spelling errors, and deleted messages will David be guilty of?

Searching takes some wild turns in the third act as red herrings pile up like glitchy load screens. Less time is dedicated to David’s inner turmoil and more to twisting genre tropes and gotcha! surprises. While this shift into mystery/thriller cheesiness may strike some viewers as disingenuous, it’s actually the most gleefully entertaining aspect of the film. If the previous two acts had operated more in this heightened thriller mode, then the deliriously absurd climax may have landed more forcefully.

As it stands, all of the late rug-pulling maintains a tonal lunacy sadly missing from the film’s more sentimental setup. All the while, John Cho registers looks of concern, shock, fear, disgust, and panic as he furiously toggles menus and screens within screens. It’s the kind of thing which used to be judged as “phone acting”, a notoriously difficult task of reacting and responding to nothing and no one. But perhaps Cho wasn’t told what type of film he was starring in; a film which requires melodramatic theatrics, not authentic father-daughter bonding, in order to sell its delightfully cornball finish.





Tully

 

Cast: Charlize Theron, Mackenzie Davis, Mark Duplass, Ron Livingston, Elaine Tan, Lia Frankland, Asher Miles Fallica

Director: Jason Reitman

Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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As a treatise on the barbarity of motherhood, Jason Reitman's Tully might be a spiritual cousin to Darren Aronofsky's polarizing Mother! Of course, Reitman's style is less bombastic and more middlebrow, and yes, no babies are devoured (spoilers!) in this tragicomedy about a depressed mum, but the connections are there. 

Marlo (Charlize Theron) is very pregnant during the opening scenes of Tully, and Reitman makes sure her enlarged belly is prominently featured in closeup. She's also extremely devoted to her son, Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica), who may be on the spectrum. Jonah's teachers constantly refer to the kid as "quirky", because, well, that's something consistently lobbied at screenwriter Diablo Cody (teaming up with Reitman again here for the third time after Juno and Young Adult).

To her credit, Cody has fashioned a more complex protagonist than expected, and unsurprisingly, Theron gives a fearlessly committed performance. The problem is that aside from Marlo, there are no other characters which remotely feel like human beings. Marlo's husband, Drew (Ron Livingston) is the prototypical overworked sad dad who spends his down time playing video games. Her wealthy brother, Craig (Mark Duplass), and sister-in-law, Elyse (Elaine Tan), are caricatures of upper class ignorance. And then there's the titular Tully (Mackenzie Davis), a night nanny brought in to balance out Marlo's hectic lifestyle who remains strangely upbeat at all times. Something, as they say, seems to be amiss here.

Tully tries very hard to comment on postpartum depression and the ways in which women often lose their identity when they become mothers, but Reitman isn't a subtle enough filmmaker to pull this kind of thing off. Cody's dialogue, meanwhile, is less arch than in something like Juno, but just as contrived. As magical-realist flourishes begin cropping up, along with annoying motherhood montages, Tully begins showing its cards as a gimmicky narrative en route to the predictable character epiphany. Had the film trusted its characters (fleshing out the supporting players would have helped) and in turn, the audience, then Reitman may have been able to truly say something about the link between mental illness and child-bearing. The fact that Marlo probably shouldn't have had children in the first place is broached, but ceremoniously brushed off. The film's happy ending feels false. Marlo's maternal problems are real, but in the end, Tully treats them as little more than wish-fulfillment from an unreliable narrator. If Marlo was indeed a English Literature graduate as she claims, then she should have written herself a better script.

Support the Girls

 

Cast: Regina Hall, Haley Lu Richardson, Shayna McHayle, James Le Gros, Lea DeLaria, Dylan Gelula, Zoe Graham

Director: Andrew Bujalski

Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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The dichotomy between the professional and personal has always been a staple of writer-director Andrew Bujalski's filmography; from the struggling thirty-somethings of Beeswax to the idiosyncratic nerd culture featured in Computer Chess. His previous feature, Results, was an attempt at making something more mainstream while also getting at his growing sociological interests, and it proved he could straddle both worlds. With Support the Girls, this transition is complete in a film which hits the appropriately crowd-pleasing beats while also examining the plight of working-class Americans. 

Taking place over a single day and set mostly inside a fictional Texas Hooters-influenced restaurant called Double Whammies, Support the Girls is sensitively empathetic towards its female characters while rendering the men completely ineffective. Lisa (Regina Hall) is the restaurant's manager and reigning mother hen; gathering her flock of young bartenders and waitresses into her embrace while also practicing tough love. Her crew includes the annoyingly upbeat Maci (Haley Lu Richardson), lethargic but loyal Danyelle (a scene stealing Shayna McHayle), and newbie Jennelle (Dylan Gelula), who tries a bit too hard to be "sexy". Then there's regular customer Bobo (Lea DeLaria) who both flirts with and protects the girls from lecherous men, and sleazy owner Cubby (James Le Gros), who bitches to Lisa about her hiring tactics, seeing as Double Whammie's diversity policy keeps a quota on women of color. After all, there's a male-driven, beer-swigging clientele to please. 

The hypocrisy of a "family-friendly" establishment catering to a mostly male demographic of sexist creeps is not lost on Bujalski or indeed, his characters. Even if some of the naive waitresses step outside the lines of decency (a car wash fundraiser almost turns into a "Girls Gone Wild" type fiasco), Lisa is always there to right the ship. This is a strong-willed, intelligent woman with a caring heart and no-nonsense attitude, and Hall is absolute perfection in the role. She brings such warmth, humanity, and quiet dignity to the part that one almost forgets it's performative. Lisa feels true. Real. Tactile.

As she transverses a series of micro-aggressions, it becomes clear that the issues at Lisa's low-wage job (an attempted burglary, a broken cable signal) are merely windows into a larger problem. Women are undervalued. Women are used as sexual objects to be co-opted by companies hoping to capitalize under the guise of entertainment. Women of color, of course, have an even tougher road. Hall's chemistry with McHayle is particularly inspired; showing the sisterhood of two black women over-performing in an environment catered to men who casually (or not so casually) discriminate against them. That Bujalski anchors these themes in characterization rather than didactic speeches or on-the-nose compositions, is telling. This isn't just a small snapshot of America in some distant roadside diner. This is America. We need more strong women like Lisa, and less white male privilege. Support the Girls triumphantly hits this feminist-leaning message, but does so without so much as raising a pitcher of cheap beer, and that's no small accomplishment.  

 

 

 

Movie Pick of the Week

 

Crime + Punishment

Director: Stephen Maing

Year of release: 2018

Running time: 1 hour 53 minutes

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There is no shortage of films tackling systematic racism in the United States, but Stephen Maing's carefully observed Crime + Punishment is the rare document which uses the specific in order to encompass the general. By following a group of cops known as the NYPD 12; whistleblowers who exposed unlawful arrests and summons quotas within the NYPD in 2016, Maing's film gets at personal stories as well as the larger ramifications of victimizing minority communities.

One of the whistleblowers, NYPD officer Edwin Raymond, is a black man with long dreadlocks and a stoic gaze. He refers to NYC as "Ferguson on steroids", and calls out the NYPD's tactic of "color blind racism" targeting people of color as diametrically opposed to the liberalism the department supposedly stands for. Officer Raymond is intelligent and fully capable of doing his job, but like many other minorities on the force, he's discriminated against in a variety of ways. Using hidden cameras, mics, and irrefutable evidence showing how the police earmark minority communities in order to inflate arrest number quotas, Maing and the 12 officers begin building a steady case. By coming forward, the officers are retaliated against. They get put on night watch. Lose partners. Receive inaccurate reviews. All the while, Commissioner William Bratton, a white man, refuses to acknowledge this pervasive corruption.  

For all its detailed meticulousness, Crime + Punishment also engenders empathy. Along with officer Raymond, P.I. Manny Gomes emerges as a hard-headed warrior pounding the pavement for justice, which includes his fight for 17-year-old Pedro Hernandez, who is stuck in jail on a bogus attempted murder charge levied without any substantial evidence. Hernandez's infuriating plight for freedom is the natural outcome of the systematic police corruption the NYPD 12 are confronting. This is a crucial point, and Maing knows it. His film is filled with a kind of slowly escalating rage, his camera locked onto the disillusioned faces of the oppressed. If Crime + Punishment teaches us anything, it's that an ideological overhaul of an entire system is nearly impossible. However, the bravery of a few voices speaking loudly from within may create a ripple effect wherein human lives, not numbers, are seen as ultimate job security. 

 

 

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Music Pick of the Week

 

Imperial Triumphant

Vile Luxury

Year of release: 2018

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New York metal band Imperial Triumphant are not here to wet your appetite for basic blast beats, standard riffs, or generic shrieks. They will be labeled, somewhat reductively, as "technical death metal". They will be likened to bands like Portal, Krallice, and Gorguts. They will be greeted with both bafflement and unwarranted mythos by the fact that they wear Eyes Wide Shut-esque masks. But in reality, their latest album Vile Luxury, resists nearly every attempt at classification. Above all, it is the sound of New York City's underbelly shitting blood, puss, and mutated rats. It's wild stuff; combining off the wall time signatures, avant-jazz instrumentation, baroque art rock, and of course, nefarious-sounding growls.  

Opener "Swarming Opulence" begins with an array of symphonic horn arrangements, almost coming off like a Terence Blanchard score from a Spike Lee joint. Ear-splitting riffs, blast beat drumming, and demonic vocals eventually kick in, but the song continues evolving like a free-jazz metal freakout. By the time a chanting mantra erupts behind detuned horns and grinding power chords, one will be hard pressed to pinpoint just what Imperial Triumphant are on about, and that's a good thing. Other tracks, like the David Lynchian "Chernobyl Blues" and the punk/blues dirge "Luxury in Death", showcase the band's unbelievable dexterity in keeping listeners off balance. 

Vile Luxury is the sonic equivalent of being kicked into a puddle of grime as a subway roars past carrying human waste. And yet, there's beauty and introspection here too. As intense and challenging as the band's technical version of death metal often is, there are passages here which hint at melody and clarity. It's this kind of juxtaposition; the exhausting clang and clatter of various instruments being shoved together into a NYC sewer, with the occasional sounds of ambient texture and classical instrumentation, that makes Vile Luxury such a head-spinning listen. Is this a "thinking man's metal" album? Maybe. Is it relentless and grimy? Yes. Does it have anything to say about the crass commercialism and urban decay of the Big Apple? Hell if anyone knows, but one thing is certain; Imperial Triumphant are conjuring the kind of chaos that will cause ringing ears, excessive migraines, and stupid-drunk smiles.

The Sonic Vault

 

Introducing The Sonic Vault; in which your tireless critic dives into the past for records which have in some way defined his music obsessions. The album up for discussion is Los Angeles-based duo Sparks' 1974 bizarro pop masterpiece, Kimono My House.


Sparks

Kimono My House

Year of release: 1974

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Sparks are one of the greatest bands you've probably never heard of. Formed in 1968 by brothers Ron and Russell Mael, the group eventually attracted a critical following and adoration from the likes of Paul McCartney and Morrissey, but have more or less been relegated to cult curios. Their music is an unhinged mixture of show tune excess, proto-punk, glam bombast, and bubblegum pop, and has all the earmarks of influential genius. Though they would eventually transform into a new wave/synth-pop group in the late 1970s while collaborating with Giorgio Moroder, the duo's first few records were singular in their cross-mutation of genres.

The band's third album, Kimono My House, is often cited as their crowning jewel, and for good reason. Opener "This Town Ain't Big Enough For Both of Us" is a declarative statement; beginning with melodic electric piano, Russell's insanely high-pitched falsetto, and ricocheting gunfire before descending into rolling drum fills, squealing guitars, and glittery art-punk dynamics. While the parallels to Queen are obvious, its important to note that Sparks actually formed before Freddie Mercury and company, and that Kimono My House is a much weirder beast than anything Queen would release in their time. A more accurate description might be T. Rex punching up Frank Zappa during an Andrew Lyod Webber concert, and that's a compliment.


"Kimono My House is an album which absolutely rewards multiple listens; overflowing with creative wordplay, delirious glam-dance rhythms, and Roxy Music-esque electronica..." 


For all the intense musicianship on display, Kimono My House is a joyous romp; using lyrical puns, pop culture references, and sexual innuendos in order to capture a sense of lunacy. Rather than lean into concept album noodling, Sparks wrote concise pop songs which also managed to feel off-kilter and surreal. Among the more standard glam rockers like "Amateur Hour" and "Here in Heaven", there's the Latin-flavored experimentation of "Hasta Mañana, Monsieurand the slinky Broadway-like tune "Talent Is an Asset", which is a song about Albert Eistein's genius told from the perspective of his parents. 

Kimono My House is an album which absolutely rewards multiple listens; overflowing with creative wordplay, delirious glam-dance rhythms, and Roxy Music-esque electronica. Adrian Fisher's nimble guitar work and bassist Martin Gordon's bouncy grooves foreground Russell's highly theatrical vocals and Ron's inventive keyboard playing. Meanwhile, certain experimental forays; like the use of a mellotron and sped-up vocal tricks on dazzling album closer, "Equator", only add to the sense that Sparks were creating their own rules. Though the band would change their sound radically with each release (miraculously, they are still making music today), this crucial period perhaps best exemplifies their anarchic spirit--Russell the curly mop of hair striding along at full pomp, Ron scowling with his Hitler moustache and 1930s wardrobe--giving credence to the idea that Kimono My House deserves to be dug out of the sonic vault and reappraised.

American Animals

 

Cast: Evan Peters, Ann Dowd, Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner, Udo Kier, Jared Abrahamson

Director: Bart Layton

Running time: 2 hours

by Jericho Cerrona

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The true story at the heart of Bart Layton's American Animals should have been relegated to a fading news headline, as this fiction/nonfiction hybrid centered around the stealing of rare books from a Kentucky college’s library gives us four white young men smugly attempting to atone for their sins. Structured like a heist thriller using actors portraying the criminals in question with cutaways to the actual people who committed those crimes, American Animals isn't interested in the murky line between fact and fiction. Nor does it investigate the mythologizing of the lonely American male. Instead, Layton's main aim here seems to be a low-rent Rififi homage, and on that level, the film is a failure. Beyond that, it's existence feels utterly pointless.

The basic premise is this: bored college friends Spencer (Barry Keoghan) and Warren (Evan Peters) hatch a scheme to heist some rare books; including Audubon’s The Birds of America and Darwin’s On the Origin of Species from the Transylvania University library. These are aimless dopes who hope to conjure some transcendent life experience, because smoking pot and ditching class just isn't cutting it anymore. They watch heist movies like The Killing and Reservoir Dogs, build mock dioramas and meticulous blueprints of the library, and get drunk on the possibilities of pulling off something so audacious. Upon realizing that they'll need more firepower, they bring in two friends, Chas and Eric (Blake Jenner and Jared Abrahamson) to round out their crew. All the while, Layton cuts to interviews with the real-life perpetrators and other family members. Sometimes, the actors interact with their non-fiction counterparts during the "fictionalized" parts of the story. Sometimes, the various people involved have different recollections about how everything went down.

The stylistic gimmicks employed throughout American Animals only highlight the film's disingenuousness. If this is a story about deluded privilege or the instability of memory, then Layton refuses to coalesce these themes satisfactorily. If the sight of the real Spencer, Warren, Chas, and Eric staring into the camera at the recollection of traumatizing a helpless librarian during the botched robbery is supposed to be cathartic, then the film edges towards exploitation. If the music video-like montages set to blaring pop tunes are purposefully evoking the empty promise of the Tarantino generation, then maybe American Animals is onto something? The scene where the petty criminals mistreat the female librarian (played by Anne Dowd) and then cut directly to the real-life men looking remorseful, however, roundly disproves this notion. 

American Animals offers up a possible path of redemption for stupid young men who one time did a stupid thing. If these were people of color who pulled the same crime, there certainly wouldn't have been a movie made glorifying their bumbling ineptitude, and they'd probably still be in prison. It's a sad irony which American Animals seems completely unaware of, too enamored with its faux-heist signifiers and Eroll Morris-lite pretensions to grapple with yet another story humanizing bored white criminals.

 

 

BlacKkKlansman

 

Cast: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace, Jasper Paakkonen, Corey Hawkins, Ryan Eggold, Michael Joseph Buscemi, Paul Walter Hauser, Ashlie Atkinson

Director: Spike Lee

Running time: 2 hours 8 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Contrary to rumor, Spike Lee's latest political jab at American complacency, BlacKkKlansman, is not a return to form. In fact, an argument could be made that his last two films, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus and Chi-Raq, were both extraordinary works from a filmmaker at the top of his game. However, it's been quite awhile since Lee has crafted something which connects with a wider audience, and in that sense, BlacKkKlansman could put him back in the cultural zeitgeist. 

Based on “some fo’ real fo’ real shit,” as announced during the opening credits, Lee's film is an adaptation of African-American police officer Ron Stallworth's 2014 book Black Klansman, and details how Stallworth infiltrated the Klu Klux Klan during the 1970s as an undercover agent. Lee is working in a far more audience friendly mode here than in some of his most incendiary works; fashioning Stallworth's story as a police procedural drama. The results, despite the tough subject matter, are surprisingly light-footed. Even the film's opening featuring Alec Baldwin spewing hate speech backdropped by a screen projecting racist propaganda, exudes laughter at such fumbling ignorance, even as the rhetoric remains depressingly familiar.

At first glance, BlacKkKlansman is a droll caper where Colorado Springs' first black cop Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) teams up with white Jewish officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) in order to slip into the good graces of the local KKK chapter. Though Lee plays much of this absurd true story as comedy, the parallels being drawn to present-day America are bracingly serious. The Black Power movement is shown most powerfully in a scene involving Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) giving a stirring speech to a group of student protestors, and then later when elderly activist Mr. Turner (Harry Belafonte) recounts the story of a horrific lynching. These sequences are marking a clear link to the Black Lives Matter movement, which is counterbalanced by the sight of the KKK dutifully going about their bigoted business, foreshadowing the alt-right. Lee also is making statements about the way blacks have been perceived through popular culture, critiquing blaxploitation films of the era and clips from Gone with the Wind and D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation to hammer home his points. In this way, BlacKkKlansman can be read as a companion piece to his great 2000 satire Bamboozled, which also took aim at racist entertainment throughout America's history.

For all of its topical power and subversive humor, BlacKkKlansman ultimately lacks the cathartic release of Do the Right Thing, and it doesn't quite have the satirical boldness of Bamboozled or Chi-Raq. But perhaps Lee's attempt at courting the widest possible audience is shrewd, since America's ability to heal racial wounds since he first broke on the scene in the late 1980s has become even less likely. For all the buffoonish laughs at the KKK's expense (including a game Topher Grace as the polite face of racism, David Duke), BlacKkKlansman is also making the case that the danger was real then, now, and for the foreseeable future. When outspoken activist and girlfriend Patrice (Laura Harrier) asks Ron whether he's down for the liberation of black people, one can sense Lee turning the question back on the audience. When the KKK hold an induction ceremony inside a church and screen The Birth of a Nation for a salivating crowd of bigots, Lee uses parallel editing to show black protestors listening in rapt attention to yet another appalling lynching narrative. When Ture addresses the crowd by claiming "You must define beauty for black people, and that’s black power”, Lee focuses on closeups of various audience members, their features lit starkly against a black backdrop, their faces floating like beautiful portraits. It's a startling effect, and one that highlights the film's interest in media representations of race.

Even if BlacKkKlansman climaxes with Ron and Flip taking David Duke down a few notches, this happy ending is drenched in irony. Budget cuts, destroying evidence, and steering public consciousness away from the Klan meant that this ideology could fester. In a controversial move (this is a Spike Lee joint, after all), the film ends with footage from last year's Charlottesville riots, and the subsequent death of Heather Heyer. The gut-punch is brutally clear. Yes, racism still exists, and yes, radicalized racists are to blame for such attacks, but Lee is also pointing a finger at apathetic liberal America. In essence, BlackKkKlansman ends with the same message as Lee's 1988 musical-drama School Daze where activist Vaughn “Dap” Dunlap (Laurence Fishburne) screams at the top of his lungs, "Wake up!" The question is, will we, as a country, actually listen? 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blindspotting

 

Cast: Daveed Diggs, Rafael Casal, Janina Gavankar, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Ethan Embry, Tisha Campbell-Martin, Wayne Knight

Director: Carlos López Estrada

Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Carlos López Estrada's Blindspotting is a well-meaning PSA masquerading as a movie; tracking a lifelong friendship between buddies Collin (Daveed Diggs) and Miles (Rafael Casal) in gentrified Oakland. The two friends are portrayed as guys who would probably have nothing to do with each other had they not grown up in close proximity, and their passive-aggressive banter is often loose and funny; displaying an authentic shorthand. However, this central dynamic is about the only thing that clicks here, aside from a few stylistic flourishes recalling the early work of Spike Lee. Otherwise, Estrada's film is clumsy and didactic; attempting to combine drama, comedy, and hip-hop into something which wants to make serious sociopolitical points, but ends up playing like an angry rant without a pulpit.

The problem here isn't intent, but execution. Clearly, the filmmakers have their hearts in the right place, and there's obvious merit in examining the rise of gentrification, police violence, and white privilege; particularly in the melting pot of Oakland. But there's something misguided about a movie which tries to wrap its arms around a wide range of topics without ever bothering to locate the humanity at the core of these issues. Collin is a convicted felon on the last few days of parole; and the idea that, as a black man, he'll never be able to change the prejudices greeting him in the outside world, is a provocative hook to hang your film on. Additionally, Miles is a white Hispanic guy with a knack for violent mood swings, which is a powder keg formula for dealing with unacknowledged privilege and macho posturing, but Blindspotting mostly treats these threads as comedic fodder. It's only near the end, during a heated argument in an alleyway after Miles flips out at a party, that the consequences of their friendship is even remotely dealt with, and by that point it feels like a writer's ploy for emotional manipulation.

When the film is being light on its feet, there are moments which bring to mind the heightened satire of something like Spike Lee's School Daze. A rapid-fire sequence where Miles uses his motormouth to try and sell used curling irons to a black salon hits the appropriate absurdist laugh ratio, for example, and there's a dream sequence which utilizes Collin's aspiring rapping skills to surreal effect. However, the other instances where Collin launches into his spoken word monologues feel laughably out of place since they effectively kill whatever sense of verisimilitude Estrada may have been going for. Likewise, the punching down gags aimed at gentrified hipsters feel dated at this point, as jokes about green smoothies, goat cheese, and tall bikes have been going on for well over a decade now.

Worse, though, are the botched attempts at making serious statements; like a scene involving a child picking up a gun, which feels manufactured despite its real-world parallels, and especially Collin's encounter with the cop (Ethan Embry) he saw shoot an unarmed black man earlier in the film. Instead of a complex and unnerving resolution, we get Collin rap-splaining his emotions as the tortured officer looks on with tears streaming down his face. If it wasn't so earnestly pitched, you might accuse the film of self-parody, as Collin explains to not only the cop, but also to the audience, just what the term "blindspotting" actually means.

Blindspotting will likely be praised for its ambition, but this is ultimately a shapeless film crammed with too many ideas and not enough access points. Diggs and Casal do their best to sell us on this tumultuous friendship, but Estrada shows a lack of confidence in the audience by placing speechifying above nuance. Spike Lee can often get away with this kind of thing, but unfortunately, Blindspotting is closer to the confused tonal machinations of She Hate Me than the buzzing topical anger of Do the Right Thing.

 

   

 

    

 

Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot

 

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Jonah Hill, Rooney Mara, Jack Black, Beth Ditto, Udo Kier, Kim Gordon, Carrie Brownstein

Director: Gus Van Sant

Running time: 1 hour 53 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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The self-help biopic has its upsides; namely, the need to emphasize the hard road to recovery when it comes to addiction. However, the downsides are obvious; the anti-climatic life story, the major epiphany which frames the subject's change of heart, the life lessons laid out in monologues set to a generically uplifting score. Gus Van Sant's Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, a dramatization of the life of quadriplegic cartoonist John Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix), contains both the standard clichés of the addict biopic as well as sympathy towards its flawed characters. It's a film unusually interested in the methodology of recovery and the need for self-love; using a splintered narrative in order to cover as many bases of Callahan's life as possible. The results are uneven yet moving.

From the outset, it's clear Callahan is an alcoholic, and by shifting around in time, Van Sant is able to explore the various means by which he eventually starts seeing this truth within himself. Interspersed with scenes of Callahan drinking alone or trying to hide his illness from others are moments of him addressing a lecture hall from his wheelchair-bound position. Eventually, we learn that a booze-drenched night joy riding with new buddy, Dexter (Jack Black, perfection in basically two scenes) climaxes with a horrific car crash into a telephone poll at high speed. While Dexter walks away with only a few scratches, Callahan is crippled for life below the chest. One would assume such a devastating turn of events would curb his drinking, but in many ways, this only deepens the dependency. It's only after his inability to reach a bottle of vodka on top of his fridge that he decides to reach out to Alcoholics Anonymous, specifically a group leader named Donnie (Jonah Hill, cast against type).

True to form, Van Sant seems more interested in group dynamics than overarching themes, and the scenes set inside A.A. are overflowing with humane observations and eccentric types. What the film lacks in narrative momentum it more than makes up for in observational humor and pathos; including Beth Ditto as an outspoken redneck and Kim Gordon bickering with Udo Kier like an old married couple. Hill provides a loose, bohemian vibe as the concerned father/guru of the group (which he affectionately calls "piglets"), and the scenes between him and Phoenix in which they casually chat about recovery are some of the film's sharpest. Less successful are Van Sant's decisions to include animated versions of Callahan's cartoons into the proceedings as he begins developing his artistic voice, and Danny Elfman's jaunty score is also a problem; crassly laid over nearly every scene in order to boost the story's inherent sentimentality.

Callahan eventually develops a relationship with a physical therapist, Anna (a doe-eyed Rooney Mara), but the film is less about her impact on his recovery process than in revealing the need for self-reflection and more importantly, self-forgiveness. In the end, Phoenix's coiled physicality gives way to a surprisingly unshowy performance; this is someone whose life has been destroyed by addiction, and the actor registers Callahan as so lost inside his own self-loathing that not even extreme physical impairment can alter his lifestyle choices. Even a sequence in which he sees a vision of his mother who long ago abandoned him plays sympathetically because of Phoenix's sincere commitment to the moment.

For his part, Van Sant hop-scotches all over the place--sometimes confusingly, sometimes cleverly--but the film's mosaic-like editing scheme feels emotionally true to the story of a man caught in a state of circular denial. Sometimes, all we have is a communal space in which to defend ourselves or lay our fears bare, and for all its flaws, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot understands that sober platitudes come with a heavy cost.

 

  

Zama

 

Cast: Daniel Giménez Cacho, Lola Dueñas, Matheus Nachtergaele, Juan Minujín, Nahuel Cano

Director: Lucrecia Martel

Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho), is a man waiting. Waiting as a functionary for Spanish royalty. Waiting to file incident reports. Waiting for a letter to be written requesting his transfer out of Asunción, Paraguay and back into the cosmopolitan environment he calls home. Waiting, as he does in the opening scene, staring out across an open body of water donning a powdered wig, fancy hat, and sheathed sword. If this is seemingly a man of great importance, Lucrecia Martel’s Zama implies otherwise. Never before has the horrifying face of colonialism been this sadly deadpan. Diego may be waiting for the tide to turn (i.e. safe passage out of the wild and back into modern Spanish society), but the inherent racism of his business in Paraguay will not simply vanish. For all its dense ideas about slavery and violence, Zama often plays like a droll comedy in which the waiting man must continue waiting as bureaucratic red tape piles up.

Like in her previous films La Ciénaga and The Headless Woman, Martel uses class distinctions in order to draw out oblique thematic connections. Her camera is steady, often unmoving. The compositions are unfussy, yet the details packed into every frame are many. The tone isn't inherently comical; but her characters, especially Diego, are pompously deluded. The narrative is slipstream, fragmenting scenes and stretching out our understanding of time. 

Diego's desire for transfer and the way he continues holding his head high after being ridiculed, passed over, and threatened with physical violence is part of the film's darkly comedic eccentricity. Cacho is absolutely wonderful in the role; fully inhabiting the vanity of someone uprooting another culture's way of life while layering in shades of regret, world-weariness, and social ineptitude. You might even feel bad for the guy if he didn't represent such monstrosity. Martel brilliantly displays the effects of colonialism by featuring slaves and natives going about their business in the background of shots where aristocrats perform pencil-pushing duties. In a way, they are just as unimportant to these colonizers as the horses, ostriches, birds, and in one bravura sequence; a giant Llama, which straddle into view. 

As Diego's chances of escaping the hell he brought upon himself becomes even less likely, Zama takes on the atmosphere of dazed nightmare. During the film's final hallucinatory stretch, one is reminded of Radu Jude's Aferim!, João Pedro Rodrigues’s The Ornithologist, and to some extent, Ciro Guerra's Embrace of the Serpent. Diego's stature, once proud and upright, becomes slumped. His white wig and clean-shaven appearance disappear, replaced with a gnarled beard and thinning hair. Martel frames Diego against the vastness of rock formations and trees, making him appear small and insignificant. As he ventures deep into native land with a pack of roving soldiers, the elements of this other world overtakes his senses. The group's apparent mission, to kill a revolutionary named Vicuña Porto opposed to Spanish rule, starts feeling like a fool's errand. Is Porto already dead, or is one of Diego's fellow travelers (a scene stealing Matheus Nachtergaele) actually the revolutionary incognito? The film never makes this clear, but one thing is certain; power and dominance are empty posturing.

Zama is a major film from a major filmmaker. If, for the majority of its running time, Martel conjures a Kafka-esque vision of comic snubs and insults, then the ending feels strangely redemptive. Diego may still be waiting during the final scenes, but he has all but given up hope of returning home. He is a man waiting, sure. But waiting for what? Death, possibly. Or perhaps, lying peacefully inside a boat facing the sky, passage deeper into a geographical space he never once bothered to acknowledge beyond occupation.

Mission: Impossible- Fallout

 

Cast: Tom Cruise, Rebecca Ferguson, Henry Cavill, Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames, Sean Harris, Angela Bassett, Alec Baldwin

Director: Christopher McQuarrie

Running time: 2 hours 27 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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As a series of "how did they do that" set-pieces intricately constructed to match star Tom Cruise's unflappable hubris, Mission: Impossible- Fallout is a rousing success. As something which connects these intricately constructed set-pieces to a cohesive plot, relatable characters, or anything that would have us care about what's transpiring, however, the film all but hopes you'll be so god-smacked it won't matter. And yes, the Cruise think pieces about a billion dollar movie star risking life and limb for mass entertainment being an extension of his massive ego is accurate, and yet, such meta exercises are besides the point. What everyone really wants to know is whether this sixth installment in an improbably long running franchise delivers the goods in the action department. The answer to this question is yes, which will undoubtably be enough for diehard fans. Still, the film's style of maximalist spectacle threatens to topple under the weight of it's "holy shit" factor; relegated to stretches of boring plot mechanics simply there to set up the next massive action sequence. 

Just like writer-director Christopher McQuarrie's previous effort, Mission Impossible: Rouge Nation, this new one is built around our knowledge that secret agent Ethan Hunt will do anything to save the day. The insane stunts, practical effects, and daredevil action (of which Cruise throws himself into with aplomb like an aging Jackie Chan), are meant to wow us into a state of slack-jawed awe. Whether or not the exhausting 147 minute running time, plot mechanics concerning metallic plutonium spheres, and terrorist villains with names like John Lark and Solomon Lane have any traction is debatable. What cannot be debated, however, is that Mission: Impossible-Fallout is all about how awesome Tom Cruise is.

If Rouge Nation was a less inventive action picture than Brad Bird's fourth installment Mission: Impossible- Ghost Protocol, it did benefit from dialing Cruise's manic intensity back a few notches and introducing the series' first legitimately great character, Ilsa Faust, played by the physically nimble and charismatic Rebecca Ferguson. There was also the franchise's best pure action sequence; a prolonged motorcycle chase involving Faust, Hunt, and a bevy of stunt riders whizzing around cliffsides at maximum speed. Returning director McQuarrie tries to outdo himself here with a motorcycle race where Cruise zips towards oncoming traffic in Paris, but it lacks the tension of Rogue Nation's set-piece and looks dated in comparison with similar chase scenes from older movies; such as William Friedkin's To Live and Die in LA.

The preposterous plot involves Hunt and his team, Benji (Simon Pegg) and Luther (Ving Rhames) trying to keep the plutonium from terrorists bent on nuclear war. Ilsa Faust is back, switching allegiances at will, as is IMF boss Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin), whose mostly on hand to babble exposition. New additions include CIA director Erica Sloan (Angela Bassett) and brute agent August Walker (Henry Cavill), the later of which teams up with Hunt to retrieve the plutonium while acting like a dick. There's also a shadowy figure named The White Widow (Vanessa Kirby), a wealthy philanthropist secretly working with illegal arms dealers, and Sean Harris returns as the villainous Solomon Lane, whom Hunt captured during the finale of Rouge Nation. Of course, the plot doesn't matter, and no one is going to these movies for narrative cohesion, but Fallout is almost unbearably convoluted; full of double/triple/quadruple crosses and silly character decisions that stop the film dead in its tracks. Luckily, McQuarrie keeps things moving at a stealthy pace; with a brutal bathroom fight involving Hunt, Walker, and martial arts-chopping baddie (Liang Yang) and a nifty foot chase where Cruise does his patented open-palmed sprinting across rooftops emerging as highlights. 

Mission: Impossible-Fallout is a slick action film benefiting from practical effects and the sight of Cruise defying the aging process. The finale is undeniably spectacular; an IMAX ready helicopter chase intercut with a race against the clock bomb detonation. McQuarrie shoots everything cleanly and with finesse, but unlike George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road, there's very little in the way of giddy kineticism here. Instead, the film is an expertly made object lesson in action filmmaking which never allows a sense of tonal dissonance to interrupt its blunt force. Meanwhile, the characters are constantly giving us plot information, but telling us very little about who they are or what they feel, lest their secret identities be revealed. Even Faust, the most interesting personality of the series, is relegated to a few nifty action beats and then, finally, a kind of creepy awestruck reverence for Hunt. In the end, everyone is a cheerleader for Hunt's “I’ll figure it out” mantra, which is both the familiar comfort of the MI franchise and its weakest attribute. This is a guy whose closest comrades end up bowing at his messianic feet, and Cruise, flashing that goofy grin in between painful grimaces, wouldn't have it any other way.

 

 

Unfriended: Dark Web

 

Cast: Colin Woodell, Stephanie Nogueras, Andrew Lees, Connor Del Rio, Rebecca Rittenhouse, Betty Gabriel, Savira Windyani

Director: Stephen Susco

Running time: 1 hour 28 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Levan Gabriadze’s 2015 horror film Unfriended was, in many ways, a harbinger of things to come; distilling our screen-based obsessions into the realm of horror not dissimilar from scrolling through Twitter on a daily basis. There were supernatural elements and ludicrous kills, but Unfriended remains one of the most effective horror movies of the past decade because it cleverly used the digital framing device as a catalyst for scares. Stephen Susco's Unfriended: Dark Web utilizes the same computer-screen gimmick via Skype group chat, but gives us new characters and a very different tonal perspective. Since the majority of us watch content on our laptops nowadays, Unfriended: Dark Web takes our familiarity with toggling windows, running programs, and text chat messaging and then uses it against us. The film is by turns ludicrous, creepy, sensationalized, ripped-from-the-headlines topical, silly, and stomach-churning. Even as it spirals into complete nonsense by the end (with the actual tech becoming increasingly dodgy), Unfriended: Dark Web emerges as a legitimately vicious piece of work executed with genuine flair.

The plot concerns Matias (Colin Woodell), a laptop thief working on an app based around changing typed text messages into videos of American Sign Language so that he can better communicate with his deaf girlfriend, Amaya (Stephanie Nogueras). During a group Skype call with his friends on "game night", Matias discovers a cache of horrific videos; most of them of the snuff film variety stored on the stolen laptop. The clips are shown briefly; with snippets of vile actions against young women depicted in grainy video quality. This makes the sense of mounting dread more palpable because Susco refuses to show us the totality of these horrifying sights, mirroring the way the characters also cannot take more than a few seconds at a time. As the shadowy owner of the computer begins making demands to have his property returned, a vast cyber network of wealthy sickos is unveiled operating through the dark web. Cryptocurrency, private chat rooms resembling an 8-bit Wolfenstein knock-off, and Greek underworld pseudonyms are trotted out; along with nonsensical plot twists and predictably dumb actions from the group of friends scrambling to make sense of the mayhem.

All of this, of course, is visually represented via moving windows and shifting screens, and while the technique isn't as novel as it was in the original Unfriended, Susco still manages a few nifty ways to engender claustrophobic tension out of the gimmick. It isn't a spoiler to say characters die in cruel and unusual ways here, but unlike the first film, Unfriended: Dark Web takes no pleasure in their demise. Beyond their overall bad decision-making and in one case, a rather aggravating political conspiracy dope, these are decent people trapped in a violently misanthropic situation. This is what ultimately makes Unfriended: Dark Web such an effectively nasty horror film; it gives us no way out, no means of escape, and no self-righteous pleasure in the sadistic deaths of millennials just hoping to hear that Macbook startup sound one last time. 

 

 

Leave No Trace

 

Cast: Ben Foster, Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, Jeff Kober, Dale Dickey

Director: Debra Granik

Running time: 1 hour 49 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Rarely has a film about people living on the fringes of American society (with all the political signifiers that entails) been so unconcerned with politics. Or, to put things another way, rarely has a film which speaks to the debate about America's apathy towards its veterans actually deemphasized ideology in order to push empathy. Debra Granik's spare, deeply felt Leave No Trace is one such rarity; a film so attune to the interiority of the characters and the rapturous beauty of its natural environments that it becomes almost unbearably moving. It's a simplistic narrative, but never cheap. The characters can be cryptic, but never impenetrable. Granik's aesthetic is gracefully removed, but never clinical. It's a parable about the falseness of the American dream, but it never feels like a sermon. 

Will (Ben Foster) and his teenage daughter, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) are living inside a Forest Park in Portland, Oregon, and have seemingly perfected the art of survival. They search the woods for mushrooms. They cover their tracks. A pinch of salt is sprinkled atop their hardboiled eggs. At night, they read books by headlamp while shooing away wild animals. By day they hunt, forage, and build fires. At one point, they leave their secluded camp and venture into town to buy supplies. Apparently, even fringe dwellers need candy bars once in a while.

During the film's opening stretch, Granik communicates so much without resorting to speeches or expository information. When Will checks into a hospital in order to get his military-approved meds, we get just enough shading to understand he suffers from PTSD-adjacent traumas. When Tom asks her father about buying those aforementioned candy bars, the playful look of recognition between them suggests a history of closeness dominated by survival. Will is a good father; strong-willed, loving, incredibly proud of his daughter, but also mentally unstable due to his PTSD-related issues. This isn't used as a crutch, but as a complication. His self-absorption stems from his inability to envision a world where he 's forced to interact with other human beings other than his daughter. On the other hand, Tom is an intelligent and self-possessed young woman engaged with her surroundings to the point where a brief stint outside the Park inside a country home opens her up to the possibilities of the outside world. 

Will is far too damaged to ever be part of normative society, but Tom is young enough to make the transition, and part of what makes Leave No Trace so compelling is the way Granik charts how father and daughter slowly drift apart. Foster gives a haunted performance as a man who loves his daughter but cannot let go of his own trauma, and in a way, he selflessly gives the film over to newcomer McKenzie, who delivers one of the more unaffected performances in recent memory. Over the course of the film, Tom gradually chooses to walk a different path than the only one she's known her entire life, and McKenzie registers moments of confusion, playfulness, fear, joy, and heartbreak effortlessly. Granik juxtaposes these naturalistic performances with shots of insects, trees, and natural landscapes; giving time and space to the transcendental pull of the wild. Likewise, when Will and Tom find themselves nearly freezing to death out in the forest at one point, Granik wisely allows nature to appear cruelly unconcerned with their fate.

Leave No Trace is a special film, with a climax puncturing the heart. In the end, life is full of complicated choices that may separate you from the ones you love. In order for Tom to grow, she must enter this next stage of maturation. Will, too, must make some difficult choices that will perhaps render him completely severed from human contact. Granik never gives her characters the easy way out, and yet her film's conclusion feels earned. Unlike a lot of pictures dealing with unconventional families (see the cartoonish Captain Fantastic), Leave No Trace respects its audience; understanding that empathy extends to all living things, whether they choose to exist as part of a community or apart from it.

 

 

 

Sorry to Bother You

 

Cast: Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Steven Yeun, Armie Hammer, Danny Glover, Jermaine Fowler, Omari Hardwick, Terry Crews, Kate Berlant, Michael X. Sommers, Danny Glover

Director: Boots Riley

Running time: 1 hour 45 min

by Jericho Cerrona

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Cassius Green, the lead character in indie rapper/activist Boots Riley's feature debut, Sorry to Bother You, is the kind of guy stuck working menial jobs while living out of his uncle's garage and engaging in long-winded discussions with his artist girlfriend about the meaningless of existence. It's the type of character we've grown accustom to in the movies; i.e. the underachiever who tumbles into a position of power with the added curse of "selling out". However, as played by nimble actor Lakeith Stanfield (of TV's Atlanta and Jordan Peele's Get Out), there's a laconic earnest here which somewhat offsets the lack of a compelling arc. Honestly, Riley isn't considered with character growth, narrative momentum, or thematic cohesion. Even the name Cassius Green is a pun; exemplified by Stanfield paying 40 cents for gas during one early scene. In short, Sorry to Bother You is a satire on capitalism, code switching, modern media, and the line between art and protest; starting out as a broad takedown of how corporations exploit minorities before devolving into absurdist sci-fi farce. There's anger, humor, and boldness here, but Riley's inability (or unwillingness) to differentiate his compulsive ideas from the flimsier ones eventually means the film loses sight of its satiric targets. In the end, the writer-director isn't so much purposefully taking aim as he is spraying concepts all over the place like ridiculously long security codes.

Taking place in an alternate-reality version of Oakland, Sorry to Bother You initially feels like a ramshackle hangout movie in which Cassius and his artist/protestor girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) are up against systems built to subdue them. Once our central hero gets a job at a telemarketing firm called RegalView, however, the film switches into the realm of satire not dissimilar from Mike Judge's Office Space, except with the added notion of racial code switching. By "sticking to the script" and heeding the advice of fellow black telemarketer, Langston (Danny Glover), Cassius adopts his "white voice" (provided by comedian David Cross), and finds himself becoming a near overnight success. With rent overdue, and his uncle (Terry Crews) threatening to toss him out of the garage and into the mean streets of Oakland, he begins an upwards ladder climb from measly drone to "power caller"; a hallowed term invoking a major promotion. Of course, Cassius is unaware that he's actually selling unsuspecting clients a voluntary forced-labor system called Worry Free Living; glimpsed sporadically throughout the film via intentionally cheesy TV advertisements and billboards.  

Drawing influences from Spike Lee, Michel Gondry, Adult Swim, and Robert Downey Sr's hilarious 1969 satire Putney Swope, Sorry to Bother You reflects the unhinged craziness of living in America as a person of color. Some of the film's best jokes ride that line between uncomfortable recognition and outrageousness; such as a moment where Cassius is asked to rap for a crowd of white people inside the mansion of Worry Free's coke-snorting CEO, Steve Lift (Armie Hammer). The scene at first plays like a riff on safe spaces invented by whites in order to feel "woke", but as Cassius begins shouting the n-word repeatedly, Riley focuses on the crowd's enthusiasm for being given the opportunity to utter the most racist term in the English language. In other words, a perfect encapsulation of Trump's America. 

As Cassius moves to a higher floor in the company's building, snags a fancy apartment, and eventually gets an offer straight from the CEO himself, one can sense Riley's grip on the satirical force of his screenplay loosening. Though the swerve into dystopic sci-fi is a brash move, the sense of topical anger dissipates around this point; giving way to repetitive gags and a sloppily executed finale which attempts to merge pointed social critique with body horror weirdness. It's one thing to admire a filmmaker swinging for the fences, and another to feel the heart sink when it becomes clear there are no rules to Riley's alternate-version of reality. 

Had the film been able to tighten its satirical crosshairs and make Cassius into more than simply a ideological pawn, then it may have transcended the third act slide into B-movie silliness. Making us laugh at the painful truth behind all the absurdity while also engaging us emotionally with the characters would have been ace, but Riley instead chooses to coast on strangeness as a means to an end. What the film seems to miss is how the real key to changing hearts and minds is found within impassioned human beings; people willing to fight against political, social, and psychological realities. Unfortunately, Sorry to Bother You, despite its tonal audaciousness and wry observations, is too preoccupied with quirky art installation versions of the way we live now to concern itself with the messiness of genuine revolution.

 

 

 

 

Death Grips

 

The Year of the Snitch

8

Junk folder punk

by Jericho Cerrona

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Death Grips are still here. Death Grips have put out at least one album per year since their inception. Death Grips are post-fan service. Death Grips are noided. Death Grips are, umm, online.

Perhaps the most shocking thing about the Sacramento, Ca hip-hop/noise/industrial trio's sixth studio album, Year of the Snitch, is that it exists at all. For who could have conceived of a universe in which a group which released 2011's mixtape Ex-Military in 2011 and seminal The Money Store a year later, would still be using the Internet as their troll-heavy marketing tool? Of course, real Death Grips fans (and they are an army lurking on Reddit forums) would suggest that there's more going on here than Shrek memes and surprise self-leaked albums. 

Honestly, if Death Grips managed to crash and burn in spectacular fashion--see their post Money Store fuck off to major label Epic Records--then it's reasonable to assume they would have disappeared inside the Internet void by now. Instead, they've managed to release a string of albums in wildly different modes while still maintaining their distinctive sound. Part of the band's mojo stems from their use of public and private abstraction. On the one hand, their music remains excitingly inscrutable, while on the other, you aren't going to see frontman MC Ride dropping revealing Instagram posts. In a way, Death Grips have used the Internet to both bolster their mystique as well as troll their fanbase/critics. 

If 2016's Bottomless Pit was a sonic summation of the band's M.O. (rap, grime, electro, noise, rock, among other things) inching them back towards the accessibility of game-changer The Money Store, then Year of the Snitch is something else entirely. While still maintaining their signature sound, rapper MC Ride, drummer Zach Hill, and producer Andy Morin take a leap into genre-bending absurdism this time out. Sure, the album is still noisy as fuck; but also weirder, looser, and more unusual than anything they've attempted yet. Featuring turntablist DJ Swamp and Tool bassist Justin Chancellor (though the latter's contributions, much like Bjork on Side 1 of The Powers that B, remain tough to accurately pin down), Year of the Snitch is all over the map; fusing electronica, hip-hop, prog, psychedelia, Krautrock, metal, and even 90's techno into one unholy stew.

Revelations come right away with opener "Death Grips is online", which blares like a 1995 Netscape rave before descending into seesawing synths and Ride's shrieks. The muddy soundscapes continue with "Flies", where lyrics about suicide merge with lo-fi beats and some of Ride's most understated (and melancholy) rapping. "Black Paint" scrapes off some of that Jenny Death-adjacent rock instrumentation; with ascending guitar riffs, abrasive shouting, rolling drum fills, and turntable scratches that eventually crescendo in a fit of squealing keyboards. It's easily the heaviest song on the album (aside from the appropriately titled "Shitshow"), and one likely to get old school fans primed to explode. Allusions to the Mansion family comes during bizarre electro mashup "Linda's In Custody", Hill gets to show off his off-timing drumming with "The Horn Section", a throwback to his early days jamming in instrumental outfit Hella, and then there's "Streaky", which is either a trap rap in-joke or an attempt at the kind of Soundcloud banger Death Grips usually seek to invert. Either way, it's ridiculously catchy; farcical and hip swaying in equal measure.

Leaning hard into the experimental side of things is no huge surprise given Death Grips' uncompromising nature, but much of Year of the Snitch is baffling in all the best ways possible; resisting easy readings, coherent themes, or even musical consistency. By the time Shrek director Andrew Adamson shows up intoning I’m in the studio with Death Grips. They have a dilemma, but they’ll win their dilemma on Dilemma, one half expects the entire project to collapse under the weight of its own inward-looking absurdism. However, and this has been abundantly clear over the years; Death Grips are potent songwriters. No matter how off-kilter things get--the vaporwave toss off "Little Richard" and jazz trip "The Fear" come to mind--there's no denying the band are operating at the height of their powers.

During the final track, "Disappointed", Death Grips pretty much call out their fanbase for reading too much into the band's mythos. We could all learn a lesson from this. Stop analyzing. Stop obsessing. The Internet is a gross, hostile place. Death Grips fans are biased. In other words (or in the words of Ride), Talk less, show less, snatch yours trap doors. Amen.

Let the Sunshine In

 

Cast: Juliette Binoche, Xavier Beauvois, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Alex Descas, Philippe Katerine, Josiane Balasko, Laurent Grévill, Bruno Podalydès, Paul Blain, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Gérard Depardieu

Director: Claire Denis

Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes

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On the surface, Let the Sunshine In is a major left turn for provocateur Claire Denis, a filmmaker whose work is littered with nihilistic characters. Films like the erotic horror drama Trouble Every Day and seedy noir Bastards pair her minimalistic style with naturalistic performances and a dread-inducing mood. By contrast, Let the Sunshine In is a compact 95 minute slice-of-life about a fragile woman looking for love. Of course, since the woman in question is played by regular Denis collaborator Juliette Binoche, and because the film refuses to indulge in bland romcom conventions, there's an undercurrent of melancholy lining up with the director's previous work. The search for a partner--with all the inconsolable pain of feeling superlative emotions and then losing them--is at the heart of the film, which moves from hope to sadness in a way complimenting Denis' ongoing fascination with how love can corrode from the inside out.

Binoche stars as Isabelle, a divorced mother/business woman who seems drawn to men with low moral standards and self-delusion. The film's opening moments are telling; an awkward sex scene between her and Vincent (Xavier Beauvois) a rich married banker, which plays like two androids mechanically performing their duties. When Vincent asks her if she came faster with former lovers, she slaps him and rolls over dejectedly. And yet, Isabelle continues seeing him; captured masterfully in a series of fluid camera movements where the couple chat inside a bar, even as Vincent condescendingly berates a young male bartender. During their meeting, it's clear this guy is a pretentious asshole, but the way Binoche registers layers of regret and shame is a masterstroke of acting. In fact, Binoche is so good here in a very demanding role that Isabelle's mental health is often a reasonable point of debate. Is she simply deluded by the fantastical idea of true love, or is her quest for fulfillment more of a toxic necessity; something she must pursue no matter what the consequences? Neither Denis nor Binchoe make Isabelle's often frustrating behavior clear; leading to a film aching with a truthful kind of despair. Unlike most movie characters, Isabelle is a complicated person with ideas and urges which don't always follow a logical path.

As Isabelle falls in with a variety of lovers, including a vain actor (Nicolas Duvauchelle) and an uneducated foreigner she meets on a business trip (Paul Blain), Denis tightens the screws to reveal a possible terrifying truth; that some people just might be unloveable. This is not the kind of messaging we are accustomed to in our romantic dramas, and yet Binoche's performance is so rich--registering moments of vulnerability, anger, flirtation, sexual ecstasy, and gut-wrenching heartbreak--that we still empathize with this woman on her path of self-destruction. By the time Gerard Depardieu shows up as a psychic charting Isabelle's future love life, we are inclined to chuckle at the absurdity of it all, and yet even in these scenes, Denis nails the deep-seated agony of loneliness. 

Part of the brilliance of Let the Sunshine In is the way it plays with our sympathies for static character arcs and irrational decision-making. One may be inclined to shake Isabelle by the neck  and tell her to wake up, but herein lies the point. This is a woman so desperately addicted to the idea (or feeling) of love that she will always force the issue. It's like attempting to curb a drug addict off their habit by simply explaining to them how their fix isn't going to make them happy in the long run. Isabelle will always choose to fall in love, too afraid she will lose the feeling with the possibility of being alone, and too oblivious to the damage she's causing to herself. In this way, Denis not only inverts the romcom, but sneakily lays bare the inherent falseness at the genre's core.