Long Day's Journey into Night

 

Cast: Huang Jue, Tang Wei, Sylvia Chang, Lee Hong-Chi, Zeng Meihuizi

Director: Bi Gan

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Chinese director Bi Gan is only 29-years-old. His 2015 feature-length debut, Kaili Blues, was a major hit with critics and adventurous cinephiles, but remains mostly unseen. Exposure outside arthouse markets may still elude Gan with his followup Long Day’s Journey into Night, but it’s not for lack of ambition. Words like “virtuosic” and “audacious” will likely be tossed around here, and for good reason. This is a film which could only have been made by a young filmmaker enthralled by his cinematic heroes and willing to attempt technically daunting feats.

Moody, languid, and haunted by a sense of loss, Long Day’s Journey into Night is essentially an epic noir split down the middle into two very distinct halves. Initially, we are introduced to a former casino manager named Luo Hongwu (Huang Jue) who returns home to Kaili for his father’s funeral only to find himself caught up in locating Wan Quiwen (Tang Wei), a mysterious woman he once had an affair with back in the year 2000. Gan switches back and forth in time showing us glimpses of a relationship which, in noir tradition, could never truly survive. There’s also some clear Wong Kar-Wai worship here; what with Hongwu’s hard-bitten voiceover narration and hazy visuals of a world out of time, but Gan succeeds in capturing a hallucinatory vibe all his own.

All of this is to say that Long Day’s Journey into Night is a movie about how cinema can crystalize images and sensations. Gan isn’t shy about flaunting his influences, and there’s a self-reflexivity at work here which comes full circle around the film’s final hour; a 50-minute single take meant to be watched in 3D. Even as Hongwu ’s search for Wan continues spiraling; with his memories fractured and his life in shambles, the final act becomes less about the character’s inner struggle and more about our collective need to embrace the moving image as a means to an end. Using a combination of drone footage, Steadicam, and digital compositing, Gan pulls off a remarkable feat here; riffing on Hitchcock, Scorsese, and Tarkovsky in the process. While just as mind-boggling as something like, say, Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Birdman, Gan resists the urge to showboat in the same self-aggrandizing way because he’s clearly a young filmmaker raised on the love of cinema.

The idea of characters dreaming in movies and therefore, movies as dreams, is a central preoccupation of filmmakers; Akira Kurosawa, Federico Fellini, David Lynch, Wim Wenders, Terry Gilliam, Hitchcock, and many others have dabbled in such subject matter. During the final set-piece, Hongwu is trapped inside his own subconscious; leading us through realms of dream logic which mirror the real world only in theory. The film’s central idea is that dreams (like memories) are simply projections and only seem to offer us meaning. Hongwu’s life is a mess, and even if he found his long-lost love in the present time, what would that actually change for him? Multiple realties can exist, and as such, multiple choices with multiple outcomes. Long Day’s Journey into Night doesn’t so much answer Hongwu’s probing questions as it points him towards embracing the unknown. Kind of like the magic of the movies, if that even still exists.

Under the Silver Lake

 

Cast: Andrew Garfield, Riley Keough, Topher Grace, Patrick Fischler, Jimmi Simpson, Riki Lindhome

Director: David Robert Mitchell

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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It’s no great secret that filmmakers have a long-standing fascination with Los Angeles as a haven for grimy mysteries and conspiracy theories. Writer-director David Robert Mitchell, whose arthouse horror sensation, It Follows, was itself a pastiche of older films (particularly 80s slashers), has taken that fascination to its apex with sophomore effort Under the Silver Lake. For here is a picture which burrows so far into retro-fetishism that it eventually becomes a kind of post-postmodern take on LA’s obsession with itself. Sadly, the film also fawns over its own construction in a way which starts out humorously before dovetailing into an ideological muddle. While this might play for 19-year-old stoners who read into the film’s odd detours with geeky obsession, the rest of us will simply prefer to rewatch Rear Window, In a Lonely Place, Mulholland Drive, or any number of B-movie noirs Mitchell is attempting to emulate.

Our Philip Marlowe-lite hero this time is Sam (Andrew Garfield), a 33-year-old unemployed drag who spends most of his time moping around his apartment, dodging his landlord due to overdue rent, getting drunk, and spying on young beautiful starlets who flood in and out of his purview. Soon after meeting a stunning blond with a fluffy dog (Riley Keough), he becomes obsessed with her, which is further exacerbated when she abruptly goes missing. What follows is a shaggy dog mystery where Sam attempts to decode the clues found in pop tunes, old vinyl records, 70’s issues of Playboy magazine, and lavish hipster parties in order to track down his ingenue. There’s a dead billionaire, squirrels falling from the sky, a dog killer on the loose, and even an old rich songwriter who mocks our protagonist by claiming pop culture is "all silly and meaningless", which is an apt description for the film itself. The whole thing plays like a Thomas Pynchon novel mixed with The Big Lebowski and the work of David Lynch as directed by Nicholas Ray. The only thing missing is a scene where Sam looks directly into the camera and chides the audience for not getting all the references.

This is not to say Mitchell doesn’t have his own aesthetic. His work with cinematographer Mike Gioulakis is often effective; particularly in regards to capturing the golden wooziness of Silver Lake. However, despite Garfield’s best efforts to create a more earnest character as things slide into sub-Lynchian oddness, Sam is a prototypical slacker who not only punches children in the face in one scene, but also obsesses over young women in a way not dissimilar to our current state of “problematic men” hiding behind a nice guy persona. This makes the film’s trips down conspiracy theory rabbit holes all the more galling since we are supposed to root for Sam’s low rent sleuth as he chases down one MacGuffin after the next.

The notion of subliminal messages in pop-culture and that playing a vinyl record backwards, for instance, could produce a drug-addled epiphany is nothing new, and Mitchell’s failure to grasp the dopey humor in his conceit makes the film’s last half feel overly ponderous. While there are plenty of satirical gags (especially during the first act), one gets the sense that underneath the golden age references, Mitchell wants us to take all of this seriously. It’s one of those cases where a talented filmmaker is trying to concoct a cult classic rather than allowing such a descriptor to be grafted onto the work years later, possibly after midnight screenings under the influence. In that sense, it’s a weirdo lark made by someone who isn’t actually a weirdo, but merely playing at weirdness. Worst of all, it’s a film absolutely bereft of intellectual curiosity to even out all the self-regarding nonsense on display.

Under the Silver Lake does eventually lead somewhere, although its labyrinthine plot, which also features a crazed conspiracy theorist (played by Mulholland Drive’s Patrick Fischler, natch) and a lame climax involving a hippie underground cult, is purposefully anti-climatic. The point isn’t the destination, of course, but the hazy journey, and yet Mitchell flails to keep us interested in a wobbly narrative which drags on for 139 minutes. There may be a reading of the film involving the monopolization of “geek culture” (just look at those cash cow Marvel movies) and how it’s now a part of the greater entertainment industry, but Mitchell never investigates these ideas; only introduces them to scatter to the wind like a puff of bong smoke. The main drive here is artifice; how things look and sound (the score by Disasterpeace, for example, clearly evokes Hitchcock-era Bernard Herrmann).

This is all well and good, provided one desires a film without tension, stakes, or a melancholic streak underpinning all the nuttiness. It’s not enough to simply act and talk like a classic noir (or neo-noir), you must prove your existence beyond pastiche. This is a trick Brian De Palma mastered during the 1980s by taking obvious visual and story beats from past directors (mainly Hitchcock) and then reapplying them for that decade’s sleazy aesthetic. Mitchell doesn’t seem to have any grasp on the current culture—no 33-year-old hipster would ever dance to an R.E.M. song without irony—and his stabs at nostalgia feel just as contrived. Therefore, Under the Silver Lake is a lot like trying to decode hidden messages on the back of old cereal boxes; maddening and a waste of time.

High Life

 

Cast: Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, André Benjamin, Mia Goth, Lars Eidinger, Agata Buzek, Claire Tran, Ewan Mitchell, Gloria Obianyo, Scarlett Lindsey, Jessie Ross, Victor Banerjee

Director: Claire Denis

Running time: 1 hour 53 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Director Claire Denis has always been fascinated by the bleaker aspects of human nature, and yet her films have equally fixated on the possibility of love and hope. In features like Trouble Every Day, White Material, and especially Bastards, Denis offered a myopic view of the human race laced with moments of optimism, and her latest project, High Life, certainly fits into that template. Those expecting a Robert Pattinson-starring sci-fi thriller with elaborate special effects and high concept plotting will likely stumble out of the film utterly baffled. However, for those already initiated into the cult of Denis, her elliptical style and sparse visuals will feel of a piece.

Written by Denis with long time collaborator Jean-Pol Fargeau, High Life favors a fractured, poetic mode of storytelling giving us bits and pieces of narrative; often via single haunting images, brief flashbacks, or seemingly throwaway lines of dialogue. When we first meet convict Monte (Pattinson), he’s attempting to fix something outside a rickety spacecraft (which looks like a floating matchstick box) while a baby cries alone inside an onboard room. The space travel bureaucracy which got him there—along with a crew of fellow prisoners—is never made explicitly clear, even as Denis gradually unspools plot information by jumping around in time. Even the team’s initial mission remains vague (something about identifying and researching black holes), compounded by the fact that the crew remains oblivious regarding the length of their voyage, which will theoretically last longer than their lifetimes.

Before Monte and the baby were the lone survivors, we learn that the passengers, including convicts Tcherny (André Benjamin) Boyse (Mia Goth), and doctor Dibs (Juliette Binoche), among others, were basically being used as government test subjects. As Dibs collects semen samples and cross-pollinates them with female eggs (doing so even while the participates are heavily sedated), High Life starts to feel like a Darwinian nightmare. There’s a common idea in space travel films that the inky void of the universe drives people mad, but Denis is offering the notion that human society—with its moral rules and governmental mandates—is the thing which ultimately damages the psyche.

The line between acceptable cultural mores and animalistic desires fuels much of the middle portion of the film in a way which creates an unsettling tension. A chamber known as the “fuck room” is introduced, where passengers can go purge their pent-up sexual longings, including mad doctor Dibs, who straddles a sybian dildo in one harrowing sequence which Denis films like a crossbreed of Aliens and Nymphomaniac. Characters talk in hyper-literal proclamations and whispered half-sentences. Sexual violence erupts. Everyone onboard, including Monte, are deeply flawed and possibly dangerous. Denis refuses to offer us easy answers or even a moralistic hero to connect to, though Pattinson’s impressively coiled performance helps to act in some respects as the audience surrogate.

Most films about space offer platitudes of optimism about the human race (remember Ridley Scott’s The Martian?), but High Life poses troubling questions about the future of mankind. Denis is only using the vastness of space to investigate how we live on Earth, and yet, the film’s climax is quite possibly one of the more hopeful endings in recent memory. This is because Denis sustains such an intense mood of dread throughout that the transitory possibility of hope becomes almost overwhelming. One suspects things will crescendo on a dispiriting note based on all which came before, but Denis upends expectations, even as the final image contains several interpretations.

High Life is ultimately a moving film because it takes our stubborn willingness to keep on existing and defining what makes us human seriously in a way few science fiction films do. Denis would probably even scoff at the term “sci-fi”. To her, High Life exists in the same genre as her films Beau Travail, Bastards, and Let the Sunshine In; probing the blurred line between hope and despair, love and disdain, life and death.



Avengers: Endgame

 

Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Paul Rudd, Brie Larson, Karen Gillan, Danai Gurira, Benedict Wong, Jon Favreau, Bradley Cooper, Gwyneth Paltrow, Josh Brolin, Evangeline Lilly, Tessa Thompson, Frank Grillo, Winston Duke 

Director: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo

Running time: 3 hours 2 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Warning! This review contains finger-snapping fan service spoilers!

There’s no longer any reason to launch a passionate rebuttal to the multi-billion dollar franchise that is the MCU because these movies are essentially critic-proof. Some are entertaining (Captain America: The First Avenger, Captain Marvel), nicely diverse (Black Panther), or even delightfully goofy (Thor Ragnarok), but over the course of 22 films, one thing has remained unchanged; these are assembly line products made for the fans. Now, with Avengers: Endgame, we have the most unwieldy fan-film ever made; a 3-hour behemoth in which nearly every character who has appeared in one of these movies shows up (either in cameo form or with more built-in stakes) while our remaining superheroes deliver the death blow to purple space goblin Thanos (Josh Brolin), keeper of the six Infinity Stones.

If one recalls, Thanos snapped his fingers at the climax of Avengers: Infinity War and eradicated half of the world’s population, including many of the MCU’s most beloved heroes such as Black Panther, Spider-man, Doctor Strange, and nearly all of the Guardians of the Galaxy. The early moments of Endgame sees the remaining Avengers—including Captain America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) dealing with the cosmic fallout. Somewhere within this gargantuan series of video game cutscenes is an intimate movie about grief, but naturally, Endgame merely nods at deeper themes. There’s also probably an actual movie in here too, but at this juncture, that’s an irrelevant observation. Narrative, character, and pacing are out the window; replaced by a series of big moments, wacky one-liners, and epic brand management. The performers are game, and obviously no expense was spared in terms of budget, but perhaps the spoiler-adverse culture can rest easy because Avengers: Endgame is not really something that can be spoiled. Sadly, there are few genuine surprises here. Just a lot of stuff happening. Constantly. For a very, very, long time.

Sure, a few key characters die off, many are brought back to life via some Back to the Future meets 1978’s Superman time travel shenanigans, and there’s the inevitable massive duel with Thanos and hordes of CGI creatures, but in the end, Disney has succeeded in swallowing its own tail. Working from a script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, co-directors Anthony and Joe Russo have fun with the quantum realm elements (powered by Paul Rudd’s Ant Man), turning the middle portion into a time travel heist where the Avengers must go back into the timelines of previous MCU movies and retrieve the Infinity Stones before Thanos does. Even as this section features clever reshuffling of events allowing our heroes to interact with their past selves, it plays more as a testament to corporate synergy than inspired storytelling. Some will view it as rewarding fans who have spent over a decade of their lives inside this universe, while the rest of us will see it clearly for what it is; just another way for Disney to monopolize its own product, repackage it, and sell it back to us.

For all of Infinity War’s flaws (and they were many), it was a film which actually dared to bum out its audience. Of course, the cynics already knew that the disintegrating core characters still had contractual obligations for more films, and yet there was still something thrilling about ending on such a downer note. Endgame course-corrects, but goes too far in the other direction, attempting to pump up the somber stakes and sentimental nonsense to the point where the effect becomes numbing rather than rousing. With the MCU’s most interesting characters lost to the finger-snapping void, we are left with sweeping arcs for bores like Captain America and Iron Man, both of which already have had multiple stand-alone movies. Why, for example, is Captain Marvel (Brie Larsen) reduced to a glorified cameo here? The film has an explanation, but it’s a lazy one; something about saving other planets in peril and whatnot. Since we know she’s the only one more powerful than Thanos, the writers must concoct a reason for her absence from such universe-altering events, and it isn’t the least bit convincing. Meanwhile, Thor is reduced to a one-joke punchline as a slacker/online troll who has “let himself go” chugging beer while showing off his drooping gut, but the gag feels like a fanboy construct for a new TV sitcom.

After all this time setting up a shared universe over the course of 11 years, Endgame ultimately comes down to white guy saviors with Messiah complexes. It’s no mistake that even though the final CGI-vomit battle features nearly every MCU character getting a chance to fight against Thanos, the film centers its emotional axis on the self-sacrifice of Tony Stark and Cap’s decision to travel back in time and give mortality a shot with his lost love. Just what we need more of in our popular culture; white men of a certain age proving they aren’t self-involved assholes when in actuality that’s exactly what they are. That’s probably why Iron Man’s final tearful goodbye to Pepper Pots (Gwyneth Paltrow, remember her?) rings so hollow. It’s just another sad rich dad playing his redemption card. Sorry, Mr. Stark. You’re still a colossal douche bag and no amount of finger-snapping will change that fact.

Avengers: Endgame lacks the spark of imagination which draws us to superhero stories. Instead, it exists as an impressively mounted advertising campaign; a cultural monolith feeding off our collective desire to drink the Disney Kool-Aid. While all of this may sound incredibly cynical, just think for a moment of this corporation’s own cynicism in repurposing their various products over and over simply to cannibalize the market. By appealing to the masses through decades of comic books, toys, and superhero iconography, Marvel has essentially made something for no one; a hulking ad continuing the homogenized “house style” which seems to run on an expensive algorithm. In the face of such things, film criticism is irrelevant. Dissenting voices will always lose. Capitalism; which is exemplified by long-running serialized storytelling and extended universes, will always win.



 

Her Smell

 

Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Dan Stevens, Agyness Deyn, Gayle Rankin, Ashley Benson, Eric Stoltz, Cara Delevigne, Amber Heard, Eka Darville, Lindsay Burdge, Virginia Madsen

Director: Alex Ross Perry

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Alex Ross Perry has been both praised and criticized for making films with irredeemable characters. From the navel-gazing leads of The Color Wheel, to the egomaniacal NYC writers of Listen Up Philip and manic/depressive central figure in Queen of Earth, the writer-director has never shied away from the messy side of human nature. However, to say he goes out of his way to write “unlikeable” characters or revels in abrasiveness is a misunderstanding of his work. In fact, Perry would probably say he’s just writing what he’s drawn to; the complicated aspects of living on this planet and being forced to deal in close proximity with others. Perry never thumbs his nose or looks down on his characters. Only presents them, flaws and all, and asks us to wrestle with their behavior.

In his latest and most ambitious project, he’s cast Elisabeth Moss (in their third collaboration following Listen Up Philip and Queen of Earth) as a snarling, coked up frontwoman of a grrrl riot trio. Many will see this as Perry’s most aggravating creation yet; a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, if you will, treating herself and everyone around her like human waste. Her Smell is a film which uses the rock star narrative usually reserved for asshole men and then gives us a female behaving badly.

When we first meet Becky Something (Moss), she and her bandmates have just finished a rousing set and retired to the confines of the venue’s dingy back rooms. Working with regular cinematographer Sean Prince Williams, Perry captures a feeling of roving claustrophobia as the camera follows Becky (often in long Steadicam shots) as she stumbles, slurs, gets high, and throws out witty insults. The self-destructive nature of the behind the scenes rock star life is nothing new, but there’s something hypnotic about Perry’s approach here. The other bandmates Marielle Hell (Agyness Deyn) and Ali van der (Gayle Rankin) are clearly at a loss in trying to curb Becky’s erratic behavior, and their manager, Howard Goodman (Eric Stoltz) seems only concerned insofar as it impacts the bottom line. As the camera swirls and pushes in for closeups, scraping strings and detuned guitar feedback permeates the soundtrack; giving everything a disorienting atmosphere of unpredictability.

Perry throws us into this chaotic situation without context and then draws it out for as long as he can. When we do get backstory, it’s delivered via old camcorder recordings of Becky (often holding her baby) during a more sober period of her life. For the first hour or so, Her Smell is a psychological nightmare in which Moss unfurls a volcanic performance that might have been a bridge too far had she not been so adept at Perry’s loquacious dialogue. Much of the conversations here come off like smutty prose; as if Becky and her minions are rehearsing for a night of Shakespearean musical theater with the amps turned up. Moss’s uncanny physicality informs Becky’s manic energy which is always in performance mode, as we rarely see behind the curtain, even as her mother (Virginia Madsen) often shows up to reveal small cracks in the facade.

Moss will rightfully receive accolades for her work here, but as the band’s bassist, Deyn is actually the heart of the film acting as the audience surrogate. If Becky is loud and unruly, Marielle is more internal and calm. The way Deyn sits back and quietly takes in the tragedy occurring all around her is subtly devastating, and her scenes opposite Moss have an aching soulfulness missing from the rest of the film.

There’s a marked shift that occurs in the final third which is, in many respects, a bold move for Perry. As someone known for exposing the noxious undercurrents in human behavior, the move toward serenity comes as something of a shock. With Becky entering a period of sobriety at home, the camera becomes locked down, the compositions last longer, and the once anarchic tension of the film dissipates. Aesthetically, it’s a noble risk, and there are some nicely rendered moments of domesticity in this section, but it also takes the film into more predictable territory. Perhaps Perry learned a lesson from co-writing the script for studio project Christopher Robin, since the narrative here starts hitting the self-recovery beats of many rise and fall rock star stories. While this shift hinting at a “happy ending” certainly gives the film more widespread appeal, and even makes Becky’s awful behavior more understandable given the nature of her addictions, it also feels like Perry pulling back on what he does best.

Her Smell is a profoundly visceral experience confirming Perry’s gifts at balancing morbid humor with psychological horror movie theatrics. Had he burrowed even deeper into the black hole of Becky Something; exposing the 90’s alt-rock scene as a bunch of drugged-out posers pretending to not be excited about landing on the cover of Spin, and the film may have truly lingered as a companion piece to Penelope Spheeris's incisive The Decline of Western Civilization. Instead, it’s just another story of an asshole musician (albeit a woman this time) going off the rails and then coming back again for one more song.




Peterloo

 

Cast: Rory Kinnear, Maxine Peake, Pearce Quigley, David Moorst, Rachel Finnegan, Tom Meredith, Karl Johnson, Tim McInnerny 

Director: Mike Leigh

Running time: 2 hours 34 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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The 1819 massacre in Manchester which killed 15 and wounded hundreds when cavalrymen began shooting and trampling workers demanding political reform is a sad chapter in British history. To that end, there’s very few filmmakers more equipped to bring such an event to the screen than writer-director Mike Leigh, whose impressive body of work has consistently shown sympathy for the British working-class. Even if his concerns more adroitly address modern blue-collar life, Leigh’s period films such as Vera Drake and Mr. Turner have taken historical context and narrowed the scope to focus on intimate relationships. His latest film, Peterloo, favors a long view take on the organizational elements of the suffrage movement while sacrificing the personal aspects. Therefore, the long-winded speechifying and monologues (of which there are many) are interesting only in a broad sense. Overall, the film lacks the sense of righteous indignation this story truly demands.

Part of the problem here is Leigh’s decision to introduce a sprawling cast of characters without bothering to flesh them out beyond broad strokes. There are extremists, moderates, and those unsure where to place their trust, and if there’s a lead character here, it might be the arrogant Henry Hunt (Rory Kinear), a charismatic speaker who many hope will sway the masses. Mostly, the film sets up these clashing perspectives and then runs in circles with a series of meetings held in secret. Rarely do we get any insight into the inner lives of these people, which makes the tragic conclusion feel all the more removed.

Leigh does illustrate the ways in which the elite are abusing the lower class, and scenes of magistrates dressed garishly in extravagant rooms while complaining about the poor are one-dimensional yet effective, with Magistrate Rev Etlhelson (Vincent Franklin) in particular shouting into the void like a buffoon. However, such moments are repeated so often that the film begins veering into the realm of satire without the bite needed to fully land its comedic punch.

Working with cinematographer Dick Pope (who also shot the gorgeous Mr. Turner), Leigh successfully channels the look of the era, but there’s something unusually flat about the compositions here which makes one long for the wildly unpredictable tenor of early films like Meantime and Naked. Peterloo is meticulously staged and well-meaning, and even if the climax is handled with a sure-handed verisimilitude, there’s very little in the way of meaningful catharsis. Since the film is presented as such an exacting history lesson, this moment of chaotic violence is probably supposed to jar the audience into shock and awe, but it works only in the technical sense. Leigh never invites us in. Never bothers to open us up to these people aside from their ideologies. Never presents their zeal and anger at a broken system from an emotional perspective.

Peterloo is a misfire, but it’s parallels with modern day issues of militarized law enforcement and economic inequality are alarmingly familiar. Had Leigh invested these themes with the same kind of intimacy and personal anguish of his past work, then this could have been yet another rousing call to action. Instead, the film lacks the one thing any type of political reform needs to be successful; the plight of the individual.




SPELLLING

 

Mazy Fly

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Like an alien falling to earth

by Jericho Cerrona

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The witching hour is upon us, and Oakland-based artist Tia Cabral will be acting as high priestess. As the mastermind behind SPELLLING, Cabral is carving out a niche for herself in the burgeoning Bay Area underground electronic music scene by inviting listeners to her sonic seance and then casting them out into the darkness. If her 2017 debut, Pantheon of Me, used warm synths and sultry balladry to conjure an intimate feeling, then Mazy Fly opens things up to a wider array of experimentation. Songs are built around vintage keyboard sounds, drum machine, and spacey effects, but Cabral’s voice remains as beguiling as ever. The overall atmosphere is gothic (perhaps even witchy), but also sexy, scary, and soothing. It’s an album for weirdos, lovers, and seekers.

The spiritual longing anchoring SPELLLING’s music makes it into a kind of prayer where mysticism and carnal human desire coexist. There are many influences colliding here— Italian progressive synth-based band Goblin, the glitchy electronica of Apex Twin, Erykah Badu’s style of R & B Afrofuturism, Brian Eno, 90’s IDM, Kate Bush—but Cabral has a distinct sound which reaches back into the past while imagining a new future.

On songs like “Haunted Water”, with it’s icy retro synth leads and cooing vocals, and the occultic “Hard to Please”, which sounds like it was recorded inside the belly of a cathedral, SPELLLING taps into something almost supernatural while never forfeiting base desires. Elsewhere, the album goes into ambient territory with “Melted Wings”, which uses a wandering sax and Vangelis-esque keyboards to conjure an atmosphere of sadness, while the opening moments of “Afterlife” has a chintzy sci-fi vibe complete with an elevated theremin intro.

This isn’t all doom and gloom, though. “Under the Sun” plays like a slowed down warped disco track which actually points toward hope for the human race. Cabral gets into more outsider territory with “Real Fun”, in which she paints the picture of two aliens looking for a good time. There are references to Billie Holiday and Michael Jackson, but the song eventually moves away from bliss into a crescendo-filled outro filled with apocalyptic synth lines and pounding drums.

Mazy Fly is a record which gradually worms its way into your bones. Cabral is constantly trying out new avenues with her voice; overlapping, layering, and placing them at fascinating sonic intersections. With all of the electronic buzzing and wonky synth passages, it would have been tempting for her to blow out the production, but she leaves enough space within the recordings to inject haunting melodies. If Mazy Fly is indeed the place to make contact with the dead, then SPELLING ultimately seems more interested in the land of the living; wrapped up in dreams, fantasy, and hope for a better world.

 

Dragged Across Concrete

 

Cast: Mel Gibson, Vince Vaughn, Tory Kittles, Jennifer Carpenter, Michael Jai White, Laurie Holden, Don Johnson, Udo Kier

Director: S. Craig Zahler

Running time: 2 hours 39 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Dragged Across Concrete is not for the faint-hearted nor the politically correct. The writer-director, S. Craig Zahler, has been down this road before with Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99, both of which were apolitical films interested in the mechanics of violence and human apathy. Here, Zahler takes the mundanity of American life and heightens the particulars; setting his film in an unspecified city while following stereotypically grizzled characters as they combat poverty, crime, and bigotry. Every so often, an act of violence happens abruptly; emphasizing the ways in which idealized thinking is absurd when it comes to dealing with such things on a daily basis. Zahler’s aim here is to probe this division; calling into question liberal think-pieces about racism and violence penned by those existing in a place of privilege. Of course, this makes Dragged Across Concrete a have-it-both-ways kind of genre exercise; reveling in “politically incorrect” dialogue while also revealing our sick cultural fascination with violence.

When we first meet detective Brett Ridgeman (Mel Gibson), and his partner, Anthony Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn), they are using excessive force while arresting a Hispanic drug dealer. Naturally, a civilian captures the entire encounter via cell phone, leading to the two men’s suspension, much to the dismay of their superior, Lt. Calvert (Don Johnson). Meanwhile, African-American ex-con Henry (Tory Kittles), is released from prison and instantly struggles to provide for his disabled wheelchair-bound son, which mirrors Ridgeman’s multiple sclerosis-plagued wife, Melanie (Laurie Holden). Zahler spends much of the film’s first act cutting back and forth between the cops’ dealing with their suspension and Henry’s entrance back into the world of crime. There’s a deep-seated cynicism and macabre wit to Zahler’s writing which gives his actors time to rattle off snappy lines or simply react to situations without the need for moving the plot along. To that end, we are constantly shifting our allegiances as the film confronts us with the ugliness of human nature while also endearing us, to a certain degree, with characters we might ordinarily find reprehensible.

One could read Dragged Across Concrete as a right wing fantasy for the good old days when men spoke their minds without fear of repercussion, but that would also infer Zahler is actually interested in politics. Truthfully, the film seems to exist more as a paean to the time where art could be disreputable and provocative, which brings us to the casting of Gibson, whose own career trajectory aligns with Ridgeman in how character and actor have been pushed out of the spotlight (rightfully so) for deeply problematic behavior. For what it’s worth, Gibson’s performance here as a man doing dirty work inside the gutter of a society who no longer respects him is both disturbing and vulnerable. He has a nicely weathered chemistry with Vaughn, who tamps down his usual motor-mouthed shtick as a guy who doesn’t acknowledge his own privilege (he has an African-American girlfriend, which of course, means he’s not racist).

Zahler uses the framework of a typical action thriller; wherein the two out-of-work cops attempt to rob drug dealers, and morphs it into a boldly subversive take on the genre. Nearly 90 minutes in, and new characters are still being introduced, including Euro killer, Vogelmann (Thomas Kretschmann) and a struggling mother, Kelly (Jennifer Carpenter), who returns to her bank job after maternal leave. Such tangents give the film a more expansive scope; and when the moments of brutal violence occur, they pack a wallop because Zahler has taken the time to slowly introduce us to this world and the people populating it. When Ridgeman and Lurasetti eventually find themselves in a stand-off with the drug dealers, the action is paired down and methodical, stretching out into a nearly 30 minute suspense set-piece. Meanwhile, Henry’s scrappy ex-con eventually engages in a tenuous alliance with Ridgeman, which leads to a brilliantly prolonged scene where the two men simply drive and occasionally check their rearview mirrors. Its theses exacting details which are usually left on the cutting room floor in other films that Zahler luxuriates in.

Dragged Across Concrete confirms Zahler as a studious maker of trashy genre entertainment which is unusually attune to the rhythms of middle class life. His vision is nihilistic and unsparing, but also not without humor or pathos. There’s a trolling element to the ways in which the film wants to prod liberal idealism, but it’s also never endorsing the repellent behavior of its characters. More than simply an empty provocation, Dragged Across Concrete is epic pulp; a slow-paced, tense, talky slice of genre filmmaking which revels in its dichotomies.

The Beach Bum

 

Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Snoop Dogg, Isla Fisher, Stefanie LaVie Owen, Martin Lawrence, Zac Efron, Jonah Hill

Director: Harmony Korine

Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Florida Man gets the ultimate treatment in Harmony Korine’s The Beach Bum, which uses the Sunshine State as the geographical nexus where privilege, poverty, and hedonism collide. If 2013’s Spring Breakers was a self-aware snapshot of millennial debauchery, then The Beach Bum is what occurs when boomers’ and Gen Xers’ slide completely off the grid; powered by privilege and a mixture of booze and weed haze.

When we first meet Moondog (Matthew McConaughey), he’s stumbling around Key West in a state of permafried contentment, living off his wife Minnie’s (Isla Fisher) money while moving from one hedonistic party to the next. He’s a former critically acclaimed poet who is supposedly working on his next great work, but mostly just lives the good life as a burnout drifter. McConaughey leans into self-parody by fully committing to the attributes which have made him (despite Oscar-winning work in “serious” films), a parody of himself. Moondog is the slack-jawed, off his rocker version of the screen persona which began with the stoner doofus from Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused. In The Beach Bum, McConaughey has come full circle clad in a half-buttoned canary yellow shirt and oversized glasses, and it’s a riotously freewheeling performance for the ages.

Once Moondog arrives in Miami for his daughter Heather’s (Stefanie LaVie Owen) wedding, the film becomes a tender picture of an odd marriage. Though both he and Minnie sleep around, there’s a real bond between them (aided by all manner of substance abuse), and some of the film’s most affecting scenes are between these two lovebirds. However, this is cut short by Minnie’s sudden death; leading to Moondog’s realization that he must finish his batch of poems in order to claim his half of her will. From here, The Beach Bum veers into a series of colorful vignettes involving kooky Florida characters while Moondog embarks upon his episodic quest.

Korine as always been drawn to outsiders, and his subjects are often disabled or disturbed individuals caught on the fringes of society. In many respects, The Beach Bum is his most accessible film yet; elliptical and meandering, but also less purposefully alienating. There are plenty of problematic elements here (women are more or less treated as sexual objects, for starters), but Korine’s undeniable affection for his characters; including Zac Efron’s pyromaniac son of a pastor and Martin Lawrence’s dolphin tour guide, keep the film brisling with a weirdo energy. Unlike older films like Gummo, Julien Donkey Boy, and the trollish Trash Humpers, The Beach Bum maintains a hippy euphoria throughout; exemplifying Moondog’s attitude of just having fun until it all comes crashing down. Even the spectator of his wife’s death never turns into a sentimental device. There’s no attempt to redeem his irresponsible behavior or make his journey into some kind of mawkish therapy session about overcoming grief. In fact, a brief stint inside a rehab facility concludes with a scene where he and Effron’s pyro injure and rob a senior citizen.

Is Moondog a good poet? In a traditional sense, probably not. Is he actually a genius, as so many Floridans claim? Maybe, but that’s not really important. What matters here is Korine’s refusal to offer easy tropes found in so many films about troubled geniuses who must rediscover their creative mojo. When Moondog's best friend Lingerie (Snoop Dogg) gives him a primo form of weed, he goes off on a binder that also includes pounding away on a vintage typewriter. Therefore, the excesses of creativity are found in the total loss of control that comes when someone knows they are well past their peak.

Moondog’s self-awareness is never really made clear. He’s so lost in the fumes of his carefree existence that bothering with his mortality is never truly an issue. Certainly, this is easier when such privilege is afforded, but Korine’s strangely touching film somehow transcends its trashy appearance as a bong-ripped wank. There’s a tinge of melancholy to the sight of Moondog, with his hyena laugh and red sequinned bikini top, just thinking that the world is conspiring to make him happy. In a bizarre way, The Beach Bum is the Florida movie the rest of the country needs right now; if only to bask in Moondog’s Zen-like penis poetry and the bohemian sounds of Jimmy Buffet. Alright, alright, alright.  



Music Pick of the Week

Matmos

Plastic Anniversary

Year of release: 2019

by Jericho Cerrona

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Multi-instrumentalists Drew Daniel and M.C. Schmidt have been making forward thinking electronic music as Matmos for 25 years now, and to celebrate, they’ve created an entire album incorporating the sound of plastic objects. Like with their last record, Ultimate Care II, which used washing machine samples as the basis for songs, Daniel and Schmidt take things which would normally be thrown into the recycling bin and transform them into wonderfully weird, percussive electronic soundscapes.

Matmos have always been on the cutting edge production-wise (not to mention the fringes), so the foray into squaks, squibbles, boings, and clicking-clacks is not really that surprising. However, what they’ve been able to conjure simply through manipulating, condensing, and warping these everyday objects is dazzling and at times, accessible. Songs like opener “Breaking Bread”, humorously made up of broken vinyl records by '70s rock band Bread and “Silicone Gel Implant”, which begins with a bouncy groove before descending into what sounds like analog tape decks being mashed together, are so densely packed with sonic detours that it’s almost brain-breaking. But for every up-tempo plastic-pop banger, like the horn-inflected title track and drum-heavy "Fanfare for Polythene Waste Containers", of which Deerhoof’s Greg Saunier makes an appearance, there are darker excursions. For instance, “Thermoplastic Riot Shield” comes off like a metal factory being invaded by space aliens, while album closer “Plastisphere” conjures images of an ocean covered in consumer waste where the twisted sounds of bubble wrap and plastic cans becomes a hellish cacophony.

Even after 25 years, Matmos continue to push forward and create singular work. What might at first seem like a gimmick transforms into something Daniel and Schmidt have been doing their entire careers; taking elements of the ordinary and massaging them into something extraordinary, and most importantly, musically inventive. At the very least, it will make you look at toilet brushes and silicone breast implants in a whole new light.

 

Movie Pick of the Week

 

An Elephant Sitting Still

Director: Hu Bo

Year of release: 2019

Running time: 3 hours 54 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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An Elephant Sitting Still is one of the bleakest films about emotional and physical isolation ever made, trafficking in what could be considered arthouse miserablism. However, the first and only film by director Hu Bo (he committed suicide before the film’s premiere) is also a clear-eyed look at the lack of economic infrastructure in northeast China which layers its nihilism under a melancholic heart. Lasting nearly four hours and following a few major characters as they navigate through crumbling cityscapes over the course of a single day, the film slowly builds power through a sense of hopeless anger at being unable to escape one’s personal hell.

At first glance, one suspects Bo is following in the footsteps of his mentor, Béla Tarr, with a gliding camera following his characters in and out of rooms, up staircases, and over large expanses without a single cut. Though aesthetically similar to the films of Tarr, An Elephant Sitting Still is more in tune with the rage of youth (Bo was only 29 when he took his own life) and therefore, has a different energy. The film’s massive running time also might be the kind of self-indulgence inherited from master to pupil, but the length here is an honest attempt to interlock the narrative with the growing complication of the character’s inner lives.

There’s young schoolboy Wei Bu (Peng Yuchang) dealing with bullies and an abusive father, an older man named Wang Jin (Liu Congxi) being forced out of his daughter’s apartment and into a nursing home, local gang kingpin Yu Cheng (Zhang Yu), who may have his sights set on Wei Bu, and a female student (Wang Yu Wen) having an affair with her teacher. Bo weaves these narrative threads together, but not in a contrived Babel-esque way, since the film isn’t about the interconnectivity of humanity, but the ways in which we deflect our failings unto others. Many scenes are staged with characters pointing fingers, shifting the blame, and exonerating themselves.

In a sense, the geographical space; with its fading coal mines and murky vistas, is a microcosm for an entire population trying to claw their way out of a deep-seated depression. The mundanity of these lives; toiling in obscurity, hoping for greener pastures but knowing such things are a mirage, is central to this extraordinary political epic from a talented filmmaker gone too soon.


Us

 

Cast: Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex, Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker

Director: Jordan Peele

Running time: 2 hours

by Jericho Cerrona

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Jordan Peele wants to scare the masses into introspection. If the writer-director’s galvanizing debut, Get Out, used the horror genre to reflect upon the complex feelings of being black within white society, then his followup, Us, is at least partially about the economic infrastructure upholding the American dream. The film’s central black family are middle/upper-class for a reason; forecasting the idea of minorities taking on the shape and form of white suburban life; exemplified here by a heavily intoxicated married couple played by Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker. Us is also less obvious about its themes than Get Out; choosing to layer messages through symbols (much like the government conspiracies which unfold under the surface of the plot), and forcing audiences to be reflective about their own complicity in the insidious nature of American life.

Of course, Peele is a smart enough filmmaker to realize the horror movie can produce visceral reactions unlike any other genre, and Us is a tense, superbly crafted piece of work; mixing suspense, gore, macabre comedy, and home invasion thriller tropes with startling sophistication. Like Get Out, Peele is able to meld deeper themes into the fabric of a mainstream crowdpleaser, and yet, Us is a more wildly ambitious project in nearly every area.

The film opens with a flashback set in 1986 where a little girl, Adelaide (Madison Curry), wanders away from her parents at a Santa Cruz, California amusement park. Entering a hall of mirrors exhibit, she stumbles upon her literal doppelgänger and almost instantly blacks out. Cut to the present day, where the adult Adelaide Wilson (now played by Lupita Nyong’o) returns once again to Santa Cruz with her husband, Gabe (Winston Duke), and their teenage daughter (Shahadi Wright Nelson) and young son (Evan Alex). During a trip to the beach, she’s visibly nerve-wracked as past memories of her former shadow self flood in, while her friends (played by Moss and Heidecker) remain oblivious as they ramble on about their rich white people problems. Later that night, a lookalike family shows up in the Wilson’s summer home driveway— clad in red jump suits—and the terror begins.

Peele stages the sustained home invasion with the perverse hand of someone tickled by wringing out his audience, and as we come to learn the invaders are in fact doppelgänger quasi-clones who spent time underground while their more “adjusted” counterpoints flourished, the film’s larger themes come into focus. The central idea here—that the success of one is in direction correlation with the harm of another— is nothing new, but a dissection of American capitalism is perhaps not what one might expect after Peele’s rather blunt, but entirely satisfying, treatise on 21st-Century racism in Get Out. As the Wilson’s shadow selves become more empowered, the “less human” class rises up to take control by any means necessary. The great trick of the film is the way it challenges complacent audiences into siding with what in any other horror movie would be the de facto villains.

Some may balk at the film’s nightmarish third act where heavy-handed exposition is laid out and the twists start piling up, but the underground setting (complete with a Dawn of the Dead homage involving a mall escalator) is rendered with such eerie finesse that the larger implications of the story only start to coalesce long after the credits have rolled. Perhaps the most potent twist here isn’t the reveal of Adelaide’s true identity (which will no doubt spawn many think-pieces), but rather, that the real enemy is our own privilege. Peele has fashioned Us as first and foremost a terrifying thriller with an extraordinary dual performance from Nyong’o, but secondly, as an ongoing dialogue about politics, race, generational trauma, and economic disparity which complicates the more tidy (though still unnerving) resolution from Get Out. As it turns out, the ungainly monster at the heart of contemporary America mirrors how we navigate through its capitalistic systems; untethered from our own shadow selves until they return to take back what is rightfully theirs.






Captain Marvel

 

Cast: Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Jude Law, Ben Mendelsohn, Annette Bening, Djimon Hounsou, Clark Gregg, Lee Pace

Director: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck 

Running time: 2 hours 4 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Within the ever-expanding, box office-bursting, decade-plus journey of the Marvel cinematic universe, do we really need yet another origin story? Well, the truth of the matter is Captain Marvel exists mostly to prime salivating fanboys for the forthcoming Avengers: Endgame, in which Carol Danvers (aka Vers/Captain Marvel) will presumably go head to head with finger-snapping supervillain Thanos. However, for all the cynicism laced into these corporate products, there’s something pleasurable about directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s 1990s-set romp; right down to cheesy needle drop music cues and obvious jokes about dial up Internet and Radio Shack. There’s some convoluted cosmic business involving Vers training with her Kree mentor Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) in order to do battle with an alien race known as the Skrulls, but that more or less comprises the film’s opening 20 minutes.

Once Vers crash lands on earth through the roof of a Blockbuster Video circa 1995, she casually glances at a VHS copy of The Right Stuff before teaming up with Samuel L. Jackson’s government agent Nick Fury (aided by uncanny de-aging tech) in order to stop the imminent Skrull invasion. Boden and Fleck’s screenplay, co-written by Geneva Robertson-Dworet, uses its feminist-leaning messaging bluntly; which may offend those wanting more scenes of Vers smiling while kicking ass. To wit, there’s even a nifty scene where a scuzzy dude on a motorcycle asks her for a smile, and she responds by stealing his bike and peeling off; set to the blaring sounds of 90s alt-rock band Hole. All of this brings us to Brie Larsen; who takes a rather impossible role and delivers a performance full of wit, humor, earnestness, and (yes) emotion. Another critical aspect of Carol Danvers’s backstory; leaked out gradually through flashbacks and memory spurts, is that her emotional velocity often overcame her ability to think rationally. She’s spent a lifetime getting knocked down and ridiculed (as a child by her father, in the military, at bars teeming with sexists), and the early moments with Law’s overseer are key in terms of implementing this gendered messaging. The arc of her character, therefore, is simple yet empowering; that she must befriend and accept her emotions as her greatest strength in order to become the powerful hero humanity deserves.

In terms of plotting and execution, Captain Marvel is decidedly middle of the road (as is the case, sadly, with the majority of these movies). There’s a chase scene set on a train involving a shape-shifting Skrull (and one limber old lady) that’s kinetic and well paced, and the buddy cop banter between Larson and Jackson works well enough. Ben Mendolhlsen also shows up as a Skrull named Talos, and what at first appears to be yet another rote villain role for the talented actor becomes something more nuanced, humorous, and surprising. However, the intergalactic space battles and third act where Danvers (now fully transformed into Captain Marvel) flies through ships like a human photon blast, are par for the course; the kind of rubbery pre-visualized CGI action beats which may give audiences what they expect, but diminish the film’s stronger attributes.

Speaking of which, the film’s best section involves Danvers making a pit stop to visit her former Air Force friend Maria (Lashana Lynch), and their quiet scenes together, mostly involving the bond they once shared, is truly something we haven’t seen in a Marvel film before. It’s a bold move; since most audiences will probably want Danvers to snap out of her amnesia-ridden state and just start exercising her powers, but the fact that Boden and Fleck actually invest time in this female friendship is noteworthy.

As Captain Marvel moves towards its inevitable climatic showdown (and setup for Avengers: Endgame), we get a cute cat, more jokes about slow CD-rom drives, and even a fight scene scored to No Doubt’s “Just a Girl.” Even if the film ultimately adopts the studio house style and only adds a few new (or in this case, retro) wrinkles to an existing template, Larsen’s intelligent determination, emotional pathos, and photon-blasting hands are more than enough to maintain balance in the MCU. Just don’t ask her to smile more.


Transit

 

Cast: Franz Rogowski, Paula Beer, Godehard Giese, Lilien Batman, Maryam Zaree, Barbara Auer, Matthias Brandt, Sebastian Hülk, Emilie de Preissac, Antoine Oppenheim, Ronald Kukulies, Alex Brendemühl

Director: Christian Petzold

Running time: 1 hour 42 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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In films like Barbara and Phoenix, German writer-director Christian Petzold mined past atrocities for subversive effect, and his latest film Transit, plays like a political noir wrapped in an anachronistic setting where past and present collide. An adaptation of Anna Seghers’s 1944 novel of same name which focused on the authors’ escape from Nazi Germany to France, Petzold’s version uses time elliptically; almost as if events are taking place in an alternate-historical reality.

The narrative centers on a technician named Georg (Franz Rogowski), who carries the final manuscripts from a famous author who committed suicide into the safe zone of Marseilles. Georg hopes to flee to America but doesn’t have papers, and much of the film’s knotty plotting comes down to the implication of his hinted Jewishness. Within the world of the film, references are made to internment camps, but ethnicity is largely sidelined in favor of economic disparity. Of course, it’s not a stretch to link the two, and part of the brilliance of Transit is how it utilizes the modern-day milieu and then strips it of contemporary signifiers such as cellphones and computers.

Georg’s initial aim was to return the dead author’s manuscripts to his wife for a sum of money, but things take a turn once he becomes land-locked in Marseilles awaiting the approval of his transit visa. Through fluid editing and compositions shot through reflective surfaces, Petzold conjures a feeling of being stuck in a loop, as Georg continually gets trapped under layers of government bureaucracy. In the meantime, he strikes up a fatherly relationship with a young immigrant boy named Driss (Lilien Batman), and keeps having odd encounters with the hauntingly beautiful Marie (Paula Beers). Eventually, it’s revealed that she’s actually the deceased author’s wife, who keeps hoping her displaced husband will return. Georg and Marie’s meetings are baffling at first, but eventually their courtship becomes heartbreaking since both of them have been dehumanized. What Petzold is ultimately after is the idea of personal worth, of the ways in which the state strips away the identity of those deemed “less than human.” Like his Holocaust drama Phoenix, he does this not by using obvious allegory, but by suggesting that past transgressions are often filtered through historical generational trauma.

The indefinite time period where Transit unfolds makes the film intoxicating, as Petzold never betrays the noir signifiers by thumbing his nose at genre. At the same time, the picture’s ambiguity create a disorienting effect; as it’s never quite clear where the danger is coming from or even what the larger implications of the story are. By assuming the identity of the dead author, Georg essentially becomes a stand-in for all nameless refugees seeking escape. Meanwhile, an unseen narrator infiltrates the narrative as Georg begins reading the deceased’s novel; further highlighting the ways in which storytelling (unreliable or otherwise) is crucial to shaping our notions of history.

Transit could be labeled Kafkaesque in how it destabilizes the protagonist (who remains caught in a pile of red tape), but this also works similarly for the audience because it masterfully exploits our understanding of 21st century displacement. With the rise of Neo-Nazism and the deportation of immigrants on the rise, another period film about the Holocaust (however noble), might not carry the same weight since historical amnesia tends to set in. By giving us a speculative timeline and characters who are constantly shifting, Petzold cannily shows us that no matter what decade we find ourselves in, fascism is always poised to take center stage.




Everybody Knows

 

Cast: Penélope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Jaime Lorent, Ricardo Darín, Bárbara Lennie, Inma Cuesta, Carla Campra, Eduard Fernández, Elvira Mínguez, Roger Casamajor, Sara Sálamo, Sergio Castellanos, Ramón Barea, Marianella Rojas

Director: Asghar Farhadi 

Running time: 2 hours 13 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Over the course of an exemplary career, Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi has perfected the domestic melodrama. However, the particular reference points of the genre; (i.e. sensational plotting, big emotions, and stereotypical characters) don’t exactly apply to the Farhadi brand because he’s always been after something more humane. His latest class consciousness thriller, Everybody Knows, allows him the rare opportunity to move away from the tightly restricted areas of Iran and embrace the wide open vistas of Madrid, Spain. The film still deals in usual Farhadian themes—betrayal, familial secrets, economic disparity— but this time the emotional lives of his characters aren’t operating inside an oppressive societal regime. Instead, the early sections of Everybody Knows maintains a light, sun-dappled tone; following working-class farmer, Paco (Javier Bardem), and his ex-lover Laura (Penélope Cruz), a woman of higher social standing who travels from Buenos Aires with her children to attend the wedding of her sister, Ana (Inma Cuesta).

Laura’s family is warm and boisterous (evidenced by the dancing/wine-guzzling wedding ceremony), but also bitter about their fortune being whittled away by her alcoholic husband. The small-town gossip spreads like wildfire as the film’s title suggests, implicating not only Paco and Laura’s past romance, but also the shocking disappearance of one of Laura’s daughters. This plot turn is unsurprising only because Farhadi has used this trick before in his devastating 2015 film About Elly, and the manner in which the family’s buried secrets trickle to the surface is also par for the course. In pictures like The Past and The Salesman, Farhadi managed to couch blunt symbolism and emotional rawness under the template of geographical, socioeconomic, and political specificity; coming off much denser than the usual garden variety melodrama. Unfortunately, Everybody Knows eschews this kind of subtlety; in part because the larger geographical canvas of Spain makes the proceedings less claustrophobic than the director’s Iran-set melodramas.

Whatever the case, Farhadi leans into the genre elements more forcefully here; getting caught up in narrative machinations involving the kidnapped teen, ransom money, and foreboding text messages. Of course, the actual answer to the mystery is never meant to be dramatically satisfying in a Farhadi film. Indeed, it’s the moral quandaries and class divisions which fuel his flawed characters that ultimately matters. However, too much time is spent moving Paco and Laura around like plot chess pieces to bother with the inner turmoil of their shared history, though Bardem and Cruz are infinitely watchable. By the end, it’s clear Farhadi has allowed the obviousness of his symbolism (escaping pigeons, a crumbling church) to overwhelm the emotional power at the heart of his story.

Everybody Knows has the shape and structure of vintage Asghar Farhadi, but lacks the searing humanism which earns its sentiments by actually engaging with the ugliness of human nature. This time, the soap-opera elements which have defined the filmmaker’s work are used not as entry points into the moral contradictions of his characters, but rather, as screenwriting contrivance.

Movie Pick of the Week

 

Braid

Director: Mitzi Peirone

Year of release: 2019

Running time: 1 hour 22 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Flashy maximalism when it comes to the horror genre is usually reserved for male filmmakers, but Mitzi Peirone’s disorienting debut feature, Braid, is the kind of blunt force trauma to the senses which not only upends expectations, but questions whether or not we should have expectations in the first place. This is the type of film which layers on the hallucinatory visuals, askew camera angles, roving dolly shots, and unsympathetic female characters to the point where emotional investment is all but arbitrary.

Braid initially positions itself as a psychological thriller; with drug dealers Petula (Imogen Waterhouse) and Tilda (Sarah Hay) fleeing NYC after a police raid before arriving at the mansion of isolated childhood friend Daphne (Madeline Brewer). Weaving flashbacks into her trippy anti-narrative, Peirone gradually allows us to see how the bonds of female friendship can mutate into an insidious evil; personified by an absurdist game where Daphne plays dress up as the mother, Petula takes on the persona of a visiting doctor, and Tilda adopts the angst-ridden teenage daughter.

Braid is a twisted, psychedelic horror exercise which at times recalls the stylized camp of 90’s era Brian De Palma mixed with the extremity of Gaspar Noé, but from a decidedly female perspective. The fact that the only male character here is a bumbling detective (Scott Cohen) who gets dispatched in hyper-gory fashion, is proof enough this is a woman’s world. Above all else, it proves Peirone’s aesthetic tricks are in service of her film’s central thesis; that growing up female can be confusing, beautiful, terrifying, and exhilarating.

Music Pick of the Week

 

Pom Poko

Birthday

Year of release: 2019

by Jericho Cerrona

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Norwegian four-piece Pom Poko want to party, and they’re bringing a VIP list of influencers with them; namely Deerhoof, Battles, Marnie Stern, and French musician/poet Lizzy Mercier Descloux. Of course, simply name-checking various artists to which a band is indebted scans reductive, and on their exuberant debut album, Birthday, Pom Poko manage to break out into their own groove. Having met and studied jazz at Trondheim Music Conservatory, there’s a technicality to the outfit’s brand of art-rock; with odd time signatures, off-kilter arrangements, and singer Ragnhild Fangel Jamtveit’s childlike vocals, but there’s sublime pop hooks here too.

Taking their name after a 1994 Studio Ghibli film is instructive, since much of Birthday carries a quirky Japanese vibe (especially Jamveit’s yelping vocal delivery, which is reminiscent of Deerhoof’s Satomi Matsuzaki). Even if the overall tenor of the album is upbeat, slower to mid-tempo tracks like “My Work is Full of Art” and “Honey” does find the band flexing subtler sonic arrangements. The breakneck guitar riffs and cooing vocals on “My Blood” and percussive cowbell-adjacent “Crazy Energy Night” tend to be the norm, infusing the proceedings with a dizzying sense of play. The intricate guitar work, propulsive drumming, and odd entry points into melody might be accomplished with the inventiveness of trained jazz musicians, but there’s nothing calculated about Pom Poko’s joyous attempts at creating warped pop music.

Climax

 

Cast: Sofia Boutella, Romain Guillermic, Souheila Yacoub, Kiddy Smile, Claude Gajan Maull, Giselle Palmer, Taylor Kastle, Thea Carla Schott, Sharleen Temple, Lea Vlamos, Alaia Alsafir, Kendall Mugler, Lakdhar Dridi, Adrien Sissoko, Mamadou Bathily, Alou Sidibe, Ashley Biscette, Vince Galliot Cumant

 Director: Gaspar Noé

Running time: 1 hour 36 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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When it comes to extreme cinema, there are few modern voices as brazen as French filmmaker Gaspar Noé (aside from Lars von Trier, natch). His 2002 psycho-thriller Irreversible had two sequences worthy of the extreme pantheon; one where a man’s face is smashed to pulp by a fire extinguisher, and the other being the infamous rape scene filmed in one long, grueling shot. Then there was 2009’s Enter the Void; an out-of-body sensory experience where the camera was literally a floating POV traveling through the neon-lit hell of Tokyo, and yes, the lens at one point goes directly into a woman’s vaginal canal. With his latest button-pusher, Climax, Noé is up to his old tricks once again with arguably the best unintentional comedy of 2019 so far; a wildly overwrought descent into madness which plays like a Eurotrash version of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò directed by a fleet of drone cameras.

To his credit, Noé does seem to understand the absurdity of his premise; setting his film entirely inside a grungy rehearsal space circa 1996, set to the throbbing sounds of EDM music. Populating these small quarters are a series of annoying archetypes who, when they aren’t dancing up a storm, are entertaining philosophical discussions about such things as the finer points of rimming. Truthfully, the film does contain one truly extraordinary sequence; an exuberant opening dance number where each performer gets a chance to strut their stuff with fearless physicality, and Noé is smart enough to capture this deranged ballet in one long continuous take. However, as soon as the rehearsals end, we are forced to endure long stretches of dialogue which consist mainly of racially and sexually diverse dancers talking shit and hoping to score in more ways than one. This inane banter is all set-up, naturally, for Noé’s predictable swerve into the nightmarish abyss. Someone, it seems, has spiked the sangria with LSD.

Part of the problem with Climax is the lack of characters to really invest in. Once the bad times start rolling after the acid kicks in, there’s very little reason to care about what happens to any of these poor souls. The film is mostly an exercise in extremes which reaches levels of comedic absurdity. Some of the personalities do come through, however; such as Romain Guillermic’s swaggering ladies man, Sofia Boutella’s bi-curious choreographer and big-boned DJ Daddy (Kiddy Smile), who has a memorable moment chewing on a blonde wig once the drugs take flight. Ultimately, the film is less interested in the psychology of its performers than in the ways performance and movement can break down social order. As the dancers start “tripping”, Noé’s roving camera follows their spastic movements, hallucinations, euphoric freak-outs, and awful behavior in a voyeuristic manner suggesting that we too, as the audience, are under the influence. In a way, the film becomes a more ominous version of Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, where a group of wankers are unwilling (or unable) to leave their geographical space as the world closes in on them.

Unlike Buñuel, however, Noé lacks satiric imagination, and therefore the one-note maximalism of Climax starts to grow tedious, even as sequences where someone is set on fire or a woman punches herself in the stomach to abort her unborn baby play as comedic highlights. What’s supposed to be shocking and disturbing comes off more desperate than anything else; a telling example of a filmmaker making his name on shock tactics early in his career being pigeonholed into providing minor tweaks to the same formula. For some provocateurs, it can work over the long haul, (see von Trier’s masterful meta-commentary The House That Jack Built), but in this case, provocation without actual ideas can feel a lot like drinking the spiked cinematic sangria. Noé urgently wants us to come away with a visceral sense of shock and awe, but what’s really left after all the bodies stop twitching, is a soft tickle in the funny bone.

High Flying Bird

 

Cast: André Holland, Zazie Beetz, Melvin Gregg, Bill Duke, Sonja Sohn, Zachary Quinto, Kyle MacLachlan

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Anyone expecting a nuts and bolts sports movie with underdog motifs and come-from-behind victory laps will be largely baffled by Steven Soderbergh’s High Flying Bird; a film which digs into “the game on top of the game.” Of course, this comes as little surprise given the director’s track record for setting up familiar story beats and then pivoting away to explore other ideas. Along with screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney (Moonlight), Soderbergh has taken themes of technology, wealth, and sports negotiations and placed them within the context of white capitalist power structures. In that sense, High Flying Bird is more about endemic racism than characters dealing with an NBA lockout.

The film centers on agent Ray Burke (André Holland), who is vouching for young NBA draft pick hopeful Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg) amidst a stalemate between team owners and the Players Association. The former is represented by Kyle MacLachlan’s invisible mustache-twirling villain and the latter by Myra (Sonja Sohn), who seems to have the players best interests at heart. There’s also Ray’s assistant (Zazie Beetz) running her own game against the system, as well as a smug exec played by Zachary Quinto, who’s constantly reminding everyone how their jobs are in jeopardy due to the lockout. With a very sharp script by McCraney, whose heightened dialogue is reminiscent of the works of David Mamet and Aaron Sorkin, High Flying Bird initially positions itself as a modern take on fighting against the powers that be, but that would ultimately be too easy a position (however understandable) for the film to take. Instead, Soderbergh and McCraney go one step further; showing how Ray’s attempts at breaking the rules in order to start a revolution would have consequences that not everyone, including people of color, would be on board with.

One such dissenter comes in the form of Bill Duke’s Bronx gym coach, who has been around the block several times over and has more of a long game view of the situation than Ray. At one point, he even asks the question “why set it up, if it isn’t going to last forever?” which underlines the dichotomy of reforming a system built upon wealthy whites profiting from a largely African-American sport. On the other hand, the film is also smart about showing how the allure of fame, money, and popularity can trap young black athletes into following the rules set up by this institution. This struggle, personified by Gregg’s green NBA prospect, is bracketed by interview scenes with real-life players talking about the personal and professional challenges that come from signing to the league.

This being a Soderbergh joint, there’s also another layer which permeates the ways in which the characters interact with their environment. Specifically, the film was shot entirely on an iPhone (like last year’s psycho-drama Unsane), and this filmmaking freedom acts as a counterpoint to how media can signal change by putting the power back into the hands of black athletes. To wit, there’s even a one-on-one game between Erick and another NBA hopeful that’s captured entirely on a phone, uploaded to the Internet, and spread across social media like a wildfire. The idea of players taking to the streets or gyms in order to gain traction against corrupt patriarchal greed is telling, and Soderbergh’s aesthetic choices—sharp angles, floating dolly shots, rigid camera pans—mirror a world where information comes in trending bursts.

Eventually, Ray’s scheme to upend the system by giving players more creative and financial power makes High Flying Bird a subversive sports movie which entertains through crisp filmmaking, snappy dialogue, and fine-tuned performances, but also nails the disturbing nature of an economic system based on racial injustice. There’s even a Chekhov's’s manilla folder containing a “Bible” given to Erick by Ray in the film’s opening moments; and its eventual reveal, set to the sounds of Richie Havens, is the kind of punctuation more rousing than any game-winning buzzer beater.

Music Pick of the Week

 

Sneaks

Highway Hypnosis

Year of release: 2019

by Jericho Cerrona

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Eva Moolchan (aka Sneaks) is cooler than you. She won’t make a big deal about it, but it’s true. Starting out playing bass in a bunch of Washington DC punk bands before cutting her teeth with solo efforts like 2016's Gymnastics and 2017's It's a Myth carries a certain trajectory, even if those albums felt more like sketches than full-blown concepts. On what could rightly be considered her feature-length debut, Highway Hypnosis, Sneaks’s stoned swagger comes on methodically like a midnight drive inside a cloud of vapor. Eschewing the post-punk energy of her previous material for a series of tripped-out bmp electro and clipped beats, Moolchan sings/speaks/purrs like a young woman who (yes) has a sense of mischievous cool, but also an endearing goofiness. At times, Highway Hypnosis sounds like M.I.A. filtered through 90’s rave dance music, but somehow comes off even weirder than that.

It would have been easy for Sneaks to blow out her sound by chasing trap-rap trends, but her emphasis on minimal beat-based music in a downtempo mode means that those hoping for a series of bangers might be disappointed. Not that there aren’t bangers here (cuts like “The Way it Goes”, “Suck It Like A Whistle” come to mind), but Moolchan is more interested in throwing sonic curveballs than pleasing commercial sensibilities. There are elements of dub, lo-fi punk, soul, and funk thrown into the mix too, but categorizing everything under a specific genre is ultimately reductive.

Highway Hypnosis spans 13 tracks and clocks in at just under 30 minutes, so no one will ever accuse Sneaks of self-indulgence, but there are more ideas (both sonically and lyrically) packed into every corner of the album than anything in her back catalog. Much of this comes down to producers Carlos Hernandez and Tony Seltzer, whose groves/beats maintain an aural minimalism while still sounding dynamic enough for Moolchan’s playful vocal delivery. Whether it be the 808 electronic drum machine and non-sequitar lyrics on “"Ecstasy", or the psychedelic groove and clicking mouth sounds on “Suck It Like a Whistle”, Sneaks takes listeners on a literal journey—through the streets of Paris, the club scenes in Portugal, the underground areas of Atlanta—while also teasing out a woozy sonic expedition. Meanwhile, seemingly unimportant pit-stops along the way; like the experimental noise-based “"Saiditzoneza", or the repetitive vocals and slap bass on “Holy Cow Never Saw a Girl Like Her”, give the record a broader canvas. The album culminates in fiery lead single “Hong Kong to Amsterdam”, which is probably the closest Sneaks has come yet to the M.I.A. comparisons; with its skittering beat, laid-back flow, and the dancey atmosphere.

However, when all is said and done and every track on Highway Hypnosis has run its course, Sneaks will still be cooler than you.