Movie Pick of the Week

 

The Nothing Factory

Director: Pedro Pinho

Year of release: 2018

Running time: 2 hours 57 minutes

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Sitting somewhere between Stephane Brize's drama The Measure of a Man and the Dardenne’s Two Days, One Night with a dash of filmmaker Michel Gomes (Tabu, Arabian Nights), Pedro Pinho's The Nothing Factory is the working class zero opus you didn't know you needed. A film with a limited audience, Pinho's neorealist epic about workers in an elevator factory who are being pushed out by corporate managers is nonetheless a universally searing portrait of the state completely giving up on the working class.

Filmed in a documentary style; with handheld cameras and what feels like a mixture of professional and non-actors, The Nothing Factory differs from the realist working class dramas of the Dardennes, for instance, because it leaches out the individual and instead focuses on the systematic breakdown of the workplace. Many scenes simply feature workers sitting around discussing their plights. In one bravura sequence, an extended argument about Marxism, ecolology, and capitalism becomes one of the most intellectually stimulating moments of the year. Even if we don't know these people, their passionate speechifying gives way to empathy and finally, anger. 

Though slapdash and sprawling at 177 minutes, Pinho's film is also strangely intimate; showing the mundane aspects of the worker's lives--drinking, performing in local punk shows, getting their nails done, playing soccer--and then contrasting that with the imposing sterility of the factory. In fact, one could make the case that this relatively empty space once bustling with activity is in fact the film's protagonist. In any case, the workers' choice to strike and eventually self-manage becomes a fulcrum in which to see the ways in which the Portugal's crumbling infrastructure is permanent and omnilateral; signaling the end of a certain way of life. Instead of fist pumping, flags, or violent political action, there are intense debates with management which eventually shift to collective power gaining control. Though mostly grainy and naturalistic, The Nothing Factory does go expressionistic with a late swerve into musical numbers where the marginalized workers get a chance to sing and dance; if only for a moment, to forget their working class woes by rhythmically sticking it to the man.

 

 

 

 

 

Music Pick of the Week

 

Sleep

The Sciences

Year of release: 2018

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It's reasonable to assume that after nearly two decades, rumors of a new record from stoner metal revolutionaries Sleep was little more than the woozy mutterings of a bong-ripped slacker from the 90's who used to be cool. However, on April 20th (take a hit, maaan), the San Jose, Ca heavyweights did just that; releasing their fourth full-length, The Sciences, to an unsuspecting audience who had either forgotten they still existed or were primed to discover their sonic onslaught for the very first time.

Now in their 40s, the members of Sleep sound as sludgey and propulsive as ever; delivering an album full of thick basslines, heavy riffs, and of course, singer Al Cisneros' Ozzy-like mantras about the cosmic powers of weed. Yes, there's actually a song called “Marijuananaut’s Theme” here, and being under the influence while listening to the psych-doom crescendos certainly helps, but Sleep are no gimmick band. This is effortlessly performed stoner metal that ebbs and flows like a flaming, hurtling beast. Along with Cisneros, the power of guitarist Matt Pike and drummer Jason Roeder (both of whom have had success with projects like High on Fire and Neurosis) adds to the sense of escaping from the world. Even if previous efforts like 1992's Holy Mountain and 2003's Dopesmoker (which was actually an old recording from the 90's re-edited) are now considered canon within the genre, they were essentially demos; made with a lack of means and proper recording equipment. The thing about The Sciences is that it sounds absolutely phenomenal without once sacrificing that fuzzy, distorted charge that has become the band's signature.

Throughout The Sciences, Sleep lay down massive lurching riffs ("Sonic Titan"), seesawing guitar solos ("Antarcticans Thawed") and even some ambient tracks (opener “The Sciences” and closer “The Botanist,”), all foregrounded by Cisneros bellowing into the ganja-infested void. This is the kind of Black Sabbath worship that understands what made Sabbath great; (rather than the trite appropriation we often get with younger metal bands these days) by using repetition and heaviness in a way transcending pastiche. Ultimately, The Sciences is the kind of escape from the world we need right now; in all its crushing, doom-laden, bong-ripped glory. 

   

 

The Rider

 

Cast: Brady Jandreau, Tim Jandreau, Lilly Jandreau, Cat Clifford, Terri Dawn Pourier, Lane Scott, Tanner Langdeau, James Calhoon, Derrick Janis

Director: Chloé Zhao

Running time: 1 hour 44 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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There's something about certain areas of the American landscape which seem to attract those outside the country looking to find beauty in the most unlikeliest of places. Chinese filmmaker Chloé Zhao’s sophomore feature The Rider taps into this quickly disappearing pocket of the U.S. in a way which speaks directly to this fascination. In this case, its the area near South Dakota's Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, which was the setting of Zhao's previous film, 2015's Songs My Brother Taught Me. The director's interest in this material is genuine, and even though The Rider is an often beautiful film, it's also a depoliticized work which blurs fact and fiction in order to shield itself from the broader context regarding the fading myth of the American cowboy.

Real-life bronc rider Brady Jandreau plays a version of himself as Brady Blackburn, a local cowboy recovering from a traumatic head injury. His family, which includes real-life father Tim, and younger sister Lily (who has Asperger’s syndrome) are barely scraping by, compounded by the fact that Brady's dreams of riding stardom are seriously threatened by the fact that one more time on the horse could be his last. Meanwhile, the shadow of Brady's paraplegic friend, Lane Scott (also playing a version of himself) hangs over the proceedings. In real life, the charismatic Scott was injured in a 2013 car crash, and Zhao cannily uses old footage of the former bull-riding star to reinforce the inherent tragedy of the situation.

Though The Rider utilizes a docu-drama approach, the story itself is rather pedestrian; playing more like a typical TV drama than the impressionistic mood piece style would initially suggest. The logical outcome of the narrative seems to be Will Brady retire his dreams, or get back on the literal and metaphorical horse, and where the film eventually goes isn't entirely novel, either. However, what does work is the presence of Jandreau, who is essentially playing out a slightly tweaked version of his actual life, and his scenes opposite his sister and adrenaline-junkie cowboy friends crackle with naturalism. Zhao also demystifies the allure of America's heartland; adding layers of disillusionment and hopelessness along with the visual acknowledgement of the physical abuse such a lifestyle entails. 

At times, The Rider breaks from the documentary approach to allow moments of lyricism and cinematic grandeur. While sequences of Brady riding along a meadow at sunset are undeniably gorgeous, the use of soaring music and slow motion also draw attention to the hybrid approach, thus lessening the emotional impact. The film's best moments, like an extended scene of Brady training an unruly horse, are observed simply and unremarkably; giving rise to the notion that watching someone with a tremendous talent do what they do best is its own reward.

Comparisons to Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler are apt here, but unlike that film, which seem to revel in its depiction of the human body's deterioration, Zhao sees no such heroism in the act of self-flagellation. Instead, Brady is a young man cut off from the rest of the world; sullen, brooding, but inexorably tied to caring for his family and his love for the rodeo. If this world of hyper-macho men risking life and limb seems superficially hollow, The Rider wisely observes these people without judgement and generates empathy for a cultural milieu usually reserved for mockery. If it had examined the region's history of colonialism and moved away from its more typical story elements, Zhao's well-meaning picture could have harnessed sociopolitical power. As it stands, The Rider is an occasionally affecting story of a young man who sees no other option apart from his passions; with director and star finding uncharacteristic beauty in deconstructing the myth of the rugged American cowboy.

 

 

 

 

 

The Sonic Vault

 

Introducing The Sonic Vault; in which your tireless critic dives into the past for records which have in some way defined his music obsessions. The first album up for discussion is Billy Corgan's post-Smashing Pumpkins side-project Zwan and their 2003 release Mary, Star of the Sea


ZWAN

Mary, Star of the Sea

Year of release: 2003

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The 1990's were a decade defined by the self-righteous rock star. From the flannel-wearing slacker turned grunge hero Kurt Cobain to the drug-addled excess of Scott Weiland, it was the last time in recent memory where a single personality could sell a movement. If the aughts have seen the idea of the rock star being supplanted to hip-hop artists like Kayne West, then the 90's were the final gasp of (mostly) white men doing their best deity pose while cranking out guitar solos. Billy Corgan was perhaps the apex of this trend; with The Smashing Pumpkins becoming arguably the most successful band to come out of the alt-rock scene. Corgan, too, was something of a ego-driven believer in his own mythos as a rock n'roll savior. However, this mythos, like most deriving from hubris, soon became laughable once the man reached middle age. Similar to beat poet frontman Jim Morrison, Corgan was someone who earnestly bought into his own hyped genius. Still, the fact that the Pumpkins were able to crank out more than one classic record should not be minimized, even as Corgan often downplayed the artistic merits of his own bandmates in order to elevate himself.

This is all to say that before eventually reforming the Pumpkins in 2005, there was this little album called Mary, Star of the Sea under the Zwan moniker that pretty much came and went. It should be noted that the record was a financial flop upon its 2003 release, and that tumultuous in-fighting (which Corgan bitched about in some damning interviews) led to the group breaking up just as quickly as they had appeared. Still, Mary, Star of the Sea is a legitimately fantastic listen; more pop-oriented than anything Corgan had done up until that point, with melodies and hooks for days. Essentially a supergroup featuring guitarist David Pajo (of Slint), guitarist Matt Sweeny, bassist Paz Lenchantin (of A Perfect Circle), and Pumpkins stalwart drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, the first impression is just how upbeat the music comes across. What happened? Had Billy traded in his black Gothic robes and snarling angst for optimistic love songs?


"If the final years of the Pumpkins had seen drug abuse, delusions of grandeur, and in the case of 2000's Machina, critical and commercial disaster, then Zwan seems to have been a way of resurrecting a more youthful sense of purpose..."


Thematically, the album trades in the self-pitying gloom of past Corgan dirges for spiritual renewal and, umm, yes "love." There's a certain cheesiness to Mary, Star of the Sea which uses shimmery guitar chords, backup female vocals, wailing solos, and intricate drumming in a way not dissimilar to some of the dopey grandiosity of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. If the final years of the Pumpkins had seen drug abuse, delusions of grandeur, and in the case of 2000's Machina, critical and commercial disaster, then Zwan seems to have been a way of resurrecting a more youthful sense of purpose. Never mind that Corgan was in his late 30's at the time. Mary, Star of the Sea is still a glorious throwback to the simplicity and anthemic songwriting of 1993's Siamese Dream.

All this talk of the Pumpkins is inevitable since Zwan, despite the integral achievements of the other band members, feels very much like a re-funneling of Corgan's past. Sunny, bright, and pop-friendly, the bulk of the album's 14 songs are like spinning the dial through 90's FM radio and landing on a series of head-bobbing hits. Though there a few clunkers in the track list ("Baby, Let's Rock", "Settle Down"), the majority of the music here crafts a mood of lazy summertime bliss with the occasional overdub, Chamberlin's herculean drumming, and a squealing guitar solo.

Lyrically, Corgan still waxes about religious zeal and messiah complexes, but the cosmic "bigness" of such things were paired down into stadium-friendly rock with hints of actual emotion. Lost loves. Romantic yearning. Spiritual uplift. It's all here in spades. On "Declarations of Faith", Billy sings, Maybe we were born to kiss another/Maybe we were born to run forever/Maybe we were born to come together/Whatever, and the results are surprisingly touching. Elsewhere, the acoustic love ballad "Of a Broken Heart" and the keyboard-led "Desire" crackle with startling intimacy. Of course, Corgan just can't help himself and eventually gives into bombast with the 14-minute ”Jesus, I/Mary Star of the Sea”, a proggy detour into lumbering melodies and psychedelic noodling that nonetheless climaxes rather spectacularly. Seems like even a wayward soul can revert to overzealous proclamations. For better or worse, the guy had never been one for subtlety.

Mary, Star of the Sea is the kind of album that reminds one of the scattered brilliance Corgan once yielded during his early to mid 90's heyday. It's less bombastic than a Pumpkins record, but still manages to have those nuggets of pop melody and distinctive guitar tones that became staples of the decade's sound. It now feels like something of a lost treasure; relegated to the post-Pumpkins downfall of Corgan's career slide into self-parody. In truth, it is easily the best thing he has made since Siamese Dream, and nothing since (including his revamped Pumpkins output), even comes close to approximating the grand melodies and concise songwriting on display here. If the days of the self-righteous rock star are indeed a thing of the past, then we can still remember fondly the days when prophet Billy stopped whining and decided to smile.

 

  

 

 

 

Avengers: Infinity War

 

Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Josh Brolin, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Chris Pratt, Tom Holland, Elizabeth Olsen, Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Zoe Saldana, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hiddleston, Chadwick Boseman, Dave Bautista, Paul Bettany, Gwyneth Paltrow, Mark Ruffalo, Peter Dinklage, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Benedict Wong, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Letitia Wright, Idris Elba, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Danai Gurira, Carrie Coon

Director: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo

Running time: 2 hours 29 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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WARNING! This review contains extended universe extravaganza type spoilers

 

Avengers: Infinity Wars is a movie about stuff. Stuff happening over there. Stuff happening over here. Thor bickering with Star Lord. Scarlet Witch making goey eyes at Vision. Iron Man trying to out-douche Doctor Strange. Thanos collecting space stones. After 18 films, Marvel Studios has finally arrived at the point where the majority of their superheroes are flung together for a deafening stew of crossover team ups and universe-ending stakes, and this is both a natural extension of calibrated franchise building and the logical outcome of overstuffing the deck. Not to sound reductive, but Avengers: Infinity War is like flipping through a series of comic book issues truncated down to video game-like cut scenes where the arrival of each prominent character is meant to elicit applause from the audience just for showing up.

To be fair, one's investment in the insane amount of material being rammed into Anthony and Joe Russo's film is predicated on attachment to these characters, many of which have starred in their own stand-alone entries. However, the whole question surrounding the Infinity Stones, which have been teased out in almost every previous effort, are more or less moot once supervillain Thanos (Josh Brolin) arrives to collect them all like someone who has watched The Lord of The Rings trilogy one too many times. The movie opens on a starship where Thanos battles Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and Asgardian gatekeeper Heimdall (Idris Elba) while Loki (Tom Hiddelston) predictably shifts his allegiances. Yes, characters die during this opening sequence as they will throughout the rest of the film, even if the permanence of these deaths are questionable in a comic book universe predicated on the immortality of superheroes.

After this brief space scuffle, Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) pulls Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) away from Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), who are engaging in an argument regarding having a baby by focusing his attention on the stone collecting genocidal tyrant en route to planet earth. Meanwhile, Wanda a.k.a. Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), is swooning over android Vision (Paul Bettany) while Spiderman (Tom Holland) and some Guardians of the Galaxy, including Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Drax (Dave Bautista) and Peter Quill a.k.a. "Star Lord" (Chris Pratt) jump forward in time for convoluted reasons involving the ratio of battles won. Spoiler alert: out of the thousands of skirmishes, our intrepid heroes only prevail once.

Avengers: Infinity War is 149 minutes of swirling explosions, mythological mumbo jumbo, and self-aware bantering capped off by a third act gut punch. So many characters arrive and disappear just as quickly, including Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and T'Challa a.k.a. Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), that the effect is one of numbing exhaustion. Though the film attempts to ground Thanos' apocalyptic ideas concerning mass human extinction by giving him some feelings toward his adopted daughter, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), this is yet another example of boring villainy given the air of nuance; further exacerbated by the fact that Brolin's nicely downplayed performance has been grafted onto a fully CGI character. 

One of the main problems with Avengers: Infinity War, aside from the bombastic green screen action sequences, is that the breathless editing, rapid-fire dialogue, and jokey quips are used in place of actual pacing and coherent storytelling. One could make the case that the Russo brothers haven't made a movie at all, but simply corralled a greatest hits demo from the past decade of Marvel antics and squashed them down into one unwieldy package. Therefore, character moments are reduced to sizzle reel action beats, clever one-liners, and displays of cool powers, but what's missing is a defining sense that these superheroes have emotions or thoughts beyond enacting power poses. Of course, none of this will matter much to the faithful who simply want to see all of their favorite characters bouncing off one another and battling an all-powerful baddie bent on extreme population control.

The best thing that can be said about Avengers: Infinity War is that the climatic turn is genuinely surprising; featuring a plethora of deaths and a welcome shift away from good triumphing over evil. Still, the inconclusiveness of this ending serves mostly as a marketing ploy for the fourth Avengers movie, set to be released in 2019. Perhaps most interesting is not who dies and whether or not these deaths are permanent (especially concerning many have upcoming projects in the works), but how these deaths affect the survivors. For all of Marvel's safe by-the-numbers formula, this is probably the series' most fascinating idea, encapsulated by the visage of Thanos staring off contently following his half-the-population genocide. In the moment, this Empire Strikes Back-style finale feels legitimately bold. However, upon closer reflection, the truth is that this is just more cog-in-the-wheel product placement for the (supposed) conclusion of more stuff next year, just as the Marvel overlords intended.

 

 

 

 

Music Pick of the Week

Empath

Liberating Guilt and Fear

Year of release: 2018

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Sometimes, brevity can be liberating. Take Philadelphia noisemakers Empath's latest four-track cassette Liberating Guilt and Fear; part jagged post-punk, part experimental noise, with a side of deranged bird noises. Similar to now defunct art-rock four-piece Ponytail with the kind noodling usually reserved for drug trips, it's 16 minutes of lo-fi racket led by singer/guitarist Catherine Elicson, drummer Garrett Koloski, keyboardist Emily Shanahan, and Randall Coon on synths. As a unit, Empath pull out some sugary hooks, shout-along choruses, and bright keyboard melodies from the thick haze of shronking instrumentation.

Then there's those bird chirps, which inform at least two of the four tracks here. The 9-minute headscratcher, "III", for example, uses those tweeting noises as a backdrop for wind chimes, rolling drum fills, tape hiss, and detuned guitar; leading one to believe that Empath are going for much trippier sonic territory than their noise-punk roots suggest. Of course, hearing Elicson's manic yelped/shouted vocals on the blistering "No Attachment" could also simply mean that the band will be blowing out sweaty basement punk shows for the foreseeable future. Either way, the cathartically brief Liberating Guilt and Fear is an essential listen for anyone with an affinity for jagged punk and Ornithology.            

Movie Pick of the Week

 

November

Director: Rainer Sarnet

Year of release: 2018

Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes

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A 19th century Estonian love story both baffling and intimately familiar, writer-director Rainer Sarnet's November is a mixture of pleasure and pain, violence and romanticism, surreality and grotesque comedy. Greedy peasants, toothless hags, wide-eyed lovers, and anthropomorphic creatures made of what looks like gardening tools is the order of the day here, and that's just the start of Sarnet's unique vision.

Structured around a fable-like narrative that at times remains willfully obtuse, November is best experienced like an ancient spell; unfolding mysteriously, bathed in fog, teeming with distorted black metal guitar riffs, and saturated in gorgeous black-and-white cinematography. The film's main plot centers on a young peasant girl, Liina (Rea Lest), who silently longs for the affections of local boy Hans (Jörgen Liik). When one day Hans stumbles upon the aristocratic daughter (Jette Loona Hermanis) of the local Baron, he falls instantly in love. What follows is nowhere near conventional, even though the unrequited love story at the film's center remains the least compelling aspect.

Based on a novel by Andrus Kivirähk, November is probably impossible to fully decipher without a healthy knowledge of Estonian folklore. Still, like the films of Béla Tarr and the late Aleksei German, Sarnet uses metaphoric/folkloric language and tethers it to surreal imagery which speaks on a primal level. A woman, bathed in moonlight, sleepwalks atop her mansion roof. Another woman strips all her clothes off, wanders into the woods, and begins howling. A wolf rolls around, scratching itself in the snow. The young Hans builds his kratt-- the creature contraptions which bargain for the human soul--out of a snowman. And so on it goes, with each strange sight, surprising sound (including flatulence), and pagan/Christian motif lingering long into the inky darkness of the night; like the menacing twang of an electric guitar.

You Were Never Really Here

 

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov, Alessandro Nivola, Alex Manette, John Doman, Judith Roberts

Director: Lynne Ramsay

Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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A jet plane engine roars. A female voice begins counting down in a hushed voice. The sound of stretching plastic is deafening. A man's face is encased, mouth ajar, breathing heavily. And so begins Lynne Ramsay's You Were Never Really Here; an artful, though mostly ponderous, attempt to deconstruct the grungy hit man exploitation movie. 

In typical Ramsay fashion (she of Ratcatcher, Morven Callar, and We Need To Talk About Kevin fame), the narrative here is fractured; with jagged editing, heightened sound design, and rhythmic visual cues. The man with his face covered in a plastic bag is Joe; a tortured, PTSD-ridden loner played by Joaquin Phoenix whose tasked with rescuing underage girls from sex rings. True to the "God's lonely man" template, ala Taxi Driver, Joe doesn't talk much, but broods a lot under muscly frame, slumped shoulders, and gnarled beard. He's the kind of guy prone to violence who doesn't actually enjoy it; stricken with past trauma that makes his head-crushing attacks via ball pein hammer something of a coping mechanism.

Initially, You Were Never Really Here is effective at locating the disorienting sensation of living on a planet teeming with human garbage. As Joe lumbers into a killing spree en route to rescuing another teen girl, Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), the daughter of a powerful local politician, Ramsay's elliptical approach conjures an off-kilter mood. Additionally, Jonny Greenwood's atmospheric score modulates between his patented off-timed strings/violin motifs and some sleazy 80's synths, accentuating the film's descent into human depravity.

However, it soon becomes apparent that the film isn't concerned with the character of Joe or telling a compelling story. The use of obvious visual metaphors--self-suffocation, a childhood beset by an abusive father wielding a hammer, really?--operate as cheap short-hand for character depth, and the brief snippets of Joe's memories from his time in the war feel shoehorned in to account for the PTSD angle. Additionally, the film's handling of violence; obscuring the impact of Joe's attacks through blocking, security camera footage, and contrived camera placement, ultimately lends the enterprise an impersonal quality. This detached style has worked wonders for Ramsay in the past, but here it distances us from Joe's inner turmoil and the consequences of his actions. In a way, Ramsay almost seems embarrassed by the kind of exploitation trash her film has its roots in.

Since You Were Never Really Here isn't saying anything interesting about PTSD, corrupt politicians, or the nature of violence, it's up to the nightmarish mood, Greenwood's ever present score, and Phoenix's physically commanding performance to keep us engaged, and for a while, this is enough. In particular, Phoenix finds small moments of dark humor in a largely nonverbal role (his affection for green jelly beans and gentle mocking of his elderly mother with Psycho references are highlights), giving us yet another variation on the war-torn, broken soul; ala Freddie Quell from Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master. Sadly, there just isn't enough material here for the talented actor to make Joe's unhinged mental state emotionally or dramatically persuasive enough for us to care about what happens to him. 

As You Were Never Really Here trudges along, there's a sense in which Ramsay's single-minded aesthetic gives the film a repetitive kind of lucidity. However, for every effectively plucked Greenwood string and lethal swing of the hammer, there's a sequence which invites chuckles at its determined self-seriousness. Most egregious is a moment where Joe walks solemnly into the depths of a lake, which beat for beat, feels almost exactly like the end of Phoenix's 2010 mocumentary I'm Still Here; a film which poked fun at the kind of high-art pretensions Ramsay's film seems to be reveling in.

There's a fatalism to Joe, which is exemplified by Phoenix's physicality, that could have connected to rescuing and "saving" Nina from a cycle of depraved men, but the film shows little interest in this. The young teens being kidnapped and raped by sleazy politicians are simply used as devices for Joe's personal journey into the void, and how exactly this elaborate network of pedophiles operates isn't explored either. Meanwhile, Samsonov's Nina is reduced to speaking all her dialogue with a stoic flatness, consisting mostly of lines like, It's okay, Joe. The reason? Well, she has experienced unspeakable horrors and is trapped inside an art film. This is the main problem with You Were Never Really Here. For all its stark beauty, blunt violence, and curdling dread, it's a film seemingly uninterested in the moral quandaries of a man cut off from hope and redemption, deadly ball pein hammer in hand.

 

Lover for a Day

 

Cast: Esther Garrel, Louise Chevillotte, Éric Caravaca, Paul Toucang, Félix Kysyl, Michel Charrel, Nicolas Bridet, Marie Sergeant

Director: Philippe Garrel

Running time: 1 hour 16 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Romantic fidelty is a topic extremely germane to the romantic comedy/drama. The bitter heartbreak of betrayal and the ways in which characters in these genres attempt to cope work in no small part because they speak to a larger urge in all of us to be loved by another. Longstanding French auteur Philippe Garrel has tackled this territory countless times before, especially in some of his more recent efforts like Jealousy and In the Shadow of Women. His latest is a departure of sorts because it focuses on the emotional highs and lows of female characters rather than following a male lead wallowing in self-pity. In fact, the men here are largely caught in the vortex of Jeanne (Ester Garrel) and Ariane (Louise Chevillotte), two women of roughly the same age existing in different romantic circumstances.

The hook for Lover for a Day is simple and laid bare within the film's early moments. Jeanne has been dumped by Matéo (Paul Toucang) and kicked out of their Paris apartment. Face streaked with tears, she arrives at her father Gilles's (Éric Caravaca) flat, where he's currently involved with Ariane, a former student who is the same age as his daughter. What follows is an artful look at burgeoning womanhood; made all the more palpable by the fact that Garrel has cast his daughter in one of the lead roles. While similar aesthetically to his last film, In The Shadow of Women, the crisp widescreen black-and-white imagery and rhythmic naturalism of Lover for a Day feels less navel-gazing because it allows for curiosity and introspection. Instead of leaning into how Gilles views his daughter and lover, the male perspective is kept largely ambivalent. Though both Jeanne and Ariane endure multiple fits of tearful breakdowns, their responses feel authentic to characters of that age, and represent a trajectory which eventually brings them together.

After Ariane prevents Jeanne from committing suicide, there's an intriguing dynamic that develops. Though the former is none the wiser in terms of life experience, she takes on a nurturing quality that dovetails into an almost sisterly bond. During one lyrical sequence taking place at a nightclub, Garrel wistfully captures them dancing with male suitors in one long extended shot. Though this sequence doesn't last long, there's a rich emotionality to the way it's performed, with the women's dialogue muffled out by the sounds of a French ballad playing as Garell's camera lovingly pans back and forth. Lover for a Day is full of such moments; brief single images, prose-like voice over narration, and dramatic shifts captured in static tableaux or simple glances.

Though Gilles insists that infidelity is no huge obstacle, Ariane's desire to experiment outside the confines of their relationship nonetheless calls his bluff. Garrel initially presents Gilles and Ariane's courtship as progressive, but with each indiscretion, the film suggests that relationships are coded with all kinds of unspoken desires and expectations. This is contrasted with Jeanne's desire for monogamy, endlessly holding out hope that her former boyfriend will reconsider his mistake. Garrel treats both of these relationships sensitively, and even if the film ends with one couple falling apart and the other in a seemingly healthy place, there's little suggestion that one way of thinking is superior to the other.

In terms of acting, Ester Garrel gives a delicately wounded performance here, but its newcomer Louise Chevillotte who emerges as the standout. Ariane is a contradiction; unassuming, patient, loving, but also self-destructive and given to temporal sexual urges. At one point she turns and addresses Jeanne's breakup by saying, You’ll get over it. We always do. The "we" in this situation, of course, will eventually be her, and Chevillotte gives the line a solemnity that feels self-knowingly prophetic. As this exchange demonstrates, the film is attuned to the interior lives of women in a manner Garrel hasn't exactly explored with this much tact before. Therefore, even though the sounds of lovemaking and sobbing may swirl, Lover for a Day maintains resonance by treating its female characters as navigators of their own story rather than accessories to the lives of emotionally stunted men.

Young Fathers

 

Cocoa Sugar

8

Stripping back by going deeper
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Genre labeling is a bitch. It can confine, pigeonhole, and dictate expectations. Conversely, it can unburden, sabotage, and defy those expectations. It's something writers and critics (this one included) often use as a crutch; a way of condensing the essence of a thing down to a pull quote. These days, Scottish trio Young Fathers are doing everything they can do make give critics migraine-spinning writers block. On paper, their third album, Cocoa Sugar, carries a more "mainstream" and "streamlined" approach when placed up against their 2014 debut Dead and abrasively brilliant 2015 followup, White Men Are Black Men Too. The dub/hip-hop/R & B/ Krautrock tags certainly apply, as does the lyrical obsession with identity and otherness. Still, the group grapple with the polarities of diasporic community by using symbolic language rather than clearly defined ideas. Therefore, if White Men Are Black Men too was an angry rant of lo-fi anxiety about not fitting in, Cocoa Sugar is what happens when fitting in means realizing the world is rotten to the core.

Made up of members born in Liberia, Nigeria, and Edinburgh, Young Fathers use their differing cultural experiences to unify a cohesive message of wokeness. Utilizing rapping, chanting, and soft-sung vocals over wobbly synths, looping piano, and African rhythms, Cocoa Sugar continues the group's avant-pop sensibilities while managing a more straightforward narrative flow. While there are still songs here bordering on the experimental; the jittery "Fee-Fi", Dan Deacon-esque chiptune of "Turn", or the growling chants on the muffled dirge "Wow", Young Fathers turn even more toward the spiritually accessible/cynical. Lead single "In My View", for instance, uses the biblical character of Delilah as a placeholder for losing oneself in "sinful" behavior, while "Holy Ghost", the most overt hip-hop track on the record, gives us the refrain You can tell your deity I’m alright/Wake up from the dead, call me Jesus Christ over a buzzing synth-driven beat. Meanwhile, "Lord" is essentially a deconstructed gospel song; complete with a haunting piano motif and beautifully emotive choir-like chorus. In true Young Fathers fashion, however, the distorted keyboard and reverb-heavy beat take over, resulting in something blown out; sprawling, drowning in sound, and reaching towards epiphany.

Though more a populist effort, Cocoa Sugar is by no means a step backwards for Young Fathers. In many ways, it's the record they have been working toward all along; less abrasive and genre-defying to be sure, but no less idiosyncratic. The lyrical content on display--love, hate, fear, longing, cynicism, spiritual uplift-- are trapped inside layered production and startling vocal harmonies. At its best, the album lulls one into a relaxed state of contemplation only to shake your bones with a line, turn of phrase, or odd sonic embellishment. It is the sound of a group purging themselves of genre labels, expectations, and rules. It is the best kind of political album; using elements of religiosity and transcendence to tap into actual existential and societal fears. To that end, Cocoa Sugar is an internal protest album; one that may have you humming and head-bobbing before slipping into a dark night of the soul.   

 

 

  

Isle of Dogs

 

Cast: Bryan Cranston, Koyu Rankin, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Kunichi Nomura, Akira Takayama, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Akira Ito, Scarlett Johansson, Harvey Keitel, F. Murray Abraham, Yoko Ono, Tilda Swinton, Ken Watanabe

Director: Wes Anderson

Running time: 1 hour 41 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Has there been a filmmaker as meticulous as Wes Anderson? His symmertical imagery, static framing, rigorous whip pans, and use of montage set to (mostly) British rock songs have made him into one of the most influential (and parodied) visual stylists of the past 20 years. The knock against Anderson has always been his comically particular way of telling stories leaves out relatable human behavior. Whereas early films like Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums were artistic versions of reality filtered through quirky tableau, later works such as The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Grand Budapest Hotel showcased an artist fully invested in creating a dollhouse world all his own. Rather than respond to criticisms of his films being empty and arch, however, Anderson simply leaned into steamrolling his aesthetic like a kid inside a hotel-sized candy store.

All of this really isn't really a problem since artists are free to portray the world as they see fit. Heightened mise-en-scène to the point of obsessive-compulsiveness has always been Anderson's bag. So much so that his first foray into stop-motion animation, Fantastic Mr. Fox, turned out to be the perfect fit for his sensibilities. If Bottle RocketRushmore, and to a certain degree, The Royal Tenenbaums, contained moments of sad-sack emotion, then his latest effort, Isle of Dogs, is a visual triumph which tries to layer in melancholy through gag-a-minute imagery. As a pure distillation of that very specific thing Anderson does and does well, Isle of Dogs is an exhausting display of innovation. However, as a story taking place in a dystopian Japanese city 20 years in the future where dogs have been relegated to a trash heap for carrying diseases, the film replaces sociopolitical context with formalism. The way Isle of Dogs looks, sounds, and feels is the thing, and that may be enough. Still, even if Anderson isn't heralded primarily for narrative, this has to be one of his least compelling plotlines yet.

The story involves a young Japanese boy named Atari (Koyu Rankin), orphan of the devious Mayor Kobayashi (voiced by Kunichi Nomura, who co-wrote the script with Anderson, Roman Coppola, and Jason Schwartzman) who travels to "trash island" in order to rescue his banished dog, Spots (Liev Schreiber). A band of scraggly canines led by their cranky leader, Chief (Bryan Cranston) eventually decide to help Atari locate his missing pet, and what follows is a madcap buddy adventure riffing on Hollywood musicals, crime capers, and Akira Kurowsawa. To that end, Anderson homages entire shots/motifs here while mixing in music cues from The Seventh Samurai, and even includes a major shoutout to Ikiru with a prominent character's name. True to form, there's also plenty of Anderson banter between the dogs from an A-list voice cast including Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, and Jeff Goldblum. 

Of course, the real draw here is the unbelievable visuals; from the stylized retro-futuristic Japan to the grungy decor of trash island. The herky-jerky movement of the dogs gives the film a spastic quality. Every fiber, hair, and swath of cotton smoke is intricately detailed. The score by Alexandre Desplat uses Japanese tribal rhythms to create a sense of unhinged energy. Droll quips give way to anecdotal detours packed with visual puns and gags; including manga-style frames, anime-style animation, and expository paintings. The film is simply bursting with invention; perhaps too much at times, which threatens to drown out the very simple story of a boy searching for his dog.

Then there's the issue of a white man's fantasy vision of Japan, which could rustle some sensibilities. There's an unabashed kitsch factor here, with Anderson throwing in stereotypical signifiers like Sumo wrestling, sushi, Kabuki theater, and taiko drumming. Clearly executed with great affection, Anderson's nods to figures like Kurosawa and Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai may have the unintended effect of white privilege; especially considering multiple mushroom-cloud gags and invocations of military corruption. An artist has the right to imagine whatever version of culture they desire, and Anderson's alternate universe is certainly dense with pastiche. However,  the film's real issues have little to do with the fact that the Japanese character's words are never subtitled, but rather, that this is the rare Anderson film lacking truly memorable characters. 

Isle of Dogs is like watching a talented toy-maker wind up his latest creation and then let it go sputtering into a beautifully designed trash heap. From scene to scene, moment to moment, there's unlikely a more meticulously structured and ingeniously choreographed film to be witnessed all year. The themes of devotion and love (between boy and dog/dog and dog) forming a utopian shield against the dangers of authoritarianism is certainly here, as is the idea of standing up to dangerous ideology; (unwisely portrayed by an American foreign exchange student protester voiced by Greta Gerwig). Mostly, though, Anderson's sheer joy in the act of creation makes Isle of Dogs brain-breaking in a way unrivaled by animated children's fare. Hell, this isn't even a children's film. It's a Wes Anderson film; every deadpan, demented, whimsical, matted mutt frame.

 

 

 

 

 

Ready Player One

 

Cast: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, Lena Waithe, T.J. Miller, Simon Pegg, Mark Rylance, Philip Zhao, Win Morisaki, Hannah John-Kamen

Director: Steven Spielberg

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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As a purveyor of pop culture escapism, Steven Spielberg practically created his own category. The 1970's/1980's were dominated by the filmmaker seizing control of the zeitgeist; remaining three or four steps ahead as the film industry shifted. In the process, he predicted the future of blockbuster filmmaking and molded an entire generation of (mostly) young boys into what has now been termed fanboy geek culture. Of course, Spielberg was simply riffing on his childhood obsessions--Saturday morning serials, 50's sci-fi, David Lean-influenced epics-- and then channeling them into his work. For better or worse, what Spielberg and fellow chum George Lucas wrought upon the masses became more popular than the things they were aping, leading to a whole new crop of younger filmmakers bent on copying the Spielberg/Lucas blockbuster formula. Spielberg's latest effort, Ready Player One, sees him returning to the well of nostalgia that he made his name on; unfurling like a blast of reference-laden cinematic junk food that reveals the future as a place were I.P. has become a cross-promotional nightmare.

Sure, this all may be big studio nonsense, but in Spielberg's hands, the cross-promotional nightmare is also fun; involving a gamer-led parallel universe known as "The Oasis" which allows average dystopian citizens to plug in, become their avatar of choice, and geek out to pop culture references. Based on Ernest Cline's 2011 novel, Ready Player One is essentially Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory gone VR,; where an earnest, bland white kid owns the universe by following digital bread crumbs. In this case, the virtual factory was created by Wonka-esque genius programmer James Halliday (Mark Rylance, channeling Garth from Wayne's World), who placed Easter eggs inside the Oasis before he died that would allow full possession of the I.P. Enter Wade Watts (Ty Sheridan), a skilled gamer living in Columbus, Ohio who, along with fellow virtual competitors/friends Aech (Lena Waithe), Sho (Philip Zhao) and Daito (Win Morisaki), seek to crack the code and take ownership of the Oasis. 

The idea of escaping into a virtual world where gender normality is obscured, personality shifts, and culture is appropriated is already upon us, but instead of revealing itself as a nesting place for trolls and Gamergate controversy, Spielberg cannily exploits our obsession with nostalgia by making it a safe space. Even if Ready Player One is a clunky excuse for trotting out a wealth of pop culture tie-ins and predictable character beats, there's a meta-textual element here in which fandom is a poisonous leach, which perhaps explains why Spielberg has all but removed his own movies from the 'spot the reference' mayhem. There's even a smarmy 80's style corporate goon ready to exploit the Oasis for pure profit named Nolan Sorrento; played, of course, by defacto villain Ben Mendelsohn.

Sheridan is fine as the hero, and he has some nice scenes opposite Olivia Cooke as Art3mis; who appears in the Oasis as a punk rock Akira-esque badass, but the live action human characters are mostly on hand to act as conduits for their digital avatars. Therefore, the plot, such as is, doesn't matter. Likewise, the search for the hidden Easter eggs tucked inside Halliday's games are mainly an excuse for Spielberg to stage some visually spectacular set-pieces. A dizzying race featuring a T. Rex (the only overt Spielberg reference), King Kong, Mad Max dune buggies, the time-traveling DeLorean (complete with composer Alan Silvestri's doing a clever wink at his famous Back to the Future score), is a sugar-rush highlight; a chaotic swirl of movement that nonetheless feels cohesive. However, the film's best and most bracing sequence takes place inside a beloved 80's horror film; which Spielberg uses to honor the past as well as put his characters through the ringer for holding too tightly to their fandom. 

Throughout Ready Player One, Spielberg merges state of the art motion-captured technology (like he did with the criminally underrated The Adventures of Tin Tin and The BFG) with old fashioned thrills that almost feel quaint during our current climate. Needle drop cues for Van Halen's “Jump” and Prince's “I Wanna Be Your Lover” as Wade runs around in his Buckaroo Banzai suit are so goofy that the only appropriate response is to grin through a grimace. Additionally, Spielberg's gee-whizz enthusiasm for the visual aspects means that the film's queasy relationship to "real fans" and "haters"--based on having an encyclopedic knowledge of Halliday's obsession with pop culture artifacts--is never really dealt with.

Despite Ready Player One's insistence that the real world matters more than the imaginary one, Spielberg's own back catalog of pop escapism suggests that the opposite is true. Still, there's something subversive about a movie which implies the death of creativity by clinging to childhood nostalgia--that we are forever doomed to be stuck in a loop of self-referential touchstones--even if that loop involves dorky humor, forced sentiment, and the Iron Giant wrecking shop.  

 

 

 

 

 

The Criterion Corner


Vengeance

Director: Johnnie To

Year of release: 2009

Running time: 1 hour 49 minutes

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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 Johnnie To's masterful 2009 Hong Kong action/crime/western, Vengeance.


To say Hong Kong auteur Johnnie To is a master of framing, tracking, and geometric mise-en-scène is an understatement. The way he choreographs action through clever blocking, long shots/closeups, slow motion, and gliding camera moves is intrinsically linked to the emotional and psychological headspace of his characters. There's a brooding poeticism to his films that makes even the most standard gangster/mob plot invigorating; and his 2009 hit-man thriller Vengeance, is no exception.

While perhaps not as technically virtuosic as Triad Election or as thematically poignant as The Mission, To is still in top form here while giving iconic French rock/ pop star Johnny Hallyday the role of a lifetime as Francis Costello; a hulking former hit-man dressed in black suits and dark sunglasses. Arriving in China after his daughter is injured by thugs and two young grandchildren murdered, Costello goes on a hunt for the perpetrators, but coincidentally runs into a team of killers inside a hotel in a sequence which To stages for maximum drawn-out tension. Moments later, he hires the three hit-men; played by To regulars Anthony Wong, Gordon Lam, and Suet Lam, to avenge his grandchildren's deaths. What follows is a code of honor film reminiscent of classic westerns with a mixture of Hong Kong spectacle and swirling bullets.

Unlike a filmmaker like John Woo, who emphasizes action in a frenzied style of balletic mayhem, To uses spatial distances between characters and a keen understanding of geography in order to derive suspense. A scene where the group roam through Costello's daughter's house trying to figure out how the perpetrators initiated their ambush interspersed with rhythmic flashbacks is breathtaking, while the film's centerpiece sequence in a park where our heroes engage in a slow motion gun battle with a rival gang under the moonlight, is pure action filmmaking of the highest order.

As impressive as such moments are visually, To never loses sight of his characters; giving them amble time to bond over plates of spaghetti, dismantling and loading guns, and sizing one another up through stoic glances. Though Costello is gradually losing his memory due to a bullet in the brain, the film uses this less as a plot device and more to further the contradictions of revenge when the one doling out the punishment cannot remember his actions. It's a notion Christopher Nolan's Memento handled more overtly, but To nevertheless takes this ideology and tethers it to his concrete style, which makes the film a more melancholy affair than one might expect. A thrilling genre picture that often luxuriates more in nor-ish atmosphere than standard action beats, Vengeance marks a fitting entry point to Johnnie To's aesthetic flair and a welcome addition to The Criterion Collection.

 

 

Symbiotic Recommends: 10 Albums

 
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Erich Zann

Emerging Markets

artist info here


Sylvie Courvoisier Trio

D'Agala

artist info here

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JPEGMAFIA

Veteran

artist info here


The Buttertones

Midnight in a Moonless Dream

artist info here

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Anna Von Hausswolff

Dead Magic

artist info here


Hot Snakes

Jericho Sirens

artist info here

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Meat Beat Manifesto

Impossible Star

artist info here


FRIGS

Basic Behavior

artist info here

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Elucid

Shit Don't Rhyme No More

artist info here


Yamantaka//Sonic Titan

Dirt

artist info here

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Thoroughbreds

 

Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Olivia Cooke, Anton Yelchin, Paul Sparks, Francie Swift

Director: Cory Finley

Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Having no internal emotions is a difficult trait to dramatize, since as audience members, we more or less want to connect with onscreen characters, no matter how unlikeable. However, sociopathic tendencies are a gold mine for budding writer-directors searching for yet another tale of youthful narcissism run amok. Colin Finley's directorial debut, Thoroughbreds, is one such case study; the story of vacantly blunt Amanda (Olivia Cooke) and her seemingly decent boarding-school friend Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) who become increasingly bothered by the deplorable behavior of Lily's asshole stepfather, Mark (Paul Sparks). Instead of burrowing into the dead-eyed ennui at the center of his two lead characters, however, Finely instead has made something wholly contrived; full of roving Steadicam shots, purposefully off-key dissonant music cues, and glibly arch monologues padding out a short film idea into feature length. Some people have likened the film's acidic take on High School life to Heathers. A closer comparison would be a Yorgos Lanthimos film for millennials, and that's not a compliment.

The film has a deft setup, and the early moments show potential. We learn that the two estranged friends are thrown back together for SAT tutoring sessions at Lily's swanky mansion, and while Amanda's cold demeanor at first offends her more proper sensibilities, Lily soon finds herself drawn to her friend's uncanny ability to mimic human emotions. The one trait they have in common; a lack of empathy, gradually defines their growing bond as they plot to kill Lily's stepfather, who looms over the proceedings like a dickish monarch with a rowing machine upstairs and detox smoothie downstairs. There's a disturbing act in Amanda's past that overstates her psychopathy, (as well explains the film's winking title) and Lily's trip to the dark side (which includes hooking up with a scuzzy drug dealer, well played by the late Anton Yelchin) feels much too detached to fully register. Finley does gives the two actors plenty of zippy dialogue to chew into, and the chemistry between Cooke and Joy is the real deal, even if the writing itself traps them inside a misanthropic prism that keeps the audience at a distance.

As a satire about a generation immune to genuine feeling, Thoroughbreds is about as insightful as a Buzzfeed listicle about teenage depression. As an escalating slow-burn thriller, Finely cribs the faux-art house style of Kubrick and Lanthimos, but to what end? By keeping the grotesque violence mostly off-screen, is he trying to derive irony out of our lust for blood and vengeance? The real problem is no amount of showy tracking shots, jarring sound design, and exacting symmetrical framing can pull the trick of getting us to identify with characters who themselves have disconnected from the painful realities of being alive. That would have been a real hat trick. Having us be uneasily amused by youthful detachment before eventually breaking our hearts. Instead, Thoroughbreds just shrugs, chuckles, and pretends its all for show.

 

 

 

Music Pick of the Week

 

U.S. Girls

In a Poem Unlimited

Year of release: 2018

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Over the past decade, Meg Remy (aka U.S. Girls) has been busy making outsider indie-pop music with a defiantly female perspective. Traditionally lumped into the lo-fi genre, Remy's sonic inspirations range from Suicide to Tori Amos, while her lyrics tend to focus on the inner lives of women. 2015's Half-Free, for example, was a twisted, avant-pop memoir of cheating lovers, undesirable men, and ladies struggling for liberation. With In a Poem Unlimited, Remy has teamed up with instrumental collective the Cosmic Range and longtime collaborators Maxmilian Turnbull and Louis Percival for a more fully realized sound. The results are like a proto-feminist twist on 70's club music, using pastiche as a way of shedding light on the everyday nightmares (and triumphs) of living as a modern woman.

The uptempo grooves, funky basslines, and lounge synths are superficially distracting, lulling the listener into a head-nodding rhythm before pulling out the rug with tales of abuse, mental/physical burnout, anger, and injustice. The noirish "Velvet 4 Sale", lays on the psychedelic guitar and reverb-heavy bongos as Remy purrs You’ve been sleeping with one eye open because he always could come back, ya know? And you’ve been walking these streets unguarded waiting for any man to explode. It's the kind of declaration that may sound at odds with the tune's dub-friendly vibe, but therein lies the magic trick. Meanwhile, the disco kitsch of "Mad as Hell" is just as self-effacing; a glowing hall of auditory mirrors that circles around a #MeToo rallying cry. Remy may be pissed off, but her music is coated in pop glaze, urging us too look deeper and listen more carefully.

With shades of Marc Bolan, ABBA, and 70's surf/psych, U.S. Girls now have a sound which feels expansive and freed from the lo-fi basement. In a Poem Unlimited is 37 minutes of patriarchy-shattering pop which nonetheless lives and breathes on the assumption that male abuses of power will continue. It's an album filled with pain, rage, and helplessness as each female character depicted makes excuses, hides, or fights back. There are no half-measures. Conformity is not an option. Remy plays the sensuous muse and righteous protester throughout In a Poem Unlimited, and we are left simultaneously reeling and moving our hips.  

Movie Pick of the Week

 

The Death of Stalin

Director: Armando Iannucci

Year of release: 2018

Running time: 1 hour 46 minutes

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Satirizing political corruption and the three-ring circus that is democracy seems so germane as to be nearly irrelevant these days. Writer-director Armando Iannucci, of In the Loop and HBO's Veep fame, certainly knows his way around vulgar political farce, but is there really room for laughing at totalitarian ideology, buffoonish monsters in power, and the massacring of innocent Russian citizens?

Innaucci's latest film. The Death of Stalin, makes good on its title, with dictator Joseph Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) suddenly kicking the bucket, leaving his cabinet of bumbling advisers; including Communist leader in waiting Georgy Malenkov (Jeffery Tambor), counsel members Nikita Kruschchev (Steve Buscemi) and Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Beale) scrambling to gain control. Though less snappy than In The Loop and not quite as razor-sharp as Veep, The Death of Stalin reminds us how history's monstrous rulers were beyond inept, stumbling their way into positions of power in a manner verging on pure absurdity. The crimes perpetuated during Stallinist Russia circa 1953 are not minimized here, but are conduits for us to see the proximity between savagery and ineptitude. In a way, the film is mostly funny because it reveals clownishness as the main impetus for political control.

Using a game cast speaking in American and cockney accents rattling off ping-pong dialogue, The Death of Stalin is not stretching the facts too much here--the cabinet member's wrestling for power plays fairly realistically--while indulging in a few broad sight gags and over the top performances. Jason Isaacs as Soviet Red Army officer Zhukov and Stalin's spoiled children, Vasily (Rupert Friend) and Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) are cartoonishly portrayed, while Michael Palin finds subtle humor and pathos as Minister Vyacheslav Molotov, whose own wife has already been arrested via Stalin's massive witch hunt while he remains true to the party line. Buscemi and Beale deliver the film's sharpest performances; partly because they never go for obvious comedic affectations, playing Kruschchev and Beria as pawns in a deadly system who nonetheless jostle for supremacy with a mixture of sarcasm and dead-eyed resolve. Extended sequences involving kneeling in urine, a Radio Moscow concert performance forced to repeat, and a shuffling of places in line during Stalin's humorously pompous funeral are highlights, and the rapid-fire dialogue has so many barbs per minute that the film will surely improve on subsequent viewings.

The idea of blind trust in authority is at the heart of The Death of Stalin. Both it's comedic mojo and tragic undercurrents stem from the queasy marriage of ideology and morality, with policy changing on a whim due to the shifting political landscape. The outbursts of violence and wide scale death lists issued by Stalin's brutal regime often tamp down the laughs as the film moves toward its bleak climax, but there's a method to Innanuci's madcap madness. Whether it be Stalin, Putin, or our own incompetent leader, there's a lacerating point being made here about submission to power; and that's something that can only be laughed at for so long.

     

 

 

Golden Exits

 

Cast: Adam Horovitz, Emily Browning, Chloë Sevigny, Mary-Louise Parker, Jason Schwartzman, Analeigh Tipton, Lily Rabe

Director: Alex Ross Perry

Running time: 1 hour 34 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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If Golden Exits had been released during the summer of 1976, it's reasonable to assume writer-director Alex Ross Perry would have a mid-range hit on his hands. At the very least, adult audiences looking for the kind of character-based dramas in vogue at the time--think the films of Woody Allen, Eric Rohmer, and Ingmar Bergman at their peaks--would inevitably flock to this low-key character piece. However, since this is 2018, Golden Exists has instead been shoved into the limited theatrical/VOD netherworld where even a niche audience is unlikely and commercial success even more nebulous.

All of this is shame, because this may be Perry's strongest work yet; a melancholic chamber drama about New York City sad sacks whose miserable lives are thrown into disarray after the arrival of an outsider. Unlike Perry's previous work such as The Color Wheel, Listen Up Phillip, and Queen of Earth, Golden Exists isn't hostile or attention-grabbing. Known for prodding his audience, Perry has made a more introspective film this time out that nonetheless retains his penchant for focusing on narcissistic characters. Aesthetically, he's still obsessed with capturing a 70s-tinged mood; with Sean Prince Williams's soft-lensed cinematography nicely complimenting Keegan DeWitt's wonderfully minimalistic score and Robert Greene's rhythmic editing. From a filmmaking standpoint, Golden Exists shows remarkable restraint; utilizing clever scene transitions, dissolves, fade-outs, and time stamps which enriches the lazy passage of time. 

In many ways, the film is akin to the mid-life crisis narratives surfacing in some of Noah Baumbach's recent films like When We Were Young and The Meyerowitz Stories. However, since Perry is only 33, there's a distance here that makes Golden Exists less navel-gazing than Baumbach's output and therefore more heartfelt. More crucially, Perry's movie is about desire; an ordinary, fleeting kind of desire which dulls with age and can occasionally be reawakened when someone younger roams into view. In this case, the story focuses on the arrival of 25-year-old Australian assistant Naomi (Emily Browning) who comes to work for archivist Nick (Adam Horovitz), a man in his late 40's who is unhappily married to Alyssa (Chloë Sevigny), a therapist with her own internal issues. Meanwhile, Nick's sister-in-law Gwendeloyn (Mary Louise Parker) seems drawn to Naomi mostly because her presence reaffirms the feelings of superiority she has towards her sister and brother-in-law.

What's shrewd about Golden Exists is how Naomi--well played by Browning with a mixture of naïveté and confidence--simply brings out the sad insecurities of those in her orbit; which also includes a millennial husband/wife played by Jason Swartzman and Analeigh Tipton. The younger married couple looks at Naomi with jealousy only 5 years removed since she represents the kind of free-spirited casualness they miss, while the middle-aged characters regard her as a stark reminder of how fleeting their routines have become; with the tinge of wasted youth spiking the cocktail. 

There's a musicality to Perry's writing that unifies the soft-focus lighting, piano-laden score, and measured editing in a way which feels both authentic and theatrical. Some will claim the film fails by spending time with entitled bores who cannot see beyond their microscopic perspectives, but isn't that the point of art; to contextualize the way we live in a perpetual state of self-delusion? With the explosion of social media adding a layer of imposed satire to our basic vanity, Perry empathizes with his lost characters because they are closer to us than we'd care to admit.

The archness of Perry's dialogue, which often bursts forth as ironic monologues, can easily be discarded as "inauthentic", but that's reducing art to an expose of naturalism rather than emotional truth. Even if Naomi is rendered a fantasy object, Browning's empathetic performance suggests a real person there; someone whom everyone notices, but whose worth is predicated on how she reflects upon the ones doing the noticing. These kinds of details, so pertinent to Perry's growing maturity as a filmmaker, ultimately makes Golden Exists the best adult drama of 1976.

Annihilation

 

Cast: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, Oscar Isaac, Benedict Wong

Director: Alex Garland

Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Writer-director Alex Garland's 2015 sci-fi drama Ex Machina, about the murky intersection of human ego and A.I., showed promise. A modestly budgeted genre picture raising philosophical ideas by tethering it to emotional pathology, the film only spiraled into the kind of laughable nonsense that plagues so many science fiction stories during the final act. The journey, as it were, was more rewarding than the destination. With his more ambitious followup, Annihilation, Garland has fashioned something where both the journey and destination are of little consequence. There's grand imagery here, but little imagination. Concessions to "strong female characters", but no relatable human beings. Potentially provocative ideas, but zero intellectual curiosity. It's a film that feels engineered to be a technical object; all shiny surfaces and blaring synth soundscapes without an emotional anchor.

During the opening moments, a beam from outer space streaks across the horizon, crashing into a lighthouse on the shore of a nature preserve. Enter Lena (Natalie Portman), a Johns Hopkins School of Medicine professor and former Army veteran, who is still grieving the loss of her military husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac). When he shows up out of nowhere one day, Lena is overwhelmed with joy until she realizes that this man is not who he seems. Staring off blankly and talking in a clipped monotone, Kane is elusive regarding his whereabouts over the past year. He eventually collapses, blood spurting from his mouth, before being taken captive by masked government agents en route to the hospital. Lena is given a shot, falls unconscious, and later wakes up inside a remote facility. A psychiatrist, Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), explains to her that Kane's former mission was to enter the mysterious zone known as "The Shimmer" near the lighthouse, and that he was the only known survivor. 

From here, Annihilation turns into a mission movie, where Lena joins up with Ventress and three other scientist officers, Anya (Gina Rodriguez), Josie (Tessa Thompson), and Cass (Tuva Novotny) in order to travel into the heart of the Shimmer and document their findings. Garland's aesthetic here is to view the women's journey as a passive observer; going for the detached, Kubrickian angle so many modern filmmakers have adopted in lieu of emotional engagement or psychological inquisitiveness. What that means is that even if the notion of a female-led sci-fi hybrid is welcome, Garland shows very little interest in these women as actual people. Each character here is given a single trait defining them in terms of male ideas regarding femininity. So we get one woman who cuts herself, one that lost a daughter, one that has an incurable disease, and so forth. Even Lena is a cliché; headstrong, good with guns, and pining for her husband. Portman is a commanding presence, but she's given very little wriggle room in terms of characterization and her flashback scenes with Isaac, filmed in a warm sepia-tinged glow, are rather embarrassing stabs at development.

As the team plunges deeper into the forest, Annihilation amps up the hallucinatory atmosphere; with The Shimmer refracting genetic material by merging different life-forms together. There are attacks by crocodile, a ravenous bear-like creature, and even violence within the unit, as members gradually begin losing their grip on reality. Characters get picked off one by one, but sadly, there's very little in the way of emotional engagement since Garland shows absolutely no interest in the inner lives of his characters.

Meanwhile, the film maintains a washed-out green screen visual palette; which is how a lot of modern dystopian films look these days. Overlit, with phony-looking backdrops mixed with real environments, the world of Annihilation never feels truly immersive, and the film's self-serious tone doesn't help matters. Even when things go into delightfully trippy territory near the climax, there's no kink or playfulness to the film's inherent silliness. Instead, Garland simply doubles down on the mushroom-trip visuals and Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow's throbbing electronic score. Terms like "mind-bending" will likely be lobbied at the film's legitimately weird final moments, but there's really nothing substantive going on here that would merge the visual splendor with something emotionally or intellectually probing. 

Annihilation is based on a novel by Jeff VanderMeer, so it's reasonable to assume some of the flaws here rest with the source material, but there doesn't necessarily need to be nuanced character dynamics or psychological insight for a genre film to work on its own terms. However, since Garland isn't interested in action or horror (except for one gruesome scene of violence), the genre trappings feel more cosmetic than integral. Instead, he's aiming for the avant-science fiction of something like Jonathan Glazer's brilliantly unnerving Under the Skin. Whereas that film was mysteriously alluring, Annihilation is mostly a snooze, save for a few memorable images of cosmic weirdness, leaving one to wonder; why venture deep within The Shimmer when the only things there are crocs, fauna, and forced ponderousness? 

 

 

 

Music Pick of the Week

 

Clawing

Spectral Estate

Year of release: 2018

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Alabama-based spoke word artist/conjurer of nightmares Matt Finney doesn't do half-measures. His contributions to the realm of apocalyptic doom-gaze (if that's even a thing) has given us some of the decade's most transcendent music; particularly his work with Ukranian composer Oleg Shpudeiko (aka Heinali). For starters, try listening to 2011's crushingly brilliant Conjoined; which interspersed sweeping arrangements with Finney’s mournful lyrics. Then there was his collaboration with ambient Dutch musician Mories, who partnered up in 2014 for EP Creation Myths and then later with Love Songs and Christian Country Home; the later of which was the apex of analog synth soundscapes and despairing wordplay.

Now we have Finney's latest project, Clawing, which teams him up with Austin Gaines (of industrial noise-punk-metal band calques) and electronic musician Jeff Mcleod. The result of their powers is Spectral Estate; an ear-scraping, tectonic plate-shifting blend of noise, doom, and yes, bleak prose. Finney's lyrical preoccupations are like visual tapestries of human misery; snapshots of grotesquery, filth, piss, and regret, but in true David Lynch fashion, such visions are beautiful (and often darkly humorous) because they exist in the real world.

Epic opener "Mythology" is a good example of this template, with Finney whispering the lines Woke up twenty years too late/next to the wrong person/and addictions/and doors that wouldn't open over metallic rumbling, jangly guitar arpeggios, and what sounds like rustling wind. The song eventually devolves into a mechanized pool of sensory feedback loops swallowing everything alive. It's also 11-minutes long.

The remaining five tracks are just as cacophonous; from noise-pedal distortion ("Gourds"),  a prolonged 2001-esque plunge into wormholes ("A Clearing"), industrial helicopter blades ("Coma"), intergalactic static ("Plastic Glowing Stars") and horn-rattling sleeplessness ("Home"). All the while, Gaines and Mcleod's immersive production blares, fades, crunches and burns like battery acid. Every once in a while, Finney shows up, drops a few lines, and then slithers away into the inky blackness. Is Spectral Estate the sound of our nightmares, or are we even asleep? This unnerving, insomnia-inducing soundtrack certainly won't provide any answers, but only new mysteries to keep us up at night.