If Beale Street Could Talk

 

Cast: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Colman Domingo, Teyonah Parris, Michael Beach, Dave Franco, Diego Luna, Pedro Pascal, Brian Tyree Henry

Director: Barry Jenkins

Running time: 2 hours

by Jericho Cerrona

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“I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through glass.”

This line, spoken by Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) while visiting her lover Alonso “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James) at a prison visiting area, is at the heart of Barry Jenkins’s swooning adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name, If Beale Street Could Talk. The film’s understanding of Baldwin’s prose and ideological constructs informs the aesthetic choices (from characters looking directly into the camera), to the way emotional breakthroughs are delivered through literal and figurative obstacles. Above all, Jenkins (by way of Baldwin) gets at how America’s prejudices often obliterate the integrity of authentic love.

From the outset, If Beale Street Could Talk uses a fractured narrative which dips in and out of Tish’s recollections. Her pregnancy with Fonny’s child informs the structure, not to mention familial strife, even as Fonny remains in prison awaiting trial for the rape of a Puerto Rican woman, Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios). Though he insists he didn’t commit the crime (and has various witnesses attesting to his alibi), the justice system is set up to incriminate African American men for simply living in a certain geographical area. During an early scene, Tish admits being pregnant to her mother, Sharon (Regina King) and father, Joseph (Colman Domingo), which creates a palpable sense of tension in the room. Tish’s body language is cautious, hesitant, and expecting the worse; she is, after all, young and unmarried, with the father of her child in jail. When her sister, Ernestine (Teyonah Parris) stands up and gives her a vote of confidence, things lead to an extraordinary sequence where Fonny’s judgmental mother (Aunjanue Ellis) attempts to use the Bible to shame and condemn, only to be beat down (literally) by Tish’s family unit. It’s a moment of startling pain and empathy; reaffirming the idea that no matter the hardships, we all need each other in order to survive.

As he did with Moonlight, Jenkins is working in an impressionistic register; informing scenes with a melancholy sweep which gives us an emotional headspace in which to internalize the narrative. The dreamy aesthetic works both as a shorthand for love’s unpredictable ebb and flow, as well as conjuring an almost displaced sense of time. Rather than using stylistic flourishes as empty posturing, however, Jenkins situates the lyricism as a means for tapping into darker, more uncomfortable truths. For example, a shot where Sharon arrives at an airport in Puerto Rico is filmed in a tableau bursting with color and slow-motion, emphasizing the mother’s stern determination to save her daughter’s situation. The very next scene, however, upends this by showing her fidgeting uneasily with a variety of wigs in order to appear more confident. It’s a heartbreaking moment, and King (who is sublime throughout) absolutely nails the combination of desperation and pathos.

There are other times where the film achieves this kind of balance, such as a long conversation between Fonny and old school buddy Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry). While things begin jovially, the discussion takes a somber turn once Daniel begins talking about his time in prison. His admission of white men being the devil and his irrevocable trauma for what he’s endured locates the sense of hopelessness African Americans feel while navigating a system built to subjugate them. Therefore, Jenkins’s film is not only a tragic love story, but also a portrait of the dehumanization (physically and spiritually) people of color experience through America’s racist systems.

At times, If Beale Street Could Talk traffics in stereotypes (Ed Skrein’s racist cop, Diego Luna’s saintly Hispanic waiter, and Dave Franco’s woke Jewish realtor come to mind), but such archetypes simply reinforce the different forces swirling around Tish and Fonny’s romantic courtship. There are evil forces in the world, and benevolent ones. There are also innocent forces, as evident in the birth of Tish and Fonny’s child, who wails at a world ready to devour him. This duality; of tragedy and hope—where the father remains unlawfully caged while the child roams freely— is central to Baldwin’s mix of cynicism and conviction. For his part, Jenkins honors this ideology while also making something that feels very much his own; full of life, love, and heartbreak.

Favorite Films of 2018

 

2018 felt like hitting the reset button after 2017’s political, societal, and planetary meltdown of epic proportions. Though American studio releases continued chasing the reboot/rehash culture, there was a marked shift where films with diverse perspectives like Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians captured the zeitgeist. This gave the industry a much needed boost, though foreign films and documentaries remained steadfast in showcasing the wide-ranging spectrum of human experiences. Empathy and anger stood side by side (Blackkklansman, Blindspotting), while auteurs found time for quietly contemplative inner dialogues (Roma, If Beale Street Could Talk). Of course, there was plenty of brain-dead entertainment too (Venom, The Predator) and even trolling masters sticking their fingers in the wound of a sensitive culture (The House that Jack Built). Mostly, though, 2018 was a year in which there were no clear distinctions of what would work, be profitable, or move the needle, and the resulting list of 15 favorites proves the art form can still give us a glimpse into experiences different from our own. Long live the films. May they never die.


15

The Nothing Factory

Pedro Pinho's neorealist epic about workers in an elevator factory who are being pushed out by corporate managers is a universally searing portrait of the state completely giving up on the working class. By turns languid, funny, sad, and unexpected (those late musical interludes!), The Nothing Factory is the working class zero opus you didn't know you needed.

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14

Leave No Trace

Rarely has a film about America's apathy towards its veterans actually deemphasized ideology in order to push compassion, but Debra Granik's deeply felt film about a father and daughter surviving off the grid does just that. A powerful parable about the falseness of the American dream, Leave No Trace understands that empathy extends to all living things, whether they choose to live as part of a community or apart from it.


13

Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?

Travis Wilkerson’s self-narrated essay/documentary investigates the 1946 murder of an African-American by a white grocery store owner in Alabama, and becomes an indictment of whiteness. Images of broken down grocery stores, family photos, and deserted streets are interspersed with interviews and Wilkerson’s grave narration; deftly linking the cyclical nature of racial violence with cross-dissolving editing schemes.

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12

Life and Nothing More

Writer-director Antonio Méndez Esparza handles black oppression through a subtle lens in this intimate film about a small family in rural Florida. The absence of a father figure, economic struggle and familial discord are present, but Life and Nothing More plays out more like a gentle ellipsis than a heavy-handed narrative; using spatial distances and naturalistic conversations to encourage us observe rather than judge.


11

The Other Side of the Wind

A work of madness with a wounded heart; Orson Welles’s “lost” film (shot over the course of six years from 1970-1976) is the story of an aging patriarch desperately trying to stay relevant as the world he helped shape disappears behind him. Stylistically bold, narratively meta, and obsessed with Hollywood myth-making, The Other Side of the Wind is an unclassifiable slice of movie history.


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10

November

A mixture of violence, romanticism, surreality, and grotesque comedy, Estonian writer-director Rainer Sarnet's November is unlike anything you’ll see all year. Bathed in fog, teeming with distorted black metal guitar riffs, and saturated in gorgeous black-and-white cinematography, the film’s central love is mainly an excuse to tether metaphoric/folkloric language to freakish imagery. 


9

Scarred Hearts

Radu Jude’s unique adaptation of Romanian writer Max Blecher’s final novel unites political fury with a macabre dissection of the body. Blecher died at age 28 from musculoskeletal tuberculosis, and Jude’s striking widescreen imagery takes in the poet’s physical immobility with pathos, while also criticizing the legacy of Romanian fascism. A philosophical, but also humorous, examination of literary ambition, anti-semitism, and medical minutiae.

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8

Western

A German construction crew is sent to Bulgaria to work on a hydroelectric power plant in Valeska Grisebach’s understated commentary on power, privilege, and wounded masculinity. Following a stoic pacifist as he befriends villagers living nearby while also navigating his hot-headed fellow workers, Western brilliantly uses silence and medium-to-long shots to make political statements without ever preaching.


7

Let the Sunshine In

The search for a partner is at the heart of Claire Denis’s exquisite Let the Sunshine In, which moves from hope to sadness in a manner complimenting the film’s fascination with how love can corrode from the inside out. Aided by Juliette Binoche’s extraordinary central performance as a divorced mother drawn to men with low moral standards, Denis not only inverts the romcom, but sneakily lays bare the inherent falseness at the genre's core. 

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6

The House That Jack Built

Danish provocateur Lars von Trier often uses the extremity of human suffering as a model for emotional and psychological substance, and his latest doozy The House That Jack Built, is no exception. Following Matt Dillion’s serial killer as he maims and murders, the victimization narrative operates rather cunningly as probing self-critique. The ability for artists to create morally questionable art results in a shocking, darkly funny, and strangely transcendent masterwork.


5

If Beale Street Could Talk

Writer-director Barry Jenkins’s euphoric adaptation of Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name is tender, poetic, harsh, and unbearably moving. Following the romantic courtship of Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) and Alonso “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James) and the subsequent false imprisonment of the latter, Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton create wondrous compositions which match the interior emotions of his characters. There’s injustice, tragedy, and heartbreak here, but If Beale Street Could Talk is primarily a humanistic work of art.

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4

First Reformed

Ethan Hawke plays a middle-aged pastor deeply questioning how the religious community have denied the destruction of the planet in Paul Schrader’s intellectually dense, surprisingly funny, and aesthetically daring First Reformed. Mixing the transcendental style of filmmakers like Robert Bresson, Carl Theodor Dreyer, and Yasujirō Ozu, with Schrader’s own "God's lonely man" template, the film is a startling riff on modern radicalism, ecology, and suffering as a call to arms. 


3

Zama

Never before has the horrifying face of colonialism been as sadly deadpan than in Lucrecia Martel’s Zama; a film which often plays like a droll comedy where a waiting man must continue waiting as bureaucratic red tape piles up. Martel uses class distinctions in order to draw out oblique thematic connections, with unfussy compositions and details packed into every frame. The results are a major film from a major filmmaker; conjuring a Kafka-esque vision of comic snubs that ends with a haunting exclamation mark.

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2

24 Frames

The final, posthumously released film from Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami is made up of 24 single-shot vignettes where ordinary scenes are reconstructed through a variety of VFX work. Taking inspiration from Kiarostami’s own photographs and then imagining what would happen the moment after the picture was taken, the results are gorgeously zen-like in presenting wintry settings devoid of human interaction. 24 Frames understands the passage of time, and perhaps even the inevitability of Kiarostami’s own passing, in a way which reaches toward the profound.


1

Personal Problems

Though technically made in 1980, Bill Gunn’s “meta-soap opera” only played on a few TV stations before disappearing unceremoniously. Resurrected for a limited theatrical run in 2018, Personal Problems is a towering work; giving us late 1970s-era Harlem African American life through the prism of grainy video. Gunn and co-writer Ishmael Reed allow scenes to play out in long takes, detour into seemingly unconnected vignettes, and have story threads circle back in on themselves. Intimate yet sprawling, experimental yet emotionally resonant, Personal Problems is an extraordinary tapestry of lives we rarely experience, told in a way not yet duplicated.

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The "Whiff Test" Films of 2018


The basic parameters of the cinematic “Whiff Test” are this: these are films with some measure of artistic merit, but present themselves at a certain point during the screening where one senses a rather dreadful stench. You will also most likely see at least a handful of these choices on other critic’s best of the year lists. Therefore, there will be no VOD horror trash, big budget superhero fodder (Venom, natch), or lame romcoms represented here. Instead, my least favorite films of 2018 were movies that had all the ingredients for greatness, but somehow traveled too far up their own ass to survive. So, relax, sit back, and get a whiff of 2018’s most egregious turkeys.


10

Annihilation

Writer-director Alex Garland's sci-fi mission movie about a team of scientist officers traveling into a mysterious zone is a film of grand imagery, but little imagination, using trippy visuals to paper over thin characterizations and a lack of emotional depth. Why even venture into “The Shimmer“ if the results are this snooze-inducing?

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9

Private Life

Don’t let the fine acting and critical praise fool you; writer-director Tamara Jenkins’s latest is simply another “neurotic middle-aged white people bitching about their privilege” movies. New York artists trying to have children while undergoing a midlife crisis is the kind of bougie lameness we’ve seen for decades, and Jenkins’s combination of earnest drama and physical comedy is the type of forced “quirkiness” passing for realism that feels completely reductive in 2018.


8

Tully

Director Jason Reitman teams up with writer Diablo Cody for the third time for this annoying treatise on the barbarity of modern motherhood. Charlize Theron plays a very pregnant mum stuck in a boring marriage who hires a night nanny, and as magical-realist flourishes begin cropping up, Tully  shows its cards as a gimmicky narrative en route to the predictable character epiphany.

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7

Hold the Dark

Jeremy Saulnier’s latest thriller is mostly a laughable dirge into the abyss of human darkness which doesn’t seem to realize how ridiculous it is. Jeffery Wright plays an Alaskan wolf hunter. Alexander Skarsgård is a traumatized war veteran on a killing spree. Riley Keough is a stoic mother who likes wearing animal masks while naked. And the wolves (gasp!) are just a metaphor for the savage evil of humanity. Whiff.


6

Mute

Duncan Jones’s labored passion is like a watered down version of Blade Runner meets Minority Report in which a mute Amish bartender wades through a dystopian society looking for a missing waitress. Paul Rudd and Justin Theroux show up mugging wildly as private surgeons for a crew of gangsters, but the film’s crushing monotony and derivative world-building ultimately represents the nadir of Netflix-approved content.

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5

How To Talk To Girls At Parties

Adapted from a Neil Gaiman short story of the same name by John Cameron Mitchell, this spirited mess about a young lad falling for an alien girl in 1970’s London attempts to merge the punk movement of the time with cultic kitsch, but ends up as a shallow tale of teenage awkwardness rather than a statement on individuality. Oh, and while it may be many things, it’s definitely not punk.


4

American Animals

A film that has no reason to exist, Bart Layton's fiction/nonfiction hybrid centered around the stealing of rare books from a Kentucky college’s library gives us four young men smugly attempting to atone for their sins. With its faux-heist signifiers and Eroll Morris-lite pretensions, American Animals is yet another pointless story humanizing bored white criminals. Yuck.

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3

22 July

The 2011 Norway attacks by Anders Behring Breivik that left 77 people dead was an unspeakable atrocity, and director Paul Greengrass cheaply uses this real-life tragedy as a soapbox for simplistic moralizing. The purpose here might be to open up a dialogue about how someone like Breivik exists, but there’s little artistic or political utility in Greengrass’s exploitative approach; rendering his film as yet another dramatic thriller trivializing actual human suffering.


2

Vox Lux

Vox Lux is Brady Corbet’s laughable commentary on the superficiality of celebrity; made all the more grating by Natalie Portman’s repetitive over-acting as an adult pop star in meltdown mode. The film lacks any real understanding of how pop music actually functions in society, instead choosing to show how pain, tragedy, and self-destruction is good for pop branding. Glib, banal, and condescending; Corbet ultimately adopts the same signifiers he’s seeking to condemn.

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1

Suspiria

Luca Guadagnino’s cover version of Dario Argento’s 1977 classic is self-serious nonsense which fails to deliver on even the most basic horror movie level. Tilda Swinton plays three roles. Nazism, political violence, half-hearted nods to feminism, and (gulp) old man confessionals about dead wives gets thrown into the mix. The film makes the fatal mistake of pivoting away from actually being a horror movie and talks down to an audience expecting genre thrills. Sadly, the only spell being cast by Guadagnino here is a steadily building sense of boredom.


The Favourite

 

Cast: Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, Nicholas Hoult

Director: Yorgos Lanthimos

Running time: 2 hours

by Jericho Cerrona

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No one is ever going to accuse Yorgos Lanthimos of selling out and going Hollywood, but his latest effort, The Favourite, is probably the closest he’s ever come to making a crowd-pleaser. With a streamlined script from Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, the Greek auteur’s penchant for meandering storytelling (as seen in films like Dogtooth and The Lobster) has been reigned in, though he certainly doesn’t skimp on the arty flourishes. With flashes of anachronistic costuming, foul-mouthed dialogue, and comedic detours, The Favourite is mostly an off-beat lark, though what’s most surprising here is just how much Lanthimos actually shows empathy for his characters.

Taking place in the early 18th century, the film follows the gout-infested, childish Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), her closest friend and secret lover, Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), and Sarah’s cousin, Abigail (Emma Stone), who has survived multiple horrors in order to arrive at Kensington Palace seeking employment. Upon learning of the Queen and Sarah’s clandestine romantic relationship, Abigail hatches a scheme to seduce the Queen as a power move to climb up the royal ranks. What follows is a lively, if surprisingly straightforward (for Lanthimos), three-way costume/character drama. There are elements of Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship in the modernized banter, and even Albert Serra’s tragicomic The Life and Death of Louis XIV in the depiction of silly wigs and deteriorating bodies. However, Lanthimos doesn’t completely trust the screenplay’s subversive streak and occasionally gets in his own way; using a variety of low-angle camera placements, fish eye lenses, and showy whip pans.

The aesthetic garishness of The Favourite is only mildly annoying, seeing as how the film really exists as a showcase for three sublime performances. Colman pouts, whines, and acts like a spoiled child, but there’s a heartbreaking sense of arrested development as we learn little snippets of her past; including why she keeps 17 caged rabbits in her bedroom. A scene where she gorges on cake in between bouts of inconsolable tears is both disturbing and funny, which is exactly the tone Colman strikes throughout. Weisz, meanwhile, probably has the film’s most deliciously mean-spirited dialogue, and she delivers it with swaggering confidence that we later learn is somewhat of a mask for the genuine feelings she has for the queen. Stone uses the familiarity audiences have with her screen presence to disarming effect as she plots, schemes, and undergoes the movie’s most satisfying character arc. Nicholas Hoult’s supporting turn as young minister Robert Harley is also worth noting as the lone male figure with prominent screen time; a powdered dandy with power who underestimates all three women and becomes, in a nice gender reversal, something of an emasculated pawn.

The Favourite features a twisted love triangle which also happens to include a waging war with France, increased taxes, and broader issues lurking just outside the confines of the royal court. Lanthimos seems most interested in the private tug-of-war between the three women, which includes a “sex positive” queerness angle which plays refreshingly matter-of-factly, but after an intriguing buildup, the film refuses to push into unexpected territory during the third act. Perhaps it’s a compliment that Lanthimos doesn’t embrace his inner weirdness as an alienating construct like much of his past work, but instead, trusts his actors to provide most of the engagement. However, just when you think he may be going for softball ending, the final shot refracts everything we’ve seen into a nightmarish hall of mirrors; reinforcing the notion that when it comes to power, human beings really are grotesque animals.

Vox Lux

 

Cast: Natalie Portman, Raffey Cassidy, Jude Law, Stacy Martin, Jennifer Ehle, Christopher Abbott

Director: Brady Corbet

Running time: 1 hour 54 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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There’s a potentially provocative idea at the heart of Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux, visualized during the opening moments in which a school shooting massacre launches the career of a girl who survived the incident. There’s something perverse about the collision of pop culture and violence, and the way in which Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) and her sister Eleanor (Stacy Martin) pen a song in memory of their slain friends which becomes an anthem for a grieving nation. As Willem Dafoe’s omnipresent narrator explains, Celeste changes the “I” to “we,” in the song’s chorus; reconfiguring personal pain as universal. The tune turns into a chart-topping hit, thrusting Celeste into pop stardom guided by her scuzzy manager (Jude Law). However, the notion of pop culture’s relation to mental illness or national tragedies is never fully explored, and instead Vox Lux becomes a rather thin pop star in decline narrative; complete with a grown up Celeste (Natalie Portman) struggling with alcoholism and the trappings of fame.

Structured in three parts with foreboding titles like “Prelude 1999,” “Act I: Genesis 2000-2001,” and “Regenesis 2017,” Vox Lux takes a lot of time going nowhere while saying nothing particularly of interest. By framing Celeste’s introduction into celebrity culture around the wide-ranging tide of history (911 is mentioned fleetingly), and a present day terrorist attack where the assailants don masks similar to ones used in one of Celeste’s early music videos, Corbet ends up replicating the very things he’s denouncing. Vox Lux is about the emptiness of the pop culture machine and how people who become famous at an early age never mature emotionally beyond that point, which is exemplified by Portman’s grating performance as a star in meltdown mode. Taking on a generic New Jersey accent and flailing about with calculated gestures, Portman’s acting here is unintentionally hilarious. Meanwhile, the film’s commentary on the superficiality of celebrity is laughably self-serious (complete with Dafoe’s philosophical narration and Scott Walker’s thunderous score), without any satirical humor to offset the somber tone.

The film’s final act involves Celeste’s return to her home town of Stanton Island for a concert. There’s a forced reconciliation with her estranged sister Ellie (still played by Stacy Martin) and her daughter Albertine (played by Raffey Cassidy, aka the young Celeste). There’s an extended scene where mother and daughter go to a diner where she berates a fan, and a throwaway line of dialogue mentioning a car accident settlement and racist tirade, but for the most part, Corbet steers away from anything resembling psychological depth. His real aim seems to be to approximate the kind of disposable narrative arcs regarding celebrities which have become commonplace. To that end, the climax is an extended concert where Portman robotically dances, thrusts, and belts out generic pop bangers flanked by glittery, sci-fi inspired backup dancers. Corbet wants to thumb his nose at pop culture’s brutality and the “branding” of American life, but sadly, he lacks any real understanding of how pop music actually functions in society.

Vox Lux is the kind of anti-poptimist vehicle which is just as vapid as say, the angle of A Star is Born, where pursuing one’s artistic dreams is all that matters. As a distillation of how pain, tragedy, and self-destruction is good for pop branding, Vox Lux is banal, glib, and condescending; adopting the same signifiers it’s seeking to condemn. At one point, the young Celeste says, “I don’t want people to have to think too hard, I just want them to feel good.” By contrast, Corbet also doesn’t want people to have to think too hard. He just wants them to feel bad.

Roma

 

Cast: Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Marco Graf, Fernando Gregiaga, Daniela Demesa, Carlos Peralta, Nancy Garcia, Jorge Antonio Guerrero

Director: Alfonso Cuarón

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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The introductory shot of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma is minimal yet ostentatious. The frame is fixed on a cobble stone street as water sloshes back and forth, creating a mirror which captures a plane flying overhead. As the camera tilts upward revealing a maid cleaning dog feces off the driveway, the image becomes a microcosm of the ways in which the film will straddle the line between authenticity and wistful impression. It’s the kind of opening salvo only a filmmaker of Cuarón’s caliber could pull off, and yet it emphasizes his tendency toward affected formalism. In films like Children of Men and Gravity, Cuarón proved his ability to stage mind-boggling tracking shots and uninterrupted long takes, and Roma is filled with this kind of showboating, albeit in a more minor key.

The story here concerns the maid from the opening image, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), who works for the family of Dr. Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), a mysterious man who is constantly away from home. The man’s wife, Sofia (Marina de Tavira), and their children live in luxury, but the absence of the patriarch haunts nearly every scene. Cuarón frames the narrative through the perspective of Cleo, though we do get a sense of the family’s point of view, which is further complicated by the film’s detached aesthetic. Cleo is often dwarfed in compositions, looking insignificant amongst the spiraling staircases of the family home, and in one particular shot, appearing as a tiny speck in the frame while watching a martial arts training session.

Cleo is basically a surrogate mother for the children, and the performance of first time actor Aparicio is a tremendous feat of natural mannerism, facial expression, and gesture. When she has to deliver more emotionally fraught scenes late in the film, she is also fully believable, but Cuarón thankfully doesn’t overburden her with melodramatic hysterics. Instead, Cleo represents a somewhat angelic symbol of servitude and class division, which Cuarón often captures through stunning visuals; such as one key shot where the camera floats upwards revealing a throng of maids hanging clothes on rooftops of lavish homes stretching far into the distance.

There’s melodramatic elements to Roma, including familial infidelity, but Cuarón’s studied aesthetic approach keeps sentimentality at bay. The formal tics on display, such as how the camera moves slowly across rooms in rigid pans, is almost comical, but perhaps that’s partially the point. Even though the film gets all the period appropriate details right— the 1970s clothing, home decor, architecture, bustling Mexico City streets—the way the camera takes everything in feels somehow removed from reality. The crisp black and white cinematography is gorgeous, but it’s also the vision of someone accessing their memories and presenting an evocative version of these recollections. This makes Cleo’s station in life all the more helpless, as if she’s not fully in control of her own story. In this way, Roma can be read as an auto-critique in which Cuarón is questioning his own privilege while also paying tribute to the woman who raised him.

Without an auteurist reading where Cuarón is infiltrating Cleo’s story in order to comment on his own guilt, Roma might play as a film where the main character is a hollow cipher. The picture lacks a sense of spontaneity and lived-in authenticity, even as all the visual details ring true. This push and pull between honoring this woman and making her into an angelic symbol creates a fascinating dynamic, foregrounded by an aesthetic which tries to overcompensate for Cleo’s lack of an inner life. However, the film works as well as it does because of Aparicio’s unforced truthfulness. Despite Cuarón’s ornate precision, Aparicio grounds everything. She is the voice worth listening to. Hers is the life worth caring about.


Favorite "New To Me" Films Seen in 2018


If new release viewing in 2018 was kept to an all-time low, old films once again came out swinging in spectacular fashion. From going deep into the Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber archives to hitting some key blindspots (De Palma, Fellini, Fassbinder, I’m look at you), this year was a gallery row of cinematic shock and awe. The resulting 10 “New To Me” films listed here gives me further confidence that the future of the movies resides in the past.


10

Boiling Point (1990)

Japanese provocateur Takeshi Kitano’s second feature is a riotous fusion of offbeat humor, shocking violence, and gangster tropes following a young baseball player who gets in deep with the local yakuza. As a weathered gangster owing a debt to the mob, Kitano himself commands the screen with his stoic gaze and crooked smile, and his film follows suit as a rambling, hilarious, and unpredictable odyssey into the heart of darkness.

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9

The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926)

Lotte Reiniger’s pioneering fantasy film based on stories from The Arabian Nights is the oldest surviving animated feature, and it’s a doozy. The combination of manipulated cardboard shadow cutouts, color tinting, and frame by frame animation is mind-boggling, gorgeous, and haunting. The simple collision of sound and imagery has rarely been this tactile, putting most modern 3D animated fare to shame.


8

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover (1989)

Peter Greenaway’s operatic satire is literally Brechtian in using every cinematic trick in the book as social metaphor; which includes neon-red lighting, artificial sets, and gaudy costumes. There’s revenge tragedy, cannibalism, and a freewheeling Michael Gambon chewing scenery as an overbearing gangster, but Greenaway’s heightened style and political points regarding tyranny never overwhelm the film’s macabre entertainment value.

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7

Brief Encounter (1945)

David Lean’s swooning adaptation of Noël Coward’s play Still Life is the godfather of illicit romance movies, featuring tremendous performances from Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson as doomed lovers after a chance meeting on a train platform. Shrouded in fog, shot in crisp black and white, and enhanced by a lush score, Brief Encounter is a bonafide classic.


6

The Servant (1963)

Joseph Losey’s The Servant is rarely mentioned in the pantheon of great movies, but it should be. Essentially a chamber drama about a wealthy aristocrat who hires a cockney man-servant, the film is a shrewdly funny, suspenseful, erotic, and wildly unpredictable comedy of manners. Harold Pinter’s acidic dialogue stings, and Dirk Bogarde as the valet who begins pulling the strings, is absolute perfection.

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5

Hi, Mom! (1970)

Brian De Palma crams French New Wave, Hitchcock, and experimental theater into this deceptively complex film which manages three major story threads; all involving a young Robert De Niro playing a Vietnam vet moving through different social environments. What starts as a shambolic comedy morphs into a parody of public television and finally, a socio-political rant about race relations. Daring, hilarious, and unexpected.


4

Ordet (1955)

Carl Theodor Dreyer’s masterpiece about family, religion, and death is without a doubt one of cinema’s most rigorous works of beauty. As the camera follows members of a poor family dealing with life’s hardships, Dreyer achieves something both austere and intimate; revealing the ways in which religion can provide comfort as well as engender blind zealotry. The ending, meanwhile, is one of the most moving sequences ever put to film.

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Fox And His Friends (1975)

One of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s crowning achievements, this story of a poor circus worker who is systematically drained of his lottery money by upper class leeches, is a damning encapsulation of social darwinism. Though attacked in some quarters for its depiction of queer culture at the time, Fassbinder’s hardened cynicism about humanity in general, regardless of sexual orientation, is his true aim. Tragic, funny, tender, and unsparing.


2

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

This silent era astonishment from Carl Theodor Dreyer is one of the most starkly emotional and haunting pictures ever made. Following Joan of Arc’s trial right up to her execution, Dreyer uses the art of atmospheric lighting and closeup to startling effect by drawing on Renée Falconetti’s extraordinary central performance. Her face, caught in throes of spiritual epiphany and fearful misery, will linger forever.

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Nights of Cabiria (1957)

A naive prostitute roams the underbelly of Rome in search of love in Nights of Cabiria; a sweeping, near spiritual moviegoing experience where director Federico Fellini’s aesthetic gifts are completely at the service of Giulietta Masina’s all-time great central performance. A soul-stirring depiction of a life trapped in stasis, featuring one of cinema’s most heartbreaking final images.


Favorite Albums of 2018



If 2017 felt like the end of civilization as we know it—politically, socially, psychologically—then 2018 was an encapsulation of how far the needle still needs pushing. Survival is the name of the game. Coming out without going utterly insane is progress. Music as a creative outlet felt even more swallowed by the ever-present evils of our world; with social media holding up the corpse of our self-obsession and vanity as a trophy. Still, art will always be a means of escape and healing. The records which topped my favorites of the year were a shield from the stench of humanity’s constant need to destroy itself through hate and ignorance. Ambitious baroque pop, experimental hip-hop, politically conscious jazz, avant-garde metal, and trans art-pop are just a few genres at play here, with the 15 albums represented being part of a greater whole. Long live the music. May it never die.



15

Richard Swift
The Hex

Even though singer-songwriter/ multi-instrumentalist/producer Richard Swift died tragically this year at the age of 41, his musical legacy remains prolific and underrated. Swift’s final album, The Hex, is an encapsulation of his supreme gifts as an artist; 11 tracks of vintage pop, fuzzy rock n’roll, and walls of sound to match achingly sincere lyrics. A fitting swan song.

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Marie Davidson
Working Class Woman

Montreal artist/producer Marie Davidson has made a bonkers deconstruction of the club scene on Working Class Woman; an album which trolls, critiques, and then dances its ass off. Over industrial beats and icy synths, Davidson delivers deadpan lyrical mantras in her French-Canadian accent, and comes away with the year’s most riotous takedown of dance music culture.


13

MØL
Jord

Though comparisons to Deafheaven and Alcest are appropriate, Danish outfit MØL outdo their predecessors with the year’s most thrilling blend of black metal and shoegaze. Rather than using atmosphere and heaviness as a crutch for bloated songs, Jord is compact; with the prerequisite blast beats, shrieked vocals, and head-banging riffs never overstaying their welcome.

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DRINKS
Hippo Lite

Weirdo power duo Cate Le Bon and Tim Presley's latest album under the DRINKS moniker plays like a warped children's album assembled by a couple of stoned adults caught in a feedback loop, and that’s a good thing! A left-field, undeniably fun record for all the freaks out there.


11

Parquet Courts
Wide Awake!

Parquet Courts’s latest has a newfound studio sheen, but the band remain as cranky as ever; unleashing a party album about the numbing ills of modern life that can be cranked loud at a backyard barbecue. Plus, any band only using guitars, bass, drums, and clever lyrics as their main selling point in 2018 are onto something.

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U.S. Girls
In A Poem Unlimited

Meg Remy (aka U.S. Girls) has created a proto-feminist twist on 70's club music by using pastiche to shed light on the everyday nightmares and triumphs of living as a modern woman. In A Poem Unlimited is patriarchy-shattering pop brilliance; aching with pain, helplessness, and redemption. 


9

Armand Hammer
Paraffin

Rapper Billy Woods and producer Elucid’s work has elicited a dense catalog of underground rap not unlike 90’s boom-bap and the early work of RZA, and their latest collab, Paraffin, is no exception. Western capitalism, blackness, and societal discord are the main themes here; driven by hazy beats and a laidback flow. An often funny record, yet starkly urgent.

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Sons of Kemet
Your Queen Is A Reptile

In a bid for the “British Jazz New Wave” tag, Sons of Kemet have unleashed a genre-defying masterwork that pays tribute to the past while forging ahead. Meshing traditional jazz instrumentation with dub, Caribbean rhythms, and politically charged rhetoric, Your Queen Is A Reptile feels both angry and soothing.


7

JPEGMAFIA
Veteran

JPEGMAFIA is Barrington Hendricks, a Baltimore-based rapper who has churned out the most excitingly experimental hip-hop release of 2018. Cloud-rap, trip-hop, noise, industrial, and glitch make the rounds. Hendricks changes his rapping style on a dime. Songs start, stop, and detour. All the while, Veteran maintains the sound of the hip-hop Internet wasteland. Disorienting in all the right ways.

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Makaya McCraven
Universal Beings

35 year-old Chicago drummer Makaya McCraven showcases the wisdom and musical chops of someone twice his age on Universal Beings; a gorgeously arranged fusion of jazz, hip-hop, funk, ambient, and electronic music. This is seductive, polyrhythmic sonic bliss that often feels like one long jam. Just don’t tell McCraven it’s the future of jazz. The music, however, speaks for itself.


5

Anna Von Hausswolff
Dead Magic

Sweden’s Anna von Hausswolff isn’t out to make you feel comfortable on her latest funeral pop opus, Dead Magic; a series of expertly crafted dirges recorded with a 20th Century organ. Melody coalesces around disturbing soundscapes as Hausswolff’s ethereal voice goes from Kate Bush-esque crooning to demonic howls. The stuff of beautiful nightmares.

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4

Daughters
You Won't Get What You Want

Post-hardcore experimentalists Daughters return with a vengeance after an eight-year hiatus with this towering work of utter despair. Instead of the technical math rock groove from past releases, the band go the industrial minimalist route with tortured guitars, clanging drums, repetitive song structures, and Nick Cave-inspired vocals to create a dizzying sonic experience.


3

Imperial Triumphant
Vile Luxury

New York death metal band Imperial Triumphant’s latest conjures the kind of chaos that will cause ringing ears, excessive migraines, and stupid-drunk smiles. Off the wall time signatures, avant-jazz instrumentation, baroque art rock, and of course, nefarious-sounding growls are the order of the day here, but there’s beauty in the madness too. 

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SOPHIE
OIL OF EVERY PEARL'S UN-INSIDES

Los Angeles-based producer/songwriter SOPHIE’s astounding debut album uses the foundations of pop music and then warps it in ways thrilling, disorienting, pleasurable, and brilliant. With elements of bubblegum pop, R & B, EDM, drone, ambient, industrial, and noise. SOPHIE's take on pop music is both transgressive and subversive. 


1

Julia Holter
Aviary

If 2015’s critically acclaimed Have You in My Wilderness was zen chamber pop for lazy days, then Aviary is what happens when Los Angeles singer/songwriter Julia Holter retreats so far inward that her brain starts to explode. This is a kaleidoscopic, 90-minute masterwork of shifting moods—with piano, sax, harps, strings, choral chanting, and drone wrapped around Holter’s otherworldly vocals. Gorgeous, challenging, and overwhelming.

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Movie Pick of the Week

 

Tyrel

Director: Sebastián Silva

Year of release: 2018

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Films about racism are often painted in broad strokes (yes, this is still important to highlight), but rare is the more nuanced representations of racial discord, and Sebastián Silva’s Tyrel expertly zeroes in on the alienation people of color have to navigate on a daily basis. Rather than the cartoonish stereotypes of redneck bigotry we often see in the movies, the young men depicted here mostly fashion themselves as progressives; adding further complication to an already fraught scenario.

The scenario in question is an all-male weekend in the Catskills where Johnny (Christopher Abbott), brings his friend, Tyler (Jason Mitchell) to the hangout session where the group has been meeting for years and building up a sense of macho camaraderie. The group, which includes birthday boy, Pete (Caleb Landry Jones), and late arrival Alan (Michael Cera), whose presence pivots the weekend into a spiral of passive-aggressiveness, are almost too aware of how Tyler sticks out, since he’s the only African American present. Their constant calling attention to the racial conflict by either going too far or hiding behind woke platitudes, creates a sense of unease which escalates as the men get progressively inebriated over the weekend.

Tyrel is surprising because it doesn’t go the places where we expect. Silva toys with audience expectations by using roving hand-held camerawork which becomes looser and more shambolic as the film proceeds. Meanwhile, the presence of Jones creates an obvious mirror to Jordan Peele’s Get Out, but the connection is mostly superficial. Whereas that film was tackling the rotten history of American racism head on as a blunt object, Silva is more interested in possibilities of hope despite our differences. However, none of this would be conveyed as successfully without Mitchell, whose empathetic performance draws on his natural charisma to create a fully believable arc. Tyrel might be the odd man out, but Mitchell makes his discomfort truly universal.

Music Pick of the Week

 

Earl Sweatshirt

Some Rap Songs

Year of release: 2018

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Earl Sweatshirt (aka Thebe Kgositsile) sounds like a man twice his age on long-awaited third album, Some Rap Songs. There was always a deeply introspective side to the heralded rapper who became famous at age 16 as a member of Odd Future, but his evolution from pop culture phenomenon to someone nearly vanishing into obscurity has its footing in real pain. Dealing with depression, vaulted expectations, and the death of his father earlier this year creates a paradigm for which to view Some Rap Songs, which is the most fully realized work of his career thus far.

The notion of pain and loneliness as a real geographical space is at the forefront of the record, which favors atmosphere over song structure, lo-fi beats over polished instrumentals, and deadpan rhymes over spit-fire bars. Now 24, Earl feels much more at home with himself as well as detached from his station in life. Using chopped up samples, jazzy interludes, warped audio clips, and tape hiss, Some Rap Songs creates a disorienting sonic landscape on which Earl projects feelings of loneliness and isolation.

On songs like “Nowhere2Go”, he contemplates depression in regards to impending death over stuttering loops and wonky samples. On “Azur”, Earl gives it up for the way his mother filled the void left by a distant father'; My cushion was a bosom on bad days/It’s not a black woman I can’t thank. His mother shows up again on “Playing Possum”, sampled from a keynote speech intertwined with his dad reciting a poem, and it’s simultaneously uplifting and caustic.

Thematically, the shadow of his parents (especially his late father) looms large over Some Rap Songs, while the left-field production is going for a very Madlib vibe. It’s a combination that works like gangbusters; with distinct lyrical rhymes and experimental soundscapes encompassing 15 tracks, none of which stretch beyond two minutes. Rap as therapy has rarely sounded this revelatory.

Favorite "New to Me" Album Discoveries in 2018


If new music in 2018 was attempting to respond to the zeitgeist in ways both bracing and obvious, then delving into past decades provided a much needed break from simply trying to keep up. From old school hip-hop, early 80s art pop, minimalist DIY rock, Brit jangle and beyond, the 10 albums listed here were either brand new discoveries or works from familiar artists whose catalog had yet to be fully investigated. Music can transport, heal, disrupt, and create a dialogue between the listener and artist. Most importantly, it can give us something most lacking in our troubled times: hope.


10

Lootpack
Soundpieces: Da Antidote (1999)

Made up of Madlib, Wildchild, and DJ Romes, West Coast underground crew Lootpack unleashed what might be considered “mumble rap” from today’s standards, with its lo-fi beats, mushy-mouthed rhymes, and lyrical beatdowns of wack MCs.

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Brainiac
Bonsai Superstar (1994)

Dayton, Ohio’s Brainiac came storming out of the gate in 1994 with this left-field combination of fried amps, Moog synths, whirling distortion, and loopy vocals. Like fellow Dayton legends Guided by Voices, the band exemplified the early 90s lo-fi scene by playing fast, loose, and sloppy.


8

The The
Soul Mining (1983)

Fans of Throbbing Gristle, Syd Barrett, and David Bowie take note, as Soul Mining may be one of the most underappreciated albums of all time; a dizzying fusion of boogie woggie piano, electronica, funk, polyrhythmic grooves, and weirdo pop songwriting.

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Shin Joong Hyun
From Where To Where (2011)

Known as Korea’s grandfather or psych-rock, Shin Joong Hyun put out most of his music during the 60s and 70s, and this collection of 7 tracks is the perfect encapsulation of his extraordinary gifts. A deeply emotional and spiritual listening experience; using jazz, soul, and traditional Korean instrumentation in order to fight against the political upheaval of the day.


6

Pram
The Stars Are So Big, the Earth Is So Small...Stay as You Are (1993)

Taking cues from groups like The Velvet Underground, Can, Stereolab, and Young Marble Giants, Pram’s 1993 debut uses a strange collision of sounds alongside Rosie Cuckston's whispy vocals to create a disorienting waking nightmare. Certainly an acquired taste, but challenging in all the best ways.

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The Flying Lizards
The Flying Lizards (1979)

A group of improvising musicians, The Flying Lizards may be best known for their hit single “Money (That’s What I Want)”, but their 1979 self-titled debut is one of the weirdest satire-pop records ever. There’s wonky jazz, dub, AM radio pop, and ambient textures here, but this more than simply a novelty item.


4

The Cleaners from Venus
Midnight Cleaners (1982)

Before we had folks like Chris Knox and R. Stevie Moore pushing their lo-fi mixtapes, singer/songwriter Martin Newell was making some of the best British pop/ rock of the 1980s. One of his earlier offerings, 1982’s Midnight Cleaners is bursting with infectious harmonies, analog keyboard washes, jangly guitar, wandering sax, and warm tape hiss.

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Viktor Vaughn
Vaudeville Villain (2003)

The third album from rapper/proucer MF Doom under the Viktor Vaughn alias, Vaudeville Villain is simply one of the greatest hip-hop releases of the past 15 years. Doom rules the mic with his sleepy flow and pop-culture references, while the production is filled with left-field samples, woozy beats, and dense instrumentals.


2

Batucada Por Favor
EP (1998)

A collection of batucada tracks from different artists, this compilation is essential listening for anyone interested in early 60s/late 70s percussive music. Moving from Latin jazz fusion, Bossa Nova, Brazilian traditional, to full on string/horn orchestration, Batucada Por Favor is a thrilling invitation to get up and move.

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1

Lizzy Mercier Descloux
Mambo Nassau (1981)

French musician/painter/poet Lizzy Mercier Descloux’s second album, 1981’s Mambo Nassau, sounds so modern as to be astounding. Think the skittering funk of Talking Heads with African instrumentation, squiggly keyboards, off-kilter time signatures and Descloux’s yelping vocals. Bands like Deerhoof and Guerrilla Toss would be unimaginable without this pioneering sound.


Widows

 

Cast: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Robert Duvall, Liam Neeson, Garret Dillahunt, Carrie Coon, Jacki Weaver, Jon Bernthal, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Lukas Haas, Matt Walsh, Kevin J. O'Connor, Michael Harney

Director: Steve McQueen

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Steve McQueen is a renowned visual artist, and if he wasn’t already an Oscar-winning director, he’d be doing just fine on the art gallery circuit. The austere manner of his filmmaking; with those precise compositions, intricate mise-en-scène, and artful posing of actors within the frame, has helped him gain traction as a legitimate auteur with films like Hunger, Shame, and 12 Years a Slave (for which he netted that Academy Award). When word leaked he would be adapting a 1980’s British miniseries and trying his hand at the heist genre, there were reasons to be worried. Would McQueen forgo genre excitement by luxuriating in self-serious political metaphors, or could he actually let rip with a popcorn crowd-pleaser?

Well, the answer is a bit of both. What’s noteworthy about Widows is that McQueen has indeed made a commercially-minded film that also doesn’t skimp on his artistry. There’s a heist involved, but the movie really isn’t about the heist. There is action, but this is not primarily an action picture. Instead, McQueen and co-writer Gillian Flynn focus more on the collision between modern day Chicago politics, class division, neoliberal racism, and the inner lives of the characters. It’s apparent during the opening moments that this will be a different breed of thriller as scenes of Veronica Rawlins (Viola Davis) and her husband, Harry (Liam Neeson) passionately kissing in bed is cross-cut with a getaway gone wrong where Harry and his team of criminals die at the hands of police. From there, the focus shifts to the men’s spouses struggling to survive after the fallout, including Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), whose clothing store is seized by bookies due to her husband’s debts, and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), an abused woman encouraged by her mother (Jacki Weaver) to sign up for an escort service catering to affluent men.

McQueen and Flynn’s screenplay sets up a large network of characters, shows us their allegiances, and then methodically allows the plot to move forward with a series of vignettes highlighting some particular form of sociopolitical unrest. Crucial power players include Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), a crime boss hoping to get out of the game by running for political office, his sociopath brother (Daniel Kaluuya) who doles out punishment in menacing fashion, and their immediate competition, Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), who hopes to continue the dynasty of his racist father (Robert Duvall). When Jamal shows up at Veronica’s home informing her that Harry robbed $2 million from his campaign fund and that she has one month to pay back the debt, she locates one of Henry’s notebooks with details of a planned heist and decides to take matters into her own hands.

There is a lot going on in Widows, and there are times when the narrow scope of the feature-length format limits some of McQueen’s ambitions. This is one of those rare instances where one wishes the film were even longer in order to accommodate the mix of intimate character drama and sprawling The Wire-esque narrative. Still, cinematographer Sean Bobbitt does wonders within the confines of the film’s running time; elegantly framing scenes through mirrors and planes of glass in order to give us multiple viewpoints of the action. Probably the most ostentatious shot has the camera locked down on the hood of Farrell’s car as he leaves a rally in a poor section of town only to drive a few blocks away to the wealthier district. As the camera slowly pivots, the class disparity is clear; as is the partly shrouded face of the black driver who must silently endure the white politician’s discriminatory rant. Such visual touches occur throughout, and are never used for showboating purposes, but instead to deepen the film’s overriding themes.

Once Veronica begins recruiting her team to pull off the $2 million heist, which includes Linda, Alice, and late arrival Belle (Cynthia Erivo), a ripped babysitter with a jogging streak, Widows leans into its genre trappings with satisfying results. There’s legitimate tension, for example, in the actual heist, even as the sequence itself fairly brief in terms of screen time, but the biggest thrills here are character-driven. The scenes where Henry’s Jamal and Farrell’s Mulligan face off are razor-sharp, Kaluuya’s dead-eyed stare and penchant for violence is chilling, and Davis conveys so much emotion through her face (from grief, confusion, anger, and finally, contentment) that Veronica emerges as a fully flawed woman worth rooting for. The film’s one major mistake involves a framing device with a significant character seen only in flashback who meets an untimely demise at the hands of police. It’s an instance where McQueen and Flynn are trying too hard to press timely political signifiers into an already busy narrative, and the emotional fallout of this thread feels awkwardly handled.

Rather than simply apply an arthouse aesthetic to a standard heist plot, McQueen fully commits to his commercial tendencies by buying into the narrative and most importantly, his characters. In this way, Widows lacks the kind of sniffy looking down on genre one often gets when prestige filmmakers try their hand at mainstream fare. There are important sociopolitical issues threading throughout Widows, but the film isn’t weighed down by their importance. Instead, the social context can be found by simply watching women fight back against a system built to keep them down, and maybe even having the balls to pull it off.




The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

 

Cast: Tim Blake Nelson, Willie Watson, David Krumholtz, James Franco, Stephen Root, Ralph Ineson, Liam Neeson, Harry Melling, Tom Waits, Zoe Kazan, Bill Heck, Grainger Hines, Jackamoe Buzzell, Tyne Daly, Brendan Gleeson, Jonjo O'Neill, Saul Rubinek, Chelcie Ross

Director: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

Running time: 2 hours 13 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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A case could made that Joel and Ethan Coen are drawn to the western genre because it allows for the ultimate display of misanthropy. Tales of greed, revenge, loneliness, and brutal violence are key factors, as is the expansive vistas of America revealing death at nearly every turn. Though classic westerns often revel in the heroism of its grizzled heroes, the Coens have used such archetypes in order to plum the depths of cynical human behavior. Their debut, Blood Simple, couched western archetypes under the veneer of neo-noir atmosphere. Raising Arizona has the zany trappings of a stoner comedy, but with the widescreen Midwestern landscapes of a romanticized western. True Grit is actually a pure homage to John Ford and Howard Hawks which uses its status a remake to recontextualize western mythos. No Country for Old Men is a brilliantly pensive adaptation of Cormac McCarthy which views Modern America as more ruthless than the old west. And so on it goes. The Coens have always been fascinated by the ways in which the genre can speak to the fatalistic nature of our miserable existence, and their latest shaggy-dog anthology, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, is no exception.

Structured around six separate stories, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs refuses the revisionist angle, instead leaning into western tropes as a means for folkloric retellings. Though tonally divergent and varying in length, each vignette essentially hammers home the Coens career methodology; i.e. that human kind are a distrustful lot who will stab you in the back if given the chance. The universe is cruel, chaotic, and unforgiving, and though there are innocent souls wandering about, they are not immune to the marching tides of fate. In fact, death may even come for them sooner.

The idea of humanity as a scourge is given an ironic wink in the first story, where Tim Blake Nelson plays the guitar-playing, crooning gunslinger of the film’s title. Wandering into town while delivering deadpan monologues to the camera with mentions of nicknames such as “The Misanthrope”, the Coens lean into their silly, parodic side with quippy banter and extreme violence. It’s a 20 minute lark; funny and irreverent, but also oddly impersonal; with a washed-out visual look and fake-looking digital blood. In the second section, James Franco and Stephen Root show up for a slapstick joint about a bank robber with terrible luck, filmed like a Sergio Leone western and ending with a darkly ironic final line. It’s an effective short film, playing like a Twilight Zone-styled yarn, but much like the first story, there isn’t much here beyond a clever punchline.

Probably the most fascinating vignette is the third one where an armless, legless actor (Harry Melling) and his crotchety boss (Liam Neeson), travel the countryside in search of fame and fortune. Here, the Coens marry their patented solipsism with heartbreaking melancholy; resulting in something which resists easy classification, even if the ending is predictably nihilistic. From there, we get a disheveled Tom Waits as a gold prospector digging holes in search of gold, Zoe Kazan as a wide-eyed young woman in a caravan en route to Oregon, and finally, a pair of travelers stuck in a carriage (among them Tyne Daly and Brendan Gleeson) which plays almost like an Edgar Allen Poe short story. Since all of the tales set up characters with hopes or dreams (however fleeting) only to have them dashed through bursts of violence or twists of fate, there isn’t much emotional investment. Even the lone drawn-out section in which Kazan’s innocent traveler seeks a better life in Oregon is predicated on the same ironic climax, so the sense of richer world-building here feels even more perfunctory.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a hymn to the western in which death pervades every corner of the frame; sometimes in the form of a comical visual gag, sometimes under the guise of pathos for souls too kindly for this sadistic world. However skillfully conceived and wonderfully acted, this homage to western folklore, like most campfire stories, inevitably fizzles out into darkness of night. If the Coens are correct; that all of us are grasping for meaning in a meaningless existence predicated upon chance, then what is the point of storytelling in the first place? This is a question The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, much like Nelson’s wise-cracking titular wanderer, has no interest in. He’s more likely to shrug, laugh it off, and blow someone’s brains out.


The Other Side of the Wind

 

Cast: John Huston, Peter Bogdanovich, Oja Kodar, Susan Strasberg, Robert Random, Joseph McBride, Mercedes McCambridge, Cameron Mitchell, Paul Stewart, Edmond O'Brien, Lilli Palmer, Geoffrey Land, Peter Jason

Director: Orson Welles

Running time: 2 hours 2 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Orson Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind is an incisive look at one of our most brilliant auteurs wrestling with the new wave of late 1960’s art cinema. Taking elements of his 1973 mocumentary F for Fake and bleeding it into a meta-deconstruction of the Hollywood machine, The Other Side of the Wind deflates patriarchal power while also basking in its privileges. It’s a film which began production in 1970 and then stretched on for nearly six years; ballooning out of control even as Welles seemed to relish the idea of never completing it. It’s a work of madness that has, at its center, a wounded heart; the story of an aging patriarch desperately trying to stay relevant as the world he helped shape disappears behind him. It is the vision of the ultimate Hollywood classist fearing his demise at the hands of a more politically radical wave of new cinema, and then attempting to outsmart them all.

The basic premise is this: Jake Hannaford (John Huston) an iconic director is celebrating his 70th birthday while attempting to complete a film entitled The Other Side of the Wind. The picture in question is one of those erotic narrative-less works recalling late 60’s hippie drug culture (ala Easy Rider) with the arty pretensions of a Michelangelo Antonioni joint. Despite his cigar-chomping ego, Hannaford is afraid of the younger batch of Hollywood elite; including Brooks Otterlake (Peter Bogdanovich), a filmmaker not unlike the real-life Bogdanovich, who at this time would have been riding a wave of success from The Last Picture Show. Out of money and missing his leading man, John Dale (Robert Random), who stormed off set after multitude abuses by the filmmaker, Hannaford’s aims are to leach funds from producers at the party, even if no one involved seems to have any idea what The Other Side of the Wind is actually about.

Structured like a shaggy hang out movie, Welles’s virtuosic techniques come together to create a disorienting atmosphere where multiple realities converge. As Hannaford encourages the press to film his birthday bash, we get bodies scurrying everywhere; with cameras in nearly every inch of the frame and lenses zooming. The effect is like a three-ring circus gone awry, predating reality TV and Internet culture. Once again, in both style and form, Welles was way ahead of the curve here, even as narrative coherency is mostly absent.

As someone obsessed with myth-making and his own status as a legend, Welles’s notion of cinema as one continuous loop of content is embraced with such gusto as to be prophetic. Throughout, the picture changes from color to black and white, incorporating a variety of film stocks and allowing bursts of light and motion to infiltrate the frame. Dialogue overlaps, the editing is propulsive and jagged, the score jazzy, and the use of montage breathtaking. The usual Welles technique of deep focus (in which the foreground, middle-ground and background are all in focus) are done away with altogether in lieu of frames-within-frames and compositions shot through refracted surfaces.

Throughout, we get long stretches of the unfinished Hannaford project where John Dale and an unnamed woman (Oja Kodar, Welles’s lover and co-writer) play a sensual game of cat and mouse. Phallic imagery abounds, as does psychedelic colors and an old man’s parodic vision of hippie youth culture. There’s a level of self-awareness here, exemplified by Hannaford’s arrogance in thinking he could really pull this kind of thing off, which extends to Welles’s grasping for relevance near the end of his career. And yet, sections of the Dale/Kodar film are ludicrously thrilling; including a bravura sex scene inside a moving vehicle, allowing Welles to achieve the rare carnal set piece which actually stimulates the senses.

Interestingly, the world Hannaford depicts onscreen is diametrically opposed to the one he actually inhabits. Though his party is filled with booze, cigars, and women, there is little chance of scoring. The only notable female character here, for instance, is a Pauline Kael stand-in played by Susan Strasberg, who is on hand to expose Hannaford’s inadequacies. In fact, he seems much more comfortable lording his power over men, including Bogdanovich’s Otterlake, and younger newcomers to the scene such as Dale. The self-destructive nature of Hannaford—his inability to complete the film while sabotaging working relationships and maintaining a god-like facade—is an intensely personal spilling of the soul by Welles, whom may have never completed another feature even if he had lived to tell the tale. In that way, The Other Side of the Wind has a haunting allure; a movie about creation, destruction, and self-loathing that works mostly because it remains unfinished.







Suspiria

 

Cast: Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Mia Goth, Lutz Ebersdorf, Angela Winkler, Ingrid Caven, Elena Fokina, Sylvie Testud, Renée Soutendijk, Chloë Grace Moretz, Jessica Harper

Director: Luca Guadagnino

Running time: 2 hours 32 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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One could say, if they were being charitable, that Luca Guadagnino’s remake/reimagining/cover version of Dario Argento’s 1977 classic Suspiria goes so far into its own direction as to be admirable. Whereas Argento’s film was an operatic fusion of dream logic and bright red gushing blood untethered to narrative coherency, Guadagnino’s take is downbeat, austere, and attempting to ground itself in reality. Argento used violence as an exaggerated series of garish images; a primal call to embrace the ludicrous exhilaration which the horror genre can attain. By comparison, the new Suspiria is self-serious nonsense made by talented people which fails to deliver on even the most basic horror movie level.

Having all the hallmarks of a passion project, Guadagnino’s film is overlong, meandering, and overstuffed with plot. Taking the skeletal narrative of the original and then diving into world-building isn’t inherently a mistake, but one has to parse through what the filmmaker has added here and question its existence. While it’s laudable Guadagnino refuses to ape Argento’s Giallo style (which would have been reductive), he nonetheless layers in pastiche of another sort. There’s a heavy Rainer Werner Fassbinder influence here; from the drab late 70’s Berlin setting to the use of crash zooms, but without the German wunderkind’s perverse humor and affinity for actors. Meanwhile, the fractured editing and kitschy post-production slow motion brings to mind the work of avant-garde filmmakers like Peter Greenaway and Derek Jarman. And if one is looking for less obscure influences, there’s a specific deep focus shot that’s ripped straight out of Brian De Palma’s Obsession. However, unlike De Palma, who often uses pastiche as a means for lurid entertainment value, Guadagnino seems almost terrified of entertaining the audience.

Suspiria is not a film about Susie (Dakota Johnson, purposefully affectless), the talented Mennonite dancer from Ohio who arrives at the Markos Dance Academy in Berlin, circa 1977. Nor is it about Susie’s relationship with Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton, purposefully morose), her tightly wound teacher. The role of witchcraft, so prevalent in Argento’s original, is also not that important here, replaced by Guadagnino’s interest in political machinations. The film is really about Dr. Josef Klemperer (Swinton again, purposefully old and boring), a psychiatrist whose wife went missing during the Holocaust, and whose used here primarily as a narrative device to represent past atrocities. In fact, Guadagnino spends so much time with Klemperer as he investigates tales of witchcraft at the dance academy, that Suspiria could have alternately been titled Senior Coven Sleuth: The Movie, but that would also require a film with a sense of humor.

Every once in a while, Guadagnino finds a particular image or sequence that works; such as an extended dance scene using jagged cross-cutting and bone-snapping grotesquerie. However, as viscerally effective as such moments are, they are never tied to anything remotely compelling from either a character or narrative standpoint. They simply exist, devoid of the one thing that a truly great horror film can achieve; a sense of psychic dread. Suspiria is too formally up its own ass to care about involving us in this way; its badge of courage rests in pivoting away from base horror signifiers and talking down to an audience wanting genre thrills.

As Klemperer’s investigation begins to take the focus away from Susie’s dealings with the witches, Guadagnino’s real obsessions start to take center stage. Klemperer’s personal misery is a thematic sign-post about never forgetting the horrible atrocities human beings are capable of throughout history, and this exposition-heavy messaging completely derails the film. Meanwhile, Thom Yorke’s slowcore music is also a problem; especially when he starts morosely crooning over montages which feel utterly disproportionate to one another. Yes, it would have been a miscalculation to try and emulate Goblin’s brilliant prog-rock score from the original, but the Radiohead singer’s contributions here feel overly ostentatious.

As Suspiria draws to a close; complete with a bafflingly laughable (not in a good camp way) finale where the blood finally starts gushing, the film’s interest in Nazism, political violence, half-hearted nods to feminism, and (gulp) old man confessionals regarding dead wives tips the scales into the realm of embarrassment. What this Suspiria lacks is sensuality, danger, psychological insight, and horrific imagery linked to the kind of terror which tingles the spine (no, Holocaust metaphors don’t really fit the bill). Instead, we get a turgid, scare-free Red Army Faction/Lufthansa Flight 181 hijacking history lesson along with some leftover body horror scraps to nibble on. Sadly, the only spell cast by Guadagnino here is a steadily building sense of boredom.





The Criterion Corner

 

Sisters

Director: Brian De Palma

Year of release: 1973

by Jericho Cerrona

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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 Brian De Palma’s stylish 1973 horror thriller, Sisters.



Brian De Palma’s early work was marked by satirical commentary and zeitgeist-defining wit. Just look at 1970’s Hi Mom! starring a young Robert De Niro, which morphs from a sleazy soft-core comedy into a pointed satire on race relations in America, and 1972’s Get to Know Your Rabbit, which takes on corporate greed and dehumanization. 1973’s Sisters was his first legitimate genre film, and the one where the Alfred Hitchcock influences which would unfairly dog the rest of his career really took center stage. In many ways, the film is about voyeurism (one of Hitchcock’s pet themes) and how media can desensitize. This is glimpsed from the very first scene, in which a blind woman Danielle (Margot Kidder), enters a dressing room where a man, Phillip Woode (Lisle Wilson), is changing. Of course, the woman isn’t really blind, and the whole thing is revealed to be a Candid Camera-style prank show called Peeping Toms (a clever wink to the Michael Powell film, Peeping Tom).

Though Sisters is superficially a horror thriller; complete with Danielle’s stalker ex-husband, Emile (William Finley), the eventual murder of Phillip, and a nosy neighbor/reporter Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt) on the case, De Palma layers in social commentary along with genre thrills. Philip is African-American, and the early scenes involving the TV show being watched by an all white audience is telling. Additionally, Phillip wins two tickets to a place called The Africa Room for playing along with the show, and the way he timidly smiles and brushes it off locates the dehumanizing effects of institutionalized racism.

Though many claim him to be an empty technician, skillful with the camera but out of his element otherwise, what is often missed in discussions about De Palma is his razor-sharp sense of humor. The obvious fusion of Psycho and Rear Window here is intentional, of course, but Sisters is also hip to the understanding that we are familiar with this cinematic language. Therefore, much of the pleasure of the film is not in anticipating the plot twists, but in admiring the finesse in which the picture executes them. To wit, there’s an all time classic split-screen sequence here involving two 9-minute simultaneous shots contrasting the hiding of Philip’s body with Grace’s attempts at exposing the murder that is among the best directing of De Palma’s career.

If Sisters lacks some of the outlandish artistry and auto-critique brilliance of De Palma’s later works such as Dressed to Kill and Body Double, it more than makes up for it with social satire, an antic horror-fused finale, and Bernard Herrmann’s lively score. But perhaps the film’s biggest hat trick is allowing Kidder, best known for playing Lois Lane in the Superman series, an opportunity to cut loose; essentially playing dual roles as a woman trapped inside a fractured psyche. It’s her inner trauma that ultimately lingers; along with savage post-60’s cynicism, technical craftsmanship, and the sight of a lonely birthday cake strewn across the ground. Bravo, Mr. De Palma.

Madeline's Madeline

 

Cast: Helena Howard, Miranda July, Molly Parker

Director: Josephine Decker

Running time: 1 hour 34 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Writer-director Josephine Decker’s Madeline’s Madeline is a work of pure narcissism. And yet, all works of art are narcissistic extensions of their creators to varying degrees. The titular character (played by revelatory newcomer Helena Howard) may be a teenager at a New York theater company, but she’s so keenly aligned with Decker’s sensibilities that the fusion is never hidden from the audience. The notion that artistic creativity (not to mention risk-taking) can converge with real life experiences is at the center of the film, which purposefully veers away from traditional storytelling in order to conjure a state of emotional/psychological instability.

In a way, Howard’s breakthrough performance as a prodigy struggling with mental illness of some sort achieves the very thing Decker is attempting to capture aesthetically. But much like in real life, the messiness of glorifying the artist means there’s an insularity to Madeline’s Madeline which makes it frustratingly uneven. That filmic subjectivity— taking elements of the coming-of-age narrative and splintering it into emotional fragments—is fully on display here. The line between reality, art, and dreams is blurred; as are the edges of the frame shot in hazy hues. Decker’s roving camera is often so close to the actor’s faces as to produce claustrophobia. The soundtrack is layered with heavy breathing, out of sync dialogue, and clattering noise. Whether or not this works for particular audiences is up for grabs, but there’s no denying Decker’s commitment to purging Madeline’s psyche through cinematic techniques.

The film’s central dynamic rests between Madeline and her mother, Regina (Miranda July), whose relationship is complicated, to say the least. Then there’s Evangeline (Molly Parker), the theater director who seems to be steering her experimental play into the realm of Madeline’s personal life. The film’s central line, “What you are experiencing is just a metaphor” is spoken by multiple characters and recurs throughout; preparing us to take everything we see as subjective experience. When Madeline takes a scalding iron to her mother in one of her outbursts, for example, we are led to believe that it was either a dream or a projection of violence in order to impress her theater director. This kind of tension exists throughout Madeline’s Madeline, but there are times where Decker’s ambiguous posturing threatens to derail the emotional honesty of her film.

Near the climax, Madeline has a breakthrough of inner clarity in which she reenacts the supposed attack on her mother, and the unbridled energy of Howard’s performance absolutely sells the moment. For once, Madeline is not in control of her performative gifts. For once, the feeling of rejection from Regina is laid bare. Decker probably would have been wise to end her film there, but like her lead character, she just can’t help herself. Therefore, the finale; in which Madeline and her theater troupe retaliate against Evangeline by prodding her with cat masks and choreographed dance numbers in the streets, feels like the easy way out.

Of course, this wild explosion of artistic creation is meant to signify Madeline’s advancement, but it sidesteps the film’s more troubling questions. For one thing, she is still a child, and by extension, a narcissist. She cares only for her own thoughts and feelings. Evangeline, and to a lesser degree, Regina, are disparaged and then brushed aside. How could Madeline fulfill her artistic ambitions if her mother wasn’t at all supportive? Likewise, without Evangeline, she would have no artistic outlet at all. By fully embracing Madeline’s ego-driven mania, Decker understands the personal power of art, but also its limitations. And yet, for all its stylistic boldness and feral intensity, Madeline’s Madeline ultimately leans into art as therapy clichés instead of seriously dealing with a young woman’s disorienting coming-of-age.

Movie Pick of the Week

 

Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc

Director: Bruno Dumont

Year of release: 2018

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Weirdo French auteur Bruno Dumont is the quintessential poster child for being up to something. His last two features, Li’l Quinquin and Slack Bay, were mannered genre pastiches that used deadpan comedy as a means for exploring societal norms. Before that, he made miserablist dramas like Humanité and Hors Satan; films in which tickling the funny bone was nowhere within reach. His latest effort, Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc, might be his weirdest creation yet; a stilted period piece in which the young religious figure speak-sings over blastbeat drumming and head-banging metal riffs.

The film takes place in 1425, where Jeannette (initially played by Lise Leplat Prudhomme, then later by Jeanne Voisin) is undergoing a spiritual awakening while the British lay siege to France. Shot in Dumont’s typical static tableaux, most of the film is a series of vignettes in which Jeannette sings poetic lines about her calling and the political state of France to the prog-metal fusion score by French musician Igorrr. Meanwhile, Prudhomme’s warbling singing voice and amateurish acting creates a distancing effect which helps the humor settle into a groove.

Once Jeannette’s uncle, Durand (Nicolas Leclaire) shows up as a means of escape from the island, Dumont’s film morphs into an extended riff on domestic mundanity, complete with Jeannette’s mother plucking chicken feathers as Durand dabs (yes, dabs) in the background. In these surreal moments, Dumont conjures a strange fusion of non-professional stiltedness with precise mise-en-scène. It’s a bizarre brew; funny in its odd juxtapositions, but also touching in its awkwardness. While not as dense in scope or layered tonally as most of his past work, Jeannette nonetheless showcases Dumont’s willingness to take the up to something moniker and drape an iconic historical figure over it.

 

Music Pick of the Week

 

Julia Holter

Aviary

Year of release: 2018

by Jericho Cerrona

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Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Julia Holter has made an uncompromising masterwork with Aviary; a kaleidoscopic, 90-minute trip through the compositional cosmos. If 2015’s critically acclaimed Have You in My Wilderness was zen chamber pop for lazy days, then Aviary is what happens when Holter retreats so far inward that her brain starts to explode.

While it’s easy to praise artists for going more avant-garde, Holter has always used the contours of pop music in order to explore psychological states of being. Here, she uses a variety of baroque instrumentation— piano, sax, harps, strings, choral chanting, drone—and then wraps them around her otherworldly, often overlapping, vocals.

“Everyday is an Emergency” is a doomsday lament for the end times set to mournful bagpipes. “Another Dream” is some serious Brian Eno shit; with space age synths, fluttering harps, and processed alien vocals. “I Shall Love 2” is a gorgeous mantra of human compassion in which Holter sings What do the angels say? I shall love. “Underneath the Moon” sounds like a trip down a Tibetan river on LSD. And the list goes on and on, with Holter stretching herself further into the outer reaches. Aviary is an experiential album, but also deeply personal. Political, but not didactic. Experimental, but never alienating. Most of all, it is Holter’s most ambitious and mature work to date; leaving the listener reeling, lost in the sonic ether.

The Symbiotic Sanctum: 10 Horror Films

 

With Halloween fast approaching and moviegoers getting into the spooky season, a curated list of horror films seemed like a no-brainer. While avoiding obvious classics (1978’s Halloween, The Shining, Psycho, Rosemary’s Baby, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Night of the Living Dead etc), I decided to shoutout a few lesser seen gems which could pair well with the lights turned down low, a bottle of witch’s brew, and eyes glued to the screen rather than sinister shapes moving around just outside the window.


House

(1977)

Nobuhiko Ôbayashi’s madcap ghost story is the kind of curio usually reserved for midnight viewing; ie. severed hands banging on a piano, clock gears spewing blood, dismembered heads, demon cats, and supernatural watermelons. Acid-fueled horror predating Sam Raimi and Adult Swim, and an absolute blast.

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Dressed to Kill

(1980)

Often labeled a plagiarist of 50’s/60’s cinema tropes, Brian De Palma is much more keen on transgressive antics with this Hitchcockian giallo riff in which a call girl, frustrated house wife, and creepy psychiatrist get drawn into a convoluted plot. A master class in filmmaking; lurid, funny, violent, and thrilling.


Re-Animator

(1985)

Stuart Gordon’s riotous debut took Grand Guignol horror to new levels with this satirical takedown of Reagan’s America. A scientist discovers a fluid which brings living tissue back to life, but the real aim of Gordon’s bizarro concoction is to show how gory practical effects and Jeffrey Combs’s unhinged central performance can actually derive empathy for the human race.

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Inland Empire

(2006)



Anchored by Laura Dern’s extraordinary performance and filmed on grainy digital video, David Lynch’s riff on loss, confusion, and rabbits dressed in human clothes is nothing less than a waking nightmare. The horror movie as unadulterated madness.






Hour of the Wolf

(1968)

A dysfunctional relationship between an artist and his long-suffering wife is at the center of Hour of the Wolf, but by investigating the unstable psychology of his characters and offering up some truly unsettling images, Ingmar Bergman gives us one of the scariest horror movies ever made by digging into the emptiness of human existence.

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What We Do in the Shadows

(2014)

Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi’s vampire mockumentary is more than simply a spoof; playing off a variety of horror tropes while endearing us to its cast of eccentric characters. There’s blood, gore, and werewolves, but What We Do in the Shadows is never less than clever about revealing how cinema has impacted horror iconography.


Carnival of Souls

(1962)

Herk Harvey’s lo-fi curio about a car crash survivor is best appreciated as a precursor to the works of George A. Romero and David Lynch. The cheap production values and stilted acting deepens the film’s strangeness; conjuring an eerie feeling which permeates the startling black and white imagery and droning organ score.

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Opera

(1987)

Dario Argento’s last great film in the giallo mold; part The Phantom of the Opera, part Macbeth, with elaborate tracking shots, primary colors, and an obsessive killer taping pins under the eyes of our traumatized heroine. Beautiful, savage, and yes, operatic.


The Lords of Salem

(2012)

Rob Zombie’s audio-visual tour de force about a dreadlocked woman falling in with some satanic happenings in Salem, Mass is like witnessing John Carpenter reimagining The Shining by way of The Wicker Man. Miraculously, Zombie pulls it off with his own unique blend of unnerving sights, sounds, and demonic umbilical cords.

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Angst

(1983)

The sound design is all-encompassing, the camera tracks and swirls (sometimes mounted on bodies), and the Krautrock score mounts its aural attack in Gerald Kargl’s disorienting experiment. A pure shot of anxiety-induced horror which is all the more terrifying because it refuses to offer up explanations for the unnamed psychopath’s motives.