Thor: Ragnarok


Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Mark Ruffalo, Tessa Thompson, Jeff Goldblum, Idris Elba, Karl Urban, Anthony Hopkins

Director: Taika Waititi

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona 


The whole concept of superhero movie fatigue at this point is a foolish critique since people have been bemoaning the glut of franchise-building properties for years now. Audiences line up for each entry in the extended Marvel Universe with, if not nerdy anticipation; then at least a knowing embrace of cinematic comfort food. The difference between outright disdain, casual boredom, neutral acceptance, and gleeful enthusiasm for these films is now so blurred that calling the latest long-haired Norseman wielding a mighty hammer picture one of the better entries in the Marvel canon seems arbitrary since it's only vaguely different than all the others while still feeling like more of the same.

However, the extent to which Thor: Ragnarok is vaguely different than the two previous Thor movies, not to mention the rest of the MCU (aside from Guardians of the Galaxy), comes down mainly to director Taika Waititi's deft handling of tone. The film is much more of a goofball comedy than Guardians, and on that level, plays much funnier because it dares to treat the very idea of another bloated Marvel epic as something of a joke to begin with. Instead of Shakespearean grandstanding and muddled mythology, we get off-center zaniness and cartoon slapstick. Instead of forced pathos and brooding heroes, we get an antler-adjacent vamping villain and Jeff Goldblum channeling Jeff Goldblum.

It would have been nice if Waititi and his writers found a way to unshackle themselves completely from the Marvel formula. Nevertheless, there's a streamlined plot here involving brotherly competition, a formidable villain bent on capturing the throne, a home planet in peril, and the inevitable CGI-enhanced finale. Following the formula goes without saying at this juncture in Marvel Studio's mandated house style, but there's still a much looser version of this film trying to burst out. The fact that Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is still dealing with his mischievous brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who had assumed the identity of their father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and gained control of planet Asgard, leads one to believe this is all a typical setup for more double crosses and sibling rivalry. Instead, there's a new arch nemesis in town named Hela (Cate Blanchett), a long exiled warrior decked out in Gothic makeup and a crown of antlers. Oh, and she also happens to be Odin's firstborn and nicknamed The Goddess of Death.

Thor: Ragnarok wisely moves away from the A-story of Thor and Loki's dealing with their evil sister and instead pivots into a B-story involving a trash-filled alien planet housing gladiatorial contests. It's here, where Thor is captured and forced to fight inside large stadiums overseen by a diabolical Grandmaster played by Jeff Goldblum, that the film really hits its comedic stride. Playing like a pastiche of the old 60's Batman TV shows and Flash Gordon --with neon disco-imbued set design, campy line readings, and a proggy synth-driven score by Mark Mothersbaugh--the movie transforms itself into a daft parody of superhero franchises while never being condescending toward the beloved characters at its center. The hulk shows up, of course, tossing opponents around like rag dolls, but the more distintive moments involve Mark Ruffalo's shell-shocked confusion as Banner. He even gets to wear a Duran Duran T-shirt. There's also the exciting addition of Tessa Thompson's disillusioned tracker/warrior Valkyrie, who not only trades barbs with Hemsworth's bulky hero, but also gets to engage in a steady slew of ass-kicking.

As Thor: Ragnarok rumbles towards it's predictable climax; i.e. a showdown between a rag tag team of "Revengers" and Hela on the pulsating Asgard rainbow bridge, what keeps it from feeling like just another cog in the Marvel machinery is the way Watititi draws on the comedic strengths of his actors. It's clear Hemsworth, who was threatening to become an action figure parody of his character, relishes the chance to exhibit his flair for physical comedy and verbal wisecracking. Meanwhile, Thompson proves here she can be a compelling dramatic presence (which we already knew via Dear White People and Creed) as well as an effortlessly humorous foil. Blanchett is doing a grand drag queen kind of performance--snarling, sensuous, vampy--making one wish there was more of her. As far as Goldblum, well, he could have looked directly into the camera and given a delayed wink and no one would have complained. His Grandmaster is a kooky creation; machiavellian, puckish, and ready to party.

Thor: Ragnarok is dopey escapist entertainment at its finest, proving Marvel may have listened to their critics calling out Disney's penchant for hiring and then firing idiosyncratic filmmakers from their projects. While it never quite becomes the stand alone triumph it clearly could have been, Waititi's brand of New Zealand quirk is a surprisingly comfortable fit within the Thor universe. Self-aware, retro-futuristic, and boasting more silly pratfalls and sight gags this side of a Looney Tunes cartoon, Thor: Ragnarok invites us to laugh at the spectacular silliness of massive superhero sequels.  






Dan Bejar dreams of the 80s and still sounds cranky

by Jericho Cerrona



No one sounds quite like Dan Bejar. To say he's an original is an understatement, even as the music he's conjured as Destroyer over the past two decades never hides its undeniable influences, which include David Bowie, Bob Dylan, Van Dyke Parks, and Leonard Cohen, among others. Collaborations with The New Pornographers, Frog Eyes, and indie supergroup Swan Lake have further added to his mystique as one of the most mercurial of singer-songwriters. His last record, 2015's Poison Season, was a surprisingly accessible mixture of Easy Listening pop which channeled both Hunky Dory-phase Bowie as well as Frank Sinatra. At the time, the album felt like a direct response to the critical success of 2011's 80s-influenced jazz rock opus Kaputt; this time using piano, bongos, lush strings, and Bejar's hippie musings to showcase a more relaxed side of the enigmatic frontman. The results were predictably expansive, but also intimate; coming off like the sound of a man reaching for empathy existing just outside his grasp.

With Ken, Bejar goes back to the sounds of the late 1980's British music scene and creates something which initially feels like Kaputt Pt.2, but in actuality, is going more for a New Order/The Jesus & the Mary Chain/ The Cure type of vibe. If anything, Ken is aimed squarely at the converted. Since Bejar comes across as downtrodden as ever, those who may have found his odd vocal delivery off-putting in the past will find little to latch onto here. There's theatricality, excess, and even musical adventurousness all over Ken, but the man creates the sensation of someone looking back on a lost time with ironic distance. Opener "Sky's Grey", for example, links the sociopolitical tensions of the Thatcher era with lines like Bombs in the city/Plays in the sticks and I've been working on the new Oliver Twist over soothing piano, digital blips, and melancholy synth washes. It feels like a distillation of everything Destroyer has done creatively up until this point; a collision of intellectual concerns wrapped in a sad/pretty sonic package. Is Bejar really the alienated poet, too disinterested to muster up answers for the horrors of our times, or is he still just playing the part of cranky uncle?

Whatever the case, Ken isn't all doom and gloom. Though initially a track like "In The Morning" seems like a straightforward homage to Robert Smith; complete with thumping drums, Disintegration-esque guitar leads, and airy synths, it transforms via Bejar's playful vocals. Somehow, he even manages lines like A death star in bloom/ Another thought in the incinerator/ You wanted it to be cool/ Oh you thought it would be alright/ In the morning without coming across overly twee. Meanwhile, the electro-pop of "Tinseltown Swimming in Blood" has the veneer of a New Order cut, but Bejar shrugs off the will to dance by lamenting I couldn’t see, I was blind/ Off in the corner, doing poet’s work. Certainly, part of Bejar's appeal is his sleazy, faux-romanticism. The constant use of wandering saxophones points to this near-camp aesthetic, as does visual representations of smoking under foggy lampposts, cool black trench coats, and tales of lonely poets. However, though Ken certainly tilts toward corniness, Bejar's strengths as a songwriter gives everything a neurotic energy.

To say Ken is far from Destroyer's best work is damning with faint praise, since Bejar's output has been consistently sublime. The poignant wordplay is on display, as is the flowery prose, and there's gothic new wave style here too, but overall, the album is less than the sum of its parts. Truthfully, the recurring motifs; both lyrically and musically, seem to indicate a sense of catharsis found in cycles. Much like Bejar's exploration of different sounds and textures throughout his extraordinary career, these cycles hint at something darker and more oppressive at the edges of his music. Of course, he may simply be winking from behind rambling non-sequiturs and jangly production. The failure of Ken is that the line between irony and self-importance feels unresolved at best, while the album's strength lies in the mystery surrounding that very thing. Ultimately, Bejar would rather strike an empty pose, since as he puts it in his uniquely Dan Bejar way, A pose is always empty.



Music Pick of the Week


Midnight Sister

Saturn Over Sunset

Year of release: 2017


Glancing at the cover art for Los Angeles duo Midnight Sister's debut album, Saturn Over Sunset, one expects something sultry, sexy, and perhaps even danceable. While such descriptions aren't necessarily unfounded, there's more going on here than mere baroque-pop nostalgia. Comprised of filmmaker turned vocalist Juliana Giraffe and multi-instrumentalist Ari Balouzian, the duo certainly have their fingers on the pulse of retro revivalism, but this is a surprisingly nimble and weird record combining lounge, psychedelia, disco-adjacent kitsch, and lush instrumental flourishes. The results are warped enough to throw off listeners hoping for a simple art pop excursion, and yet catchy enough to warrant significant head-bobbing. 

Throughout, one is struck by the cinematic quality of the tunes, from the wobbly mood-based keyboards on opener "Canary", to the Hitchcockian violin stabs of "The Crow." There's also a heavy dose of the dreamy pop of U.K. band Broadcast, especially in regards to Giraffe's breathy vocals, as well as the Technicolor baroque instrumentation of Stereolab and Andy Warhol meets The Velvet Underground & Nico hipness of 60's/early 70's art pop. However, Midnight Sister aren't simply appropriating a bygone Los Angeles sound, but are holding up a mirror to the illusionary facade of the Sunset strip. On "Blue Cigar", Giraffe purrs Every place I go/ Ya trancin' in my zone/ Every time I try/ I'm dancin' to a T. Rex song over a funky groove and sultry saxophone, while a smattering of strings, piano, and woodwinds give "Showgirl" a real discordant energy. The duo take such strange detours and jarring interludes that the album comes off both alluring and unsettling. 

Sunrise Over Saturn is a pop noir soundtrack for dreamers wrapped in the light/dark dichotomy of living in L.A. Since the shiny exterior of Tinseltown harboring insidious nightmares is nothing new, and since artists have been mining this territory in multiple mediums for decades, its tempting to write off Midnight Sister as fashion music, but there's legitimate ambition here. This is a haunting, strangely moving album; one that uses the mythological geographical space of the San Fernando Valley as a jumping off point for a sonic experience where artifice becomes reality.    



Movie Pick of the Week


The Untamed

Director: Amat Escalante

Year of release: 2017

Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes


Spanish filmmaker Amat Escalante's The Untamed is a movie about lust, libido, and the tenuous line between pleasure and pain. It's also, incidentally, a movie about just how far some people are willing to go in pursuit of phallus-tentacled copulation. A fascinating, ambiguous genre mashup that crosses social-realist melodrama with bizarre alien invasion thriller, The Untamed could be considered a slinky, sexy time if not for the mood of portentous dread buzzing throughout. Basically, this isn't your average phallic tentacle romance.

The story centers around bored housewife Alejandra (Ruth Ramos), her homophobic husband Angel (Jesús Meza), Alejandra's openly gay brother, Fabian (Eden Villavicencio), and a mysterious drifter named Veronica (Simone Bucio), who pops up occasionally to disrupt the narrative. Escalante unfurls a seemingly straight forward love triangle of sorts, which is interrupted by the arrival of an alien creature (which looks like a multi-tentacled demonic worm crossed with a fleshy spider) hidden deep inside a remote cabin in the woods. Aesthetically, Escalante favors slow zooms, long-held closeups of the faces of the non-professional cast, and methodical camera movements. Like his previous film; the deeply harrowing drug cartel drama, Heli, The Untamed is a work of rigorous minimalism which builds an atmosphere of queasy dread. Laced with a discordant score and elliptical narrative structure, the film at times feels like a mix of Jonathan Glazer's Under The Skin and Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker, but its greatest strength lies in its refusal to make the alien creature into a binary metaphor.

Though there are a lot of issues at play here--sexual dissatisfaction, repression, homophobia, addiction, misogyny--The Untamed never simplifies things into a tidy allegory. Instead, as different characters encounter the alien, the creature takes on different meanings. For some, it fills a sexual void. For others, it overtakes their base impulses and violently destroys them. Therefore, the film could be about pure desire; sexual or otherwise, commenting on the risks some are willing to take in order to break free from the soul-crushing monotony of daily life. Or it could simply be a melodrama about desperate lovers and the penis-shaped giver of pleasure that comes between them. Either way, The Untamed is an audacious trip into elusive button-pushing; calling into question our primal desires and the lengths we will go in order to feel something, even if that something involves slimy, calamari-adjacent kink.

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)


Cast: Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson, Elizabeth Marvel, Grace Van Patten

Director: Noah Baumbach

Running time: 1 hour 53 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


With The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), writer-director Noah Baumbach has made a quintessential Noah Baumbach movie; meaning, there's middle-aged men with daddy issues structured like a J.D. Salinger novel and shades of Wood Allen. Truthfully, Baumbach has developed his own filmic language over the years, but there's still a lingering sense of repetition here. The disappointments of adulthood, the resentments of childhood, and ineffectual father/son dynamics are the main thematic issues at play, with Baumbach repeating tropes he's covered at length more effectively in the past, most notably in 2004's The Squid and The Whale. Since the characters here never seem to take a moment of silence, it feels like the Meyerowitz clan could bicker, moan, and digress themselves into a 13-episode Netflix Original TV series. Instead, we only get two hours of Manhattan elite dysfunction.

There are worse things in the world than another Baumbach trifle; such as, say, another Woody Allen trifle, but The Meyerowitz Stories is still little more than a lightly comedic/dramatic look at unremarkable people dealing with an unremarkable patriarch. The selected stories are divided into four chapters, which are told chronologically with small shifts in time, and mostly involve the same cast of characters. There's Danny (Adam Sandler), the failed musician son of Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman), whose daughter, Eliza (Grace Van Patten) is heading off to college. Meanwhile, Danny's younger half-brother, Matthew (Ben Stiller) is a businessman who mostly ignores the family, while older Meyerowitz daughter, Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) hangs around chatting about her mysterious job at Xerox. Emma Thompson also shows up as Harold's fourth wife, Maureen, who spends most of the film hiding behind large glasses and drunken hippie mantras.  

Baumbach's fixations with failed fathers, man-children, and intra-family conflict are fully on display here; as is his skewering of the art world, which is something he brought to the collaborations with fellow co-writer and beau Greta Gerwig. Whereas the Gerwig-centric Frances Ha and Mistress America allowed the filmmaker a younger prism to unleash satirical jabs at hipster culture, The Meyerowitz Stories is yet another film about navel-gazing Jewish artists who never seem to shut up. Movies dabbling in this territory--pretentious NY art culture via first world problems--have no business asking for sympathy or trotting out agreeable characters. However, Baumbach is now content to politely lob the ball over the plate where he used to toss high-speed curve balls. Characters are grumpy, disenchanted, and weary where they used to be sardonic, aggressive, and threatening. 

In any case, aging boomer Harold prattles on about getting his art into a showcase, while Danny and Matthew take turns expressing how damaged their childhood was living with such a cantankerous blowhard. Danny is now unemployed and forced to stay with his father while his daughter makes cringe-worthy student films filled with nudity, while Matthew still harbors ill-will toward a father who never respected him. Jean, the film's most interesting character, sadly gets lost in the shuffle; only to offer up a monologue near the climax detailing childhood trauma. Marvel absolutely nails Jean's awkwardness and inability to fit in with this roving band of men, but the darker aspects of her character's history feels like an afterthought. On the other hand, Hoffman is clearly having a blast rattling off deluded rants as a man so infatuated with his own mythos that he can't recognize the emotional and psychological damage he's done to his family, while Sandler underplays his usual sad sack loser shtick as Danny. Though it's nice to see Sandler somewhat engaged onscreen, this isn't some revelatory turn for a guy known for crotch kicks and mugging facial expressions. Early rapturous praise for his performance here have been widely exaggerated.

The Meyerowitz Stories hinges on a quasi-tragic turn which allows all of these damaged characters to confront their inadequacies in the same space. These interactions; mostly testy, sometimes playful, all inevitably circle back to the looming grey beard that is Harold. Daddy never loved me. Daddy never respected my career choices. Daddy never listened. We get it, Mr. Baumbach. Families-- especially artsy middle-class families-- are dysfunctional branches springing from the patriarchal root. In this case, the root is rotten, but probably could have grown into a healthy tree with more nurturing and less babbling. Unfortunately, we get stuck with the babbling.

The Criterion Corner



Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer

Year of release: 1932

Running time: 1 hour 13 minutes


Welcome to THE CRITERION CORNER, a recurring segment in which a film in The Criterion Collection, known for standardizing the letterbox format for widescreen movies and extra bonus features, is highlighted. The picture up for discussion this time is Carl Theodor Dreyer's 1932 surrealist horror masterpiece, Vampyr.

It's rather astonishing that Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer's Vampyr was made in 1932. The films of David Lynch would be unimaginable without its influence. The countless vampire genre-plots we've grown accustomed to owe a huge debt to its iconography. Of course, other artists would probably have come along to extrapolate the notions of terror as somehow both mundane and phantasmagoric at some point, but its unlikely the execution would elicit such cinematic poetry. Vampyr isn't simply a grandfather horror film, but a distillation of how the scariest feelings come from something that may happen rather than what does happen. In that way, it's one of the subtlest horror films ever made while also being one of the most terrifying.

Shot on real locations with non-actors and conceived initially as a silent film, Vampyr does contain passages of dialogue, but essentially plays as a mood piece. Plot-wise, it's baffling and enigmatic. Aesthetically, it showcases Dreyer's penchant for astounding tracking shots, erie juxtapositions, and double exposure optical effects. The story, based on “Carmilla,” a 1872 short story by Sheridan Le Fanu, centers on a young man obsessed with the occult named Allan Gray (Nicolas de Gunzburg), who stumbles through the small town of Courtempierre before discovering that the residents are cursed by a vampire. Gunzurg's blank expression is deftly attuned to Dreyer's incredible image-making-- shots of coffins, coffins, candles, and fog-drenched exteriors abound--as he careens aimlessly through one dreamlike vignette after the other.

Dreyer's fixations here have less to do with the vampire's motives, or really even Allan Gray as a reliable narrator. Instead, he continuously confounds expectations through the idea of multiple worlds converging. The iconic sequence where Gray falls asleep on a bench and his "spirit" arises to go in pursuit of the apparent villains, is not only technically marvelous, but also a way for Dreyer to comment on how as audience members we often have certain expectations when it comes to genre. Vampyr not only eradicates these typical expectations, but also opens up tantalizing new mysteries by not giving us what we think we want from these kinds of stories. Throughout, Dreyer, along with cinematographer Rudolph Maté, concoct one indelible horror image after another-- a man standing by the river tolling a bell, a diabolical doctor suffocating inside a flour mill, Gray's waking nightmare of being buried alive, a young couple inside a boat surrounded by a thick haze of fog--even as the character's dark interior thoughts manifest themselves as surrealistic visual expressions.

Though critically reviled during its day, Vampyr is now considered a modern classic of the genre; something far ahead of its time both technically and thematically. By focusing on what truly scares us--the inclination of madness, of dream and reality becoming blurred, of that gradual realization that sinister forces may be at work beyond our comprehension--Dreyer tapped into the most primal form of psychological horror. Vampyr is an audaciously daring cinematic magic trick, and a sublime addition to The Criterion Collection.

The Florida Project


Cast: Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Prince, Valeria Cotto, Bria Vinaite, Christopher Rivera, Mela Murder, Josie Olivo, Caleb Landry Jones, Macon Blair

Director: Sean Baker

Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


Writer-director Sean Baker is a deeply humanist filmmaker. His last picture, 2015's Tangerine, was the unlikeliest of buddy comedies; a tale of two transgender prostitutes in Los Angeles shot on an iPhone 5s. Rather than play as an exploitative snapshot of people living fast and loose on the fringes, the film was starkly unsentimental as well as gorgeously humane. His latest effort, the ably titled The Florida Project, merges similar sensibilities in order to weave a story about the lives of poor children, their haphazard guardians, and a kindly budget motel manager forced to play father figure.

If Tangerine was Baker's lo-fi view of street-level adult friendship, then The Florida Project is his Technicolor epic about childhood. The central location; a purple-colored budget motel near the Magic Kingdom, is an epicenter for youthful fantasy, even as it harbors adulthood pain, addiction, and dashed dreams. Baker spends as much time with the motel's inhabitants as he does snaking around its corridors, stairwells, and decrepit rooms. Moreover, The Florida Project is warmly attuned to the present-tense viewpoint of children; wondrously shot with both widescreen 35mm grandeur and intimate low-angles by cinematographer Alexis Zabe.

When we first meet six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), she's hanging around with her rag-tag group of friends, including Scooty (Christopher Rivera), who enjoy joking around under stairwells and spitting on parked cars from the second floor balcony. The owner of one of the vehicles covered in spit forces Moonee to clean up her mess, which leads to a friendship with the owner's young daughter, Jancey (Valeria Cotto). Later, the inseparable trio set fire to an abandoned condo, leading to a breach between Moone's irresponsible mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), and Scooty's mom, Ashley (Mela Murder). All the while, the Magic Castle’s manager, Bobby (Willem Dafoe), begrudgingly attends to the needs of his down-and-out clients, even as he becomes something of a watchful guardian to the young children. What transpires is essentially a plotless, but never scattershot, expression of lives operating under the surface of mainstream society. Though Hailey is by all definitions a terrible mother; running perfume scams, getting high all day, and selling her body as Moone takes a bath in the adjoining room, Baker never condemns her. Truthfully, all of the characters populating The Florida Project are presented as deeply flawed; including the seemingly good-hearted Bobby, whom we learn is estranged from his family and possibly depressed.

Very few films about childhood actually take the perspective of children; instead, they attempt to channel the nostalgia of youth through the prism of adulthood. While the adult characters here are given genuine screen time (and Baker never downplays their inherent selfishness), the film operates primarily as a paean to a child's sense of play. Throughout, the camera tracks the kids as if they have limitless potential; scampering, joking, watching an old woman sunbathing nude by the pool, and begging for change to buy ice cream. Often, flashes of the adult world enter their purview; helicopters lifting off en route to Disney World, a honeymooning couple mistakenly arriving at the budget motel, and in one stomach-churning sequence, a pervy old man hanging around as they innocently play outside. Throughout, the child actors appear to interact naturalistically, with Prince emerging with one of the more precocious and eventually devastating child performances in recent memory. Moone is a tragic character; even more so than her profoundly damaged mother, because she hasn't yet comprehended the extreme sadness of the adult world.

The Florida Project is an exceedingly beautiful film; humane, true, and achingly pragmatic. If there's a flaw, it may be in the way Baker frames the final moments, but even that can be contextualized in relation to how the city of Orlando is dependent upon the capitalist model of Disney World. The fact that so many poor citizens (mostly minorities) live in such close proximity to this supposed "happiest place on Earth" is an irony not lost on Baker, who constructs an ending that at first feels cheaply unsatisfying, until it emerges as a symbolic encapsulation of lives lived simply passing through. Even though Moone will grow up and encounter her own adulthood trials, her purple-colored fantasy environment is rooted in a place where people come and go, much like the hustle and bustle of the Magic Kingdom itself. This makes her last effort to escape her surroundings and run, much like she and her friends have done countless times around their ramshackle milieu, all the more powerful. Following a tearful confession of friendship, Moone takes off in pursuit of a dream far bigger than the fake capitalist sign-waving of Disney; that of seeing a larger world outside her own, with all the eventual heartbreak and disappointment that entails.




Relatives in Descent


Watching the world burn, one non sequitur at a time

by Jericho Cerrona


It's no secret that the post-punk genre attracts the lonely, disaffected, and working class zeroes struggling to survive. There's always anger stemming from feeling ostracized, personal sleights turning toward political ideology, and slurred protests signaling the rallying cry for a multitude of would-be revolutionaries. Without this kind of pretentiousness--seeing oneself as a victim, wallowing in self-defeat, conflating society's ills with some form of generational sickness--post-punk bands like Pere Ubu, The Birthday Party, and The Fall wouldn't exist. Detroit rabble rousers Protomartyr also fit snugly into this paradigm; unleashing noisy post-punk over the past decade by placing personal angst alongside social consciousness, from the cacophonous roar of 2012 debut No Passion All Technique to the driving outrage of 2015's The Agent Intellect.

Frontman Joe Casey's lyrical ramblings--political, familial, internal--have always been the band's defining force, but what's most surprising about their fourth full-length, Relatives in Descent, is it's relative restraint. Casey still has much to say about how shitty our world is (the record was mostly written during the 2016 election cycle), but this time, there's more tangent-jumping sonic detours to wind through. Throughout, drummer Alex Leonard, guitarist Greg Ahee, and bassist Scott Davidson match Casey's street preaching by applying a more varied instrumental palette to the usual punk onslaught. While not technically a concept album, Relatives in Descent is littered with lyrical connections and rhythmic symmetry. Ideas and concepts reoccur, guitar lines loop back in on themselves, and literate musings spewed from a shouting prophet contain cyclical patterns.

From the outset, it's clear Protomartyr are going for a slow burn rather than a drunken stage dive. Opener "A Private Understanding" takes Casey's usual sardonic poetry and places it at the service of rolling drum fills, repetitive guitar loops, and a mood of intimate dread. I don't wanna hear those vile trumpets anymore, he laments, and it's just the kind of existential salvo the world needs right now. When Casey finally stammers, she's just trying to reach you, during the outro, one can sense either a grand political statement or some kind of self-help therapy session. Thankfully, this push and pull quality--the tension between internalized ennui and macro social concerns--is held together masterfully throughout the album's 44 minutes. The band certainly have their influences; The Fall, Nick Cave, The Velvet Underground, The Pixies, but they also manage to synthesize these influences with a modern outlook. Moreover, Relatives in Descent is the first great post-Trump record; a series of tightly wound dirges expressing fear, paranoia, doubt, and even some much-needed wit, in the face of destruction.

Unlike many protest albums, however, Relatives in Descent never succumbs to sermonizing. Casey doesn't have answers, only more questions. This is what links Protomartyr's bleak perspective with the universality of the common man fucked over by a system too evil to be overthrown. "Here is The Thing" threads lines like dread 2017-18, airhorn age, age of horn-blowing with thick basslines and interweaving guitar, while on "Chuckler", Casey leans into scathing hopelessness; I guess I’ll keep on chuckling 'til there’s no more breath in my lungs / Lord how I wish there was a better ending to this joke. The American dialect is now at a point where divided political rhetoric has drowned out any sense of rationality, and this is crucial to what the band are going for here, with Casey acting as an observer wryly commenting on his own lack of empathy. It's difficult to get angry when the things to get angry about have become too innumerable to keep track of.

Throughout, Casey's lyrics nods toward gentrification ("Here is the Thing"), gender entitlement ("Male Plague"), sins of the father passed on to the son ("My Children") and attacks on liberal-minded frauds ("Don't Go to Anacita") while his bandmates maintain a balance between hard-edged noise and melodic catchiness. More so than any of their past work, Relatives in Descent melds the anti-capitalist venom of the post-punk genre with the introspective hooks of indie rock. Perhaps the record's defining moment comes on the haunting "Night-Blooming Cereus", where 80's-inflected synths merge with Casey's Nick Cave-esque spoken word; envisioning a cactus flower as a sign of hope, even as the lights grow dim. It's unquestionably the most hopeful song on the entire album, but then it transitions seamlessly, and rather brilliantly, into galvanizing stomper "Male Plague." Even here, the start of something optimistic is interrupted by patriarchal grandstanding; the kind of ironic gesture that eventually comes full circle on closer, "Half Sister." Here, amidst crunchy power chords and atonal dissonance, Casey sees truth as a babbling prisoner, linking the elusive "She" from opener "A Private Understanding" to a ghostly figure still hoping to embrace a diseased world. In other words, truth is the half sister, still trying to reach you. But, does truth even exist? Casey certainly doesn't give a direct answer, and nor should he. Instead, Relatives in Descent emerges as the sound of an entire generation watching the world burn, one non sequitur at a time.

Dawson City: Frozen Time

Cast: Bill Morrison, Kathy Jones-Gates, Sam Kula, Michael Gates, Bill O' Farrell

Director: Bill Morrison

Running time: 2 hours

by Jericho Cerrona

Dawson City poster for web.jpg

Bill Morrison's documentary Dawson City: Frozen Time doubles as both historical record and symbolic encapsulation of modernity. It tells an extraordinary story; the 1978 discovery of over 500 nitrate film prints dating from 1910 to 1920, and links that discovery with the Klondike Gold Rush, a seminal event which essentially invented contemporary capitalism. Morrison unfurls a dense amount of information using a combination of stunning still photographs and selections from the rediscovered silent films. The results are haunting, vivid, and staggering; like unearthing ghosts of long-forgotten souls toiling for the American Dream who unwittingly birthed the cinematic image.

There's often a romanticism associated with the silent era, evoked as homage in films like Oscar-winning The Artist, but Dawson City: Frozen Time understands the suppressed society from which cinema sprang forth. The Gold Rush provided the foundation for modern American culture, with the likes of Friedrich Trump (yes that Trump) making a fortune opening a brothel, and figures like Jack London, Alexander Pantages, Fatty Arbuckle, and William Desmond Taylor becoming regular fixtures in Dawson City. As an astute essayist, Morris reveals this not by entertaining talking head interviews (there's only one in the entire film), but instead, by relying on sound, image, and onscreen text in order to bring his subject matter to life. What transpires here is disturbing-- the massive loss of life as would-be hopefuls attempted to strike it rich and the damage wrought by exploding nitrate film stock--as well as poetic, with Morris unveiling key scenes from long-lost silent pictures. By cross-cutting moments from rediscovered films like The Half Breed, The Female of the Species, and The Hidden Scar, Morris tellingly points to the racism, sexism, and class divisions inherent within the formation of American society.  Much of this footage is scratched or damaged, adding to the mythic feeling of peeking behind the curtain, which is accentuated by Alex Somers's hypnotic score.

As financial pressures mounted with the advent of "talkies", the powers that be were forced to either burn hundreds of silent movies or toss them inside a large swimming pool, which was later turned into a skating rink. The 1978 discovery is less about the films themselves (which consist mostly of melodramas, westerns, and comedies) and has more to do with what the films tell us about history. Even when Morrison seemingly goes off-course; zeroing in on the 1914 Ludlow Massacre, where miners were gunned down by Colorado National Guardsmen for participating in labor protests, and the 1919 World Series scandal where players took bribes to throw games, everything inevitably circles back to frontier capitalism and memories lost in the fire. The fact that the original nitrate stock was so dangerous as to explode at any given moment speaks to the ways in which innovation and careless greed often become intertwined. If anything, Dawson City: Frozen Time is a cautionary tale about humanity's drive for fame and wealth at the expense of artistic purity.

Like the artifacts it's obsessed with, Morrison's film is also an act of transcendent obsession; ambitiously mounted, painstakingly researched, and edited with delicate grace. If we can learn anything from history, it's that emotions such as joy, delight, heartbreak, and unspeakable loss can be captured and preserved through the power of flammable celluloid. Dawson City: Frozen Time is, therefore, an act of preservation with the full knowledge that time decays all things, imploring us to look closer at the faces eroding at the edges of a burning reel. There, in between dust and flickering light, we may see a larger narrative of 20th century political and cultural history, illuminating the ways in which we choose to process stories through the power of cinematic language.   









Blade Runner 2049


Cast: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Robin Wright, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Jared Leto, Dave Bautista, Edward James Olmos, Mackenzie Davis

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Running time: 2 hours 43 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


The influence Ridley Scott's 1982 iconic science fiction landmark has had on various forms of media over the last 35 years-- from films, animation, graphic novels, fashion, architecture etc--cannot be undersold. As an extension of Philip K. Dick's novel "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?", Blade Runner tapped into ideas of what it means to be human, the role artificial intelligence has on the future of mankind, and created a cult fanbase who passionately argued over whether or not Harrison Ford's neo-noir detective, Rick Deckard, was infact a replicant. But the one unarguable factor which remains crucial to its appeal was the visual realization of a dystopian future filled with floating neon signs, sterile skyscrapers shrouded in fog, and rain-drenched cityscapes, all set to a brilliant atmospheric synth score by Vangelis.

Enter director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Arrival) with Blade Runner 2049; an attempt at paying homage to Scott's original vision while moving things forward some 30-odd years, opening up the scope a bit, and tying up some of the mysteries from the first film while generating new ones. In terms of visual grandeur, legendary DP Roger Deakins allows for some gorgeous sights; with CGI-enhanced environments and elaborately constructed sets merging together seamlessly. However, like Scott's original, Blade Runner 2049 is lifeless on a dramatic level, and its narrative deficiencies are compounded in this case since Villeneuve feels the need to stretch out what, at best, is a 90-minute story into a 163-minute dystopian wank. Truthfully, Villeneuve has been guilty of self-important ponderousness before (here's looking at you, Enemy), but he really outdoes himself here by only half engaging with the philosophical themes on display; instead choosing to noodle around with mood and atmosphere as a means to an end.

The story this time out involves Ryan Gosling's officer, "K" as he goes in search of older-model rogue androids. The central question of the first film---is Deckard human or machine?--is toyed with slightly here in regards to Gosling's stoic officer, but the actual meat of the narrative involves a lost child, a female skeleton with a mysterious serial number, and a diabolical slave scheme formed by blind demigod creator, Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) of the Wallace Corporation, formerly Tyrell Corp. There's a no-nonsense commander (Robin Wright, with slicked back hair in House of Cards mode), a kick-ass replicant on a war path (Dutch model Sylvia Hoeks, who actually gives the film's best performance), a fantasy hologram girlfriend (Ana de Armas), and yes, Harrison Ford reprising his role as Deckard. Mostly, though, the narrative twists and turns take a back seat to impressive visual scale and purposefully languid pacing. Clearly, Villeneuve is going for something of Tarkovsky's existential sense of despair or Kubrick's detached coldness, which makes sense in a world filled with androids, sleek corporations, and lack of human intimacy. It also fits in with Scott's template of world-building, only now, the planet is simply foggier, rainier, and more desolate. But 1982's Blade Runner also had Rutger Hauer and Daryl Hannah as unhinged baddies, which smoothed over some of the film's more plodding elements. There was a vamping sleaziness to their scenes together that Villeneuve's film completely lacks. Only Leto's fleshy-eyed guru draped in a killer bath robe comes close to approximating a jolt of energy, only he isn't onscreen enough to truly go off the rails. Like everything else in the film, his impact is mostly cosmetic.

Gosling plays K in the typical Gosling mode of unemotive stoicism. While superficially spot-on casting, the effect of the actor's "robot-like" demeanor actually backfires here and verges into self-parody, as one half expects him to slip into SNL-style giggles as Villeneuve slowly zooms in on his blank expression. Much more interesting is the inclusion of a tangential female character (a creator of dreams trapped inside a white sterile compound) who may hold the key to the film's philosophical mysteries. Sadly, however, Blade Runner 2049 is all about the boys. Women are either portrayed as sexualized play things, rogue brutes, or expendable slaves in the service of rugged men wandering the lonely wasteland of greater Los Angeles. This vision of the future could have been fascinating if Villeneuve had explored gender politics or commented on the patriarchal society (i.e. Mad Max: Fury Road), but the film spends its time and energy elsewhere, like tedious shots of Gosling walking slowly through junk yards or springing ineffective callbacks to the original movie.

Blade Runner 2049 is without a doubt visually spectacular, with isolated images giving off a rush of cinematic awe, but the film's aesthetic is all smoke and mirrors (smoke and mirrors shot brilliantly by Deakins, of course), but a fabricated mirage nonetheless. For us to become invested, to care about the central questions posed here (which have been investigated over the last 35 years more successfully in films like A.I. and Ex-Machina), there must be more going on than technical mastery. Diehard Blade Runner fans will claim there is more going on, and that the detached lack of emotion and drama is partially the point, but Villeneuve's take on the material plays more like the ultimate fan-film than something willing to take things into new and weird directions. Ultimately, the director's fondness for a slow dystopian wank means Blade Runner 2049 drones on with self-important bombast into the rain-drenched netherworld of franchise filmmaking, even as Hans Zimmer's predictably rumbling score "waaahs" us into a slumber of boredom. Maybe in the next 35 years, one of these morose replicants will be implanted with a memory of how to crack a joke.





Wind River


Cast: Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Gil Birmingham, Graham Greene, Kelsey Chow, Jon Bernthal

Director: Taylor Sheridan

Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona



Writers of a certain brand of obnoxious machismo are often given the rugged stoicism card. Taylor Sheridan, who has only written three screenplays, has somehow been vaulted to Hollywood elite status; etching tales of world-weary men given to outburst of macho violence in the name of "doing what a man's gotta do." His work on Denis Villeneuve's Sicario and David Mackenzie's Hell or High Water were both exercises in lean genre pulp which nonetheless played up a kind of self-importance. His crackling dialogue and overly mannered monologues were, for better or worse, elevated by filmmakers who understood compositional verisimilitude. However, Sheridan's directing debut lacks the clarity of focus of those two films, and as such, succumbs to his screenplay's obvious flaws. For all it's portentous mood and faux-naturalistic dialogue, Wind River plays like a Cable TV drama; telegraphing it's themes and emotional beats with stunning predictability, made slightly bearable only by the presence of an A-list cast. It's also, unfortunately, another one of those stories about indigenous Native cultures being used as a backdrop for a stoic white man dispensing platitudes and playing avenger.

The film takes place on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming, and opens with a young woman running barefoot through the snow before collapsing. We come to find out that the woman, Natalie (Kelsey Chow), was raped and had attempted to escape her attacker before being found by Wildlife Services agent, Cory (Jeremy Renner) lying dead in the snow. Cue the arrival of green yet determined F.B.I. agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) who, along with Cory and Tribal police officer, Ben (Graham Greene) set their sights on finding the killer. Shocked by the poverty and lack of resources on the reservation, Jane becomes a mouth-piece for delivering socio-political statements regarding this inequality, and her mystified reactions are only exacerbated by Ben's cynicism as he mostly shakes his head at the white girl's obliviousness. Rather than probe this idea further, however, the film chooses to sidestep the institutionalized racial overtones of the story by having Jane forge a path with Cory, leaving Ben (and all other Native residents for that matter) in the background. This decision by Sheridan proves his spinelessness as a storyteller; made all the more galling by a sequence in which Cory delivers a cringe-worthy monologue to Natalie's grieving father, as if the mourning process is better understood and contextualized by the words of a white coyote hunter who also has lost someone.

In terms of plotting, Wind River is a fairly simple tale of revenge and loss. However, the narrative lurches in slow and uninspired fashion until completely unraveling with the inclusion of a flashback scene that's meant to key us in on exactly what happened to Natalie. Rather than becoming enlightening, this decision highlights Sheridan's penchant for exploitation, and is only there to rile up the audience to root for justice to be served. In terms of scope and aesthetic, the icy landscapes of the Indian reservation are shot by cinematographer Ben Richardson with a real eye for atmosphere, but Sheridan mishandles nearly every other scene by framing them with unfocused, sloppy handheld camerawork. When an intense shoot-out erupts late in the proceedings, the film jumps to life with a semblance of a pulse, but in retrospect, such a moment is carefully calibrated to erase the agency of the murdered woman. Rather than feel empathy or even rage, we are caught up in the visceral thrill of genre filmmaking, allowing us to become complicit with Cory's noble stoicism as he enacts his own brand of vigilante justice.

With the din of gunfire merging with the choral chanting of the score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, Wind River asks to be taken seriously as a bleak encapsulation of the world as a cruel, unfair place. Men are evil. Even good men can be corrupted. Women are vulnerable and often expendable. Above all, nature doesn't give a fuck about your survival. However, the most valuable takeaway here is none of these things, but rather, that Sheridan is no Cormac McCarthy (few are), and that the injustices enacted against Native Americans can be smoothed over (albeit momentarily) by the agency of white male superiority. 




Ariel Pink


Dedicated to Bobby Jameson


Warped pop mastermind finds his muse

by Jericho Cerrona


The title for pop provocateur Ariel Pink's latest album is more than simply a nod to fellow Los Angeles fringe artist Bobby Jameson, whose career trajectory mirrors so many other lonely souls swallowed by the black void of Tinseltown. If Jameson found minor notoriety in the 1960's by conjuring psychedelic pop in the mold of Brian Wilson and Frank Zappa, then the following two decades would see him spiraling into drug abuse, depression, and music industry fallout. Incidentally, Pink has spent the better part of the last two decades conjuring his own version of cheesy psych-pop whilst imagining himself a tortured weirdo. His lyrical preoccupations are bizarre, kitschy, and often problematic; while his interview persona tilts toward the rambling and anti-PC. Of course, Pink is smart enough to know that trolling social justice warriors is part of what makes pop stars glimmer in 2017, but meme culture sensations are of secondary concern to a guy who's always obscured intent under the guise of retro mystique.

Back in the early 2000s, before the age of Twitter and Reddit threads, Pink was slinging out various cassette tapes, CD-Rs and ramshackle home recordings in an unapologetic ode to his hero, R. Stevie Moore. Like Moore, who released hundreds of lo-fi projects, Pink seems more interested in appropriating long-dead sounds of AM radio full of tape hiss, radio jingles, and warped pop balladry than making cohesive records standing on their own. Of course, the relative success of 2010's Before Today (made with a full band called Haunted Graffiti) changed that; catapulting him out of the basement and into the realm of 4AD-approved hipsterdom. He disbanded his group shortly thereafter in order to run solo again, leading to 2012's Mature Themes and 2014's Pom Pom. If the latter was a direct response to touring burnout and disdain for the pose of the reluctant rock star, then Dedicated to Bobby Jameson is a response to that response. Pom Pom was a work of brilliant maximalism which saw Pink pilling on every sonic tangent into one aural kaleidoscopic vision, while Dedicated to Bobby Jameson feels like a warm hug. The two records seem to be working in stark contrast, but upon multiple listens, the truth is that all of the work is of a piece; telling a very specific narrative, even as Pink imbues this tale with another mini-narrative about a fledgling L.A. songwriter unraveling in spectacular fashion.

Truthfully, there's a marked change in tone signaling Dedicated to Bobby Jameson as a more somber affair than it's predecessor, and Pink has admitted as much in recent interviews, where he talked about feeling depressed and world-weary. The death of innocence and pitfalls of fame is a central theme here; even as lyrically, Pink often sideswipes such navel-gazing by applying witty one-liners, weird puns, and earworm melodies. There I go again/Falling in love again/Knew better just like before but here I go Pink croons on the Cure-inspired "Just Like Heaven" with the kind of detachment reserved for someone nearing 40 who no longer believes in the kind of romanticism the tune implies. Elsewhere, on "Another Weekend", probably the saddest song Pink has ever written, he laments wasted time and the kind of loneliness that can only come after achieving a measure of success. The dichotomy of realizing that fame is poisonous to human nature is in direct contrast with the life of Bobby Jameson; a man who spent the better half of his life complaining bitterly about how no one took him seriously. Then, he was dead.

Despite the less wacky tone overall, Dedicated to Bobby Jameson is by no means a complete bummer. There's goofy organ drones and looped quasi-British accents ("Santa's in the Closet"), warbly garage pop with Netflix and Uber references ("Dreamdate Narcissist"), and funky disco basslines ("Death Patrol"). Try not to chuckle, for instance, when Pink sings He was a Tinseltown tranny and mayor of the Sunset Strip on the 60's-sounding freak folk/psych title track. Still, there's an obsession with regret and sadness lingering around every sparkling melody and odd detour here that implies more than simply another cog in Pink's ever-growing catalog of bizarro pop.

Calling Dedicated to Bobby Jameson a focused or mature record, though, is another matter. As always, Pink uses pastiche, sleazy glam poses, and long-forgotten modes of production in order to comment on our need for self-reflection, even as he remains coy about how he really feels. If anything, the album's mantra comes in the form of the Krautrock jam "Time to Live", where the lines Time to live/Time for life/Time to live/Time to die repeat into oblivion, poking fun at the inane cycle of our existence. If Jameson were still alive, he'd probably be jealous.  



Music Pick of the Week


Chad VanGaalen

Light Information

Year of release: 2017


Canadian one-man band Chad VanGaalen has always been interested in experimenting with sounds and textures. 2008's Soft Airplane was a breakthrough in the realm of synth-driven bedroom pop, while 2011's Diaper Island confirmed he could do catchy singles alongside rowdy lo-fi rippers all in the comfort of his own garage. His last album, 2014's Shrink Dust, turned his oddball charms towards melancholy folk; showcasing a less antic, more refined sensibility. Now, with his sixth full-length release Light Information, VanGaalen seems to be going back to the noisier tones of Diaper Island; with warbly Korg 770 washes, live drums, guitar feedback, and that unmistakably quivering vocal delivery all adding up to the kind of off-kilter soundscapes the man built his brand on. 

As an illustrator and all-around eccentric, VanGaalen's world is one in which ordinary objects can be transformed into divine instruments, animation can morph into nightmarish visions (see his music video work with artists like Metz and Dan Deacon), and where one's body can be a host for parasitic demons. There's a bit of Brian Wilson's colorful pop experimentation here, a dash of Neil Young's world-weary balladry, and even some Shins-esque indie rock on display, but VanGaalen (who plays every instruments and records everything himself), is still operating on his own wavelength. Opener "Mind Highjacker's Curse" is layered with swirling synths, a driving beat, and warbly vocals, while "Host Body" quivers with distorted guitar chords, reverb-saturated walls of sound, and lyrics involving those aforementioned parasite demons. Elsewhere, there's psych surf rock ("Golden Oceans"), contemplative folk ("You Fool"), Tangerine Dream-esque instrumentals ("Prep Piano and 770") and most strikingly, a beautiful lament concerning a dying father ("Broken Bell"), which goes from melancholic to darkly humorous in a matter of verses.

The idea of a "homespun" record these days is a bit fleeting; with the digitization of media leading to an ever-expanding glut of self-made artists, but VanGaalen has been doing this kind of thing for quite a while now. He's the real deal; a multi-instrumentalist obsessed with mortality, the frailty of the human body, and loneliness all wrapped in a gauze of ramshackle quirkiness. With Light Information, he's created some of his most straightforward, but no less idiosyncratic, set of pop songs yet; distilling his peculiar worldview into something universal and downright catchy. 

Movie Pick of the Week


By the Time It Gets Dark

Director: Anocha Suwichakornpong

Year of release: 2017

Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes



In terms of conjuring states of transcendentalism mixed with shape-shifting narratives, Thailand is the nexus for a new kind of emerging cinema. Apichatpong Weerasethakul, whose Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and Cemetery of Splendour were both works of mystical minimalism, seems to have ushered in this wave of Thai moviemaking, and in only her second feature, Anocha Suwichakornpong masterfully channels this tradition. Using the 1976 military massacre of student protesters in Bangkok as its framework, By the Time It Gets Dark emerges as a powerful meta-deconstruction on the art of filmmaking and how memories can be distorted.

The film begins as a semi-straightforward story of a filmmaker, Ann (Visra Vichit-Vadakan), interviewing a now middle-aged former protester Taew (Rassami Paoluengton) at a vacation hotel in order to formulate her eventual screenplay. Protest footage of the past is intercut with this thread, as well as scenes involving an actor, Peter (Arak Amornsupasiri), dealing with the ups and downs of celebrity. If all of this sounds Charlie Kaufman-esque, there's also the sight of Ann, growing disillusioned at her inability to retain her historical roots, giving direct to camera addresses about childhood telekinesis and stumbling into a forest filled with hallucinogenic mushrooms. There's also a waitress who recurs as different characters; leading things into fragmented, digressive passages which leave one feeling lost but strangely transfixed.

Movie-within-movies have been a cinematic staple for decades; a way for artists to deal with their own artistic hubris and comment on the act of creation/destruction. Clearly, Suwichakornpong identifies with Ann, the increasingly disappointed director, in that her picture seems to be wrestling with the impossibility of making a truthful historical film. By the Time It Gets Dark is gorgeously shot by cinematographer Ming Kai Leung, full of symmetrical compositions framed through reflective glass, mirrors, and shifting screens. It has the pace of a free-associative dream where a horrific event (that 1976 massacre) hovers over every frame, even as the film itself seems cautious of claiming that art can provide context or comfort. In this way, Suwichakornpong literally upends her own artistic process (complete with a late glitchy, celluloid disillusion), revealing that mystery, not clarity, is the ultimate end point.



Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Michele Pfeiffer, Ed Harris, Brian Gleeson, Domhnall Gleeson

Director: Darren Aronofsky

Running time: 2 hours

by Jericho Cerrona


Sometimes, gifted artists become enamored by their own creations. Sometimes, they dispense faux-modesty while harboring delusions of grandeur. Sometimes, they create from their gut instinct with a mixture of sweat, panic, and hemorrhaging blood. Such artists buy into a self-mythology (encouraged by a throng of worshipful fans) predicated on the notion that whatever comes spilling out of their heads should be admired simply for existing. A filmmaker like Darren Aronofsky, who is no stranger to extreme characters whose drive for perfection leads them toward madness, seems keenly aware of the messianic artist exercising the creation/destruction model. So much so, that he's baked that theme into his latest gonzo chamber drama Mother!, along with overt religious symbolism, creaky horror tropes, ecological themes, and trendy sociopolitical allusions. The results are simultaneously oppressive, repetitive, goofy, and singular. There's no doubt Aronofsky is straining for the kind of polarizing, WTF sensibility that's inspired legions of admirers to hold up films like Pi and Requiem for a Dream as personal favorites, but this time, he's bought into his own self-mythology in a way which blocks out the audience altogether.

Whereas in the past, Aronofsky has couched his penchant for symbolism and surrealism within the realm of actual characters operating in the real world (The Fountain and Noah are notable exceptions), here he's working independently in the mode of allegory. Jennifer Lawrence plays the titular "mother", while Javier Bardem is the ineffectual poet husband (listed only as "Him" in the credits). They live in an old Victorian home in the middle of nowhere. He's the sulking artist trying to recapture some of his former glory struggling with writer's block. She's the subservient muse, quietly encouraging her husband while dutifully going about remodeling the entire home. Meanwhile, the walls groan, creak, and yes, hemorrhage blood as the lady of the house stops to telepathically communicate with the beating heart hidden deep within the rot-infested structure. If all of this doesn't sound bizarre enough, two strangers emerge in the form of a doctor and his wife (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer, respectively) who barge into the couple's home and upend their seemingly idyllic living space.

For the first two-thirds, Mother! plays as a kind of Roman Polanski-esque chamber drama with tinges of psychological horror. Is Lawrence an unreliable narrator (much like the protagonist in Pi, Natalie Portman's obsessive dancer in Black Swan, or any number of characters from Requiem For A Dream), or is there something more overtly supernatural afoot here? Aided by regular cinematographer Matthew Libatique, Aronofsky keeps his camera tight and hand-held, shooting from Lawrence's increasingly bewildered wife's perspective. As Harris and Pfeiffer become more of a nuisance, the closeups become more restrictive; relegated to either point of view shots, over the shoulder angles, or quick whip pans. The horror elements come mainly in the form of purposefully heightened sound design (lots of abrupt noises, floorboard creaks, and garbled dialogue placed high in the mix), as well as the aforementioned visual imagery of the house as a living organism of some kind. The lack of a conventional score, too, creates a rigorous sense of claustrophobia which accentuates the odd behavioral choices of the characters.

During the film's early stretch, one gets the sense that Aronofsky's undeniable virtuoso filmic techniques may actually be informing the narrative, but this too, proves to be a cheat. Instead, what gradually becomes clear is that Aronofsky isn't interested in psychology, human behavior, or even creating a situation in which the audience's shock can be registered as meaningful. Instead, the film unravels--at first somewhat casually, then in a more unintentionally laughable way--even as Aronofsky makes it clear how diligently he paid attention during Old Testament class.

For all it's weirdness and willingness to buck convention, Mother! feels like a desperate experiment announcing itself as little more than a meta deconstruction of the artist's ego coupled with Biblical allegory. There's auteur worship, the way women pacify men's supposed genius by playing the muse, the destructive nature of fandom, the collapse of society, the fall of man, and yes, a Cain and Abel subplot complete with thudding Jesus metaphor. Which all begs the question; who cares to unravel such allusions when the human beings onscreen are simply chess pieces in Aronofsky's cosmic game of Paradise Lost? Lawrence certainly huffs, puffs, and hyperventilates onscreen admirably, but by design, she's playing an intentionally passive archetype. Bardem broods, sulks, and occasionally turns on the charm, but he also feels somewhat lost here; especially during the final stretch where Aronofsky cranks up the nightmarish visions of a civilization gone to hell. Only Harris and Pfeiffer seem to be enjoying themselves as the unwanted house guests, winking and vamping with real gusto. Their scenes are spiked with an almost Brian DePalma-tinged flair for camp, something Aronofsky seems generally afraid to follow through on tonally. Meanwhile, his clear affinity for Luis Buñuel's The Exterminating Angel--with the inherent absurdity of random strangers coming in and out of the house at will while acting very strangely--is only superficial, as Mother! never leans into the absurdist premise in order to unleash its satirical potential.

If Mother! is meant to be read as a pure pitch black comedy, then Aronofsky may indeed be a genius for so thoroughly throwing everyone off the scent. However, while he must be fully aware of the inherent silliness of his conceit, nothing in the film (or his back catalog) suggests that he's simply wanking off the audience. In interviews, he's suggested that the screenplay was born out of confusion related to natural disasters and human societal violence which kept him up at night, which leads one to infer that he wants us to take all of this nonsense seriously. Unfortunately, the film's meta elements of the God-like creator molding, shaping, and then destroying his muse for the sake of all humanity comes across like an unironic form of self flagellation; the case of no one in the room having the balls to tell the artist that not all ideas are good ideas. In reality, Mother! is akin to Bardem's supposed beautiful poem etched in a flurry of emotions after realizing he was to become a father--all sound and fury, signifying nothing.






Cast: Jaeden Lieberher, Bill Skarsgård, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Wyatt Oleff, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Nicholas Hamilton, Jackson Robert Scott

Director: Andrés Muschietti

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


There's a reason Stephen King's 1986 novel, It, has gained such iconic status among the annals of supernatural literature, and this isn't just because clowns are inherently terrifying. Over the decades, King has managed to tap into both subliminal and literal fears, setting many of his stories in the quaint epicenter of small town America. His novella The Body, which was later adapted into the 1986 film Stand By Me, and It, which saw light as a 1990 ABC miniseries, were both distillations of King's obsession with the loss of childhood. Much of his subsequent work has dealt with this idea that adults are the real boogeyman, and that as one grows up, their inability to regain their childhood innocence creates another kind of terror. One could argue that Stand By Me successfully extrapolated these themes into cinematic language, but aside from Tim Curry's iconic performance as Pennywise the clown, It the TV miniseries has not aged well. Now, director Andrés Muschietti has attempted to tackle King's over 1,000 page opus by truncating the book's larger thematic concerns and trotting out an R-rated romp in a somewhat cynical attempt at cashing in on the 80's nostalgia trend. The results are dutifully polished, but somehow unsurprising; barreling along like a haunted house fright-fest without bothering to connect scenes via tension-building, atmosphere, or discernible narrative momentum.

The film begins in 1988, when young Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) is sent out into a rainstorm by his older brother, Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) to float a paper boat down the street. Of course, poor little Georgie meets the sharp-toothed demonic clown, Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) and is dragged into the sewer, vanishing forever. Cut to one summer later, and we are introduced to a rag-tag group of kids (coined the "Loser's Club"), led by Bill, who jet around the small town of Derry, Maine on their bikes investigating the mysterious disappearances of local children. Laid out as a series of character types--the stutterer, foul-mouthed nerd, overweight new kid, lone spunky girl, etc--the young actors are fighting an uphill battle with a screenplay (written by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman) that positions them as little more than props for a pandering Amblin-style adventure tale. From the Gremlins bedroom poster, shots of local cinemas playing Lethal Weapon 2, and copious period-specific music cues, It seems more interested in transplanting the novels original 1950's setting to the 1980's in order to further pacify those yearning for tepid nostalgia ala Netflix's Stranger Things.

Of course, the primary draw for most will be the uncanny sight of Pennywise writ large on the big screen, but the interpretation here by Skarsgård is much too campy to truly terrify. Caked in Tim Burton-esque makeup, twirling his eyeballs, and vamping about, Pennywise isn't a projection of childhood fears, but rather, an over-designed product of studio horror movie propaganda. When he taunts the children by morphing into their specific fears--an undead zombie, blurred possessed painting, evil father, etc--the results feel like a product of CGI-enhanced mayhem rather than deep-seated terrors rising up to the surface. For his part, Muschietti shoots everything in a relatively clean style, evoking early Spielberg and Tobe Hooper's Poltergeist in terms of relentlessness pacing. However, the film lacks both the charm of those peak Spielberg adventure films as well as the creeping sense of dread which marks the best King adaptations like The Shining (which King famously despised). Instead, scenes ratchet up without warning; complete with the prerequisite clashing sound effects and strident strings on the soundtrack, and therefore, the film never really feels like it's heading towards a worthwhile destination. Worst of all, Muschietti takes one of the book's creepier lines, "We all float down here..." and pays it off visually, which completely runs against the disturbing nature of the whispered mantra echoing from within nightmarish sink drains.

It fully leans into maximalist horror imagery without stopping to assess just how childhood fear actually works. This is the picture's fundamental flaw. It mistakes loud noises, piercing sound design, and contrived friendship banter for the legitimate pain and helplessness of growing up. Only a few moments, particularly involving Sophia Lillis as the plucky female member and Jeremy Ray Taylor as the awkward new kid in town, ring true. Otherwise, the earnest cast mostly flounders, especially anything involving a roving gang of lame bullies who mercilessly pick on our heroes for no other reason that bullies in movies behave badly. One sequence where the bone-headed leader confronts his abusive police officer father is laughable, especially considering no time has been invested in exploring this relationship. Truthfully, the absence of adults (aside from a few cartoonish parents) is meant to signify the gap between childhood and adulthood, but the film handles this thread in clunky fashion.

The anxiety of growing up--the social foibles, puberty, distrust of adults, the disillusion of friendships--is a powerful way nostalgia can actually haunt us decades later. Pennywise is a phantasmagorical apparition of irrational fears made tantalizing by their proximity to our formative years. However, this latest cinematic incarnation of It loses sight of this resonance by amping up the oppressive set-pieces to the point where you are more likely to be scared into exhaustion than frightened by confronting the very real evil within yourself. 




Good Time


Cast: Robert Pattinson, Ben Safdie, Buddy Duress, Taliah Webster, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Barkhad Abdi, Peter Verby

Director: Joshua Safdie, Ben Safdie

Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


If a word comes to mind in regards to the work of directors Joshua and Ben Safdie, it's desperation, seeing as how their films are littered with characters hustling, scrambling, and urgently trying to survive in a society which either tosses them aside or disregards their existence altogether. From their jittery debut about a questionable part-time father, Daddy Longlegs, to the manic hyper-intensity of street addicts flailing about in Heaven Knows What, the Safdie's cinema is one of extreme desperation. Shooting in a loose, semi-realistic approach with handheld cameras, a mix of professional and non-actors, and an obvious love of the seedier aspects of New York City, the brothers have, in only four features, developed an idiosyncratic style all their own. Their latest riff on Scorsese's After Hours by way of 90s grunge neo-noir, Good Time, sees them entering straightforward genre territory while still retaining their distinct aesthetic.

The film opens with a scene taking place between a psychiatrist (Peter Verby), and Nick (Ben Safdie), a young man with a learning disability in which slurred utterances give way to tears just as Connie (Robert Pattinson) bursts into the room to upend the meeting. Nick and Connie are brothers, with the later believing the entire psychiatry angle is a crock as he pulls his sibling out of the situation in order to enlist his help with a bank heist. After their robbery meets a snag, Nick ends up in jail on Riker's Island, while Connie stealthily evades the police en route to coming up with a plan to procure his brother's bail money. What follows is a harrowingly kinetic thriller which rarely lets up; giving one the sense that characters reacting in flight or fight response to the flurry of drugs, cash, and poverty are hopeless in a way which blurs real-life socioeconomic concerns with the visceral pulse of genre filmmaking. 

As the low-rent criminal given to blending into different sketchy situations, Pattinson draws on his good looks and charm to create a character residing in a moral grey area. There's a scruffy bravado at play here in the way Connie turns on the charisma if the circumstances call for it, while at other moments, his amped-up intensity means he's likely to fly off the handle without warning. Whether it be extorting an older woman, Cory (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who seems infatuated with him, or weaseling his way into the apartment of Haitian grandmother, Annie (Gladys Mathon), and her teenage granddaughter, Chrystal (Taliah Webster), Connie is a deft manipulator of those either below or just at the poverty line. Though the film stops from time to time to allow quiet moments (such as Connie and Chrystal's initial sweet-natured rapport, which turns creepy on a dime), it's primary mode is one of near-constant movement. Aided immensely by composer Oneohtrix Point Never's throbbing electronic score (often played very loud in the sound mix), Good Time emerges as a nightmarish trip through the city's grimy underbelly, shot through neon-lit signs and darkened corridors by the gifted cinematographer Sean Prince Williams.

Once dim-witted fellow criminal Ray (Buddy Duress) shows up mid-way through, the film splinters off in unpredictable directions, upping the tension as the noose tightens further around Connie's neck. Throughout, the Safdie's make unorthodox decisions; such as a lengthy montage flashback detailing Ray's prior criminal behavior which led him to come in contact with Connie, and most strikingly, shooting the climatic chase on the street from a zoom lens atop a high-rise apartment building. Such directorial choices feel distinctive given that, at the end of the day, this is a fairly linear chase picture eschewing character development, backstory, and extended dialogue-heavy encounters.

There's a tragic undercurrent running through the pulsating veins of Good Time, but the Safdie's never push things into the realm of didacticism. Pattinson's wounded vulnerability, masked by freewheeling energy and swagger, suggests Connie has at least a measure of self-awareness. Despite his resourcefulness, Connie's innate desperation means that he comes to understand and accept the inevitability of his fate. This desperation, so consistently present in all of the Safdie's work, becomes a fulcrum in which to view the typical anti-hero narrative as a crutch, and ultimately lends an unexpected emotional power to the film's haunting final frames.




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Tyler, The Creator


Flower Boy


Lazy summer soul-bearing with a dash of satire

by Jericho Cerrona


26-year-old rapper/producer Tyler, The Creator is no stranger to controversy. In fact, he's built his brand on an ever escalating series of Internet-savvy trolls and pokes at PC culture. After the demise of blog-hyped rap collective Odd Future, Tyler went off on his own, disappearing into the netherworld of narcissistic meme wars, homophobic slurs, and bracing musical bravado. 2009 mixtape Bastard and 2011 followup Goblin now feel somewhat quaint in Trump's America; less transgressive than juvenile, more of a social media trigger warning for millennial snowflakes than an actual modus operandi from a young rapper with something to say.

Now, with Flower Boy, Tyler has supposedly "grown up" and made a mature record detailing a new found social consciousness, earnest stab at vulnerability, and the most attention-grabbing headline: his apparent identification as a gay black man. When word initially leaked that Tyler was coming out on his latest album, the response on social media was predictably polarized. Some praised him for his bravery, but most simply thought it was another way to stir up a reaction. Let's not forget, Odd Future made shockwaves years ago with homophobia and rape lyrics, and as a solo artist, Tyler has more or less continued waving that flag. There's a tension throughout Flower Boy--on the one hand, it's the least vile and most seemingly genuine thing Tyler has done yet, while on the other--there's a sneaking suspicion that underneath the left-field production and gravely voice, he's pulling yet another mean-spirited joke. Such is the pitfalls for any young artist known for provocation and controversy; it's hard to tell sincerity from satire.

Knowing what we know of Tyler (on and off stage) will undoubtably color one's reaction to Flower Boy. However, taken on its own merits, this is a beautifully arranged, surprisingly meditative hip-hop record. Unpacking Tyler's lyrical preoccupations is another matter, and determining whether or not he's actually being sincere or simply adopting a persona is instructive, but not necessarily essential. Can someone largely known for hate speech be forgiven? Does Tyler even want forgiveness? Are his pleas for connection and lovestruck longing for a male suitor (referenced here as "95 Leo") to be taken seriously, or has the anti-comedy mold of misogyny and vitriolic hate merely grown into something more outwardly acceptable? 

As an album, Flower Boy doesn't exactly answer these questions, and it's probably not meant to. Instead, Tyler lets us into his headspace through the power of verse and production. On "Foreword", he nods towards the Black Lives Matter Movement while simultaneously using the platform as a way of addressing his sexual orientation. Shoutout to the girls that I lead on/For occasional head and always keeping my bed warm/And trying they hardest to keep my head on straight/And keeping me up enough till I had thought I was airborne. Whether this is an apology for his previous homophobic preoccupations or simply a plea for understanding is debatable, but it's nonetheless a shocking opening salvo from someone known mostly for dick measuring contests and faux-braggadocio. The sensitivity training continues with cuts like "See You Again", which sounds like N.E.R.D. crossed with a sultry R & B jam, the synth-driven lovestruck ballad "Garden Shed", and "Glitter", which sees Tyler leaving infatuated voicemails for his elusive male crush. Throughout, the incorporation of funky beats, wonky keyboard flourishes, auto-shifting vocals, and Neptunes-inspired soundscapes keeps things floating in the realm of pleasurable awe. Of course, there are appropriately savage tracks here too that we've come to expect, such as "Who Dat Boy", which opens with creepy violin strings and off-kilter synths like something of a Darren Aronofsky film before exploding into an all-out rant, and the bong-ripped slow banger, "Pothole."

Those expecting a standard rap album will most likely be disappointed by Flower Boy. Tyler seems more interested in jazzy interludes, old school R & B, and progressive elements than typical verse/chorus/verse flows with club-ready beats, but this makes the record much more satisfying. 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. Here, there's a rigor and clarity that hints at progression and maturity, even if it's still too early to unequivocally state that Tyler has officially grown up. In a way, Flower Boy is a deconstruction of public persona as well as a radical attempt to understand how much private longings should be made public. Behind all of the controversial verses, pitch black horror imagery, and ego-stroking seems to be a forward-thinking artist interested in both aggression and tenderness. Guest spots from the likes of Pharrell, Frank Ocean, Corinne Bailey Rae, Estelle, and others also point to this fact, as if he hopes to redefine himself as the spiritual funk/soul grandson of Quincy Jones.

Has the detached, homicidal observer transformed into the open-hearted "loneliest man alive" or has great effort simply been spent creating another post-modern troll on listeners who have grown accustom to knowing everything about their idols via social media? Part of the fascination with Tyler is our inability to get a firm read on him. As such, Flower Boy is either a daring Andy Kaufman-esque con, or the evolution of the artist in full bloom, and honestly, does it really even matter?




Ingrid Goes West


Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Elizabeth Olsen, O'Shea Jackson Jr., Wyatt Russell, Billy Magnussen

Director: Matt Spicer

Running time: 1 hour 37 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona itm like $_57 set_id=880000500F.jpg

The opening shot of Matt Spicer's debut feature, Ingrid Goes West, is telling. A woman sits in her car, face smeared with makeup, tears, and vengeful spite as she frantically scrolls through her iPhone "favoring" various Instagram photos of what looks to be a lovely wedding. The woman in question is Ingrid (Aubrey Plaza) and the act of violence that follows is indicative of her psychological and emotional state as well as the tone Spicer will be attempting to modulate. The moment where she maces the beautiful bride, calls her an awful name, and is eventually tackled by a guest, is both wryly funny and unnerving. As a film, Ingrid Goes West also has one finger on the rib cage and the other on the constant scroll of social media obsession.

This incident, we learn, isn't exactly isolated. After the death of her mother, Ingrid inherited $60,000 and without any discernible friends or responsibilities, sought fulfillment through her fixation on Instagram celebrities. The bride was one such "friend", while another comes in the form of Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen), a Southern California entrepreneur and social media personality whose fashion-forward, aesthetically pleasing Instagram posts draw Ingrid in like a moth to the flame. As a coping mechanism for grief and loneliness, the promise of widespread connection via the Internet is unquestionably tantalizing, and the early scenes in Ingrid Goes West exploits the dichotomy of finding community alone through the flicker of brightly-lit screens. With a jaunty score, deft editing, and Plaza's uncanny ability to wring emotional truth out of Ingrid's suffocating isolation, Spicer's film initially seems like a playful satire on the vapidness of this kind of facile culture. The truth, however, is much more interesting and ultimately cunning, as the picture moves from winking deconstruction into the realm of neo-noir psychosis; eventually landing somewhere closer to a heartfelt examination of our global need for intimacy.

As Ingrid heads for Venice Beach in search of her #blessed online bff, there's the sense that her search will end in extreme disappointment, or worse yet, a trip back the mental ward. Moving into an apartment near Taylor's pad (where she lives with her dog and hipster artist husband), Ingrid's lone acquaintance seems to be her landlord, Dan (O'Shea Jackson Jr.), who comes to visit with vape pen and "screenwriter for hire" business cards in hand. In one of the film's lazier bits of writing, Dan is posited as a lovable nerd obsessed with Batman who dreams of writing the next major movement in the Caped Crusader's cinematic canon. Despite this annoying character quirk, Jackson Jr. makes the character work through sheer charisma and laid back charm alone. His scenes with Plaza, who initially wants nothing to do with his company, are keenly played for comedic effect and genuine pathos by both performers.

Even though 90's female-fronted revenge noir vehicles like Single White Female are evoked throughout (there's even a line of dialogue drawing that specific connection), Ingrid Goes West is a film aimed squarely at millennials who are on the one hand, too cool for social media conventions, while on the other, liberally indulging in them. As Ingrid begins copying Taylor's favorite things; coffee shops, clothes, restaurants, hairdresser, etc, the inevitable meeting of the two women seems poised for disaster. Surprisingly, Spicer chooses to not only humanize Taylor, but also draw the mismatched pair into a charged friendship, even if such a connection is based on very little pertaining to reality. Taylor is a shallow fraud, but also undeniably recognizable, and the bonding scenes between Olsen and Plaza are convincing insomuch as they direct us to the ways in which most connections formulate nowadays. Taylor's husband, Ezra (Wyatt Russell) is also a recognizable figure; the supposed high-minded artist who shoves his nose at the banal conventions of social media whoring, but whose art consists entirely of found objects with hashtags sprayed over them.

Ultimately, Ingrid Goes West stumbles slightly in its final third after Taylor's obnoxious brother, Nicky (Billy Magnussen) is introduced as a foil to the girl's budding friendship. Shirtless, coked up, and wearing tight shorts, Nicky is sadly also a recognizable character, but not in the ways the film would have you believe. Certainly, the sting of oblivious white privilege is intentional here, but Spicer simply uses Nicky as a plot device en route to a zany blackmailing plot, complete with a botched kidnapping. As the film dovetails into psychological madness, Ingrid herself goes off the rails in a way that feels contrived, if not for the sublime work of Plaza. Her acting here allows for one to reconsider past roles--those vacant-eyes, the sharp-tongued sarcasm, that closed off emotional component--are all brought to bear, but she also plunges headlong into the darker elements of her character in a way which feels revelatory.

Not even a rather trite ending, complete with a viral-tinged twist, can completely take away from a shrewd distillation of how we are living now. Instead of simply lampooning the time we waste staring into our phones, or wagging a finger at damn millennials, Spicer recognizes how these things are wholly imbedded into daily life. The trick is understanding that identity exists irrespective of social media traps, and that even someone like Ingrid can find relief in knowing that she can love and be loved, if only for a moment as the world keeps scrolling.