Joker

 

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Shea Whigham, Bill Camp, Marc Maron, Brian Tyree Henry

Director: Todd Phillips

Running time: 2 hours

by Jericho Cerrona

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At the very least, Todd Phillips’s Joker deserves points for embracing the kind of nihilism rarely seen in mainstream superhero cinema. This is an even scuzzier installment of the already scuzzy Zack Snyder-adjacent DC universe, with all of humanity’s most sadistic qualities placed front and center. However, the unrelenting grimness ultimately becomes numbing rather than novel. What Phillips and co-screenwriter Scott Silver fail to grasp is the emotional, psychological, and narrative depth of the 1970s cinema they are shamelessly aping (i.e. Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy). There was a purpose to the desperate loneliness of a Travis Bickle or the social ineptitude of a Rupert Pupkin. These were lone male figures representing a microcosm of the sociopolitical forces at work during those specific decades, whereas Phillips’s vision of a middle-aged white sociopath is tame by comparison. For all the controversy surrounding its release, Joker is surprisingly coy about actually confronting the political signifiers and racial elements hanging on the fringes. Instead, the film’s faux-edginess becomes laughable.

When we first meet Gotham’s future arch villain, it’s in the form of Arthur Fleck (Phoenix), a loner toiling away in a trash dump fashioned after 1980s-era Manhattan. Acting as a clown performer twirling signs on sidewalks and entertaining sick children in hospitals, Fleck is a skeletal ghost who feels lost amidst the city’s filth and crime. He visits a therapist, jots down observations in his diary, and takes medication for a disorder which includes uncontrollable laughing. Fleck is also an aspiring stand up comedian, idolizing late-night TV talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro, just in case we missed the blatant The King of Comedy connection), but his material consists mostly of awkward cackling and knock-knock jokes.

During these early opening moments, we are asked to play along with this supposed character study of a troubled man with delusions of grandeur, but there’s really no psychological insight being gleaned here. As played by Phoenix with all manner of goofy tics, Fleck is little more than a cartoon postcard for “mental illness” if all the specifics of that term were removed as to be practically meaningless. If viewed as unintentional comedy, Joker works in fits and starts; seeing as Phillips’s direction consists mostly of long shots of Phoenix brooding/freaking out accompanied by horror music cues. However, if taken straight (which is surely the intention), the film falls apart under the weight of its own solemnity.

There’s a sickly mother (Frances Conroy), and a friendly neighbor (Zazie Beetz), but the film is oppressively relegated to Fleck’s point of view. As such, our anti-hero finds his inner clown prince after gunning down a group of Wall street assholes who accosted him on the train. Filmed like a Death Wish-esque revenge encounter, the murders are framed as an act of noble desperation, but there’s very little suggestion that we should feel implicated for enjoying this moment of violence. Phillips isn’t a director who can handle contradictory elements working in tandem, and so whatever dangerous ideas the film may be dealing with are handled in the broadest of strokes. For example, by setting the film in a vaguely 80s time period and amping up the comic book pulpiness, any genuine parallels to real-world concerns (political protests, incel ideology, reactionary violence) are conveniently neutralized. In fact, Joker would have been more incendiary had it actually taken place in the present day, without allusions to billionaire Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), and his son, Bruce (Dante Pereira-Olson). Hell, we even get the obligatory fan-service death of Bruce’s parents at the hands of a masked henchman.

Much of the film’s obvious flaws will be offset by praise for Phoenix’s technically dazzling performance, but it exists inside a vacuum surrounded by a film that doesn’t know what to do with his off-kilter energy. Phillips is either uninterested or incapable of channelling his lead actor’s derangement into the overall aesthetic of his film, and aside from impressively grubby set design, there’s nothing remarkable from a filmmaking standpoint going on here.

If taken as a gritty origins story, Joker feels cobbled together from pieces of superior movies dealing with male anxiety and societal rage, and if viewed as a comic book entry, Fleck’s transformation into a psychotic agent of chaos is anti-climatic. Since no emotional or psychological stakes have been built up over the course of the film, the ending lands with a complete thud. Perhaps a little intentional macabre humor would have helped (ala Jack Nicholson’s incarnation in Tim Burton’s Batman) or even a demented satisfaction in seeing anarchy reign supreme. Sadly, Phillips wants us to take all of this oh, so seriously. We are meant to be shocked and repulsed by the mayhem (and we are), but the film misses an opportunity to complicate our feelings regarding Fleck’s actions. The most shocking thing about Joker is just how listless and unimaginative its messaging is. There’s no clear perspective on the issues it’s dealing with. It exists simply to prod and provoke with no substantive argument, like a clown mask-wearing protestor holding up a sign which reads “This shit be dark, motherfuckers!”

Ad Astra

 

Cast: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Liv Tyler, Donald Sutherland

Director: James Gray

Running time: 2 hours 3 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Most films about the near future envision a world where resources have been depleted, capitalism has expanded outside our solar system, and the human race are doomed to repeat the same mistakes beyond our universe as they did on earth. James Gray’s science fiction drama Ad Astra is part of this cinematic lineage, and yet, there’s something touching about its ultimate message. For though the film gives us a world grappling with near extinction, its scope remains intimate; focusing on stoic astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) as he navigates governmental red tape en route to interplanetary missions.

For Roy, such missions are little more than “punching the clock” type jobs, complete with inane psych evaluations and techno-babble. However, something inside him awakens when he learns that his father, Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), an iconic figure who was long thought dead after his expedition to Neptune went awry, may still be alive. Roy’s superiors tell him his dad is setting off catastrophic energy that’s spreading throughout the entire universe, causing major power outages and destruction on earth and neighboring planets. Of course, their notion of sending Roy as a convoy in order to talk Cliff down from his anti-matter tinkering is foolish from the outset, seeing as how much of his internal issues stem from the estranged relationship with his father.

Though there’s an envoy tagging along with Roy on his quest, including Colonel Pruitt (Donald Sutherland) and a small shuttle crew, this is ultimately a single-minded venture into the unknown. There are wry jokes about the capitalist structures thriving in the near future economy, including airline space travel to Mars (which involves a $125 pillow and blanket option) and outer space Subway ports, but Gray and co-screenwriter Ethan Gross mostly keep things in the sober register. As such, Ad Astra may feel slow and ponderous to audiences expecting Gravity-level thrills or trippy psychedelic passages, ala 2001: A Space Odyssey (to which Gray’s film owes an obvious debt), but there’s a minimalism here which works in the film’s favor. Comparisons to the works of Terrence Malick will also undoubtably be made, as much of Roy’s inner thoughts are dictated via hushed voiceover narration. However, these monologues lack the flowery poeticism of Malick’s oeuvre, and are mostly there because Roy is such a reclusive character.

Like he did with his previous picture, The Lost City of Z, Gray presents a central figure with unwavering ambition who nonetheless reveals cracks of self-doubt as things become more bleak. There’s something both foolish and brave about Roy’s dedicated passion to make it to Neptune, which mirrors Charlie Hunnam’s protagonist from The Lost City of Z, who similarly used the exploration of an unknown area of the world as a journey of self-actualization. Roy is ultimately faced with a less than favorable picture of his father, bolstered by revelations from Helen Lantos (Ruth Negga), a Mars native who sneaks him onto a Neptune-bound shuttle. From here, Ad Astra becomes an internal expedition in which our central hero must deal with his daddy issues; culminating in a meeting between father and son that Pitt and Jones play with surprising subtlety.

James Gray has never been a flashy auteur, and there are times when his detached visual style threatens to become monotonous, but Hoyt Van Hoytema’s cinematography does wonders on what must have been a limited budget for a studio project of this size, and Gray is a smart enough filmmaker to latch onto Pitt in closeup for a large percentage of the running time. If his role in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood tapped into the laidback charisma of his movie star image, then Ad Astra goes deeper into that persona to unlock something more vulnerable. Pitt’s performance here is more muted than much of his past work, and yet his line deliveries and facial expressions tell an emotionally wrought story.

If the third act goes a bit soft; complete with a literal father/son outer space wrestling match and a tacked on ending (let’s not even get into poor Liv Tyler’s role as Roy’s long-suffering lover), then it only highlights a beautifully meditative film that could have been great had it ended with more existential mystery. Still, the idea of human love being the reason for not disappearing into the inky blackness of space is something most dystopian science fiction don’t have time for, and for that alone, Ad Astra is pushing beyond genre and into the realm of sincere humanist drama.

IT: Chapter Two

 

Cast: James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, Bill Hader, Jay Ryan, James Ransone, Isaiah Mustafa, Bill Skarsgård, Teach Grant, Jaeden Martell, Sophia Lillis, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Finn Wolfhard, Jack Dylan Grazer, Chosen Jacobs, Wyatt Oleff

Director: Andy Muschietti

Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Why anyone would attempt an adaptation of Stephen King’s 1987 classic novel It (aside from a long-form streaming miniseries) is beyond this reviewer, and yet, director Andy Muschietti has taken it upon himself to do just that. Even the 1990 miniseries felt truncated at 3 hours, as King’s sprawling narrative encompassed everything from childhood trauma, small town mythology, to that titular clown terrorizing the inhabitants of Derry, Maine. 2017’s revamped It was a crowd-pleaser and box office phenomenon, riding on the coattails of Stranger Things and other 80s ephemera, and as such, felt mostly like fan-service. Another problem was how the film strained to tap into the richer thematic material inherent in King’s novel, as it could barely handle operating as a mainstream horror movie.

With It: Chapter 2, something fascinating has occurred in that it takes all the hokey elements from the first installment and blows them up to the point where the end result is nothing short of epic schlock, and that’s a good thing. Taking place 27 years after the first entry, It: Chapter 2 nods towards mental illness, childhood damage, and omnipresent guilt, but doesn’t really have the time to invest in such themes; racing through its nearly 3 hour running time at a fever pitch. Still, there’s a playfulness here which gives everything an almost late 80’s Tim Burton vibe; cemented by the returning Bill Skarsgaard as Pennywise, whose take on the iconic character is like a ghoulish version of Ren & Stimpy on a Tales from the Crypt bender. Meanwhile, the human characters have all been given simplistic traits defining them in the most basic ways, but since there are so many plot threads and the film has to hit all of them with reverence, the lack of psychological insight isn’t really a problem.

There’s the adult Bill (James McAvoy), still dealing with guilt over the death of his younger brother at the hands of Pennywise, while Bev (Jessica Chastain) is involved in an abusive relationship, which echoes the cycle of abuse from her father. Mike (Isaiah Mustafa) is the one person who remained in Derry his whole life, obsessively pouring over the town’s history in hopes of unlocking the secret to vanquishing the killer clown for good. Riche (Bill Hader) is a stand-up comedian masking his homosexuality, Eddie (James Ransome) has gone from a neurotic momma’s boy to a neurotic man-child, and then there’s Ben (Jay Ryan), who still feels like a lonely fat kid even as he’s now flashing chiseled abs and an unfortunate goatee.

The tale of these self-proclaimed “losers” forced to return to their hometown does contain possibilities for nuanced character drama, but Muschietti is more interested in trotting out a Grand Guignol hall of mirrors horror extravaganza. Nothing here is really scary (the heavy use of CG diminishes the creepy factor in most scenes), but the idea of these characters confronting their inevitable deaths (whether at the hands of Pennywise or simply through natural causes) is the film’s main frightening obsession. As the characters grow older and forget their pasts, the reality of death creeps in, even taking one of them in the process, as the adult Stan (played by Andy Bean) kills himself instead of returning to Derry and unleashing all those horrific recollections.

Throughout, Muschetti winks at Hollywood co-opting passion projects. Bill visits a studio set where one of his novels is being made into a movie, and has a humorous encounter with Peter Bogdanovich as a put-upon filmmaker. King himself also shows up as an antiques store owner poking fun at his own penchant for writing bad endings (a complaint widely lobbied at It). All of this will play either as self-effacing or pandering, depending on one’s position on such things. Of course, the narrative through-line must eventually involve the losers combating Pennywise in one final duel. More than simply an otherworldly visitor wrecking havoc, the evil clown is the embodiment of small town bigotry, hate, and violence; foregrounded by a brutal homophobic murder during the film’s opening moments.

The best thing that can be said about It: Chapter 2 is that it realizes it can never reach the scope or depth of the source material. Instead, Muschetti and company have concocted a haunted house horror romp which plays like Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners with a dash of Beetlejuice mania. It’s ultimately a film which acknowledges its corniness and embraces schlock as a badge of honor. That it aims for an emotional reaction by the end is something of a misstep (with only Hader bringing more than one dimension to a mostly wasted cast), but for the vast majority of its running time, It: Chapter 2 is about as subtle as a gigantic clown with spider legs, and that’s a very good thing indeed.





Movie Pick of the Week

The Souvenir

Director: Joanna Hogg

Year of release: 2019

Running time: 2 hours

by Jericho Cerrona

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Writer-director Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir is based in part on her own experiences as an artist coming of age in Margaret Thatcher’s England during the 1980s, but it never feels personal in ways many autobiographical works do. Instead of taking the fictional story of London filmmaking student Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) and imposing her own hard rules onto it, Hogg allows for the narrative to take a turn into startling ambiguity. This includes Julie’s romantic entanglement with Anthony (Tom Burke), an upper class older man who initially appears dismissive, but who nonetheless has a certain allure she’s drawn to.

The Souvenir at first appears to be a doomed romance film; wherein a couple goes through the ups and downs of cohabitation while learning unfortunate truths about one another in the process. However, Hogg only uses familiar tropes—self-actualization, drug addiction revelations, the pull of a toxic partner—in order to fracture them into a mosaic of uncertainty. There’s no clean character arc for Julie where she realizes her inherent worth as an artist and breaks free from Anthony’s gaslighting hold. Irrational romances do exist, and even if we can chalk most of Anthony’s behavior up to self-loathing and neediness, Burke delivers a multi-faceted performance hinting at genuine vulnerability here. Meanwhile, Swinton Byrne is a complete marvel (thespian genes surely inherited from her mother, Tilda Swinton, who also appears as her onscreen mum), delivering a performance which hinges on nervousness, hesitation, and emotional honesty.

Hogg shoots everything mostly in medium/wide shots on grainy 16mm, and as such, the film may feel too detached for some viewers. However, the aesthetic approach is indicative of an artist revisiting her past and wanting to stand at a distance; perhaps for fear of contaminating the purity of this time and place. The results are a film fusing the personal and the fictional with grace and subtlety.

Music Pick of the Week

King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard

Infest the Rat’s Nest

Year of release: 2019

by Jericho Cerrona

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After releasing five albums in 2017, Australian genre-hoppers King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard took time off (not really, since they spent most of 2018 touring) in order to get back to their prolific streak. First came Fishing for Fishes; a boogie funk/blues album with an environmental message, but the shift to their latest LP, Infest the Rat’s Nest, might be their biggest curveball yet. The band has always dabbled in insane time signatures and blistering riffs, but rarely in the trash metal genre, and the Melbourne boys pull it off with ferocity here.

Ripping a page from Master of Puppets-era Metallica, Slayer, Exodus, and Motörhead, King Gizzard have paired down their usually crowded member base to vocalist Stuart Mackenzie, guitarist Joey Walker and drummer Michael Cavanagh, resulting in some of their heaviest music yet. This is no-frills type metal from a group with a penchant for wild tangents and progressive noodling, and at times, the experience threatens to become 80s thrash pastiche. However, King Gizzard are so skilled at this particular homage that they are somehow able to translate their psychedelic weirdness into the meat-and-potatoes metal stylings without allowing the sonic scales to tip over into silliness.

Trafficking in yet another environmental cautionary tale, Infest the Rat’s Nest is an apocalyptic nightmare full of burning human flesh, disease-ridden humans, and planetary meltdown. Tracks like the throttling opener “Plan B” and the Sabbath-esque “Mars for the Rich” fly out of the gate with thundering simplicity. The speed thrash of “Organ Farmer” will increase the heart rate, while the slow chugging stomper “Superbug” conjures Lemmy Kilmister on a stoner binge. All the while, the lyrical narrative eventually dovetails into the plight of a group of humans escaping our doomed planet to live on Venus.

King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard seem unafraid of pursuing any genre or sound as long as they are having a blast doing it. If one were being cynical, Infest the Rat’s Nest could be viewed as Halloween costume ball metal; the kind of the thing a bunch of drunk friends throw together simply to geek out on music they listened to as teenagers. However, King Gizzard simply have the songwriting chops and blazing riffs that will have doubters head-banging with reckless abandon. What’s next, boys? A psychedelic polka party album? The year is still young.

Bon Iver

 

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4

Sad white guy hymns

by Jericho Cerrona

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Remember when Justin Vernon (aka Bon Iver) locked himself inside a Wisconsin cabin and wrote sad acoustic songs while nursing a breakup and living on hunted venison? That dark time produced For Emma, Forever Ago; a stripped back collection of rustic ballads structured around a haunting croon, but this was 12 years ago, and a lot has transpired in the career of the once lonely troubadour. Truthfully, For Emma had its beautiful moments, benefiting from Vernon’s naiveté, but it also tapped into the prototypical white male overcoming hard times narrative.

Since then, Vernon has veered more into art-pop territory, collaborating with the likes of Kayne West and James Blake and blowing out his sound in the process. 2011’s self-titled album and 2016’s 22, A Million showcased him at his most maximalist; throwing in auto-tune, sound collage, and electronic overdubs to mostly diminishing effect. However, the spiral into sermonizing nonsense continues with his latest opus, i,i. Is it possible for a record this well produced to come across so unimaginative? Honestly, there are stretches here where Vernon’s gifts at experimentation impress, and there’s no doubt everything is mixed to the point of meticulousness. However, i,i, simply lacks compelling songs. Other than standout track “Hey, Ma”, the album is mostly a series of Vernon cooing and mumbling tired mantras over washed out instrumentals.

Whereas 22, A Million was undone by trying to marry the singer-songwriter’s earnestness with glitchy production, i,i, attempts to scale down into more gospel-tinged prettiness, but underneath the sheen is a sense of the emperor having no clothes. There’s little reason to assume based on Bon Iver’s past work that he’s simply having a laugh, but it’s difficult not to cringe at lines like I’m having a bad, bad toke on “Naeem”, followed by the repeated refrain of I can hear, I can hear, I can hear crying. It’s the type of hippy poetry that may pass for deep meaning among the burning man crowd, but in this context, it’s absolutely laughable. The wandering saxophone and skittering electronics on “Jelmore” are initially intriguing, but Vernon’s garbled vocals and the lack of a coherent structure quickly wears out its welcome. Meanwhile, “Faith” is a syrupy ballad which fakes uplift with soaring violin synths, plucked guitar chords, and annoying vocal harmonies.

Truthfully, Bon Iver isn’t just a one-man show, as a full band and host of collaborators are on hand here; i.e. Mike Noyce, Velvet Negroni, Camilla Staveley-Taylor, Jenn Wasner, Bruce Hornsby, Young Thug producer Wheezy and James Blake, among others. However, there is a single-minded vision, one where Vernon is casting his lyrical net around things like climate change, tariffs, and gas masks. While some may appreciate the inscrutable nature of the vocal turns here, most of it consists of sad white guy hymns. There’s something obnoxious about Vernon’s use of gospel-tinged orchestration (not to mention his R & B-cribbed singing on songs like “U (Man Like)”, resulting in a kind of appropriated wokeness that never really seems to be protesting anything specific.

The main issue with i,i, isn’t necessarily auditory, though. The album has a meandering quality that many will hail as multi-layered and rewarding of multiple spins, but strikes this reviewer as indistinct and directionless. Of course, art-pop songs don’t need to follow verse-chorus-verses structures or memorable hooks to dig into one’s subconscious (just check out Thom Yorke’s excellent new solo effort, ANIMA), but they do need a sense of tension in order to linger. The anguish and despair exemplified lyrically on many tracks here simply don’t feel organic. Instead, it sounds more like a successful Grammy-winning musician grabbling with how to move forward creatively once the dream is achieved, and that’s rarely a compelling hook for a sonic narrative.

Luce

 

Cast: Kelvin Harrison Jr., Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer, Tim Roth, Norbert Leo

Director: Julius Onah

Running time: 1 hour 49 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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The best thing that can be said about Luce, Julius Onah’s adaptation of J.C. Lee’s Off-Broadway play, is that it taps into thorny issues regarding racism and class. However, it’s also a film which uses the blanket of uncertainty in order to hide the fact that it has very little to say. The stage origins are upfront and can be useful in dictating subtext, but here, the subtext is the text; with every character acting as a mouthpiece for the unfolding mystery. No one here behaves logically, which would be fine if the film was creating a heightened fantasy universe, but it also purports to be showing us the way we live now. Ultimately, the movie teases fascinating dichotomies only to throw up its hands to exclaim “What do YOU think?”, which isn’t necessarily boundary-pushing. On the contrary, it comes across more as lazy filmmaking.

The film begins with high school star student Luce Edgar (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), turning in an essay to one of his teachers, Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer). Writing in the voice of philosopher Frantz Fanon, who advocated violence against colonialism, Luce positions himself as a dangerous alarmist to his teacher, even as he claims he was simply completing the assignment. What transpires is a series of incidents, monologues, and heated conversations which poke at our expectations but fail to truly cohere. As an adopted immigrant to white upperclass parents (played by Tim Roth and Naomi Watts, respectively), Luce is the model for the American dream; an upstanding, successful, well-spoken, and ambitious young man of color who overcame childhood horrors. His paper could be considered an edgelord-style troll, but Wilson believes there are more nefarious intentions at work, cemented by her discovery of a bag of illegal fireworks inside his locker.

Luce is an investigation of identity, privilege, and racial prejudices, but it also doubles as a character-based thriller. Harrison effectively mines the titular character’s ambivalence by using his facial gestures and body language in order to throw us off the scent, and his scenes opposite Spencer are often gripping. Still, at nearly two hours, the film is much too schematic to keep us in suspense; especially when the dialogue feels arch to the point of frustration. There’s only so much skilled actors can do with material this stagey, and even though Roth and Watts have a few impactful moments as the two bewildered parents, their perspectives seems more like a prod at white privilege rather than actually something which grabbles with the complicated nature of adoption-based parenting. The fireworks scenario nods towards school-based violence, and there’s even a rape culture angle involving one one of Luce’s fellow classmates, Stephanie (Andrea Bang) who may have been sexually assaulted, but these threads are mostly red herrings. Instead, the film is content to toss out hot-button issues while failing to provide rational character psychology.

There are solid performances here, and clearly Onah wants to challenge us, but there’s a difference between a director withholding information and having no clear idea what his film is actually trying to communicate. Despite the impassioned arguments and reactionary rhetoric, this is a film trapped inside conceptual ideas rather something grappling with authentic social problems. Of course, cinematic license can be a powerful tool in reflecting truth; and even if we acknowledge cinema as a magic trick, one can still hope for something which brings concepts down to earth. Sadly, Luce mistakes Twitter-style reactions to race and class with actually telling a coherent story.







The Mountain

 

Cast: Tye Sheridan, Jeff Goldblum, Udo Kier, Denis Lavant, Hannah Gross

Director: Rick Alverson

Running time: 1 hour 48 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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The films of Rick Alverson have always prided themselves on a kind of erasure. The Comedy and Entertainment were both confrontational works which purposefully alienated audiences because character depth, narrative, and clarity were left out completely. Many filmmakers use ambiguity in order to conjure a mood which ties into an overall thematic construct, but Alverson isn’t interested in that. His films are boldly anti-narrative and anti-clarity; meaning that for him, standard narrative structure is a lie created by a certain system of thought. His most ambitious project yet, The Mountain, doubles down on this concept to hypnotic effect. It’s a film likely to frustrate and baffle many, but here again, Alverson is testing the complacency of how we process stories.

The film takes place in 1950s Upstate New York and follows Andy (Tye Sheridan), an introverted loner who lives in the shadow of his strict figure skater instructor father (Udo Kier) while haunted by the loss of his mother to an institution. Early on, Alverson submerges us into Andy’s headspace; holding on wide shots where he stands placidly in a hallway or cleans an ice rink. Once Jeff Goldblum’s Dr. Wally Fiennes comes along looking for a portrait photographer for his lobotomy patients, he zeroes in on Andy as the ideal candidate. What initially follows is a strange student-mentor road movie where Andy and Dr. Fiennes travel to a series of asylums, and we expect (as per narratives of this kind) that this relationship will either grow deeper or break apart. Instead, Alverson’s film becomes more obtuse as it goes along, offering little in the way of satisfying character arcs or closure. However, the vision of 1950s America as a landscape where quiet desperation gradually gives way to despair is captured brilliantly.

Working with cinematographer Lorenzo Hagerman, Alverson shoots everything like a rigid painting, with characters artfully posed within the frame. When the camera does move, it’s usually a slow dolly pushing in on objects or people like a creeping fog. Robert Donne’s eerie score guides the turgid pacing, reinforcing this idea of postwar America as a breeding ground for psychological anguish. The performances, too, are of a piece with Alverson’s vision. Sheridan slumps his shoulders and holds his head down, often refusing to make eye contact with others, and despite minimal dialogue, he creates a deeply sympathetic character. Meanwhile, Goldblum strips away his innate kookiness as a man obsessed with his work but also tortured by it, as we only get his charisma in fits and starts. There’s a disorienting menace to Goldblum’s work here which he rarely gets a chance to exercise, and as the film moves away from his relationship with Andy into a subplot involving weirdo Frenchman Jack (Denis Lavant), we start to see the cracks in Dr. Fiennes’s calm facade.

The material involving Lavant’s unhinged father and his institutionalized daughter, Susan (Hannah Gross) takes The Mountain into uncharted territory, where many will claim Alverson loses the thread. However, the scenes between Gross and Sheridan are heartbreaking in how they tap into the idea of two damaged souls seeking solace. This subtle emotionality is counterbalanced by the high wire lunacy of Lavant, who feels like he’s beamed in from another planet, but this juxtaposition is purposeful. Jack is no more sane than those being prodded in Dr. Fiennes’s invasive procedures, and by extension, Andy’s grip on reality is slipping. The film’s third act reaches towards madness and despair, but there’s also something transcendently beautiful about the final frames.

The Mountain doesn’t end with an overriding message regarding mental illness or unhealthy relationships, but it does show us how one’s sense of reality can be skewed. As Andy snaps photos of the institution patients deemed “unwell”, there’s a genuine statement about representational art going on here. Alverson’s removed aesthetic is inviting us into this conversation too, since we are always looking to connect emotionally or intellectually to a work of art. This is best summed up by a drunken Jack monologue where he tells Andy, You look confused. What confuses you? Art? Art is a thought for which there is no other form in the whole wide world. For Alverson, narrative and closure are smoke screens. It is not the job of art to tell a coherent story where connections are explicitly understood and we all walk away feeling like we got the entire picture. By contrast, art opens a window for us to think, argue, and dissect, and The Mountain spreads its arms to such connections and then willingly pushes us off the cliff.







Purple Mountains

 

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8

Berman’s Brave New World

by Jericho Cerrona

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In 2009, David Berman quit music. As a cult icon fronting lo-fi indie group Silver Jews in the 90s and 2000s, the man could have kept making albums (along with a book of cartoons, documentaries, and poetry), but instead, he spent a decade going after his corporate father, Richard Berman. Within the familial discord there was also reflection, loss, martial strife, and a rekindled love of reading. As a purveyor of bummed out poeticism, Berman’s work sits nicely alongside troubadours such as Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, and Bill Callahan. Like those artists, Berman weaves narratives rife with malaise and the idea of being fucked by the universe. He’s also self-aware, and at times, very funny.

There’s a full band this time out utilizing members of psych rock group Woods to fill out the rustic sound, and the results are more lush and orchestral than anything in Silver Jews’s back catalog. Still, despite the sonic upgrade, this is sad bastard music. Kicking a prolific drug addiction, conversion to Judaism, a failed marriage, the death of his mother; Berman’s life over the past decade has been almost as scattered as previous decades, but Purple Mountains finds a surprising vulnerability amidst the pain.

Make no mistake, Berman is still as depressed as ever, but there’s an openness here which finds the singer-songwriter unfurling a laundry list of foibles and insecurities without ever coming across misanthropic. Our failures are what makes us human, and Berman is a canny enough songwriter to match that notion with jaunty melodies. One might even mistake opener “That’s Just The Way That I Feel” for an upbeat riot; with its honky-tonk piano, saloon organ, and rollicking groove, but the lyrics depict a man in complete free-fall. Things have not been going well/ This time I think I finally fucked myself Berman sings in his gravely croon, and when he laments When I try to drown my thoughts in gin/ I find my worst ideas know how to swim, we are fully in the realm of a psychological spiral.

The largest weight on Berman’s fragile heart is his disintegrated marriage to Cassie Marrett, who was part of the Silver Jews touring band back in the mid 2000s and whom Berman claims saved his life. Marrett was by his side through some of his darkest days; including suicide attempts and heroin addiction, and this union seems to have set him on a more hopeful path. However, as evidenced by the bittersweet ballad “All My Happiness is Gone”, the gulf between them has become insurmountable. With mordant wit, Berman dictates a scene where his estranged lover is moving on while making new friends as he watches placidly. This is a genuine vision of an introvert; someone who doesn’t want to alienate those around him, but can’t help but feel insignificant in the company of so many bright faces. On “Darkness in Cold”, this sentiment comes full circle with the realization that his wife is going out with a new beau as he looks on in resignation. There’s never a sense that Berman is shaming the woman he loves or even disapproving of her actions. Rather, he berates himself for not being able to make her happy with lines like she kept it burning longer than I had right to expect.

To say Purple Mountains is simply about Berman’s struggle with a failed relationship is reductive, though, since the first foray into writing again post Silver Jews was brought about by the death of his mother. The utterly gorgeous “I Loved Being My Mother’s Son” is a prime example of this; a direct elegy for the one person who knew him best. Berman never allows his lyrics to become saccharine, even as the Americana stylings of the instrumental give off an almost uplifting vibe. It’s a mournful song, to be sure, but it also transcends so many confessional ballads dealing with deceased loved ones in that it nails the absurdity of existence to begin with. The futility of mortality is examined even further on “Nights That Won’t Happen”, a slow tempo bummer that, according to Berman, details his regrets of not being there for a drug addict friend before he passed away. Truthfully, death haunts nearly every song here; the inevitability of it, the depression regarding aging, and the idea that all one’s accomplishments will be lost to time.

Whatever the case, there’s no question that Purple Mountains will not suffer such a fate, resting triumphantly alongside the best Silver Jews albums. It’s a Berman creation through and through; sardonic, playful, sad, funny, and brimming with fractured narrative vignettes. Through all the pain and defeat, there’s a sense that Berman is transitioning into a new phase. When he sings If no one's fond of fucking me/ Maybe no one's fucking fond of me on closer ”Maybe I’m the Only One For Me”, it’s less dictating an ideology than it is about self-acceptance. Berman isn’t asking anyone to feel sorry for him because he isn’t feeling sorry for himself, and for all its downbeat introspection, Purple Mountains ultimately emerges as the ultimate “self-care” album.

The Art of Self-Defense

 

Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola, Imogen Poots

Director: Riley Stearns

Running time: 1 hour 44 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Deadpan irony used to be a hallmark of cinema during the 1990s (think Slacker, Clerks, the works of Jim Jarmusch, and any number of angst-ridden indies like Reality Bites). They usually centered on a lonely male protagonist floating through a depressing existence. There was inevitably a female love interest (mostly there to reinforce the nerdy male’s journey of self-discovery) and occasionally, our sad American man got the girl and fulfilled his dreams. Writer-director Riley Stearns’s The Art of Self-Defense uses many of these tropes and attempts to invert them by centering his story inside a karate dojo where toxic masculinity thrives. The film’s time period is never explicitly established, but one can surmise from the clothes, blocky computers, and lack of cell phones, that we are squarely in the realm of the early 90s.

The obvious connection here is to 1999’s Fight Club; David Fincher’s epic satire about consumerism and the toxic American male, but The Art of Self-Defense lacks the daring of that film in that it never really implicates the audience. We are invited to dismiss account auditor Casey Davies (Jesse Eisenberg), as a pathetic loser early on, and then revel in his eventual rise to douchey masculinity. There’s a lone female character here too, Anna (Imogen Poots), a children’s karate instructor stuck at the bottom of the dojo’s patriarchal hierarchy, and while Stearns attempts to subvert the idea of her being a simplistic love interest, she’s nonetheless little more than a thematic signpost. The film’s central dynamic rests in the push and pull between Casey’s meek loner and the uber masculine studio sensei (Alessandro Nivola), a man who rules with a chauvinistic iron kick.

Eisenberg is ideally cast as a socially awkward introvert looking to become what intimidates him, but the character is just a construct. His search for meaning is brought about after he’s mugged and brutally beaten, and the sensei’s no-nonsense masculinity is an appealing way to harness his hidden rage. Soon after joining the dojo, Casey is getting custom-made yellow belts, switching from listening to adult contemporary to metal music, and refusing to pet his dog for fear of coddling him. Nivola has fun rattling off Stearns’s arch dialogue and Poots delivers some fleeting moments of genuine emotion, but the problem here is one of tone. Many will claim a Yorgos Lanthimos influence, what with the way characters speak in a flat monotone, but the film more closely recalls the early work of writer-director Neil LaBute, whose In the Company of Men and Your Friends & Neighbors were stark examinations of toxic masculinity with a satiric edge.

However, The Art of Self-Defense never really complicates our feelings toward the subject matter in the way LaBute’s best films did. Instead, Stearns seems content to coast on purposefully stilted comedy interrupted by moments of grisly violence. Since the tone remains at a constant flatline, the instances of brutality feel ineffectual, but more importantly, predictable. We know exactly where this story is going, and Stearns doesn’t trust us to take the narrative in more transgressive directions.

Ultimately, the film’s dissection of what it means to be a man is no more insightful than the things its poking fun at, and seems especially galling given how it attempts (rather feebly) to place the power back into the hands of the disenfranchised female character by the end. There’s no legitimate point of view on this material and no real insight into these characters, and if we simply accept the fact that the whole thing is allegorical, then The Art of Self-Defense is about as provocative as a blunt-force kick to the groin.




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Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood

 

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Emile Hirsch, Margaret Qualley, Timothy Olyphant, Julia Butters, Austin Butler, Dakota Fanning, Bruce Dern, Luke Perry, Damian Lewis, Al Pacino, Lena Dunham, Kurt Russell, Scoot McNairy

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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It was the end of times. It was the beginning of times. It was, to put a finer point on things, the year the culture shifted. Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood locates the demise of square-jawed Old Hollywood and the birth of the more dangerous breed of 1970s New Hollywood. In many ways, this is the writer-director laying out a staggering culmination of his pop culture obsessions (blaxploitation, kung fu movies, corny 50’s TV shows, spaghetti westerns) while making his best work since 1997’s Jackie Brown. It’s a surprisingly elegiac film from a director known for juvenile posturing and shock tactics, carrying a thoughtfulness rarely seen in his back catalog.

Of course, the guy hasn’t gone completely square, but the conservative nature of the film (those damn hippies!) and fondness for classic pre-60s ephemera means that Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood carries a surprisingly fragile heartbeat. No one would ever accuse Tarantino of being an emotional filmmaker, but the central friendship between fading TV star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), and his best friend and longtime stuntman, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), is keenly felt throughout. In fact, the entire film can be read as a metatextual commentary on Tarantino himself; a guy who brazenly burst onto the scene in the early 90s with Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction; two movies which shook up the sagging American movie industry. Now 56, Tarantino is no longer the hip youthful juggernaut, but the middle-aged auteur watching the industry shift yet again under the weight of streaming algorithms.

Much of the film’s early section involves lavishly recreated areas of the Sunset Strip as characters speed around corners in their cars while blasting various pop hits. In the purview of such scenes are the long-haired hippies and young female wastrels hanging at bus stops or rummaging through trash cans. It’s a heightened vision of neon signs and iconography, but Tarantino is smart enough to simply luxuriate in these details. As per usual, he’s in no big hurry to hit plot points or push the narrative along.

Dalton and Booth are both fictional characters, and yet the world of kitschy Hollywood TV shows and B-movies they populate did exist. However, as he’s demonstrated to varying degrees in all of his films, Tarantino isn’t after realism or authenticity. He is a supreme lover of movies, and his particular geekdom gets the full treatment here, from reproductions of cheesy commercials to the western TV series Dalton is shooting in which he portrays a snarling villain. From Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill, to Inglorious Basterds, the world of a Tarantino film only factors in modern day relevance or historical veracity insofar as it relates to other movies and how those things can be inverted through his very distinct lens.

Dalton could be a stand-in for Tarantino, particularly in a scene in which he picks up some method acting tips from a precocious 8-year-old (Julia Butters) after relating a story about an aging cowboy who suffered an injury. As Dalton begins to break down, we are invited to laugh at his self-pity, especially because Butters rattles off some feminist-leaning wisecracks, but also because it represents Tarantino’s feelings about himself. He’s now the fading star on a comeback trail; the one who no longer has a place in our more progressive age. Whatever the case, Dalton and Booth’s exploits are occasionally interrupted by a secondary storyline, where the real-life Sharon Tate (Margo Robbie) lives next door to Dalton with her famous filmmaker husband, Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), and trusted pal/former lover, Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch). This thread generated most of the early buzz regarding Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, with speculation that Tarantino was making his epic Manson family movie, and while that aspect does factor into the overall plot here, it’s not chiefly the director’s concern.

This is a good thing, because Tarantino’s gifts have always been in writing and characterization. While Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood doesn’t have the crackling pop-culture heavy dialogue of something like Pulp Fiction, it does emerge as a more subtle writing accomplishment. Instead of giving Robbie a juicy monologue, there’s a fascinatingly self-reflexive moment where she goes to a screening of Tate’s 1968 film The Wrecking Crew and reacts along with the crowd. Watching Robbie as Tate watching the real Tate onscreen is some kind of strange magic trick; suggesting decades of celebrity culture through the prism of voyeurism. For all of Tarantino’s strengths, his characters rarely feel like real people, but here, there’s a mixture of genuine emotional investment and artificial movieness. It’s the last film since Jackie Brown in which the characters feel like they have their own voices rather than just being mouthpieces for Tarantino’s arch sermonizing.

Of course, the two storylines here must converge, and the film’s final 45 minutes will be divisive in how it handles real-life tragedies and over the top violence, but had the previous two hours not been as thematically rich, the historical revisionist finale may simply have played as yet another cheap Tarantino shock tactic. However, there’s an attempt at auto-critique here, as evidenced by a scene of the Manson clan arguing inside a car where one member exclaims “If you grew up watching TV, you grew up watching murder. My idea is to kill the people who taught us to kill!” Touché, Mr. Tarantino.

The violence in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood ends up being physical, sure, but the film is ultimately more interested in a spiritual violence that permeates when one generation is pushed out to make way for a new one. Dalton and Booth’s touching bond (exemplified by DiCaprio and Pitt’s self-aware, brilliant performances) strains against the tides of the changing times but persists nonetheless through a haze of hippie smoke, dashed dreams, and alcoholism. Tarantino may be lamenting the sociocultural shift from Old Hollywood into the psychedelic era of drugs, activism, and political upheaval, but he’s not necessarily saying the previous generation was operating in reality either. One could accuse Tarantino of nostalgia pandering, but what he’s really after is this idea of how pop culture has been filtered down by the counterculture. It’s all a dream if it never happened, with Dalton and Booth limping off into the sunset, kind of like a midlife crisis.




The Flaming Lips

 

Kings Mouth: Music and Songs

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Disembodied heads and children’s lullabies

by Jericho Cerrona

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The Flaming Lips never wanted to be famous, and it could be argued that after 15 studio albums, fame still eludes them. Still, they’ve collaborated with the likes of pop superstars Ke$ha and Miley Cyrus, so that counts for something, right? Beginning life as an alt psych band in the late 80’s before landing a hit single with 1994’s “She Don’t Use Jelly”, the Lips seemed forever on the verge of being “the next big thing” for most of the 90s. It wasn’t until 1999’s The Soft Bulletin and 2002’s followup Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots that the Oklahoma weirdos broke through with mainstream acceptance and universal critical acclaim. A series of wild, hallucinogenic live shows and Grammy nominations followed, cementing the band as that rare outsider art crossover act. The fallout from such success, naturally, was more outsider left-turns into self-indulgence. Bizarre 24 hour-long songs, experimental double albums, covers of Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band and Dark Side of the Moon, and those aforementioned collabs with pop divas became the norm. The Flaming Lips never wanted to be famous, sure, but they were perhaps trying too hard to be gonzo and lost the thread.

With Kings Mouth, Wayne Coyne and company have returned to a more gentle form of psych rock/electronica with a concept album in conjunction with a children’s book and massive art exhibit. Initially released in a limited vinyl-only edition on Record Store Day, the album is in many ways a return to form, and shockingly, the first time the band has ever made an album with a complete narrative through-line. While there are occasional forays into proggy soundscapes (“Mother Universe”), on the whole, the record is much more straightforward. Of course, this is also admitting that the conceptual framework involves a monarch’s giant disembodied head swallowing galaxies as narrated by The Clash’s Mick Jones.

Like most Lips albums, Kings Mouth is grabbling with the big ideas; life, death, mortality, love, and the mysteries of the universe, but there’s a lightness of touch this time that may even surprise diehard fans. Truthfully, there’s a lot here which recalls Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, with songs like the digital-folk ballad “The Sparrow” and the woozy funk-pop of “How Many Times” coming instantly to mind. However, more cinematic tracks such as the reverb-heavy dirge “Electric Fire” and the Tangerine Dream-esque “Funeral Parade” are cut from the more sonically bold side of the band, ala 2009's Embryonic. In any case, Coyne, Steve Drzod, and Michael Ivins disappear far less up their own asses here than on their last release, 2017’s cosmic flop Oczy Mlody.

Unlike that album, which lazily recycled autotune, pitch shifting, and wannabe hip-hop beats, Kings Mouth feels much more sincere. Coyne’s wispy vocals persist, but there’s very little moaning about the state of things. Perhaps his recent marriage and birth of his first child has given him a rosier outlook. Whatever the reason, tracks like “How Can a Head” feature swirling violins, blippy electronics, and an almost blissful attitude. “Giant Baby” is essential a warped children’s lullaby, which is on brand, but it never feels contrived. Less successful are the droning interlude-style songs, like “Dipped in Steel”, which is basically just Jones talking nonsense over plucked guitar chords and warm keyboards, and the washed out, effects-heavy “Mouth of the King”.

The Flaming Lips never wanted to be famous, and Kings Mouth won’t push the needle on that front. Nor will it feature heavy rotation on Spotify playlists. The whole idea of a concept record in 2019 is laughably admirable, as only a small percentage of the population even bothers with full-length albums anymore. To that end, the Lips are still doing the same thing they were doing back in the mid 90s, only now with more grey hair and back pain. More importantly, Kings Mouth is the sound of the band loosening up a bit after the ill-advised Miley Cyrus phase and the navel-gazing mess of Oczy Mlody. It is, for better or worse (mostly better) a true Flaming Lips experience, widespread acceptance be damned.

Thom Yorke

 

ANIMA

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I, Yorke

by Jericho Cerrona

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The idea of dystopian vibrations coming from living in a technologically advanced society has always been a major component of Thom Yorke’s work. For years, Radiohead distilled the idea of being swallowed by the impersonal void of techno-babble, especially on albums like OK Computer, KID A, and Amnesiac. Yorke’s solo work has also dabbled in this area as well, combining his fear of the future with a more pronounced emphasis on downtempo electronica. ANIMA is certainly the songwriter’s most expansive release yet, and also his darkest and most disturbed. Fans who may have been put off by the restrained tone of 2014’s Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes will find much more to chew on here, as the album takes some of the blippy soundscapes from Yorke’s excellent 2006 solo debut Eraser and adds notes of dark avant-techno.

From a production standpoint, ANIMA is a triumph. Yorke and longtime producer Nigel Godrich dig into a variety of layered compositions (it isn’t simply glitchy beats and synth stabs), and everything is balanced to the point of being awe-inspiring. Perhaps such a meticulous aesthetic approach isn’t a surprise given someone of Yorke’s talents and means, but the record sounds incredible. In that sense, ANIMA is the perfect “headphone” album experience.

One of Yorke’s strongest assets as a songwriter is his ability to meld melody with abstraction, and that tension is held on a razors edge throughout ANIMA. Opener “Traffic” has a pulsating electronic groove and standard song structure, but on “Twist”, the bustling bass line and skittering beat segue into into warm synth patches and choir-like chants. “Dawn Chorus” strips things back to brilliant effect using only a delay-soaked piano, airy synths, and Yorke’s downtrodden vocals. It’s one of the album’s simplest songs, but also one of its best; tapping into that melancholic balance between hope and dread. On the whole, ANIMA is dense but not overly cluttered. Whereas younger artists working in the electronic genre often tend to blow out their sound and overcomplicate things, Yorke proves the adage that less is more.

There is something about Yorke’s music that has always felt like an alien observing the mundane activities of the human race, but here, there’s a genuine openness absent from much of his past work. It’s almost as if the Orwellian fears of a society bereft of human empathy dictated by machines is now upon us, and Yorke, who has been sheepishly reacting to such a future for decades, has come full circle. The social network and the neural networks of our subconscious are intertwined. The robots may be making music now powered by AI, but there’s no mistaking the human touch at the heart of ANIMA.

Perhaps the greatest collision of these two worlds is the music video short directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, which takes three songs from the album and reimagines them as a kind of choreographed dreamstate. It’s a stunning vision, and all the more alarming that it finds its home on the almighty Netflix algorithm. If ANIMA doesn’t quite reach the heights of Yorke’s work with Radiohead or even the crisp accessibility of Eraser, it’s not for lack of effort. This is the end of all things, after all, and Yorke will go down mumbling into the void.


Midsommar

 

Cast: Florence Pugh, Will Poulter, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper, Wilhelm Blomgren

Director: Ari Aster

Running time: 2 hours 27 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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With just two feature films, writer-director Ari Aster has proven he can weave troubling tales of psychic damage, familial grief, and cultish terror. The idea of mass hysteria, and how it connects to the hysteria within the self, is a major component to Aster’s latest creation, Midsommar. Whereas his previous film, Hereditary, was mostly a self-serious dirge into the abyss until letting loose for a Rosemary's Baby-esque finale, Midsommar doubles down on the folkloric horror tropes. It also, rather surprisingly, uses a heavy dose of dark humor to lessen the blow of some of Aster’s more attention-grabbing flourishes.

The film begins in a similar tonal place as the first half of Hereditary, with our central character, Dani (Florence Pugh) dealing with a horrific family tragedy. Her deep anxiety is channeled onto her longtime boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), who is emotionally detached and looking for a way out of the relationship. His pack of douchey grad-school friends are no more sympathetic, including Josh (William Jackson Harper), Mark (Will Poulter), and Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren). Their plans are to visit rural Sweden to observe a commune’s summer solstice festival in hopes of writing their graduate thesis’s on the subject, and Christian invites Dani to tag along more out of guilt and obligation than anything.

The film’s opening stretch is dread-inducing, with Aster employing many of the same stylistic tricks used in his first film; (long tracking shots, fancy camera movements, discordant music swells, dimly lit compositions), but once the group arrive in Sweden, Midsommar opens itself up to a pastel-colored visual palette. We know from the outset that these smiling flower people are up to something, and Aster doesn’t really try to hide that fact. Instead, the film becomes a fascinating case study in male privilege. Dani, still reeling from tragedy, can sense right away that all is not well here, and yet all of the men rationalize obvious red flags by appealing to their anthropological studies and cultural ignorance. Meanwhile, Dani continues to feel isolated from the group as well as herself.

Amidst pagan rituals and white robe-wearing hippies, one can sense Midsommar situating itself as the ultimate breakup film. Christian and Dani are obviously on the verge of ending things, and yet neither can accept the fact that it’s over. Dani’s piercing guttural screams, which come early and are repeated often, become the film’s heartbeat. There is no hope of mending things. There is no escape.

Aster’s triumph here is his ability to meld our anxiety as viewers to Dani’s fears. In some ways, the film is about a woman staking a claim to her autonomy. In a performance of raw nerves and searing emotion, Pugh taps into the same kind of anguish as Toni Collete in Hereditary, and yet we are never afraid of her. She always remains fragile and empathetic. As things steer into the realm of grotesquerie and horror, Pugh grabs the film by the throat and takes center stage. She is the real deal.

Shot by by Pawel Pogorzelski, Midsommar is brightly sun-drenched, which makes the inevitable descent into madness all the more disquieting. Using a combination of static shots and elaborate crane moves, Aster and his team of set designers and art decorators have created a truly authentic world here. The film takes its time; showing us a set of strange rituals from the standpoint of clueless Americans and then ratchets up the dread as the situations become more bizarre and violent. Even as the film is methodically paced and interested in stillness, Aster doesn’t skimp on the gore and melodramatic outbursts. Some of the film’s most indelible images are of extreme physical violence, but they are inexorably tied into the visceral nature of Dani’s emotional and psychological state. One of the most powerful sequences occurs near the end when Dani is overcome with tremendous pain, grief, and anger; wailing like a banshee as female members of the commune mimic her every movement and scream. In this one moment, the physical and the metaphysical become intertwined. As troubling as it seems, this may be the first time Dani has felt this fully alive.

Superficially, Aster has conjured a folk horror movie ala The Wicker Man, but he also taps into the anxieties of trying to process trauma. The scares come from a feeling of claustrophobia, of being disconnected from reality (cleverly visualized in some subtle psychedelic drug tripping scenes), and not feeling at home within yourself. During the heightened fire and brimstone finale, heavily aided by The Haxan Cloak’s gorgeously haunting score, Dani comes to a realization both liberating and terrifying. Pugh’s face during the final shot says volumes. It is the visual representation of the pageantry of pain; with the realization that the cure might be going through the flames and coming out a monster.




Movie Pick of the Week

Birds of Passage

Director: Cristina Gallego, Ciro Guerra

Year of release: 2019

Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Spread out over five chapters, Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra’s Birds of Passage has the outline of familiarity; displaying elements of narcotrafficking, feuding families, and inevitable bloodshed, but there’s also a cultural element which makes the film utterly singular. The collision of western and native cultures was perhaps the overriding theme of Guerro and Jacques Toulemonde Vidal’s Embrace of the Serpent, and that’s true here too, though clueless Americans are mostly kept on the fringes this time. Instead, the film shows an almost hypnotic fascination with ritual; so much so that the storyline involving the marriage of Rapayet (José Acosta), from the Wayuu tribe to the teenaged Zaida (Natalia Reyes) initially seems secondary.

The main thrust of the meandering narrative seems to be the dishonoring of tradition and how wealth can corrupt from the inside out. As Rapayet gets mixed up in the weed and arms trade, entangling himself in dangerous deals with his uncle Aníbal (Juan Bautista Martínez) while Zaida’s disapproving mother and village matriarch Úrsula (Carmina Martinez) stands by, we witness an entire culture’s way of life falling apart.

Ego, greed, and senseless violence have always been at the heart of family-linked mob stories, and Birds of Passage is like an ethnographic version of The Godfather truncated down and told in an elliptical fashion. However, there’s no glamorizing of criminality here, even as the particulars of the tribe’s rituals are handled with care. Gallego and Ciro Guerra instead present encroaching modernity as an inevitability that the Wayuu must adapt to, no matter the consequences. No one is innocent. No one is without blame. Everyone has blood on their hands. Tradition and familial pride are simply not enough to subdue the allure of fast cash.

Birds of Passage shows us the insidious nature of drug cartels and the corrupting power of wealth, but its more primarily about humanity’s urge toward self-destruction. The overarching message seems to be that when all the dust settles, no matter what tribe or community one belongs to, we only have ourselves to blame.



Music Pick of the Week

Mega Bog

Dolphine

Year of release: 2019

by Jericho Cerrona

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Multi-instrumentalist Erin Birgy has been crafting art-pop for nearly a decade now, and her latest release under the Mega Bog moniker, Dolphine, is perhaps the clearest distillation of her talents thus far. The album takes some of its inspiration from the late science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin, and there’s certainly an otherworldly atmosphere at play here. At moments, the sounds conjured bring to mind the pastoral folk of Toni Mitchell, the quirky arrangements of Cate Le Bon, the electronic sweep of Stereolab, and the psych-jazz experiments of Sun Ra. Of course, Birgy is very much doing her own thing, and the greatest triumph of Dolphine is its refusal to fall into easy genre categorizations.

From song to song, the unique mood almost resists standard song structure, while never deviating too far from a sense of melody. The smooth jazz folk of opener “For the Old World” is soothing at first, but then disconcerting woodwinds, scattering percussion, and eerie vocals crop up creating a sense of tension. Elsewhere, on “Diary of a Rose”, the lead guitar line instantly recalls Radiohead, while the song itself stops and starts, going from blaring jangle-pop to gentle strumming and whispered lines and then back again. “Truth in the Wind” is ethereal and jaunty, but one can feel a deep sadness just behind the witty metaphors. The death of animals and loved ones is a recurring central theme throughout, and no matter how colorful the compositions, Birgy is able to funnel darker emotions through her art.

That her art doesn’t fit neatly into an emotional catharsis or defining trait that we, as the listener, can easily identify, makes the record all the more transporting. The swirling horns, electronic flourishes, strange vocal noises, and Birgy’s stream of consciousness lyrics gives off the impression of an apocalyptic dream on “Shadows Break”, while the charming duet with recently deceased Georgia musician Ash Rickli “Spit in the Eye of the Fire King” brings the New-Agey pastoral vibes back once again. That’s the thing about Dolphine; it’s a record which gives you the full spectrum without every explicitly telling you what part of the spectrum you are actually listening to.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco

 

Cast: Jimmie Fails, Jonathan Majors, Danny Glover, Mike Epps, Rob Morgan, Tichina Arnold, Finn Wittrock, Maximilienne Ewalt, Thora Birch

Director: Joe Talbot

Running time: 2 hours

by Jericho Cerrona

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Holding onto the memories of childhood is a central component in the alchemy of nostalgia, and Joe Talbot’s debut feature, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, understands the difference between holding on and letting go. The film is steeped in a heightened atmosphere of sun and fog; with Adam Newport-Berra’s cinematography presenting San Francisco as both dreamlike and harsh, favoring hazy visuals which accentuate the whimsical tone. However, Talbot isn’t simply after pat nostalgia here, as the rallying cry against gentrification and the state of the urban black experience remains a central theme. The film is a high-wire act; part droll comedy, part tale of male friendship, and part downbeat ode to a disappearing way of life. Mostly, The Last Black Man in San Francisco feels alive and malleable in a way few films do, even on the independent scale.

When we first meet our mismatched pair of friends Montgomery (Jonathan Majors) and Jimmie (Jimmie Fails), they are waiting at a bus stop across the street from a preacher standing on a milk crate ranting against the ills of modern society. Meanwhile, a Hazmat crew rummages the area cleaning up after an unspecified toxic situation. Fed up with all the commotion, Mont and Jimmie hop onto a skateboard and decide to hightail it into the city rather than wait for the bus. This is San Francisco.

The sight of two grown men skateboarding down city streets is undeniably humorous, but the film also seems aware of this. There’s something about these two friends which strikes one as juvenile, and yet there’s a genuine intimacy there. The harkening back to youthful dreams isn’t simply immaturity, though. There’s real pain, regret, and sadness here too. These are two men trapped in a physical, mental, and emotional space which resists authentic change. Once the thread is introduced of Jimmie taking trips into the city so he can touch up the paint on the exterior of his childhood home which his family lost possession of in the 1990s, it’s clear there’s more going on here than simple nostalgia.

Jimmie is under the impression that his grandfather built the house in 1946, back when many Japanese residents were relocated to internment camps. A myth around the “first black man in San Francisco” took hold, crystalizing Jimmie’s belief that he has a moral right to the house, even if it is now owned by a white woman (Maximilienne Ewalt), who irately throws fruit at him whenever she spots him fixing the window trim. The notion of families being destroyed and split apart because of institutional racism is one of the main thrusts of Talbot’s film, but these ideas are presented lyrically rather via soapbox messaging. The extraordinary performances also help, including newcomer Fails as a young man unable to break free from being pushed out of his true home. A scene where he visits his embittered father (Rob Morgan) has a legitimate awkwardness which requires a quiet sensitivity from the actor, and there’s an equally heartbreaking moment where he runs into his mother on the bus which speaks to the character’s feelings of abandonment. Majors has a splashier role as the aspiring writer dressed in ‘50s era business clothes, but he never overreaches with a character who could have easily been twee, bringing an off-kilter rhythm and unique line delivery to his scenes. Mont is also caught in state of arrested development, but he exudes such sincerity that his co-dependent relationship with Jimmie never reads as unhealthy.

Eventually, an inheritance dispute arises which leaves the Victorian-style home in a limbo state, and naturally, the two pals move out of Mont’s dad’s (Danny Glover) cramped space and into the house. Using a form of “squatters rights”, along with the ideological justification of ownership, Jimmie and Mont begin acting out an urban fairytale in which two low-income black men are living freely in one of the city’s most expensive (and almost exclusively white) neighborhoods. There’s a subplot involving some of Jimmie’s old friends who gather talking shit outside Mont’s dads spot and a tragic circumstance surrounding that group, as well as a thread involving Mont struggling to write a play which will eventually come full circle, but narrative momentum is not the main concern here. Instead, the idea of letting go of the past and forging ahead, even as others around you seem to deny the very existence of that past, is at the heart of the film.

The elegiac finale; which takes on the tenor of a dream caught in the swirl of pensive reality, suggests there’s no true home for someone like Jimmie. This displacement, which mirrors the displacement of countless African Americans in San Francisco and other major cities, is perfectly summed up in a late scene where Jimmie counters the complaints of a white woman (Thora Birch) on the bus with You can only hate San Francisco if you love it. What a bittersweet statement, and what a beautifully bittersweet film.

Pasolini

 

Cast: Willem Dafoe, Ninetto Davoli, Riccardo Scamarcio, Valerio Mastandrea, Adriana Asti, Maria De Medeiros 

Director: Abel Ferrara

Running time: 1 hour 27 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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The biggest surprise regarding Abel Ferrara’s film about the final days of master Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini (Willem Dafoe) is just how meditative it is. Given Ferrara’s track record with portraying the excess, grime, and shock of the human condition in films like Bad Lieutenant, The Addiction, and Welcome to New York, Pasolini is notable for treating its subject with a lack of exploitation. This is a measured portrait of an artist; focusing more on Pasolini the man than Pasolini the director, though Ferrara understands there’s actually no distinction between the two. Pasolini’s work came from his soul, body, and mind, but the actual process of creation was often mundane. This is one of the great triumph’s of Ferrara’s film; it views the artistic process as ordinary and never devolves into worshipful biopic clichés.

Pasolini isn’t structured like a traditional biopic (there are no flashbacks or “greatest hits” demo reels here), and in terms of the filmmaker’s actual output, very little is broached. There are a few scenes of Pasolini putting the finishing editing touches on Sálo and then subsequently responding to controversy surrounding the finished film, but Ferrera seems more interested in the natural rhythms of the director’s daily life. Pasolini’s interactions with family members and friends have a loosely naturalistic feeling, with the domestic details being what matters, not whether they are driving the plot.

In one moment, Pasolini is putting on a record during a family dinner to lighten the mood, and in the next, he’s responding to hostile reporters regarding his political views or cruising the streets for young male prostitutes. Of course, we know that Pasolini was viciously murdered after a night of cruising, but Ferrera never uses his subject’s sexual predilections as fodder for lurid sensationalism. Instead, Pasolini’s death comes suddenly; emphasizing the tragedy of a life cut short before his time. Rather than using his death as a plot device in terms of foreshadowing, Ferrera eschews pat moralizing to land on a more sobering note.

Truthfully, Ferrera doesn’t completely abandon Pasolini’s cinematic preoccupations, but he gets at them in a more interesting way than most biopics. Large sections of the film are dedicated to visual interpretations of Pasolini’s unfinished novel “Petrolio”, which are filmed with a mixture of Pasolini’s hand-held style and Ferrera’s own trashy aesthetic. A special nod is given directly by casting Pasolini’s former collaborator and lover Ninetto Davoli at the center of these sequences, with visual cues involving orgies and stilted performances further extending the homage. However, at no point does one get the impression that Ferrera is simply copying Pasolini’s stylistic flourishes.

Obviously, Pasolini would not work as well as it does without Dafoe, who holds the center of the entire production with a subdued, layered performance. Speaking fluent Italian and looking very much like the iconoclastic filmmaker, the actor goes beyond mimicry to inhabit the presence of the man. Ferrera wisely shoots many scenes in closeup, resting on Dafoe’s weary face as he jots ideas in his notebook or scans the darkened alleyways for companionship. There is never a moment where Dafoe is not fully believable in the role, and he refuses to play Pasolini’s final moments for maudlin sentiment. Like the film surrounding him, the performance is surprisingly nimble in navigating various modes without ever standing on a soapbox.

Some may view Pasolini as a disappointment since it doesn’t offer the traditional catharsis found in most movies of this kind. But then again, Pasolini was never a traditional artist, and his work always seemed removed from mainstream acceptance. Ferrera acknowledges this truth by making a film which honors Pasolini’s legacy without ever bowing to commercial sensibilities, which feels exactly right. Artists working within the same troubled society as us ultimately provides more hope than the typical addiction/recovery/rebirth narrative we often get saddled with. In that sense, Ferrera’s deeply felt film proclaims what we’ve known about Pasolini all along; genuine art is dangerous.





Tyler, The Creator

 

IGOR

8

Dr. Frankenstein meets his therapist

by Jericho Cerrona

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Tyler, The Creator is no stranger to contradictions. His post-Odd Future output has been both alienating and inviting; culminating in 2017’s Grammy nominated Flower Boy; an album many think is the most mature work of his career. Earlier albums like 2013’s Wolf and 2015’s Cherry Bomb may have felt like abrasive demos at the time, but in retrospect, they signaled the emergence of an artist who knew exactly what he was doing. At only 28-years-old, Tyler is undeniably talented, and many will claim his latest LP, IGOR, contains his best and worst tendencies; oscillating between moments of melodic bliss and lo-fi production. Honestly, it’s simply another addition to Tyler’s growing narrative of self-discovery.

Yes, IGOR is a breakup album, and yes, it features the requisite tales of heartbreak and loss, but it’s also attuned to the idea of gracefully bowing out when things have clearly reached the end. Throughout the album, Tyler embraces an alter-ego who seems to be viewing a disintegrating relationship from afar. It’s an understandable process for dealing with heartbreak—using an avatar who can voice sentiments locked inside—and this motif plays out over a series of tracks which range from mid-tempo breakup ballads like “EARFQUAKE” to therapeutic stompers such as “NEW MAGIC WAND”. Elsewhere, on cuts like “RUNNING OUT OF TIME”, Tyler seems genuinely interested in the betterment of his ex, complete with the closing lines You never lived in your truth/But I finally found peace, so peace.

There’s a loose, almost psychedelic vibe to IGOR which may turn off those who fawned over the bright accessibility of Flower Boy. The neo-soul production and Neptunes-inspired arrangements from that release are less prominent here, poking out mostly on slower R & B-tinged tracks like “A BOY IS A GUN” and the Kayne West-featured “PUPPET”. The use of wonky synth lines, low end bass, and metallic percussion are all over IGOR, to the point where an early 80’s inspired post-punk album very well may be in the near future. The best moments here combine Tyler’s skills with harmony (the “for real/for real/for real this time” refrain from EARFQUAKE comes to mind) and the menacing sounds of gutter hip-hop ala WHAT’S GOOD. Additionally, there’s a surprising beat change on NEW MAGIC WAND which continues Tyler’s obsession with pushing his songwriting beyond what is expected in the genre.

In the past, Tyler's ambitions have gotten away from him, particularly on 2015's Cherry Bomb, which boasted way too many sonic ideas than he could possibly fit into one cohesive project. Flower Boy was a deconstruction of his public persona as well as a radical attempt to understand how much private longings should be made public. Behind all the controversial verses and ego-stroking seemed to be a forward-thinking artist interested in sincerity, and IGOR cunningly splits the difference between the emotional openness of Flower Boy and the low-end noise of his earlier work.

This combination works brilliantly; with Tyler’s often pitch-shifted vocals creeping under the mix along with a discernible lack of highlighting guest spots; with the likes of Playboi Carti, Charlie Wilson, Jack White, lil Uzi Vert, Solange, and others making brief appearances here. While IGOR lacks some of the emotional clarity and crisp production of Flower Boy, it makes up for it with attitude and soulfulness. In a bold move, Tyler resists the urge to layer his album with playlist fodder. Instead, the songs here deepen with subsequent listens as the lovesick narrative becomes more apparent. To that end, when Tyler sings Are we still friends? on the neo-soul closer of the same name, the implications are clear; Tyler may be lonely, but he isn’t defeated.

Foxygen

 

Seeing Other People

7

The thing is…Foxygen are still around

by Jericho Cerrona

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Ever since Foxygen became the “next big thing” some 7 years ago before imploding in spectacular fashion, they always seemed on the verge of breaking up. Part of the duo’s appeal was their reckless abandon, endless partying, drug use, in-fighting, and classic rock sonic experiments. In many ways, 2014’s self-indulgent mess …And Star Power was the culmination of this fact, though the album was never less than fascinating as a snapshot of young musicians testing whatever goodwill they had built up within the industry. 2017’s Hang was an obvious course correction, seeing as how it embraced 70’s glam and Broadway theatricality to mostly winning effect. Now, Sam France and Jonathan Rado have returned with what is easily their most accessible collection of songs on Seeing Other People; an AM soft rock pastiche that’s part Springsteen throwback, part 80s-tinged breakup album.

If this is indeed Foxygen’s final record, it does have the feeling of something which barely registers as a statement. For years, France and Rado have attempted to bounce back after falling down in a coked-up stupor, but part of their mojo came from reinvention. Seeing Other People is more indifferent than anything Foxygen has done in the past, which makes it their most focused effort yet. However, while there are hints of swagger here, the duo’s pomposity is mostly relegated to the sidelines over the course of 9 tracks. In its place is an emotional vacuum of longing; letting the old ways die seems to be the most obvious theme, with France at his most world-weary.

Still, embracing one’s demise can be infectious, and in the case of opener “Work”, it translates like a yacht-rock stomper, complete with self-effacing lines like Well I have got this work/But I’d rather powder my nose instead. Here, Foxyen continue their knack for cynical songwriting while also holding their tongue firmly in cheek, as the drug-addled fallout of their pre-30s years is looked upon with a tinge of embarrassment. Of course, this doesn’t mean Seeing Other People is some kind of work of maturity, either.

“Mona” plays like sleazy 80s synth-funk and comes across like a lesser version of an Ariel Pink song. “Face the Facts” is a warped little electronic pop song with wonky keyboard washes and percussion, while the slowed down ballad “Livin’ a Lie” showcases the dashed dreams and bitterness of young musicians who got caught up in the music industry smokescreen. The album’s crowning jewel is the unabashed Springsteen homage “The Thing is”, a song which is simultaneously catchy, swaggering, goofy, and badass. France’s voice has always hinted at Bruce intonations, but it’s pretty much a copy and paste job here; while the twinkling pianos, violin stabs, and thundering drums fill out Rado’s production.

For every brilliant moment like this, however, Foxygen run into trouble when they mistake irony for feeling. There’s a case to be made that France and Rado aren’t really “breaking up”, but merely growing into their own as people and musicians. On the whole, Seeing Other People uses overly-processed sounds and winking retro production not to comment on this directional change, but to play dress up. The Stones, Iggy Pop, Bowie, The Boss, Velvet Underground, Marc Bolan, Fleetwood Mac; they’re all here reinterpreted through the Foxygen lens, but there’s only so far one can take pastiche. And yet, there’s a real tension here musically which mirrors the push and pull quality of two friends who have been making music together since they were 14. Ultimately, Seeing Other People glides along with a groovy charm which is easy to admire, but it could have been a great record had Rado and France truly bared their souls.