The Ornithologist

 

Cast: Paul Hamy, Xelo Cagiao, João Pedro Rodriguess, Han Wen, Chan Suan

Director: João Pedro Rodrigues

Running time: 1 hour 57 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


Director João Pedro Rodrigues's fifth feature The Ornithologist blends Christian doctrine with pagan ritual, spiritual serenity with playful blasphemy, and dream logic with earthy naturalism. It's a film about the beauty and danger of Portugal's lush landscapes and how the past and present merge together to form a tale of self-discovery. In this case, the figure entertaining self-discovery is Fernando (Paul Hamy), an ornithologist traversing the wilderness of northern Portugal in search of rare birds. Patiently watching these specimens through binoculars and relaying his discoveries via tape recorder, Fernando is essentially a stand-in for 13th-century Saint Anthony of Padua; a cleric whose journey toward divinity Rodrigues twists to fit into a modernist queer framework. The results are unique, baffling, surreal, and yet completely cohesive; a major work from a filmmaker using meandering narrative episodes as a means of cinematic poetry, both visual and intellectual.

The film's early scenes suggest a contemplative travelogue trapped somewhere out of time, even as Fernando constantly tries to get service on his cell phone in order to connect to an apparent lover back home. Meanwhile, the languid pacing and evocative p.o.v. shots from hawks, owls, and other birds initially makes The Ornithologist come across like a beautifully photographed snapshot of nature invaded by a curious outsider. Once Fernando's kayak capsizes, however, things take a strange turn as his body is discovered by two Chinese Catholic travelers, Fei (Han Wen) and Lin (Chan Suan). Stripping him down to his underwear and tying him to a tree, the women plan on an eventful day of bondage and castration, but Fernando manages to escape; fleeing during the night and eventually meeting a deaf-mute Spanish shepherd named Jesus (Xelo Cagiao). If the shepherd's name isn't obvious enough, it's clear Fernando is merging into Saint Anthony as he makes love to the teenager on the river's edge in a sly queer reimagining of Anthony's famous encounter with the infant "Son of God". Interestingly, the herdsman will later be resurrected with a gash in his torso, which Fernando erotically probes with his index finger in one of the film's more audacious sequences.    

The Ornithologist may be singularly odd, but it is by no means inaccessible. The narrative follows a fairly straightforward arc and Fernando's transmigration of the soul is rendered with startling clarity. However, expectations are continually upended, especially when Fernando encounters Mirandese-speaking fertility cult members wearing masks and topless huntresses on horseback, which recalls Wonder Woman's Themyscira-born women warriors. During these stretches, one marvels at the way Rodrigues taps into an existential absurdity which never feels contrived just for the sake of sensationalism. The fact that Fernando begins the film as a rational man of science, undergoes an identity swap which breaks from intellect and gives way to sensual primal urges, is instructive to grasping the filmmaker's subversive aims, especially considering he casts himself as the Saint Anthony figure. Therefore, the film doesn't seem to be a condemnation of religion, but rather, a celebration of how spiritual concerns allows us to see ourselves differently, perhaps even in a divine light. The metaphysical is natural. Eroticism is harsh, if necessary. Companionship is essential. The Ornithologist preaches to a flock hungry for mysteries rather than answers; giving us all a reason to shake the dust off our feet and preach the gospel of João Pedro Rodrigues.

 

 

 

Symbiotic Recommends: 10 Albums

 

Boys Age

A Sacred Day After Everything Has Gone

artist info here


Christian Fitness

Slap Bass Hunks

artist info here


Man Forever

Play What They Want

artist info here


Chaz Bundick Meets The Mattson 2

Star Stuff

artist info here


Benjamin Booker

Witness

artist info here


Royal Trux

Platinum Tips + Ice Cream

artist info here


Brandon Seabrook

Die Trommel Fatale

artist info here


(Sandy) Alex G

Rocket

artist info here


Gold Dime

Nerves

artist info here


Jay Som

Everybody Works

artist info here

Movie Pick of the Week

 

Mimosas

Director: Oliver Laxe

Year of release: 2017

Running time: 1 hour 36 minutes


Across a mountainous Moroccan landscape, nomads are transporting the deceased body of a sheikh to his apparent resting place. These travelers, both weary from the journey and apprehensive about traversing the dangerous terrain in order to reach the eventual city, are framed by director Oliver Laxe and cinematographer Mauro Herce like tiny insects dwarfed by the enormity of their setting. By extension, Mimosas is a film in which the seemingly simple narrative is dwarfed by slipstream story threads that come and go at random; creating a hypnotic experience which actively resists classification.

The basic plot involves Ahmed (Ahmed Hammoud) and Saïd (Saïd Aagli), two nomads tasked with carrying the sheikh's remains, who are later joined by Shakib (Shakib Ben Omar), a strange wanderer who first appears in disconnected scenes at an automobile junkyard where he rants to onlookers about God, creation, and the Devil's propensity for meddling in the affair's of men. As the three characters become intertwined, Laxe subverts expectations by turning Mimosas into an episodic pilgrimage where the ultimate destination remains unclear and more importantly, arbitrary. As days stretch on, time becomes elusive; with the film taking on the feeling of a languidly-paced dream where each member fights inner and outer demons, wrestling with cultural myths as well as issues of faith and devotion. Throughout, Laxe allows the bewilderingly gorgeous landscapes to take center stage while the humans remain in the foreground; rendered insignificant by the perilous beauty and callous indifference of nature.

Mimosas may indeed be about something--male ego, delusion, the vanity of primarily spiritual pursuits--but the way it's disparate pieces are sewn together like a half-finished tapestry will likely confound most. Mileage will vary on whether or not such cryptic narrative swerves are worth praising or dismissing, but there's little question that the film casts an otherworldly, haunting spell. In a way, Mimosas feels purposefully impassable, not unlike the treacherous path Shakib keeps insisting they can find a way through, if only their mules could fly. 

Music Pick of the Week

 

Slowdive

Slowdive

Year of release: 2017


The early 1990's were a banner year for the shoegaze genre. My Bloody Valentine released the classic Loveless in 1991, while Ride's seminal Nowhere burst onto the scene just a year prior. Just For A Day, the debut from English rockers Slowdive, also came out in 1991, but whereas My Bloody Valentine specialized in lo-fi crescendos and Ride laid down up-tempo jangle, Slowdive mostly focused on the more ambient textures inherent in the newly formed genre. Now that shoegaze has seen a revival over the past decade, and in some senses ran its course with dozens of wannabe indie bands cranking out variations of the sound, the forefathers of the scene are back to show the kids how it's done. With My Bloody Valentine already mounting a fairly successful, if derivative, comeback and Ride recently dropping their first new material in over 20 years, Slowdive's latest might completely fly under the radar. This would be a shame, since their self-titled effort is a graceful return to form.

While outwardly familiar in sound--reverb-heavy instrumentation, hushed boy/girl vocals, steady basslines, shimmering guitar chords--Slowdive nonetheless make minor tweaks to their aesthetic placing them firmly in the modern age. For example, "Star Roving" is quite possibly the loudest and most aggressive song the band has written to date, and yet, it still hums poetically atop glistening guitar arpeggios and gorgeous dueling harmonies courtesy of singer-guitarists Neil Halstead and Rachel Goswell. Meanwhile, "Go Get It" has a swirling, almost jazzy structure; with Halstead's vocals taking on a synth-pop-esque monotone similar to that of Tame Impala's Kevin Parker. However, Slowdive never give into the kind of jaunty hooks which inform so many of the newer shoegaze acts; instead, they expand their sonic palette outward and inward simultaneously.

Slowdive is a vastly rewarding listen; full of cascading dream-like soundscapes containing haunting melodies. 22 years since their last release, Pygmalion, the band have retained their mastery over a distinctive sound they helped popularize by wrestling the genre back to its roots while still making room for what lies ahead.

 

It Comes at Night

 

Cast: Joel Edgerton, Christopher Abbott, Carmen Ejogo, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Riley Keough, Griffin Robert Faulkner

Director: Trey Edward Shults

Running time: 1 hour 37 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


If writer-director Trey Edward Shults's debut feature, Krisha, plunged into the headspace of a psychologically damaged middle-aged woman during a family gathering; then his followup It Comes at Night views a disintegrating family unit from the perspective of 17-year-old Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) trying to adapt to his claustrophobic living environment inside a remote cabin in the woods. It's primarily through this vantage point that we come to grasp the family's dire situation, even as Shults purposefully withholds information regarding the broader scope of what appears to be some type of biological outbreak.

Set in an apocalyptic near future, It Comes at Night opens with a mercy killing of an old man (David Pendleton), covered in lesions and sores, who is carried out into the woods by Travis's father, Paul (Joel Edgerton). We come to learn that the man is in fact the family patriarch and father of Paul's wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo). How he came to be ill is never explained, but Paul assures his family, as Shults does the audience, that this killing was necessary in order to stop the spread of the mysterious disease. Eventually, a stranger named Will (Christopher Abbott) breaks into the boarded-up family home hoping to find supplies for his wife, Kim (Riley Keough) and young child, Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner). After a thorough interrogation, Paul decides to accompany Will to retrieve his family and thus combine resources, since Will has livestock and Paul a safe place to live and plenty of water. Working with cinematographer Drew Daniels, Shults initially conjures a sense of disquieting dread simply through the use of slowly gliding camera movements and natural interior lighting. The off-kilter sound design is equally effective; with distant dog barks, squeaking floorboards, and a menacing score by Brian McOmber all informing the uneasy feeling that something is just outside that heavily secured red door at the end of the hallway.

Like It Follows and The Witch, It Comes at Night fits snugly into the A24-approved realm of art-house horror; minimalistic genre exercises which attempt to subvert common tropes primarily through mood, atmosphere, and a rigorous visual aesthetic. The best thing that can be said about Shults's film is that he wisely tones down the stylistic tics and show-offy camera movements which informed Krisha; a film which, despite a galvanizing central performance, felt arch and phony. Though the writer-director is very skilled at knowing where to place his camera and how to use silence in order to generate tension, his gifts as a writer and story-teller are almost entirely absent. For here is a film in which obvious craftsmanship cannot paper over a simplistic narrative where archetypal characters don't so much withhold exposition as behave in faux-naturalistic ways which tells us nothing about who they are or what they want, aside from the obvious. What at first seemed novel about the film; the lack of backstory, the determined minimalism, the apolitical milieu, the resistance to offering up explanations about the state of the world, soon becomes a frustrating weakness since it's clear Shultz is simply making another one of those relentlessly bleak "metaphor horror" movies where everything hinges on a centralized theme rather than actually digging into what frightens us.

The fear of death, which no one can escape, is at the heart of It Comes at Night, which announces itself as a horror vehicle, but other than a few evocatively photographed nightmare sequences in which Travis wanders about, Shults seems generally uninterested in the visceral thrills of the genre. Instead, he's attempting to fashion a meditation on grief, paranoia, and letting go of the ones you love wrapped in a flimsy gauze of pop horror iconography. Sadly, he also strands a very talented cast who deserve more fully realized characters. Though Edgerton is very good at projecting a stoic resilience, he's essentially playing the over-protective father will do whatever it takes to protect his family, and cannot transcend Shult's weak writing, which involves a lot of him saying things like "family is all that matters." Meanwhile, Ejogo has a maternal warmth and strength as a performer, but she's sadly given very little to do other than look overly concerned and whisper mumbled lines to her emotionally traumatized son. And so on it goes, with Abbot playing the mysterious stranger whom the family may not be able to trust, and Keough relegated mostly to being the object of Travis's teenage affections. In fact, Harrison Jr. gives by far the best performance in the film; mainly because Shults seems genuinely interested in Travis's psychological fragility, but also because the actor brings glimmers of an inner life that the rest of the character's sorely lack.

In fashioning yet another post-apocalyptic narrative about a close knit unit of survivors whose world is thrown into disarray when strangers appear, It Comes at Night is much too familiar plot-wise to truly surprise and far too ponderous in its construction to be thrilling. What one is left with, after all the artful tracking shots and lamp-lit compositions, is little more than moody ambiguity at the expense of depth and yes, the kind of gonzo electricity that only a potent horror film can provide.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

War Machine

 

Cast: Brad Pitt, Anthony Michael Hall, Scoot McNairy, Anthony Hayes, John Magaro, Topher Grace, Daniel Betts, Aymen Hamdouchi, RJ Cyler, Alan Ruck, Meg Tilly, Nicholas Jones, Will Poulter, Lakeith Stanfield, Reggie Brown, Griffin Dunne, Ben Kingsley

Director: David Michôd

Running time: 2 hours

by Jericho Cerrona


Writer-director David Michôd tries his hand at political satire with War Machine, an adaptation of late journalist Michael Hastings' book The Operators, which chronicled the notorious fall of General Stanley McChrystal, a U.S. commander and leader of NATO forces in Afghanistan. Hastings had roasted McChrystal prior to publishing the book in a vicious 2010 Rolling Stone article which painted him as an egotistical, dim-witted madman who used the war as a business model for greedy politicians. Michôd's film, which stars Brad Pitt as the McChrystal stand-in General Glenn McMahon, strives to be Robert Altman's M.A.S.H. or even David O. Russell's Three Kings, but falls closer to something like the 1981 military comedy Stripes in its scatological humor at the expense of meaningful insights. 

However, despite a wobbly tone and yet another broad performance from Pitt in the Burn After Reading/Inglorious Basterds mode, War Machine is graced with stellar supporting turns and a smirking deconstruction of phony male military posturing. The film's first half is a bit of a slog, though, using apathetic voice-over narration as a string of secondary characters are introduced, given one or two personality traits, and just as quickly discarded. Only a testosterone-fueled Anthony Michael Hall as McMahon's right hand man and Topher Grace as a smug P.R. drone make any significant impact, although the film's best performance actually belongs to Meg Tilly, who brings more nuance to her few scenes as the General's wife than the film surrounding her deserves. 

Squinting, curling his lip, and affecting a gravely voice which sounds like Elmer Fudd choking on tobacco, Pitt leans into caricature as a leader who truly believes that the war can be won through good old fashioned American democracy. That such democracy involves invading other nations and then killing innocent civilians and destroying their neighborhoods, is easily written off by McMahon and his cronies because such tactics have been bedrocks of American war-making for decades. If Michôd fails to truly nail the tone of nihilistic absurdity (for one thing, the film is much too soft on McMahon by making him into something of a loveable idiot), then he largely succeeds at extrapolating a more sobering truth; that larger-than-life figures like McMahon are simply disposable pawns in a powerful system that's rotten from the inside out.

Perhaps one of the reasons a satire like War Machine doesn't seem quite as biting in 2017 is that we are now living in an era where abject military dysfunction is the least of our worries. An ego-driven yet well-meaning blowhard like McMahon now seems, despite his irrevocable lapses in judgment and morality, like a relic from a simpler time. For example, when the General goes for his daily 7 am jog (visualized by Pitt in one of the film's funnier gags as a robotic shuffle), there's something almost endearing about a man so fixated on his absurd routines. This ultimately does the film a disservice, however, since there's nothing charming about the horrors of counterinsurgency. Michôd attempts to balance out his obvious affection toward his central buffoon by giving us a young marine (Lakeith Stanfield) who opposes his country's practices and a cameo from Tilda Swinton as a strident news reporter trotting out the picture's themes with an extended monologue, but such elements feel tacked on in order to provide a broader context that the film isn't really that interested in examining.

If Michôd's previous directorial efforts, 2010's crime drama Animal Kingdom and 2014's dystopian Western/survival thriller The Rover hinted at a filmmaker toying with genre conventions, then War Machine feels oddly didactic for someone so invested in maintaining a specific mood. Here, the tone is wonky; lurching from Catch-22-esque satire to on-the-ground combat realism, with Michôd struggling to convince us of just what type of story he wises to tell. McMahon is a macho caricature, as many military types are, and the war in Afghanistan was a complete disaster, as most wars tend to be. Pitt's square-jaw, squinty eyes, and ridiculous jogging motion approximates this, but to what end? When one of the General's snide higher-ups turns to him and says, “You’re not here to win, you’re here to clean up the mess,” we almost sympathize with a man who hopes to lead a squadron who have long abandoned him, and that in itself, is a problem that War Machine is too distracted making it's obvious points about the futility of the military industrial complex to truly comprehend.

The Criterion Corner


In a Lonely Place

Director: Nicholas Ray

Year of release: 1950

Running time: 1 hour 34 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 Nicholas Ray's 1950 noir masterpiece In A Lonely Place.


Although Humphrey Bogart would go on to win the Oscar for 1951's The African Queen, his work as washed up screenwriter Dixon Steele in Nicholas Ray's brilliant noir chamber drama In A Lonely Place remains his best and most complex performance. While outwardly a mystery thriller concerning the murder of a young hat-check girl who was last seen alive leaving Dixon's apartment, the film is more fundamentally concerned with irrational male delusion. By placing Bogart in the role of a depressive writer who gets more than his share of attention from women, Ray cannily turns the epitome of cool on its head; revealing the emotionless detachment of someone harboring a general disdain for humanity. 

Of course, there's a love interest introduced in the form of Dixon’s new neighbor, Laurel (Gloria Grahame), who is both drawn to and increasingly wary of her lover's apparent disinterest in the death of an innocent young girl. As the cops continue to investigate and suspect Dixon, Laurel herself begins to feel trapped in the embrace of a possible sociopath, which Ray wisely captures by setting the majority of the film inside cramped spaces. Meanwhile, Bogart keeps up the veneer of the damaged romantic by playing on the persona he'd perfected for years up until that point, but then investing that same attitude with erratic bursts of violence and remorseless apathy. In one bravura scene, Dixon narrates a possible scenario to his detective friend where the murdered girl was strangled by the driver of a moving vehicle, and the way Bogart amps up the near orgasmic hysteria is both disturbing and intensely compelling. 

There's this idea of 50's American cinema as being imbued with a sunny, family-friendly disposition as a direct response to the heinous evils perpetuated during World War II. Though made at the very beginning of the decade, In A Lonely Place is surprisingly bleak for it's time, with the entire narrative framework--of whether or not Dixon actually committed the murder--being treated as little more than a footnote to the film's real objective. This objective, by the way, is the inversion of the lone male hero, which Ray himself idealized in films like Rebel Without A Cause and On Dangerous Ground into a sad, defeated loser. Dixon's abject despair; his inability to be a decent human being in a godless world, turns the romanticized anti-hero into the existential coward. When he rehearses a line of dialogue with Laurel while driving in his car; “I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me", Dixon's sentiments of love conquering all has an ironic absurdity. In A Lonely Place, too, understands the absurdity of living with hope when human empathy no longer matters.

 

 

 

 

 

Wonder Woman

 

Cast: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright, Danny Huston, David Thewlis, Connie Nielsen, Elena Anaya, Lucy Davis, Saïd Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremmer, Eugene Brave Rock

Director: Patty Jenkins

Running time: 2 hours 21 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


As a corrective to the grim self-seriousness of the DC film franchise up until this point as well as a concerted effort to invert the pin-up girl eroticism of the character's original design, Patty Jenkins's Wonder Woman is a spirited success. As a fully satisfying superhero origin story willing to break free from genre constrictions and blaze a new path, however, the film is on less firm ground. This is to be expected, given that auteurship existing alongside a business model for selling more toys and expanding an already over-saturated formula is a losing battle. Even the most aesthetically bold superhero entries, such as Marvel's Doctor Strange, fall prey to overly complicated mythology, underdeveloped supporting characters, predictably cardboard villains, and a need to extend a certain visual house style. What makes Wonder Woman so exciting, beyond simply being a more coherent movie than anything DC studios has put out thus far, is the inherent thrill of witnessing the first superhero effort directed by a woman featuring a symbol of female-empowerment writ large on the big screen. This shouldn't be such a novelty, but sadly, Hollywood has so forcefully engineered the system to all but guarantee marginalization when it comes to these multi-million dollar franchises that when something like Wonder Woman comes along, it feels like a miracle. However, if the film proves to be a financial success, this trend will likely change. Nothing says diversity and gender equality like padding the pocket books of white male studio executives.

While this may sound reductive and cynical, the good news is that Jenkins and her team have reenvisioned Amazonian warrior Diana with a sense of liberated modernity while still retaining the old-fashioned pageantry of the character. Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot swaggers through every scene as the titular heroine with a mixture of intensity, emotional openness, and most surprisingly, wide-eyed innocence. In fact, Gadot is so good here that the shortcomings of Allan Heinberg's script (lack of character depth, uninspired side characters, more than one lame villain, a muddled smash and punch CGI finale) fail to derail what essentially is yet another superhero origin story.

The story kicks off with Xena Warrior Princess-esque visions of Themyscira; a mythical island inhabited only by female Amazonians who train (often on horseback) with flailing swords and zipping arrows. Diana grows up idealizing these fierce women, maturing into a rather formidable foe herself, with the help of her aunt, Antiope (Robin Wright in House of Cards mode wearing a metallic headdress). One day, a World War I American counter-intelligence spy named Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) suddenly appears out of the clear blue sky and crashes into the ocean. Since Diana has never seen a man before, she's both puzzled and drawn to Steve, leading to some gently awkward scenes of banter between the two after she saves him from drowning. Eventually, Steve tells her about the horrific nature of war and the German's secret plans for using a deadly chemical weapon. From there, Wonder Woman transforms into a screwball fish-out-of-water comedy as Diana and Steve jot off to London in order to deliver intelligence information to Britain's top officials. Sequences where Diana tries out a variety of "proper" outfits or simply engages in extended arguments with Steve are unexpectedly light-hearted and funny, with Jenkins allowing these moments to play out casually. One shudders to think what a director like hack-a-scene Zach Snyder would have done with such material.

Once the plot introduces a plaster-faced scientist known as Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya) and Danny Huston's cartoonishly evil German officer, Wonder Woman loses some of its early goodwill; devolving into a series of chaotic action sequences which ultimately ends in a lumbering final battle between Diana and a fiery floating bad guy. Still, some of the action beats here are given an intriguing tweak just through the sheer force of a woman's directorial perspective. For example, Wonder Woman walking stridently across a deadly German outpost while artillery fire ricochets and whirls around her is a towering feminist vision for the ages. Jenkins also favors scenes where the men (both enemies and comrades) gawk in awe at Diana's otherworldly abilities. This sense of emasculation; even when it comes to a fully qualified solider like Pine's sweet-natured Steve Trevor, is keenly felt throughout; imbuing even some of the more by-the-numbers fight scenes with an emotional weight simply because of this female slant.

If Diana had been a more fully developed character rather than simply a signifier of kick-ass empowerment, then Wonder Woman may have exceeded the limitations of the superhero genre it's trapped in. Gadot nearly convinces us that we are watching someone with an interior life, but there's only so much the talented actor can do to transcend the inherent artificiality of the character she's portraying. The original conception of Wonder Woman, created by psychologist William Moulton Marston, has always been caught between cheesy bondage iconography and feminine strength. Despite the film's flaws, Jenkins and Gadot have very smartly melded the older corny costuming with a more prescient emotional dimension wrought by a powerful woman overcome by both the evils of humanity as well as their ability for compassion. In that sense, Wonder Woman gives agency to the female superhero rather than subjugating her as the object, with her ultimate decision to not give up on "the world of men" radiating grace that "male-kind" truly does not deserve.  

 

 

 

A Quiet Passion

 

Cast: Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Duncan Duff, Keith Carradine, Jodhi May

Director: Terence Davies

Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


Part of the issue with many biopics is their over-reliance on framing events in retrospect and then applying a modern prism for which to view historical figures. This is understandable and in some senses inevitable given that filmmaking, by design, encourages editorialization. However, in the case of A Quiet Passion, filmmaker Terence Davies and star Cynthia Nixon's sensibilities merge so fully that 19th Century poet Emily Dickinson emerges as a flawed and deeply complex woman forced by her society to retreat from reality. Therefore, the sense of historical specificity and extraordinary interpretation of Dickinson as an elusive presence given to both flights of fancy and crippling melancholy, makes A Quiet Passion that rare biopic which transcends the genre entirely.

Davies's picture could actually be viewed as a companion piece to last year's Whit Stillman-directed Jane Austin adaptation Love and Friendship, in that it's obsession with the cadence of language acts as a catalyst for getting at deeper human emotions. Whereas Stillman's film mostly played as a detached farce of social norms, Davies uses rapid-fire dialogue and heightened monologues as a means of exploring the ways in which morality, decorum, and ego can warp one's sense of self. As presented here, Emily is a proto-feminist continuously getting caught up in matters of the heart, soul, and practicality; often parsed out in arguments with her sister, Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle), obstinate aunt (Annette Badland), and stern father (Keith Carradine). There's also the alluring figure of her friend Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey), a liberated woman spewing crackerjack quips to whom Emily is innately drawn. Like Vryling, Emily is self-possessed to the point of creating quite a stir among her small sphere of influence in Amherst, Massachusetts. Unlike her comrade, though, Emily uses her strident rules of everyday conversation as a way of imbuing her poetry with genuine feeling rather than simply as a witty deflection.

Emily's poetry, meanwhile, is all over A Quiet Passion, but not in a manner which treats it like a means of process or idealized reflection. Instead, Davies layers the prose through voice over narration and only occasionally shows her jotting down stanzas, as if to merely reveal that she preferred writing during the middle of the night and was notoriously self-conscious about the way the work was received. While superficially following a standard biopic formula, Davies never feels like he's simply going through a checklist of events. Instead, the film has a haunting quality; coming across like a chamber drama where all the characters are trapped inside circular arguments beginning with a specific point of contention before swerving into an abstract debate that, despite the rhythmic nature of the dialogue, maintains an aura of human brokenness. This beating heart can largely be attributed to Nixon's transformative performance; a real high-wire act which modulates between wry humor, defiant rage, deep sadness, and finally, physical and mental deterioration.

A Quiet Passion shows a complicated artist in all her humanness. Rather than elevating his subject to the status of social justice heroine or god-like poet, Davies gets at the essential element of why art is important and consequently, why someone like Emily Dickinson was such a major figure worthy of adoration. The film does this without devolving into worshipful sentimentality or exploiting Emily's internal misery. It simply shows someone desperate to connect, be loved, and understand her role in a society which seemingly disdained the fact that she existed, supreme gifts and all, in the first place.        

 

Music Pick of the Week


Juana Molina

Halo

Year of release: 2017

 


Juana Molina's seventh album, Halo, is defined by mood over melody. That's not to say the Argentine singer-songwriter, whose been making electronic-tinged folk music since the mid-1990s, doesn't know how to write a catchy hook. To the contrary, on albums like 2004's Tres Cosas and especially 2008's Un Dia, Molina crafted some of the most sublimely skeletal pop music this side of the globe. However, her interest in ambient song structures, digital loops, and drone-inflected atmosphere has always been a defining element of her sound rather than a supplement. Molina's whispered mantras (sung in Spanish) are placed alongside instrumental loops, airy synthesizers, and fractured percussion with brilliant restraint throughout Halo, which just may be her most cogent work to date.

This idea of mood over traditional song structure isn't Molina's way of resisting the familiarity of pop music, but rather, of deepening the layers of her songwriting to the point where one feels as if they are meeting her on her own terms. Often, she simply loops her voice in a series of rhythmic sequences where actual lyrics are rendered unnecessary, such as on “In the Lassa,” “A00 B01,” and “Andó”, which formulate a trifecta of gorgeous ambiance. Meanwhile, Halo's album cover--of eyes encased in some kind of drooping plaster mold against a black backdrop--is indicative of the mysterious pull of the music. On a song like "Cosoco", for example, Molina uses acoustic finger-plucked guitar, warbly keyboards, skittering drums, and her hushed vocals in order to lull us into a trance-like state. This sense of finding tranquility through the melding of organic sounds with modern technology is so seamlessly integrated throughout that it's a miracle the album doesn't completely wash away. Instead, there's a propulsive quality to Halo that, despite it's minimalist framework, gives Molina's off-kilter tunes a lingering impact.  

Movie Pick of the Week


Raw

Director: Julia Ducournau

Year of release: 2017

Running time: 1 hour 39 minutes


No one does college hazing better than veterinarians in Julia Ducournau’s Raw; a film which uses the veneer of a cannibal horror movie to tap into deeper notions of sexual confusion, self-shame, and the often uncomfortable nature of being trapped inside one's body at a young age. Garance Marillier gives an intensely controlled performance as Justine; an intelligent young veterinarian student whose inexperience with sex and overall social discomfort maker her a prime target for the unusually hostile schooling environment where older students casually douse the new recruits in animal's blood while forcing them to eat rabbit kidneys in between whiskey shots. Meanwhile, Justine's older sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf) is on hand to initiate her sibling into these strange rituals, including goading her into ingesting the aforementioned kidney. Justine is understandably repulsed by such practices, especially considering the fact that she has been strictly raised as a vegetarian, but it doesn't take long for her to develop a taste for fresh meat.

Raw is more unsettling than many horror films because the reasons behind Justine's carnivorous inclinations are never explicitly made clear. Instead, Ducournau's keenly exploits the bizarre nature of the setting by turning the school into a breeding ground for flesh-eating cannibals as a way of commenting on the pressures many young people feel (especially women) to develop their sexuality before they even understand their own bodies. When, for instance, Justine dances seductively in front of the mirror while applying lipstick, this blossoming of sexual urges coincides with her insatiable need for human flesh.

Gorgeously shot with striking tableaus showcasing the school's cycle of abuse and often framing Marillier in contrast to the hedonistic flurry of motion, Raw showcases Ducournau’s genuine knack for David Cronenbergian body horror with a distinctly female perspective. Therefore, the often grotesque violence here has a figurative purpose; shaping the narrative into a commentary on we often view our bodies with a sense of arbitrary detachment and that we must either tame our base animal urges or be institutionalized within a system which will eventually destroy us.

  

At the Drive-In

 

in•ter a•li•a

4

...and if this clock keeps ticking away
will a comeback be hesitated?

Oh, how the mighty of fallen.

There's really no sense in bemoaning the state of rock music in 2017. Hip-hop artists are the new rock stars. Synth-pop is back. DJs get more groupies than long-haired guitar wielders. If At the Drive-In had put out a dancey new wave record, they may have been praised for getting with the times or reinventing their sound. Instead, the El Paso post-punk icons, whose seminal breakup album Relationship of Command (2000) was a bold shift away from nu-metal, rap-rock, and whatever The Red Hot Chili Peppers were doing at the time, have essentially tried to recapture lightning in a bottle after a 17-year hiatus. The results are strained and often laughable; sounding very much like men of a certain age trying to rip like it's 1999.

Die hard fans will likely embrace the fact that there's new material from a band long thought extinct, despite the fact that singer Cedric Bixler and guitarist Omar Rodríguez-López have already exhausted whatever goodwill they had achieved during the early days of prog-psych band The Mars Volta. With Inter Alia, they've ditched founding guitarist Jim Ward but have otherwise tried to reproduce the volatile combination of heaviness and melody from Relationship of Command. Whereas that record stemmed from the explosion of youthful creativity, relentless touring, and bouts of heavy drug use, Inter Alia is caught in an awkward position of mimicking the intensity of youth while also going for mainstream Dad rock. Gone are the knotty riffs, weird instrumental detours, and visceral shout-sung-screamed vocals, replaced here by feigned rage, surprisingly brittle guitar leads, and vanilla Audioslave-esque choruses. Certainly, Cedric still writes puzzle-box lyrical nonsense, but whereas in the past such things worked as a novel asset in the band's appeal, now it simply feels silly. 

At 41 minutes, Inter Alia is mostly a record which refuses to have it's own identity. Listen to the band's 1996 debut Acrobatic Tenement, and you can hear the sound of scrawny kids blasting through angular post-hardcore racket before that was even really a thing. Turn up 1998's In Casino Out and witness a unit fully in control of their Fugazi-esque punk bravado. Give the electronic textures and eccentric production of 1999's Vaya EP a spin. And of course, Relationship of Command still slays in all of its overproduced glory. Trying to place Inter Alia into this context is tricky because so much time has elapsed, but there's no question after the opening track "No Wolf Like The Present" that ATDI are sputtering here in uninspired fashion. 

Making comparisons to a band's back catalog from a much different time is both understandable and reductive. There's no way ATDI could ever outdo their past efforts during our current musical climate, but a song like “Governed by Contagions”, with it's lame hand-claps and Cedric's hammy vocal delivery, does make one yearn for the intensely catchy velocity of "One Armed Scissor", which, for the record, was dismissed by the group as being something of a sell-out single at the time. Worse of all is the production by Muse alum Rich Costey, who mixes the album so that everything lacks density and tension, resulting in a clean sound that doesn't do the band any favors. Sure, Andy Wallace and Ross Robinson's production on Relationship of Command was similarly polished, but the "bigness" of the mix was reflected in the musical dexterity of the actual songs themselves, which constantly veered off in surprising directions. The tracks here are suitably bombastic, but despite some agile guitar work by Rodríguez-López, who seems like he's at least trying to replicate the band's off-kilter sensibilities, there's very little variation from standard verse-chorus-verse song structure. There's cringe-inducing early aughts emo ("Pendulum In A Peasant Dress"), limp pop punk ("Incurably Innocent"), and Mars Volta-esque prog ballads ("Ghost Tape No. 9"), all of which sound like ATDI without the one thing that can never be regained; the feral uncertainty and drive that comes with being young, angry, and devoid of expectations.

In their attempts at conjuring an anthemic call to arms over the entirety of their comeback album, ATDI misses what made their music so vital to begin with. During these divisive political times, we urgently need rock music that can contextualize how we feel, even if that simply means triggering an emotional response through squealing guitar chords and stream of consciousness rants. Instead, Inter Alia always feels as if it's trying to cram faux-fist pumping passion into every song without stopping to allow the music a chance to worm its way inside the listener's eardrums. Sadly, the return of one of rock's most influential post-hardcore bands feels more like an obligation than a celebration. In the words of Cedric himself from an In Casino Out deep cut , it's in the past...and now we toast.  

 

 

Alien: Covenant

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demián Bichir, Amy Seimetz, Carmen Ejogo, Benjamin Rigby, Jussie Smollett, Callie Hernandez

Director: Ridley Scott

Running time: 2 hours 3 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


"In space, no one can hear you quote Lord Byron."

As ludicrous as that faux-pull quote sounds, there's a slight streak of goofiness to Ridley Scott's Alien: Covenant which ultimately proves to be its most successful element. Literary references to not only Byron but Shelley abound (cementing the Gothic horror influences), as well as recitations of "Ozymandias", delivered mostly by Michael Fassbender in a dual role as a pair of mismatched androids. If all of this sounds like a thematic continuation of 2012's Prometheus; a film which boldly took the franchise into more cerebral territory, then the most effective moments here are the ones which lean into that strain of philosophical mumbo-jumbo. Where Scott misfires is his attempts at de-mythologizing the iconic xenomorphs, first introduced in 1979's Alien, as well as doling out a greatest hits demo reel of the past five films in the franchise without any notable variations. 

Taking place 10 years after the events of Prometheus, Alien: Covenant concerns a crew aboard a ship set for a distant planet with hopes of colonization. Following a solar flare accident which kills the vessel's captain while he's locked in a state of cryostasis, the surviving members scramble to formulate a game plan. Upon receiving a cryptic message from a nearby planet, the crew, (led by Billy Crudup's newly minted leader) decide to investigate the transmission rather than return to their sleeping pods. What follows is basically a retread of Alien which occasionally sidesteps its predictable narrative structure for philosophical detours concerning the creation of mankind and artificial intelligence. Scott handles these detours, which involve Fassbender's resident android Walter coming face to face with his nearly identical model David (also Fassbender), who survived the events of Prometheus, with a curiosity which reveals the filmmaker's real interest in this material. On the other hand, Scott seems decidedly less enthused by the film's shock tactics; revealed in the rather uninspired way nondescript characters get infected, are quarantined, and then convulse as squiggly monsters erupt violently out of their bodies. The horror-set pieces here feel muddled and strained, with rubbery CGI lacking the depth and tactility of the original film's practical effects. Meanwhile, Scott's ill-advised decision to explain where the beings originated retroactively makes the primordial simplicity of their actions in the earlier films less scary. What once felt visceral and disorienting now feels rote, with Scott even indulging in a laughably idiotic coitus interruption sequence inside a shower which plays like something out of a Wayans Brothers spoof. 

The best thing about Alien: Covenant has nothing to do with the aliens but rather, the way in which it delves into the philosophical battle of wits between Walter and David. Fassbender gives a masterful performance in a dual role, and the most intriguing scenes involve him essentially acting opposite himself. Those who cringed at the heady nonsense of Prometheus will likely have a field day with the scene where Walter and David alternately play the flute while discussing machine's desire to play God, but such moments are infinitely more entertaining than anything involving the indestructible alien life forms wrecking havoc. Whenever Fassbender is onscreen, the film pulses with an ambiguous sense of menace. However, Scott too often darts away to supposedly give fans more of what they want; including an incomprehensible action set-piece atop an escaping ship where Katherine Waterston's mousy Ripley clone does battle with a grasshopper-like xenomorph. The way the creature burrows its head into a window like a Jurassic World-esque velociraptor saps the genuine terror from H.R. Giger's original designs, making them look frail and small where they once felt towering and nightmarish. 

Had Alien: Covenant honed in on the idea of David's self-actualization as more than simply a slasher movie plot device, the film could have attained the kind of poetic nihilism encapsulated by the android Ash's famous dying words from Alien. Instead, Scott wastes a talented cast and some compelling notions concerning David being the inverse of the xenomorph for watered-down jump scares and bloody carnage. Sure, this is what one expects from an Alien movie, but the suspense beats here feel perfunctory; like a bored technician checking off the appropriate boxes on an exam.

The idea that an android regards the xenomorphs with something approaching admiration is a tantalizing concept, but Alien: Covenant doesn't trust the audience enough to follow through on the paradoxical consequences of such a concept. Alas, only Byron, Shelley and Fassbender keep Scott's attempt at reclaiming his beloved franchise from disappearing completely up its own chest-bursting exoskeleton.

 

 

 

Movie Pick of the Week


My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea

Director: Dash Shaw

Year of release: 2017

Running time: 1 hour 15 minutes

 


Graphic novelist Dash Shaw's feature debut, My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea, is at once a striking pop culture vision of hand-drawn innovation as well as a snapshot of adolescent ego run amok. Shaw puts himself into the narrative, visualized here as a self-absorbed teenager voiced by Jason Schwartzman, whose relationship with best friend Assaf (Reggie Watts) is tested once co-editor of the high school newspaper, Verti (Maya Rudolph) comes between them. After uncovering some covert information about the school being below evacuation code--and getting kicked off the paper for spreading bitter rumors about Assaf--things take an Irwin Allen-style disaster turn with an earthquake striking the California coast and causing the action of the film's title.

Joined by other characters trapped inside the slowly sinking school voiced by the likes of John Cameron Mitchell, Lena Dunham, and Susan Sarandon, My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea transforms from an anti-authority parable draped in raging hormones into something more wonderfully surreal. Shaw uses a simple animation strategy; lo-fi Adult Swim-esque sketches with swirling backdrops combining black drawn lines, acrylic color bursts, wood-cut silhouettes, and throwaway visual gags in order to create a hallucinogenic experience. Meanwhile, the writing is sharp and sporadically humorous, with each cast member relaying the dialogue in a way which creates distinctive characterizations from broad stereotypes. 

In its freewheeling energy and doodle sketch humor, Shaw's film is a charming reminder of what can be accomplished on a small budget in the realm of animation. At a brisk 77 minutes, the picture also refuses to overstay its welcome, as the thin narrative and sensory overload would probably become repetitive if stretched out any further. As it stands, My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea seems to homage 60/70's modernist animes while also aping the spurting animation style of generation YouTube; resulting in something uniquely thrilling in a cinematic universe gutted by minions and ice age primates.

 

Music Pick of the Week


Pond

The Weather

Year of release: 2017


The seventh album from Australian psych-prog rockers Pond may sound like a left turn upon first listen, but the fact that Tame Impala's Kevin Parker is on hand as producer places everything in context. While Parker's move away from 60/70's psych and into the realm of warped 80's synth-pop felt a bit contrived throughout his last effort Currents, Pond manage the shift from proto-punk psych and onto the dance floor with relative ease. The Weather may be less atonal and kooky than 2015's Man It Feels Like Space Again, but there's still plenty of proggy detours and bong-ripped instrumentation on hand to satisfy longtime fans; coming off like The Flaming Lips shaking hips with Prince while peaking on mushrooms.

Those hoping for the manic garage rock-inflected sprawl of past albums may be somewhat miffed by Pond's decision to slow down the tempo, increase the swirling synths, lay down the disco-glam grooves and indulge in funky basslines, but singer Nick Allbrook’s high-pitched vocals are a surprisingly perfect fit for Parker's layered production. There's Roxy Music-esque glam ("Zen Automaton"), chillwave-adjacent ballads ("Paint Me Silver"), ambitious prog opuses ("Edge of the World Pt. 2") and perhaps best of all, Ariel Pink-sounding 80's spaced out funk ("Colder than Ice").

Throughout, there's a sense that Pond may have bitten off more than they can chew, with arena-sized choruses and cosmic climaxes threatening to drown the record in self-indulgence, but the band's dark sense of humor and fondness for kitsch offset such criticisms. For instance, opener "3000 Megatons" could be read as a bleak mantra for our politically divisive age, with Albrook crooning I look out at the mirror/Look out at the world/30,000 megatons is just what we deserve in a robotic falsetto over arpeggiated synths. However, the song is more humorous than ominous; as if the push of a button will solve all humanity's problems in an apocalyptic mushroom cloud. As an album, The Weather straddles the awe-inspiring and the ludicrous with a confidence that suggests Pond may one day make a modern psych classic. For now, though, we can simply settle for geeky Australian dance parties with the occasional stoned gaze. 

 

 

Colossal

 

Cast: Anne Hathaway, Jason Sudeikis, Dan Stevens, Tim Blake Nelson, Austin Stowell

Director: Nacho Vigalondo

Running time: 1 hour 49 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


There's something about writer-director Nacho Vigalondo's films which both insist upon their artificiality while also attempting to upend genre expectations. For example, his 2007 debut Timecrimes is a nifty time-travel thriller whose narrative loops back in on itself, but the picture's true intention seems to be a commentary on the leering male gaze. 2011's Extraterrestrial, meanwhile, featured an alien invasion as the backdrop for a deft romantic comedy which explored domestic tensions. The filmmaker's latest, Colossal, is his most loopy and ambitious effort yet; a character study about an alcoholic writer who finds herself somehow telepathically linked to a rampaging monster wrecking havoc in Seoul, South Korea. In true Vigalondo fashion, the film's real interest lies in not only the perils of alcoholism, but also how entitlement and male rage can manifest itself in a country where we only care about what's happening directly in our small sphere of influence.

Anne Hathaway stars as Gloria, who in the opening scene stumbles into the swanky New York apartment apartment of her boyfriend, Tim (Dan Stevens) after a night of boozing. An argument ensues, one which the couple has had countless times, and Gloria is literally sent packing. Relocating to her tiny hometown and reconnecting with her childhood friend, Oscar (Jason Sudeikis) who gives her a job tending his local bar, Gloria seems to be on the road of recovery after hitting bottom. What initially transpires is a goofy comic drama about moving back home, rekindling friendships, and finding oneself, set against the backdrop of a monstrous kaiju laying waste to skyscrapers and innocent bystanders across the globe. Vigalondo's handling of tone is admirable, if scattershot, as he tries investigating privilege, entitlement, and in the case of Sudeiki's initially charming bar owner, raging male ego while also giving us visions of crumbling buildings and giant monster attacks. It's a ridiculous premise; one that involves Gloria stepping onto a small patch of earth located on an empty playground where she can telepathically control the creature's movements. Once Oscar realizes that he too can summon his own monster (visualized as a gigantic glowing robot), the film shifts into the realm of psychodrama wherein Gloria must not only contend with the damage she's caused in Seoul while intoxicated, but also Oscar's erratic temper and possessive behavior. 

Colossal eventually goes completely off the rails during the third act as Vigalondo's screenplay muddles its central metaphor under the creaking confines of magical realism. However, there's something novel about a movie boasting an original concept which asks its audience to invest themselves in characters and situations which stretch basic laws of credulity. Hathaway is a nimble performer; able to portray a woman spinning out of control without devolving into utter navel-gazing, and the way she modulates between shock, surprise, wry humor, and genuine sadness is a testament to her talents. Meanwhile, Sudeikis is cast against type as a seemingly nice guy harboring severe self-hatred issues who can unravel at any moment, and the way he flips on a dime from gee-whiz geniality to callous rage is surprisingly effective.

By using archetypal blockbuster imagery, including a slow-motion "superhero" type shot of Hathaway walking in the rain near the climax, Colossal seems to be parodying summer tent-poles while also indulging aesthetically in their simple pleasures. That the film cannot completely follow through on the promise of its audacious conceit is slightly disappointing, and there's a definite sense here that Vigalondo isn't quite skilled enough as a visual stylist to merge the fantastical with the mundane in a way which transcends the multiple genres he's juggling. Still, there's also something reassuring about a filmmaker willing to swing for the fences and a lead actor choosing to wholly trust her director's convictions. If Colossal unwisely uses throngs of screaming Korean extras as an excuse for one white woman's tale of self-rehabilitation, then it's focus on feminist concerns and exposing the sad state of male self-delusion is a welcome respite to the Michael Bay-inflected machismo found in so many Hollywood blockbusters. However, the film could have been richer and more potent had it equally considered people on the other side of the world rather than simply being consumed by entitled Americans struggling with their self-image problems. 

 

The Lost City of Z

 

Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller, Tom Holland, Edward Ashley, Angus Macfadyen, Ian McDiarmid, Clive Francis, Pedro Coello

Director: James Gray

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


With unfussy assuredness, writer-director James Gray's The Lost City of Z emerges as a vision of two separate, yet intrinsically linked, tales of obsession. The first concerns archaeologist and explorer Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) who spent the better part of his adult life searching for a fabled civilization deep in the Amazon rainforest at the dawn of the 20th century. The second is the tale of a filmmaker searching for his own version of transcendence through the art of emotional and character-based cinema. If Fawcett remains an enigmatic figure--driven with spiritual fervor to uncover something beyond the reaches of the human mind--then Gray, too, feeds off this same kind of yearning. This is a film for which every shot, detour, and catalogue of Amazonian scenery is instilled with a melodramatic aura which never announces itself as such. In a way, Gray's version of melodrama is to nod toward the ineffable madness of Apocalypse Now and Fitzcarraldo before tilting the other direction into a character study about man whose motivations remain elusive. That is the essential element of obsession. It consumes and moves one to enter the furthest reaches of hell without a logical reason, and The Lost City of Z brilliantly capitalizes on this idea.

This is not to say that Fawcett did not have his reasons for continuously journeying into the Brazilian jungle in hopes of finding the titular city; chief among them proving his mettle as a respectable Englishman after his father's disastrous Army career. Then there's his belief that nonwhite civilizations may be more advanced than western society, but such anti-colonial rhetoric could also be seen as overcompensation for his own selfish need to integrate himself into "exotic" environments. Structurally, Gray deflates our expectations by having Fawcett and his crew, which includes trustworthy companions, Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson) and Arthur Manley (Edward Ashley) get close to achieving their goal, only to be sent back home to England with little to no concrete evidence of their experiences. During one extended sequence, Fawcett delivers a fiery sermon to a crowd of bewildered aristocrats about his desire to prove that the so-called "savages" are far more advanced than commonly believed. During another, he engages in emotionally-wrought exchanges with his wife, Nina (Sienna Miller), who wishes to explore her own version of transcendence, whether that be traveling into the heart of darkness with her husband or convincing him that he's essentially abandoning his family. In both instances, Fawcett shows flashes of integrity and all-consuming hubris.

Unlike most standard period epics about exploration and adventure, The Lost City of Z is uncharacteristically more interested in the internal purgatory of the mind than the geographical space of the jungle. Though there are literal dangers along the way (snakes, flying arrows, illness), Gray is focused on man's need to erase himself as someone existing to take orders, file rank, and report to king and country. To this end, Hunnam creates a believable portrait of someone whose rugged charisma and single-minded longing for the sublime drives him to eventually exploit his own son (played by Tom Holland as a teenager) who simply yearns to have a relationship with his distant father.

Resisting the urge for stylistic formalism (unlike, say, the showy bombast of The Revenant), Gray's picture remains a visual marvel (shot by gifted cinematographer Darius Khondji) while always remaining firmly rooted in character and emotional truthfulness. The film's final scenes, in which Fawcett and his boy are surrounded by a tribe of Amazonian natives luminously lit by candles, takes on the feeling of an ephemeral dream where transcendence and destruction are intertwined. Gray and Fawcett's drive toward obsessive desire are also intertwined; a tale of two wanderers searching for their own means of moving beyond ordinary lines of vision.

 

Personal Shopper

 

Cast: Kristen Stewart, Sigrid Bouaziz, Anders Danielsen Lie

Director: Olivier Assayas

Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


Olivier Assayas' latest feature, Personal Shopper, could just as easily have been titled "Personal Identity", as its primary focus rests on the ways in which self-image can be fragmented. The central protagonist played by Kristen Stewart may be an assistant to a vain celebrity, but she identifies herself primarily as someone who can communicate with spirits. Therefore, part of the surprise of the film is just how much Assayas leans into the psychological thriller/horror trappings, even as the story ultimately emerges as a powerful depiction of how geographical spaces and accessories can define one's sense of identity.

As a filmmaker, Assayas has always been interested in characters existing in a kind of fugue state. His last picture, Clouds of Sils Maria, was about two people trapped in a mountain retreat forced to work out their inner insecurities and fears through the art of acting. Here, he layers aspects of the afterlife, supernatural forces, and the psychological trauma of grief into the narrative, but his true aim is to observe one woman's personal and professional identities merging into the vision of someone trying to connect with the dead rather than the living. Of course, this doesn't mean Assayas skimps on the genre elements. In fact, we not only see literal manifestations of ghosts here, but also an extended sequence aboard a train involving otherworldly text messages which plays like a sly update of the horror phone call trope from Scream.

Stewart dominates every scene as Maureen, a young woman constantly dealing with the petty demands of her boss Kyra (Sigrid Bouaziz), an egotistical model whose presence is just as ghostly as Maureen's recently deceased brother, who may be stalking her from beyond the grave. Interestingly, there's another parallel here with Clouds of Sils Maria in that Maureen feels like a continuation of Stewart's character from the previous feature, minus the bond forming between her and Juliet Binoche's aging actress. If Stewart's floundering assistant in that film came across as a warm if stoic presence, here she portrays someone utterly alone; disconnected, aimless, and going through the motions of her daily work while desperately trying to make sense of her brother's sudden passing. It's a richly nuanced performance; both observational and heartfelt, inward and expressive. The way she navigates the prolonged text messaging sequence, for example, is something of a miracle, since there's nothing inherently compelling about the act of staring into a glowing screen and tapping away. Somehow, however, Stewart makes it riveting.

The theme of fragmented identity is further deepened once Maureen is given the opportunity to try on some of Kyra's designer clothing; a forbidden act which tempts her from a distance. During these scenes, Stewart subtly shifts her mood from withdrawn to self-assured, basically becoming an entirely different person simply by walking around in someone else's garments. The fact that Assayas continues to toy with genre conventions throughout only enhances this idea of self-image in a state of flux based on geography and accessorization, leading to moments of legitimate suspense. Unlike most thrillers or horror films, though, Personal Shopper eschews "gotcha" reveals or twists explaining the unexplainable. Instead, it has the setup of a horror movie (along with some of the imagery), but none of the payoff.

The emotional complexity and intellectual power of Personal Shopper doesn't rest on whether spirits exist or not, but rather, on how human beings choose to deal with the living and remember the dead. Using striking compositions, deft camera movements suggesting the movement of things unseen, and a thoroughly distinctive central performance, Assayas has crafted a masterful meditation on identity which leaves us wondering just what kind of person we will choose to be, no matter where we are.

Free Fire

 

Cast: Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, Armie Hammer, Sharlto Copley, Sam Riley, Michael Smiley, Noah Taylor, Babou Ceesay, Jack Reynor, Enzo Cilenti

Director: Ben Wheatley

Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


Ben Wheatley has always been a filmmaker fascinated by the breakdown of social rules and normative behavior. In films like Kill List, A Field in England, and especially last year's High Rise, the British director has mined the breakdown of modern society to both comedic and horrific effect. With Free Fire, he's made his most mainstream picture; a high-concept genre exercise which uses familiar stereotypes and clichés in order to stage one long shootout inside a warehouse.

Working with longtime collaborator Amy Jump (who co-wrote the skeletal script), Wheatley sets up a series of character types we've grown accustom to in Tarantino-inspired crime films and strands them in a single location; a Boston manufacturing plant where a supposed arms deal is set to commence. There's the smooth turtle neck-wearing interlocutor, the "too old for this" veteran, the hot-headed junkie, the loose-cannon arms dealer, and in the case of Brie Larson, the sleekly dressed business associate who separates herself from the riff-raff simply by being the one female of the lot. Instead of padding things out with unnecessary backstory and exposition, Free Fire spends just enough time during the early moments to establish each character as distinctive enough so that when the bullets start flying, we are able to tell them apart. Clearly, Wheatley is more interested in outsized personalities and the filmmaking challenges of staging one long shootout than in bothering with plausible character motivations.

Once the characters split off into two teams following a violent argument just as the deal is finalizing, the film devolves (rather entertainingly) into a series of grunts, growls, and ricocheting bullets. In between the blustering gunfire (aided by meticulous sound design), the combatants share quippy banter, which many will claim owes a debt to Tarantino, but in actuality, the dialogue is simply highlighting the artificiality of the entire premise. Setting the picture during the 1970s also allows for tacky wardrobe choices and exaggerated music cues, leading one to believe Wheatley is simply havin' a laugh, as they say.

Narrowing its focus down to the bare essentials as characters are picked off (often in brutal fashion), Free Fire achieves the kind of manic intensity Wheatley hasn't achieved since Kill List. An off-kilter, jazzy score often breaks through the din of period appropriate cuts from Creedence Clearwater Revival and John Denver as bodies roll around in dust, crawl through cramped spaces, and clumsily shoot at the flailing movement of shadows. Unlike Kill List and to a greater extent A Field in England, however, Free Fire never reaches the level of true gonzo madness which could have elevated things beyond the level of mere genre exercise. Still, there are thankfully no noble speeches or heroic gestures to be found here, only the sound of grown men yelping and one woman taking it upon herself to unleash hell. The film implies (rather, enforces) the idea that once social etiquette breaks down and power-hungry, weaponized men see massive amounts of cash in their sights, everything will inevitably devolve into chaos. In its small ambitions, Free Fire succeeds as 90 minutes of B-movie lunacy that could be read as a commentary on the the sad absurdity of gun violence, or simply a nasty depiction of deplorable human behavior, set to the worshipful sounds of discharged firearms.

 

Future Islands

 

The Far Field

6

Moving forward by looking backward

If retro revivalism has taught us anything, it's that aping past decades can be a slippery slope; leading to a state where conjuring a sense of nostalgia is the primary goal. Often, pastiche goes down well enough with the mainstream crowd (just look at Netflix's Stranger Things), but it rarely translates into something beyond its influences. In terms of our musical moment, rock and pop bands have been rummaging through the debris of 70s and 80s fallout for inspiration because, let's face it, hip-hop artists are the new rock stars. A surge of glossy synth-pop has made its way back into popular music over the past decade, and with it, plenty of generic basslines, soft drum machines, and washed-out vocals. Baltimore-based Future Islands are a band that fit into this mold, but there's a difference, and his name is Samuel T. Herring.  

As the frontman for a group that's been toiling in relative obscurity for the better part of a decade themselves, an appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman in 2014 which inexplicably went viral marked the beginning of a strange phenomenon for a guy who seemingly just wanted to dance awkwardly, beat his chest, and howl into the night. This is not to disparage the work of fellow band members William Cashion (bass/guitar), Gerrit Welmers (keyboard) and Michael Lowry (drums), all competent musicians in their own right, but it was Herring's undeniably bizarre and yet riveting stage presence which captivated audiences. What followed was a surprising instance in which retro nostalgia butted heads with something operating by its own rules; exemplified by a bona fide synth-pop hit, "Seasons (Waiting on You)" which managed to overcome its derivative sound mainly by the sheer operatic power of Herring's vocal range. Oh, and yes, the sad Dad dancing helped.

Lyrically, Herring has always been interested in kineticism; in this idea of forward momentum at the expense of domesticity or even happiness. The love-sick ballads strewn throughout 2014's Singles revealed a man shaken by bitter breakups, but still hopeful. On The Far Field, he sounds positively defeated, with tales of failed relationships marked by a steady stream of bass-driven grooves and retro synths. In terms of sound, Future Islands have always looked backwards, which gives the lyrical preoccupations an irony which Herring seems genuinely in on, even as he often trips over flowery metaphors and simplistic sentiments.

If Singles was a coming out party for a band who have been subtly refining their sound for years, The Far Field is a slight tweak to a now standard formula which, despite the uniqueness of Herring's voice, has become somewhat repetitive. The songs here are subtler, gentler, and more refined in terms of production, but lack the dramatic spark and raw energy of similarly-sounding tunes from Singles. The closest the band comes to a "Seasons (Waiting On You)" type hit is probably lead single "Ran", with interwoven melodic lines blowing out into a declarative chorus, backed by a steady beat and airy keyboard washes. However, the album highlight is undoubtedly "Shadow", which pairs Herring's deep croon with Blondie's Debbie Harry raspy voice; culminating in a magical duet which takes the band's sound into more adventurous territory. Too bad the majority of the record remains planted firmly in the "what works" realm rather than snaking off in more unexpected directions.

If retro revivalism is sputtering, no one has bothered to tell Future Islands, and beyond that, Samuel T. Herring shows no signs of slowing down. As impassioned as he sounds throughout The Far Field, the notion of forward momentum at all costs is beginning to show its age. No one, not even a man with a throaty growl and untamed heart, can keep running forever. Eventually, life catches up, and with it, all those predictable basslines and familiar synths.