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.

Music Pick of the Week

 

Cate Le Bon

Reward

Year of release: 2019

by Jericho Cerrona

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Welsh musician Cate Le Bon is nothing if not prolific. In between her last LP, 2016’s Crab Day, she collaborated with White Fence’s Tim Presley under the DRINKS moniker and performed production on Deerhunter’s latest release Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? Even with this in mind, her latest album, Reward, is nothing short of a revelation. While Crab Day centered around quirky arrangements, off-kilter guitar riffs, and recurring loops, Reward sees Le Bon pushing herself into more introspective territory; with most of the songs structured around piano, airy guitar, and beguiling vocals. Of course, that doesn’t mean Le Bon has sacrificed any of her idiosyncrasy. On the contrary; the added elements of sax, synths, and restrained percussion means these compositions feel even more organic.

Throughout the album, there’s a tension between absurdity and melancholy. Songs like orchestral opener “Miami” and soft rock ballad “Daylight Matters” are beautiful, but also intensely sad. The weirdo pop quirk factor gets turned up on “Magnificent Gestures”, which sounds like an alien funk song, and the Berlin era Bowie-esque “Mother’s Mothers Magazines”, which hems closer to the avant-pop repetition of her DRINKS output, but with more dynamic instrumentation. However, the greatest triumph of Reward is how Le Bon allows space within these layered compositions. Nothing seems too cluttered or over-produced. Every note, guitar lick, piano motif, and vocal refrain feels perfectly suited. Every song works to bring a larger context into view.

Many reclusive artists choose to shelter themselves from society, locking themselves in isolation in order to record something which speaks to feelings of loneliness, and the process of bringing Reward to life follows this narrative. Rather than simply sequestering herself in a cabin for a few weeks, though, Le Bon spent a year living in the Cumbrian mountains while making homemade furniture and writing music when inspiration struck. Unrequited love, emotional failure, and the need for personal reinvention are key themes here, but at no point does Le Bon give into ennui. When she sings Love is beautiful to me, love is you on closer “Meet the Man'“, for example, you believe her completely, and thats no small accomplishment.

Movie Pick of the Week

 

Booksmart

Director: Olivia Wilde

Year of release: 2019

Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Superficial readings of Olivia Wilde’s film debut Booksmart will label it the “female version of Superbad”, seeing as it how it focuses on two high school best friends who experience one wild night before graduation, but the similarities mostly end there. Truthfully, Booksmart is closer in spirit and tone to TV’s Broad City; a show about female friendship balancing grossness and sweetness in equal measure. What really sets Wilde’s impressive film apart from something like Superbad, however, is its undeniable affection for every person onscreen. While Greg Mottola’s R-rated 2007 movie felt smug and misogynistic, Booksmart uses gross-out comedy tropes while never becoming mean-spirited. This is a funny, heartwarming, and very cunning movie which uses the high school movie tropes of the 1980s, updates them for the Gen Z crowd, and then subverts expectations.

The film follows best friends Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), both of whom are intense practitioners of A+ grades in hopes of getting into elite colleges. To say they don’t party is an understatement; as their idea of a bonafide rager is late night study sessions at the local library. Molly is the feisty class president, Amy is the more shy feminist with a crush on a skater girl, and their school principal is played by the dopey Jason Sudeikis, who nearly gets harassed by Molly into arranging a budget meeting with the juniors on the final day of class. Joined at the hip for the past 4 years, Molly and Amy realize that nearly every other student, even the long-haired stoner Theo (Eduardo Franco) are getting into Yale or Columbia. This realization sets off a series of events where the girls decide to spend the last night before graduating attending an epic party.

Booksmart features the requisite drunken debauchery, wacky hijinks, and R-rated grossness that we’ve come to expect from the genre, but because it features two characters we care about (Feldstein and Dever both deliver star-making performances here), the film always feels empathetic to its core. Meanwhile, Wilde’s direction is confident and ambitious, although she does take some chances that don’t quite pay off, such as a claymation drug-tripping sequence which feels like a separate Vimeo short film and an over-reliance on non-diegetic pop songs. Still, these flaws aren’t enough to detract from the fact that this is a female-centered story which is allowed to be vulgar without sacrificing its warm heart. In an ideal world, Booksmart would be the game-changing hit the vastly inferior Superbad was, if only to show that one can be really into both Ken Burns documentaries and beer pong.

MA

 

Cast: Octavia Spencer, Juliette Lewis, Diana Silvers, McKaley Miller, Corey Fogelmanis, Luke Evans, Dante Brown

Director: Tate Taylor

Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Ma, the latest horror thriller from the Blumhouse brand is trash, but what kind of trash is it? The trailer promises meme-worthy sensationalism or at the very least, a creepy slice of pulp, but Tate Taylor’s film sadly offers neither. This is one of those cases where the casting of Octavia Spencer in the titular role as a mentally unstable woman harboring a painful past is really the only thing worth mentioning, since the script by Scotty Landes may as well have been written by one of the dim-witted teen characters populating a good portion of the running time.

The story centers around Maggie (Diana Silvers) returning to the hometown of her mother, Erica (Juliette Lewis), as she fits in with a group of fellow high schoolers. Soon they are attempting to score booze from the adult townsfolk, happening upon Sue Ann (Spencer) walking her dog near the local liquor store. Hesitant at first, Sue Ann eventually buys them the goods, but later rats them out to the local authorities by giving away their drinking hub. This sets in motion a series of events in which she convinces these underage kids to party in her basement, opening things up for a series of drug-addled high school ragers. Going by the nickname “Ma”, Sue Ann provides the party spot under the condition they don’t go upstairs. To say she’s up to something is an understatement.

But what exactly is this kindly, though seemingly lonely, older woman up to? Well, to say that Ma is harboring secrets is besides the point, since the film spends its first hour alternating between scenes of the teenagers reciting painfully wooden dialogue with Ma working at a vet clinic while obsessing over her new “friends” via social media. Once flashbacks of a young Sue Ann enduring high school bullying and assault back in the 1980s start rolling in, the film’s laughable conceit becomes clear. From this point on, Ma goes from being dull to offensive; using sexual assault in order stigmatize victimhood as a path toward mental illness. If one were being generous, you could say the filmmakers have good intentions here by showing how such experiences at a young age can warp a person’s self-worth and cause major psychological damage, but demonizing Ma as the defacto villain is beyond misjudged.

Spencer’s cunning performance allows for more nuance than would normally be afforded such a reductive character, but what is the point if the film she’s trapped inside is so inept on nearly every level? Taylor’s direction is clumsy, the teenage actors unbearable, and the aforementioned script is a hot mess of detours and laughable coincidences. Of course, the B-movie potential of the film’s central idea could have been wildly entertaining and possibly even subversive had Sue Ann simply been able to exist as a person in the world rather than being used a pawn for plot machinations. There’s even a dark “secret” she’s hiding upstairs (a thread introduced early which pays off limply during the ultra-violent finale), but the logistics surrounding her actions are so baffling that the whole thing comes off as a lame red herring.

Additionally, Ma could have leaned into political signifiers by embracing its racial elements—Sue Ann was seemingly the only black person at her high school and there’s even a token black kid in the present day teenage group—but the film is afraid of such implications. Taylor and company could also have just made a loopy genre movie giving an Academy Award winner the freedom to be deranged while using social media, but too much time is spent on high school romance, Luke Evans’s douche bag dad, and Maggie’s overprotective mom to truly lean into the Spencer show. In the end, Ma is little more than a half-baked revenge story in which a victim narrative is used as fodder for psychosis topped off with a weak social allegory. As such, audiences are better off drinking alone than spending any time with this scare-free, tonally confused turkey.














John Wick: Chapter 3-Parabellum

 

Cast: Keanu Reeves, Halle Berry, Ian McShane, Laurence Fishburne, Asia Kate Dillon, Mark Dacascos, Lance Reddick, Anjelica Huston

Director: Chad Stahelski

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Director Chad Stahelski leans even further into the mythology and creative action sequences of the improbable John Wick series with John Wick: Chapter 3 Parabellum; a self-aware riff on the absurdity of modern action cinema where Keanu Reeve’s retired hitman takes a beating and keeps on killing and killing, and then when he’s finished killing, he kills some more.

The attempt to top the meticulously crafted mayhem of the first two films is alive and well right from the outset, which picks up exactly where John Wick: Chapter 2 ended with our hero fleeing for his life after killing an influential crime lord. Meanwhile, Winston (Ian McShane) provides his old friend a grace period window before he’s “excommunicado” from the criminal safe space of the Continental hotel, even as the bounty of $14 million on Wick’s head mounts. During the film’s first 30 minutes, Stahelski and his talented team of stunt performers unleash some dazzling set-pieces; like a knockabout knife/hatchet fight that goes from playful to grotesquely comic, and a scene set inside a horse stable which features some unexpected equine weaponry. All the while, Reeves looks convincingly exhausted as he throws out the occasional deadpan one-liner in between imaginative kills.

While this opening stretch of John Wick: Chapter 3 Parabellum is breathlessly paced and excitingly choreographed, there’s a sense in which the franchise is starting to spin its wheels. Whereas the second film expanded the goofy assassin lore and added a few wrinkles to Wick’s backstory, Parabellum merely pads out the running time with over-extended plot mechanics and nonsensical detours. For instance, while it’s nice to see Halle Berry onscreen as an ex-assassin who owes Wick a favor, her character is so underdeveloped that when she abruptly vanishes from the film, you forget why she mattered to the story in the first place. Perhaps the most interesting new addition to the cast is Asia Kate Dillon as the Adjudicator, a no-nonsense messenger for a shadowy group known as “The High Table” who comes in to stir up the natural order. Her purposefully flat line delivery and steely gaze gives the film an arch tone which is welcome amidst all the blood-letting and shotgun shells to the noggin.

The baroque world-building of the series continues to both intrigue and annoy; some of the High Table material feels half-baked, for example, while Lawrence Fishburne’s underground homeless hitman lair feels almost secondary here. Still, the goings on at the Continental remain self-aware as ever, especially the keen performances of Lance Reddick and Ian McShane as the hotel concierge and manager, respectively. As far as John Wick himself, it almost feels like the character is a cartoon at this point, with Reeve’s innate charm and comic timing not being well utilized in this entry.

Of course, audiences come to this franchise for the action, and on that front, Parabellum delivers the goods. The variation from gun-based action to swords, knives, and martial arts (complete with several performers from The Raid films showing up for glorified cameos), is a step in the right direction, though the movie’s last half does drag a bit. There’s only so many set-pieces with variations on punch, kick, shoot, stab (repeat) that can be staged before everything begins to feel rote, and the inclusion of testicle-biting dogs and a sword fight blanketed by mirrors simply feels like minor tweaks to a formula that’s beginning to grow repetitive.

It’s no big surprise that at the end of John Wick: Chapter 3 Parabellum, our hero is left for dead as the criminal underworld tries to readjust. Leaving things open for a fourth chapter is a no-brainer, but it also presents an interesting challenge for the filmmakers. With each absurdly graphic dispatch, Wick grows more weary and defeated. How long can he keep this up? Is the entire population of New York secretly assassins? Where will our intrepid killing machine go next, Canada? As the franchise expands the mythology and attempts to top the previous action set-piece, the specter of John Wick as a man who lost everything he loved bent on revenge, dwindles. He’s essentially become a prop in his own films now, dwarfed by choreography, shattered glass, hacked limbs, brain splatter, and the need to exceed expectations.

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

 

Cast: Adam Driver, Jonathan Pryce, Stellan Skarsgård, Olga Kurylenko

Director: Terry Gilliam

Running time: 2 hours 13 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote opens with a title card that reads “25 years in the making—and unmaking.” It’s a wry commentary; referencing both the film’s torturous production history and thematic ideas embedded into the finished project itself. Its the kind of thing a filmmaker like Gilliam does well; using a preexisting text (in this case, Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote) and creating a dialogue with it. The idea of who owns art, how it should be translated, and the cyclical nature of stories is central to Gilliam’s take on what many believe is an unadaptable book. Instead of attempting the impossible, Gilliam chooses to use the novel’s heroic archetypes and graft his own sensibilities onto the framework. It’s a clever touch, and one that benefits from the director’s usual freewheeling style and manic quirkiness.

Don Quixote is played, in a winning bit of casting, by Jonathan Pryce. As it turns out, Quixote isn’t the iconic Cervantes character after all, but a poor cobbler named Javier discovered by egotistical director Toby Grummett (Adam Driver) while scouting for his student film. After a period of 10 years, Toby returns to Los Sueños to helm an expensive Quixote-themed commercial commissioned by his boss (Stellan Skarsgård), who wants to sign a contract with a Russian-led vodka company. During this early stretch, Toby is portrayed as an apathetic sell-out going through the motions, out of ideas and leaking money by the day. He’s a man caught inside a corporate machine which has strangled out any hints of creativity; a feeling Gilliam himself is well aware of over the course of his rocky career in Hollywood.

Burnt out and in desperate need of inspiration, Toby takes a motorcycle from the set and heads off in search of the town and villagers from his student film. What he finds is dispiriting; with former cast members either having died from illness, given into madness, or in the case of Angelica (Joana Ribeiro), a fetching teenager whom Toby had promised to make into a movie star, moving into the realm of escort service. Perhaps most tragic is his encounter with Javier, who so fully embodied the role of Quixote in the student film that he became deluded into thinking that he was, in fact, the legendary character. From there, the young director hooks up with the deluded Javier and the two venture off on a madcap quest where Toby unwittingly takes on the role of Sancho Panza.

Of course, Toby is a stand-in for Gilliam, but The Man Who Killed Don Quixote doesn’t simply work on a meta level. There are elements taken directly from Cervantes’s novel—Javier’s delusions of seeing windmills as giants, women cursed with beards, a knight covered in mirrored armor—but Gilliam takes these familiar episodes and alters the context, blurring the line between reality and artifice. This really comes into focus during the film’s final act, where our heroes end up inside a castle with inhabitants cast as whores, peasants, damsels, and royal knights dressed in period appropriate costumes. Toby suddenly takes on the mantle of noble savior swooping in to save Angelica, who is engaged to a wealthy misogynist Russian thug, and consequently, Gilliam seems to be playing this adventure yarn straight. Javier embodies the sacrificial lamb trope and Toby is exalted to hero status, but is the film really becoming the very thing it’s playfully satirizing?

Vanity and self-worship is a trap, one that Toby and by extension, Gilliam are not immune to. There’s a possibility that Gilliam is questioning his place within the cinematic pantheon here, using iconography from his past work and commenting on it (much like Fellini did in his later years). Like most of the filmmaker’s projects, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote has an odd rhythm and often gives in to self-indulgence; with inconsistent pacing, hit and miss visual gags, and several scenes where characters simply yell over one another. Still, such criticisms can also be read as reasons for Gilliam’s legitimate artistry. He’s a filmmaker always taking chances. Always throwing ideas at the wall. Constantly pushing himself to complete his vision, even if it takes 25 years, and there’s ultimately something hopeful about that.




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

8

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.