Alien: Covenant

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demián Bichir, Amy Seimetz, Carmen Ejogo, Benjamin Rigby, Jussie Smollett, Callie Hernandez

Director: Ridley Scott

Running time: 2 hours 3 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


"In space, no one can hear you quote Lord Byron."

As ludicrous as that faux-pull quote sounds, there's a slight streak of goofiness to Ridley Scott's Alien: Covenant which ultimately proves to be its most successful element. Literary references to not only Byron but Shelley abound (cementing the Gothic horror influences), as well as recitations of "Ozymandias", delivered mostly by Michael Fassbender in a dual role as a pair of mismatched androids. If all of this sounds like a thematic continuation of 2012's Prometheus; a film which boldly took the franchise into more cerebral territory, then the most effective moments here are the ones which lean into that strain of philosophical mumbo-jumbo. Where Scott misfires is his attempts at de-mythologizing the iconic xenomorphs, first introduced in 1979's Alien, as well as doling out a greatest hits demo reel of the past five films in the franchise without any notable variations. 

Taking place 10 years after the events of Prometheus, Alien: Covenant concerns a crew aboard a ship set for a distant planet with hopes of colonization. Following a solar flare accident which kills the vessel's captain while he's locked in a state of cryostasis, the surviving members scramble to formulate a game plan. Upon receiving a cryptic message from a nearby planet, the crew, (led by Billy Crudup's newly minted leader) decide to investigate the transmission rather than return to their sleeping pods. What follows is basically a retread of Alien which occasionally sidesteps its predictable narrative structure for philosophical detours concerning the creation of mankind and artificial intelligence. Scott handles these detours, which involve Fassbender's resident android Walter coming face to face with his nearly identical model David (also Fassbender), who survived the events of Prometheus, with a curiosity which reveals the filmmaker's real interest in this material. On the other hand, Scott seems decidedly less enthused by the film's shock tactics; revealed in the rather uninspired way nondescript characters get infected, are quarantined, and then convulse as squiggly monsters erupt violently out of their bodies. The horror-set pieces here feel muddled and strained, with rubbery CGI lacking the depth and tactility of the original film's practical effects. Meanwhile, Scott's ill-advised decision to explain where the beings originated retroactively makes the primordial simplicity of their actions in the earlier films less scary. What once felt visceral and disorienting now feels rote, with Scott even indulging in a laughably idiotic coitus interruption sequence inside a shower which plays like something out of a Wayans Brothers spoof. 

The best thing about Alien: Covenant has nothing to do with the aliens but rather, the way in which it delves into the philosophical battle of wits between Walter and David. Fassbender gives a masterful performance in a dual role, and the most intriguing scenes involve him essentially acting opposite himself. Those who cringed at the heady nonsense of Prometheus will likely have a field day with the scene where Walter and David alternately play the flute while discussing machine's desire to play God, but such moments are infinitely more entertaining than anything involving the indestructible alien life forms wrecking havoc. Whenever Fassbender is onscreen, the film pulses with an ambiguous sense of menace. However, Scott too often darts away to supposedly give fans more of what they want; including an incomprehensible action set-piece atop an escaping ship where Katherine Waterston's mousy Ripley clone does battle with a grasshopper-like xenomorph. The way the creature burrows its head into a window like a Jurassic World-esque velociraptor saps the genuine terror from H.R. Giger's original designs, making them look frail and small where they once felt towering and nightmarish. 

Had Alien: Covenant honed in on the idea of David's self-actualization as more than simply a slasher movie plot device, the film could have attained the kind of poetic nihilism encapsulated by the android Ash's famous dying words from Alien. Instead, Scott wastes a talented cast and some compelling notions concerning David being the inverse of the xenomorph for watered-down jump scares and bloody carnage. Sure, this is what one expects from an Alien movie, but the suspense beats here feel perfunctory; like a bored technician checking off the appropriate boxes on an exam.

The idea that an android regards the xenomorphs with something approaching admiration is a tantalizing concept, but Alien: Covenant doesn't trust the audience enough to follow through on the paradoxical consequences of such a concept. Alas, only Byron, Shelley and Fassbender keep Scott's attempt at reclaiming his beloved franchise from disappearing completely up its own chest-bursting exoskeleton.

 

 

 

Movie Pick of the Week


My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea

Director: Dash Shaw

Year of release: 2017

Running time: 1 hour 15 minutes

 


Graphic novelist Dash Shaw's feature debut, My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea, is at once a striking pop culture vision of hand-drawn innovation as well as a snapshot of adolescent ego run amok. Shaw puts himself into the narrative, visualized here as a self-absorbed teenager voiced by Jason Schwartzman, whose relationship with best friend Assaf (Reggie Watts) is tested once co-editor of the high school newspaper, Verti (Maya Rudolph) comes between them. After uncovering some covert information about the school being below evacuation code--and getting kicked off the paper for spreading bitter rumors about Assaf--things take an Irwin Allen-style disaster turn with an earthquake striking the California coast and causing the action of the film's title.

Joined by other characters trapped inside the slowly sinking school voiced by the likes of John Cameron Mitchell, Lena Dunham, and Susan Sarandon, My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea transforms from an anti-authority parable draped in raging hormones into something more wonderfully surreal. Shaw uses a simple animation strategy; lo-fi Adult Swim-esque sketches with swirling backdrops combining black drawn lines, acrylic color bursts, wood-cut silhouettes, and throwaway visual gags in order to create a hallucinogenic experience. Meanwhile, the writing is sharp and sporadically humorous, with each cast member relaying the dialogue in a way which creates distinctive characterizations from broad stereotypes. 

In its freewheeling energy and doodle sketch humor, Shaw's film is a charming reminder of what can be accomplished on a small budget in the realm of animation. At a brisk 77 minutes, the picture also refuses to overstay its welcome, as the thin narrative and sensory overload would probably become repetitive if stretched out any further. As it stands, My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea seems to homage 60/70's modernist animes while also aping the spurting animation style of generation YouTube; resulting in something uniquely thrilling in a cinematic universe gutted by minions and ice age primates.

 

Music Pick of the Week


Pond

The Weather

Year of release: 2017


The seventh album from Australian psych-prog rockers Pond may sound like a left turn upon first listen, but the fact that Tame Impala's Kevin Parker is on hand as producer places everything in context. While Parker's move away from 60/70's psych and into the realm of warped 80's synth-pop felt a bit contrived throughout his last effort Currents, Pond manage the shift from proto-punk psych and onto the dance floor with relative ease. The Weather may be less atonal and kooky than 2015's Man It Feels Like Space Again, but there's still plenty of proggy detours and bong-ripped instrumentation on hand to satisfy longtime fans; coming off like The Flaming Lips shaking hips with Prince while peaking on mushrooms.

Those hoping for the manic garage rock-inflected sprawl of past albums may be somewhat miffed by Pond's decision to slow down the tempo, increase the swirling synths, lay down the disco-glam grooves and indulge in funky basslines, but singer Nick Allbrook’s high-pitched vocals are a surprisingly perfect fit for Parker's layered production. There's Roxy Music-esque glam ("Zen Automaton"), chillwave-adjacent ballads ("Paint Me Silver"), ambitious prog opuses ("Edge of the World Pt. 2") and perhaps best of all, Ariel Pink-sounding 80's spaced out funk ("Colder than Ice").

Throughout, there's a sense that Pond may have bitten off more than they can chew, with arena-sized choruses and cosmic climaxes threatening to drown the record in self-indulgence, but the band's dark sense of humor and fondness for kitsch offset such criticisms. For instance, opener "3000 Megatons" could be read as a bleak mantra for our politically divisive age, with Albrook crooning I look out at the mirror/Look out at the world/30,000 megatons is just what we deserve in a robotic falsetto over arpeggiated synths. However, the song is more humorous than ominous; as if the push of a button will solve all humanity's problems in an apocalyptic mushroom cloud. As an album, The Weather straddles the awe-inspiring and the ludicrous with a confidence that suggests Pond may one day make a modern psych classic. For now, though, we can simply settle for geeky Australian dance parties with the occasional stoned gaze. 

 

 

Colossal

 

Cast: Anne Hathaway, Jason Sudeikis, Dan Stevens, Tim Blake Nelson, Austin Stowell

Director: Nacho Vigalondo

Running time: 1 hour 49 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


There's something about writer-director Nacho Vigalondo's films which both insist upon their artificiality while also attempting to upend genre expectations. For example, his 2007 debut Timecrimes is a nifty time-travel thriller whose narrative loops back in on itself, but the picture's true intention seems to be a commentary on the leering male gaze. 2011's Extraterrestrial, meanwhile, featured an alien invasion as the backdrop for a deft romantic comedy which explored domestic tensions. The filmmaker's latest, Colossal, is his most loopy and ambitious effort yet; a character study about an alcoholic writer who finds herself somehow telepathically linked to a rampaging monster wrecking havoc in Seoul, South Korea. In true Vigalondo fashion, the film's real interest lies in not only the perils of alcoholism, but also how entitlement and male rage can manifest itself in a country where we only care about what's happening directly in our small sphere of influence.

Anne Hathaway stars as Gloria, who in the opening scene stumbles into the swanky New York apartment apartment of her boyfriend, Tim (Dan Stevens) after a night of boozing. An argument ensues, one which the couple has had countless times, and Gloria is literally sent packing. Relocating to her tiny hometown and reconnecting with her childhood friend, Oscar (Jason Sudeikis) who gives her a job tending his local bar, Gloria seems to be on the road of recovery after hitting bottom. What initially transpires is a goofy comic drama about moving back home, rekindling friendships, and finding oneself, set against the backdrop of a monstrous kaiju laying waste to skyscrapers and innocent bystanders across the globe. Vigalondo's handling of tone is admirable, if scattershot, as he tries investigating privilege, entitlement, and in the case of Sudeiki's initially charming bar owner, raging male ego while also giving us visions of crumbling buildings and giant monster attacks. It's a ridiculous premise; one that involves Gloria stepping onto a small patch of earth located on an empty playground where she can telepathically control the creature's movements. Once Oscar realizes that he too can summon his own monster (visualized as a gigantic glowing robot), the film shifts into the realm of psychodrama wherein Gloria must not only contend with the damage she's caused in Seoul while intoxicated, but also Oscar's erratic temper and possessive behavior. 

Colossal eventually goes completely off the rails during the third act as Vigalondo's screenplay muddles its central metaphor under the creaking confines of magical realism. However, there's something novel about a movie boasting an original concept which asks its audience to invest themselves in characters and situations which stretch basic laws of credulity. Hathaway is a nimble performer; able to portray a woman spinning out of control without devolving into utter navel-gazing, and the way she modulates between shock, surprise, wry humor, and genuine sadness is a testament to her talents. Meanwhile, Sudeikis is cast against type as a seemingly nice guy harboring severe self-hatred issues who can unravel at any moment, and the way he flips on a dime from gee-whiz geniality to callous rage is surprisingly effective.

By using archetypal blockbuster imagery, including a slow-motion "superhero" type shot of Hathaway walking in the rain near the climax, Colossal seems to be parodying summer tent-poles while also indulging aesthetically in their simple pleasures. That the film cannot completely follow through on the promise of its audacious conceit is slightly disappointing, and there's a definite sense here that Vigalondo isn't quite skilled enough as a visual stylist to merge the fantastical with the mundane in a way which transcends the multiple genres he's juggling. Still, there's also something reassuring about a filmmaker willing to swing for the fences and a lead actor choosing to wholly trust her director's convictions. If Colossal unwisely uses throngs of screaming Korean extras as an excuse for one white woman's tale of self-rehabilitation, then it's focus on feminist concerns and exposing the sad state of male self-delusion is a welcome respite to the Michael Bay-inflected machismo found in so many Hollywood blockbusters. However, the film could have been richer and more potent had it equally considered people on the other side of the world rather than simply being consumed by entitled Americans struggling with their self-image problems. 

 

The Lost City of Z

 

Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller, Tom Holland, Edward Ashley, Angus Macfadyen, Ian McDiarmid, Clive Francis, Pedro Coello

Director: James Gray

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


With unfussy assuredness, writer-director James Gray's The Lost City of Z emerges as a vision of two separate, yet intrinsically linked, tales of obsession. The first concerns archaeologist and explorer Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) who spent the better part of his adult life searching for a fabled civilization deep in the Amazon rainforest at the dawn of the 20th century. The second is the tale of a filmmaker searching for his own version of transcendence through the art of emotional and character-based cinema. If Fawcett remains an enigmatic figure--driven with spiritual fervor to uncover something beyond the reaches of the human mind--then Gray, too, feeds off this same kind of yearning. This is a film for which every shot, detour, and catalogue of Amazonian scenery is instilled with a melodramatic aura which never announces itself as such. In a way, Gray's version of melodrama is to nod toward the ineffable madness of Apocalypse Now and Fitzcarraldo before tilting the other direction into a character study about man whose motivations remain elusive. That is the essential element of obsession. It consumes and moves one to enter the furthest reaches of hell without a logical reason, and The Lost City of Z brilliantly capitalizes on this idea.

This is not to say that Fawcett did not have his reasons for continuously journeying into the Brazilian jungle in hopes of finding the titular city; chief among them proving his mettle as a respectable Englishman after his father's disastrous Army career. Then there's his belief that nonwhite civilizations may be more advanced than western society, but such anti-colonial rhetoric could also be seen as overcompensation for his own selfish need to integrate himself into "exotic" environments. Structurally, Gray deflates our expectations by having Fawcett and his crew, which includes trustworthy companions, Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson) and Arthur Manley (Edward Ashley) get close to achieving their goal, only to be sent back home to England with little to no concrete evidence of their experiences. During one extended sequence, Fawcett delivers a fiery sermon to a crowd of bewildered aristocrats about his desire to prove that the so-called "savages" are far more advanced than commonly believed. During another, he engages in emotionally-wrought exchanges with his wife, Nina (Sienna Miller), who wishes to explore her own version of transcendence, whether that be traveling into the heart of darkness with her husband or convincing him that he's essentially abandoning his family. In both instances, Fawcett shows flashes of integrity and all-consuming hubris.

Unlike most standard period epics about exploration and adventure, The Lost City of Z is uncharacteristically more interested in the internal purgatory of the mind than the geographical space of the jungle. Though there are literal dangers along the way (snakes, flying arrows, illness), Gray is focused on man's need to erase himself as someone existing to take orders, file rank, and report to king and country. To this end, Hunnam creates a believable portrait of someone whose rugged charisma and single-minded longing for the sublime drives him to eventually exploit his own son (played by Tom Holland as a teenager) who simply yearns to have a relationship with his distant father.

Resisting the urge for stylistic formalism (unlike, say, the showy bombast of The Revenant), Gray's picture remains a visual marvel (shot by gifted cinematographer Darius Khondji) while always remaining firmly rooted in character and emotional truthfulness. The film's final scenes, in which Fawcett and his boy are surrounded by a tribe of Amazonian natives luminously lit by candles, takes on the feeling of an ephemeral dream where transcendence and destruction are intertwined. Gray and Fawcett's drive toward obsessive desire are also intertwined; a tale of two wanderers searching for their own means of moving beyond ordinary lines of vision.

 

Personal Shopper

 

Cast: Kristen Stewart, Sigrid Bouaziz, Anders Danielsen Lie

Director: Olivier Assayas

Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


Olivier Assayas' latest feature, Personal Shopper, could just as easily have been titled "Personal Identity", as its primary focus rests on the ways in which self-image can be fragmented. The central protagonist played by Kristen Stewart may be an assistant to a vain celebrity, but she identifies herself primarily as someone who can communicate with spirits. Therefore, part of the surprise of the film is just how much Assayas leans into the psychological thriller/horror trappings, even as the story ultimately emerges as a powerful depiction of how geographical spaces and accessories can define one's sense of identity.

As a filmmaker, Assayas has always been interested in characters existing in a kind of fugue state. His last picture, Clouds of Sils Maria, was about two people trapped in a mountain retreat forced to work out their inner insecurities and fears through the art of acting. Here, he layers aspects of the afterlife, supernatural forces, and the psychological trauma of grief into the narrative, but his true aim is to observe one woman's personal and professional identities merging into the vision of someone trying to connect with the dead rather than the living. Of course, this doesn't mean Assayas skimps on the genre elements. In fact, we not only see literal manifestations of ghosts here, but also an extended sequence aboard a train involving otherworldly text messages which plays like a sly update of the horror phone call trope from Scream.

Stewart dominates every scene as Maureen, a young woman constantly dealing with the petty demands of her boss Kyra (Sigrid Bouaziz), an egotistical model whose presence is just as ghostly as Maureen's recently deceased brother, who may be stalking her from beyond the grave. Interestingly, there's another parallel here with Clouds of Sils Maria in that Maureen feels like a continuation of Stewart's character from the previous feature, minus the bond forming between her and Juliet Binoche's aging actress. If Stewart's floundering assistant in that film came across as a warm if stoic presence, here she portrays someone utterly alone; disconnected, aimless, and going through the motions of her daily work while desperately trying to make sense of her brother's sudden passing. It's a richly nuanced performance; both observational and heartfelt, inward and expressive. The way she navigates the prolonged text messaging sequence, for example, is something of a miracle, since there's nothing inherently compelling about the act of staring into a glowing screen and tapping away. Somehow, however, Stewart makes it riveting.

The theme of fragmented identity is further deepened once Maureen is given the opportunity to try on some of Kyra's designer clothing; a forbidden act which tempts her from a distance. During these scenes, Stewart subtly shifts her mood from withdrawn to self-assured, basically becoming an entirely different person simply by walking around in someone else's garments. The fact that Assayas continues to toy with genre conventions throughout only enhances this idea of self-image in a state of flux based on geography and accessorization, leading to moments of legitimate suspense. Unlike most thrillers or horror films, though, Personal Shopper eschews "gotcha" reveals or twists explaining the unexplainable. Instead, it has the setup of a horror movie (along with some of the imagery), but none of the payoff.

The emotional complexity and intellectual power of Personal Shopper doesn't rest on whether spirits exist or not, but rather, on how human beings choose to deal with the living and remember the dead. Using striking compositions, deft camera movements suggesting the movement of things unseen, and a thoroughly distinctive central performance, Assayas has crafted a masterful meditation on identity which leaves us wondering just what kind of person we will choose to be, no matter where we are.

Free Fire

 

Cast: Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, Armie Hammer, Sharlto Copley, Sam Riley, Michael Smiley, Noah Taylor, Babou Ceesay, Jack Reynor, Enzo Cilenti

Director: Ben Wheatley

Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


Ben Wheatley has always been a filmmaker fascinated by the breakdown of social rules and normative behavior. In films like Kill List, A Field in England, and especially last year's High Rise, the British director has mined the breakdown of modern society to both comedic and horrific effect. With Free Fire, he's made his most mainstream picture; a high-concept genre exercise which uses familiar stereotypes and clichés in order to stage one long shootout inside a warehouse.

Working with longtime collaborator Amy Jump (who co-wrote the skeletal script), Wheatley sets up a series of character types we've grown accustom to in Tarantino-inspired crime films and strands them in a single location; a Boston manufacturing plant where a supposed arms deal is set to commence. There's the smooth turtle neck-wearing interlocutor, the "too old for this" veteran, the hot-headed junkie, the loose-cannon arms dealer, and in the case of Brie Larson, the sleekly dressed business associate who separates herself from the riff-raff simply by being the one female of the lot. Instead of padding things out with unnecessary backstory and exposition, Free Fire spends just enough time during the early moments to establish each character as distinctive enough so that when the bullets start flying, we are able to tell them apart. Clearly, Wheatley is more interested in outsized personalities and the filmmaking challenges of staging one long shootout than in bothering with plausible character motivations.

Once the characters split off into two teams following a violent argument just as the deal is finalizing, the film devolves (rather entertainingly) into a series of grunts, growls, and ricocheting bullets. In between the blustering gunfire (aided by meticulous sound design), the combatants share quippy banter, which many will claim owes a debt to Tarantino, but in actuality, the dialogue is simply highlighting the artificiality of the entire premise. Setting the picture during the 1970s also allows for tacky wardrobe choices and exaggerated music cues, leading one to believe Wheatley is simply havin' a laugh, as they say.

Narrowing its focus down to the bare essentials as characters are picked off (often in brutal fashion), Free Fire achieves the kind of manic intensity Wheatley hasn't achieved since Kill List. An off-kilter, jazzy score often breaks through the din of period appropriate cuts from Creedence Clearwater Revival and John Denver as bodies roll around in dust, crawl through cramped spaces, and clumsily shoot at the flailing movement of shadows. Unlike Kill List and to a greater extent A Field in England, however, Free Fire never reaches the level of true gonzo madness which could have elevated things beyond the level of mere genre exercise. Still, there are thankfully no noble speeches or heroic gestures to be found here, only the sound of grown men yelping and one woman taking it upon herself to unleash hell. The film implies (rather, enforces) the idea that once social etiquette breaks down and power-hungry, weaponized men see massive amounts of cash in their sights, everything will inevitably devolve into chaos. In its small ambitions, Free Fire succeeds as 90 minutes of B-movie lunacy that could be read as a commentary on the the sad absurdity of gun violence, or simply a nasty depiction of deplorable human behavior, set to the worshipful sounds of discharged firearms.

 

Future Islands

 

The Far Field

6

Moving forward by looking backward

If retro revivalism has taught us anything, it's that aping past decades can be a slippery slope; leading to a state where conjuring a sense of nostalgia is the primary goal. Often, pastiche goes down well enough with the mainstream crowd (just look at Netflix's Stranger Things), but it rarely translates into something beyond its influences. In terms of our musical moment, rock and pop bands have been rummaging through the debris of 70s and 80s fallout for inspiration because, let's face it, hip-hop artists are the new rock stars. A surge of glossy synth-pop has made its way back into popular music over the past decade, and with it, plenty of generic basslines, soft drum machines, and washed-out vocals. Baltimore-based Future Islands are a band that fit into this mold, but there's a difference, and his name is Samuel T. Herring.  

As the frontman for a group that's been toiling in relative obscurity for the better part of a decade themselves, an appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman in 2014 which inexplicably went viral marked the beginning of a strange phenomenon for a guy who seemingly just wanted to dance awkwardly, beat his chest, and howl into the night. This is not to disparage the work of fellow band members William Cashion (bass/guitar), Gerrit Welmers (keyboard) and Michael Lowry (drums), all competent musicians in their own right, but it was Herring's undeniably bizarre and yet riveting stage presence which captivated audiences. What followed was a surprising instance in which retro nostalgia butted heads with something operating by its own rules; exemplified by a bona fide synth-pop hit, "Seasons (Waiting on You)" which managed to overcome its derivative sound mainly by the sheer operatic power of Herring's vocal range. Oh, and yes, the sad Dad dancing helped.

Lyrically, Herring has always been interested in kineticism; in this idea of forward momentum at the expense of domesticity or even happiness. The love-sick ballads strewn throughout 2014's Singles revealed a man shaken by bitter breakups, but still hopeful. On The Far Field, he sounds positively defeated, with tales of failed relationships marked by a steady stream of bass-driven grooves and retro synths. In terms of sound, Future Islands have always looked backwards, which gives the lyrical preoccupations an irony which Herring seems genuinely in on, even as he often trips over flowery metaphors and simplistic sentiments.

If Singles was a coming out party for a band who have been subtly refining their sound for years, The Far Field is a slight tweak to a now standard formula which, despite the uniqueness of Herring's voice, has become somewhat repetitive. The songs here are subtler, gentler, and more refined in terms of production, but lack the dramatic spark and raw energy of similarly-sounding tunes from Singles. The closest the band comes to a "Seasons (Waiting On You)" type hit is probably lead single "Ran", with interwoven melodic lines blowing out into a declarative chorus, backed by a steady beat and airy keyboard washes. However, the album highlight is undoubtedly "Shadow", which pairs Herring's deep croon with Blondie's Debbie Harry raspy voice; culminating in a magical duet which takes the band's sound into more adventurous territory. Too bad the majority of the record remains planted firmly in the "what works" realm rather than snaking off in more unexpected directions.

If retro revivalism is sputtering, no one has bothered to tell Future Islands, and beyond that, Samuel T. Herring shows no signs of slowing down. As impassioned as he sounds throughout The Far Field, the notion of forward momentum at all costs is beginning to show its age. No one, not even a man with a throaty growl and untamed heart, can keep running forever. Eventually, life catches up, and with it, all those predictable basslines and familiar synths.

 

Song to Song

 

Cast: Rooney Mara, Ryan Gosling, Michael Fassbender, Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett, Holly Hunter, Bérénice Marlohe

Director: Terrence Malick

Running time: 2 hours 9 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

Song to Song.png

In terms of the evolving career of auteurs, very few filmmakers have seen such a wide gap of opinion between the old and the new as Terrence Malick. Of course, there's always Jean Luc Godard, but even his old age experiments have the hipness of high-art to fall back on. Malick, however, swings for the fences in a different way; one which is certainly unhip and encouraging of self-parody. His latest long-form, free-associative concoction, Song to Song, follows in the footsteps of his last two features, To the Wonder and Knight of Cups, in presenting Malick as someone entirely in his own lane. If To The Wonder was about his failed marriage funneled through star Ben Affleck's wooden gaze and Knight of Cups his ode to the hedonistic party days as a L.A. screenwriter, then Song to Song must inevitably concern his legacy as an Austin-based musician, right?

In all seriousness, this is the first in Malick's post-Tree of Life trilogy that doesn't seem as intensely interested in autobiography. Whereas his last three features were personal collages and in many ways, works of extreme egoism, Song to Song finds the suddenly prolific filmmaker disappearing (if that's even possible) more by shying away from obvious autobiographical connections. Sure, there are estranged brothers, dying fathers, and failed paternal figures on the periphery here, but on the whole, the film seems intent on doubling down on the more docudrama aesthetic found throughout Knight of Cups. This means more GoPro, more vignettes where the camera snakes in and out of scenes, more overlapping dialogue, and more of this idea involving catching details around the characters rather than focusing on the actual characters themselves.

Taking place in and around the Austin City Limits Music Festival, Song to Song centers on a love triangle of sorts, with aspiring musician Faye (Rooney Mara) gallivanting with slimy producer, Cook (Michael Fassbinder) while falling for fellow songwriter, BV (Ryan Gosling). Of course, other characters (as well as real-life performers like Patti Smith and Iggy Pop) filter in and out of the proceedings, and gather enough goodwill to fill only a snippet of screen time. From the opening moments, where a throng of festival-goers thrash around in a mosh pit in arty slow-mo, it's clear Malick has little interest in this milieu or even music in general. Instead, the setting is simply used as a backdrop for Faye's interpersonal journey. This thread; of focusing primarily on a female character's romantic and professional life, is startling in light of Malick's filmography, marking a shift for a director who largely has been concerned with male ennui. Women in Malick films are often visualized as manic pixie dream girls, angelic mothers, or especially in the case of Knight of Cups, scantily-clad eye candy for dispirited men to be entertained by and then discarded. There is a continuation of this last bit whenever Fassbinder is onscreen as the frothing music producer, who seems to be an analog for Christian Bale's character from Cups, but without the "woe is me" navel-gazing. Acting as a kind of "Devil" avatar (Malick is never shy with his biblical allusions), Fassbinder's snake-like villain is mainly on hand to tempt and seduce Mara's doubting Thomas while also acting as a distraction to Gosling's down on his luck musician.  

Structured as a loosely connected series of moments and tableau (shot by the gifted Emmanuel Lubezki) in which the camera darts restlessly away from anything even resembling a traditional movie scene, Song to Song will continue to frustrate those hoping Malick will get back to the narrative coherency of Badlands or even, to a lesser extent, the cosmic grandness of The Tree of Life. Instead, he has made an intimate film which nonetheless feels like it's getting at something larger, if only perhaps because the camera is constantly swooping. Eventually, Faye and BV drift apart and other possible romantic foils enter; a French artist, Zoey (Bérénice Marlohe) who Faye is drawn to, and an older woman, Amanda (Cate Blanchett) who strikes up a chemistry with BV at a lavish party. All the while, Cook hovers over the proceedings like a deranged puppet master, even as he spirals out into other directions; like getting involved with a suburban waitress named Rhonda (Natalie Portman), before hitting something that looks like rock bottom. 

Ultimately, there's something naively thrilling about Malick's way of making movies. No matter how fragmented or narratively sparse, there's always this feeling of him chasing moments, of trying to attain something ephemeral. Sometimes he achieves this kind of transcendence. Sometimes he doesn't. Oftentimes, it only happens once or twice over the course of an entire run time, but those moments, when they do land, are special and uniquely Malick. More than anything, Song to Song captures the emotional tenor of obsession, longing, infatuation, and self-doubt involving your romantic partner not being as fully invested as you are. The film accomplishes this not through plot points or character arcs, but through recollections, memories, and sensory dreamlike imagery of what life could look like; leaving us spinning, exhausted, and choking on the fumes of the possibility of yet another elevated moment.

Your Name

Cast: Ryunosuke Kamiki, Mone Kamishiraishi 

Director: Makoto Shinkai

Running time: 1 hour 46 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


In adapting his own novel, writer-director Makoto Shinakai has essentially created a genre collage with Your Name; hopscotching from romance, sci-fi body-swap comedy, time-travel yarn, and into something altogether more ambitious with reckless abandon. Though the film will no doubt be praised for storytelling audacity, particularly in the twist-heavy third act, the picture is best during the hushed simplicity of its early moments. It's almost as if, fearing audiences would find the intimate longing of his two central characters too generic, Shinakai piles on the plot reversals to the point where the heart of the story becomes mired in overstuffed narrative machinations.

Things begin quaintly enough with the introduction of Mitusha (voiced by Mone Kamishiraishi) and Taki (Ryunosuke Kamiki), two young characters living on opposite sides of the spectrum, both geographically and metaphorically. Whereas Taki lives with his father in Tokyo, Mitusha resides in a small village with her sister and grandmother, but both seem to harbor similar yearnings. Essentially, Taki and Mitusha hope to escape their surroundings; to be free, to explore, to unburden themselves from the stifling environments they find themselves trapped in. The catch here is the gradual realization that the two strangers have been randomly switching bodies, a trope Shinakai mines for its inherent humor as well as emotional weight. Eventually, they figure out a way to communicate, keeping tabs on where one swap ends and the other begins, leading to some body-switching dating hijinks and unwanted outbursts. 

In exploring the possibilities of seeing the world through another's eyes, Your Name is keenly aware of both the thrill and downsides of such a scenario. At its best, the film gets at the small disappointments and larger devastation of realizing the universality of aimlessness, no matter where one resides geographically. Once a falling comet is introduced (a metaphor for the nation’s 2011 earthquake and tsunami) and the body-swapping ceases, things start careening into time-bending directions which speaks to Shinakai's noble ambitions even as it deflates much of the film's early charm. To be fair, the cosmic-spanning grandeur of the finale is gorgeously rendered; with a blend of photo-realistic animation and dreamlike colors splashing across the screen, but the manic overdrive of the storytelling still feels at odds with the picture's simple romanticism.

The idea of thinking you've met someone before, have known them in some past life, or even lived inside their body through a distant memory, is a palpable thematic device ripe with erotically-charged undercurrents. Your Name is therefore at its most sublime when leaning into such feelings; locating Mitusha and Taki's inexplicable pull toward one another and the tensions arising out of the uncertainty of romantic entanglement. Ultimately, however, since Shinakai wants to blow our minds as well as tug our heartstrings, the film's emotional core gets sidetracked by its own attempts at one-upping itself narratively. Rather than being wowed by the  time-space-continuum weirdness atop a mountain during the climax, we long for these characters to return to the vibrant simplicity of their surroundings in order to locate that very basic thing that makes us all human; a yearning to connect.   

 

Actor Martinez

 

Cast: Arthur Martinez, Mike Ott, Nathan Silver, Lindsay Budge, Sarah Sansoni, Andy Hankins, Connor Long, Bobby Black, Sanaz Fatemi, Cindy Silver

Director: Mike Ott, Nathan Silver

Running time: 1 hour 16 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


The nature of creating art is often given a veneer of earnestness which contradicts the messier aspects of the process. For instance, making a film is a multi-faceted endeavor involving commerce, representation, fantasy, and a willingness to believe that such a thing is somehow viable to an audience outside one's own hubris. Art as a parasite feeding off the artist's belief that their creation will come to fruition in some form is at the heart of Mike Ott and Nathan Silver's Actor Martinez; a film which blends fiction and documentary in ways both self-reflexively comic and uncomfortably misanthropic. 

At the center of the project is Arthur Martinez (playing himself), a struggling actor living in Denver who moonlights as a computer repair man. Early on, Ott and Silver fix their camera on him as he attends film culture meetings, gabs with local actors, and responds to house calls to fix laptops using detached, Robert-Altman-esque zoom lenses which presupposes a fly-on-the-wall approach to their subject. However, it becomes clear that Arthur, though broke and slovenly, believes himself to be an interesting enough persona for the filmmakers to form a narrative around. With a mixture of self-deprecation and egotism, he begins to emerge as a ghostly presence floating through a life of unrealized potential and failed ambitions who lacks self-awareness. Speaking of the acting process in banal generalities and often lecturing Ott and Silver on the finer points of marketability, Arthur is both obnoxious and yet, oddly endearing. The directors too, portray themselves as irritating provocateurs, goading their performer into awkward audition scenes with actresses attempting to land a role as the "girlfriend", whom they hope will resemble his ex-wife.  

In it's blurring of reality and fictional elements, Actor Martinez could be seen as a companion piece to Robert Greene's Kate Plays Christine, only Ott and Silver lean even harder into the idea of objectification and emotional neurosis. By casting real-life actor Lindsay Burge as Arthur's co-star and romantic foil, the filmmakers plunge their production even further down the rabbit hole of art imitating life imitating art. Burge often expresses feelings of guilt and sympathy for Arthur, and occasionally calls into question the director's dubious intentions. Of course, how much of this is constructed or stems from a combination of "real" and "rehearsed" reactions is part of the film's magic. That the film ultimately resists any kind of definitive reading is what gives it such a strange, beguiling quality.

Using slow panning shots and evocative zooms framing the actors through reflections, mirrors, corridors, and silhouettes, Actor Martinez has a calm exterior which nonetheless cages a nervous energy beneath the surface. Throughout, Ott and Silver keeps us a distance; inviting us to mock Arthur's cluelessness and then root for him to arrive at some kind of epiphany. The film within the film construct could be a stumbling block for some, but there's nonetheless something oddly touching about Arthur and Lindsay's developing relationship, as well as a compelling ambiguity during the final moments where Arthur seems to come to a revelation concerning the artistic process. Like all works of deconstructionist art, Actor Martinez works on multiple levels. It can be seen as an exploitative stunt or simply a commentary on our need to exploit and be exploited. It can be a window into the uncertainty of emotional intimacy, or a rebuke to the very idea that intimacy can be truthfully achieved through acting. It can be read as a character study concerning a lonely eccentric who just wants validation, or simply a haunted representation of a lost soul acting in a movie about himself made for himself that no one else, save for perhaps a few brave souls, will ever get to see.

Movie Pick of the Week


 

I Called Him Morgan

Director: Kaspar Collin

Cast: Wayne Shorter, Larry Reni Thomas, Judith Johnson, Jymie Merritt, Albert Tootie Heath, Larry Ridley

Year of release: 2017

Running time: 1 hour 32 minutes


Utilizing stock footage, still photographs, talking head interviews, and evocative audio recordings, Kaspar Collin's I Called Him Morgan is the rare music documentary which actually seems intoxicated by the power of it's period New York City setting as well as the hypnotic sounds emanating from every corner of the room.

Collin dramatizes the rise and tragic fall of renown jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan in intimate fashion; showing us how, in his teenage days, the kid played on John Coltrane's Blue Train and later, even gave Dizzy Gillespie a run for his money during live performances. Through striking black-and-white still photos and rare archival footage, we are able to see Lee fully in his element; sweating, smiling, and flying through complex solos while wearing dapper suits. His contributions to the famous Blue Note record label, particularly his work with Art Blakey and the Messengers is highlighted, as is his crippling heroin addiction. However, the real crux of the film, and its inevitable framing device, is an audio recorded interview with Lee's wife, Helen, who notoriously shot and killed her husband at Slugs nightclub in 1972. 

Helen's raw voice is often layered over the imagery to haunting effect, and it's a testament to Collin that he never casts her as a villain, but as something closer to a tragic figure. As the image of snowflakes falling slowly set to the sounds of Lee's gorgeous music reoccurs, I Called Him Morgan emerges with the idea that genius, addiction, jealousy, and love are often all intrinsically linked; riding on the wave of a hard bop solo. 

Music Pick of the Week


 

The Jesus and Mary Chain

Damage and Joy

Year of release: 2017


If 1985's Psychocandy set the standard for fuzzed out (and bummed out) shoegaze with gorgeous melodies, then brothers Jim and William Reid spent the better half of the following decade trying to live up to their own hype machine. After 1998's misguided Munki, the duo parted ways, perhaps because the music scene they helped engender was going off in other directions. Now, in 2017, a reunion of shoegaze bands is all the rage; with recent output from the likes of My Bloody Valentine, Ride, and Slow Dive making the rounds.

Damage and Joy is the first record from the brothers in nearly two decades, and as such, sounds very much like a retreat into candy-coated nostalgia. This isn't necessarily a criticism, as The Jesus and Mary Chain seem to have plucked their back catalog for the right amount of noise-pop harmonies and fuzzy guitar work. The results are both lackadaisical and emotive, giving tales of lost love and quasi-political reflections the appropriate jolt of druggy haze. There aren't really any transcendent moments here; which makes sense given that the Williams brothers are now middle-aged, but this isn't a record lacking in insight or feeling either. For example, the album's centerpiece, “Los Feliz (Blues and Greens)", offers a winking ballad about the greatness of America, closer "Can't Stop the Rock" is a scathing indictment of the United Nations, and "Simian Split" gives its own reading on Kurt Cobain's death, complete with warbly sax and frantic drums.

Damage and Joy is a potent reminder that the kids still want their Scottish stoner ballads as long as it doesn't require more than a detached glance. More than simply aping retro nostalgia, The Jesus and Mary Chain have created a record which both feels right at home with their decades-old work while entertaining the possibility of getting off the couch, and that alone, is something of a miracle.

  

Symbiotic Recommends: 10 Albums

 

Pile

A Hairshirt of Purpose

Artist info here


Emotional

The Band

Artist info here


Juna

Marina Goes To Moon

Artist info here


The Physics House Band

Mercury Fountain

Artist info here


Daymé Arocena

Cubafonia

Artist info here


Public Service

Demo

Artist info here


Oddisee

The Iceberg

Artist info here


Aye Nako

Silver Haze

Artist info here


Cameron Graves

Planetary Prince

Artist info here

 


The Spirit of the Beehive

Pleasure Suck

Artist info

 

I, Olga Hepnarova

Cast: Michalina Olszanska Martin Pechlát, Klára Melísková, Marika Soposká, Juraj Nvota

Director: Petr Kazda, Tomás Weinreb

Running time: 1 hour 44 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


Films about dead-eyed sociopaths are part and parcel of our cinematic legacy; with Kiss of Death, Psycho, Funny Games, and We Need To Talk About Kevin being just a few notable examples. Directors Petr Kazda and Tomás Weinreb's I, Olga Hepnarova focus on their own particular sociopath (portrayed by Michalina Olszanska) with a steady meticulousness which reinforces the film's bleak worldview.

A biopic shot in pristine black-and-white with the type of minimalist compositions so prevalent in Eastern European cinema, I, Olga Hepnarova seems at first to be yet another purposefully aloof deconstruction of a psychologically damaged soul. However, through Olszanska's remarkable performance (slouched posture, deadpan line deliveries, copious amounts of "cool" smoking) and an emphasis on how social constructs pervert self-worth, the film emerges as a deft exploration of youthful narcissism.

Though there are hints of a traumatic past and at least one instance of vicious bullying, the narrative trajectory from disaffected teen to adult sociopath capable of mass murder seems to stem mostly from a sense of helplessness masked by hubris. Drifting from scenes of Olga working menial jobs, seeking medical assistance, and engaging in various sexual trysts with random women, I, Olga Hepnarova may play for some as misery porn sans context. Looking past the surface, however, reveals a film displaying a nimble tonal mixture of provocation and understatement. Is this an examination of humanity's capacity for evil? A victim narrative tracking a social pariah forced into malevolence? An observation of what happens when unchecked egoism becomes indistinguishable from neurosis?

If Kazda and Weinreb remain coy about exactly how they view Olga's actions, then much of our interpretation of the character comes down to Olzanka's very specific, troubling portrait. As an aimless young woman with an ideological viewpoint disconnected from reality, there's an inherent problem of empathy that Olzanka somehow makes tangible simply through her physical presence and distinct way of speaking. It's a performance which begins as an arch representation of powerlessness (slumped shoulders, exaggerated walk) before eventually morphing into something much more defined and monstrous. By the end, we feel as if we understand how a person like this could arrive at such a place, even as the nature of the crimes remain unfathomable.

I, Olga Hepnarova derives much of it's intrigue by focusing on a central figure who may have suffered, most likely is plagued by mental illness, has at least some capacity for human connection, and has a vengeful philosophy which contradicts rationality. By presenting such a thoroughly complicated protagonist and never offering up trite explanations for her actions, the film's final moments of moral complication land with an anguished sense of power. The scariest thing is that Olga could be any of us; just a disaffected kid wandering about, washing cars, drinking beers, smoking, and plotting the next sociopathic move.

 

The Blackcoat's Daughter

 

Cast: Kiernan Shipka, Lucy Boyton, Emma Roberts, James Remar, Lauren Holly

Director: Oz Perkins

Running time: 1 hour 33 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


Writer-director Oz Perkins shows genuine talent for tingling the spine with The Blackcoat's Daughter, another entry in the growing trend of "slow-burn" arthouse horror pictures which prizes the aesthetic pleasure of stillness over amped-up shock tactics. In that sense, the film echoes David Robert Mitchell's It Follows and David Egger's The Witch in that it's more concerned with texture and mood than narrative coherency or standard scares. Familiar plotting regarding Satanic presences and thinly sketched characters are more or less avenues for Perkins to play with off-kilter sound design, askew camera angles, and the use of disquieting silence in order to ratchet up a sense of menace. To that end, the film is ultimately hamstrung by it's overly portentous atmosphere, purposefully stilted performances, and attempts at David Lynch-style surrealism. It's almost as if Perkins is so confident in his ability to conjure an unnerving mood from what may happen that when things finally do happen, whatever intrigue had been gaining momentum is sucked out of the room like a hovering phantom. Getting to that point, though, is where the film works best.

Early on, we are introduced to Kat (Kiernan Shipka), a young student at an all-girls boarding school who spends most of her time in a near catatonic state. Eventually, she fixates on an older student named Rose (Lucy Boynton), who flaunts her independence by applying eye shadow and riding off in cars with boys. Beyond her stoic demeanor and creepy half-smile, there are also dark inclinations in Kat's past involving estranged parents, but things really get weird once Rose glimpses her in the school's furnace room bowing down to some unseen force, flames illuminating the small space like an occult seance. There's also a third character, Joan (Emma Roberts), an 18-year-old runaway who joins up with a traveling couple (James Remar and Lauren Holly) who take to the introverted girl in small part because she reminds them of their deceased daughter. 

In it's grim determination to mine dread out of nothing, The Blackcoat's Daughter is reminiscent of the works of Denis Villeneuve; particularly Enemy, the Jake Gyllenhaal doppelganger mind-fuck which placed the heavy lifting on maintaining a portentous vibe at the service of a thin story. Perkins is clever enough to realize that the most effective horror films emphasize the creeping sensation that something sinister is lurking just out of frame, and his use of minimalist compositions and slow panning shots across the Gothic corridors of the girls school is impressive from a technical standpoint. However, like Enemy, The Blackcoat's Daughter uses its human characters as props to be shuffled around within a fractured narrative. Shipka, Boynton, and Roberts all give effectively muted performances, but there isn't much here in the way of psychological depth or emotional nuance. While the arch line deliveries and stoic glances are initially intriguing, they become laughably single-minded as the running time wears on.

The film as a whole is also single-minded; tonally modulating between hushed silence and atonal sound cues before dovetailing into grisly violence in the third act. This plunge into sadism is expected (this is a horror picture, after all), and clearly, Perkins has done his familial duty by watching Psycho more than once, but the effect of the violence is numbing rather than shocking because there is no connection emotionally to the characters. There are only so many Mulholland Drive-esque scenes where characters speak in purposefully stilted tones or stare blankly at walls while the camera slowly pushes in before the effect verges on silliness. The idea of something inexplicably evil looming nearby is an admirable starting point, but The Blackcoat's Daughter takes this notion as its dominate driving force, leaving us with an artfully contrived vision of terror rather than true terror itself. 

 

 

Movie Pick of the Week


 

Nakom

Director: Kelly Daniela Norris, T.W. Pittman

Year of release: 2017

Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes


The old world at a crossroads with the new-world is at the heart of Kelly Daniela Norris and T.W. Pittman's wonderfully naturalistic Nakom, the first film to be shot in the Kusaal language. Centering on an aspiring doctor, Iddrisu (Jacob Ayanaba) returning to his home village after his father's death, the film is keenly aware of how familial obligations and tradition can clash with one's ability to move forward and embrace technological evolution.

Utilizing spare tracking shots and wide compositions which take in the primitive lifestyle of the villagers, Norris and Pittman focus on Iddrisu's internal conflict of staying true to his roots while harboring larger ambitions in a way which feels intrinsically linked to this specific milieu. Ayanaba, meanwhile, is a sympathetic presence throughout, modulating his performance between charismatic chief-like figure to his family with that of a tortured soul longing to rejoin the new-world, with it's busy highways and medical schools.

Unlike a lot of films set in Africa made by outsiders, Nakom doesn't feel as if it's pushing a certain ideological viewpoint. Instead, there's a relaxed atmosphere to the proceedings which allows the film to come across largely plotless and concerned more with naturalism than narrative urgency. Even a late incident involving a childbirth could have played as a melodramatic device, but it's depicted here with the same kind of restraint as the scenes where Iddrisu and fellow villagers simply work the fields or share meals. Immersive, low-key, and capturing its setting with authenticity, Nakom may be a quiet film, but it's message about tradition vs. progress speaks in a language that's powerfully universal.

Music Pick of the Week


Grave Lake

EP

Year of release: 2016


After the premature disillusion of Sacramento, Ca outfit Darling Chemicalia; who, by the way, encapsulated the kind of dark melodic rock n' roll we so desperately need these days, there was a possibility that vocalist/guitarist/mastermind Ian Bone might go back to the lo-fi bedroom pop of his 2009 solo effort Ghost Sketch. However, collaborating with drummer Justin Gonzales, guitarist Andrew Henderson, and keyboardist/vocalist Stephine Bone seemed to encourage a push outward into a more dynamic sound rather than a retreat inward. Though Darling Chemicalia dabbled in drone, shoegaze, and 90's-tinged alt rock, they were at heart a pop band. Of course, their take on pop music was decidedly unnerving; with lo-fi production, wailing vocals, and heavy reverb carrying the day, but if one was truly willing to listen, catchy hooks and pop-oriented melodies were bubbling just underneath the distorted surface.

Now, Ian Bone has reteamed with Gonzales and Henderson under the Grave Lake moniker for a 5-song EP which initially positions itself as a post-Chemicalia project, but in actuality, diverges from the former band in a few significant ways. For one thing, the new outfit have done away with the Swans-inspired dirges and atmospheric interludes of Chemicalia in lieu of going right for the uptempo jugular. For another, there's a lightness of touch to the songwriting here, even as the lyrical concerns still tilt toward the macabre, which gives the tunes a harmonious quality. Tracks like opener "Traneberg Bridge", with it's wall of noisy feedback bursting into a skittering drumbeat, shimmering guitar arpeggios, and Bone's high-pitched vocals, is a good indication of the sonic onslaught which will follow. There's also sing-along post-punk ("Mantra"), lurching alt-rock ("Haunt"), driving melodicism with warbly vocals ("Woven"), and best of all, explosive guitar soloing and shrieked repetitive choruses ("Seer"). 

Additionally, superb production by Andy Morin (of Death Grips fame), deftly gives Bone's unique singing higher presence in the mix (as opposed to Chemicalia's burying of vocals under reverb), while also allowing space for Gonzales and Henderson to create dynamic performances of their own. Henderson in particular shines here, layering melodic riffs and sugary guitar lines in a manner not dissimilar to his work with now defunct Sacto post-punkers G. Green. The results are a brief but rewarding collection of songs which speaks to Grave Lake's strengths at conjuring their own version of noisily contorted pop music.

The Criterion Corner


Black Girl

Director: Ousmane Sembène

Year of release: 1966

Running time: 1 hour

Welcome to THE CRITERION CORNER, a recurring segment in which a film in The Criterion Collection, known for standardizing the letterbox format for widescreen movies and extra bonus features, is highlighted. The picture up for discussion this time is Ousmane Sembène's 1966 anti-colonialist picture, Black Girl.


African filmmaker Ousmane Sembène's Black Girl is a harrowing examination of so-called "decolonization" during the late 1960s, but it's also anti-polemical in that a harsh reality is simply presented without the need for the filmmaker to trot out a victim narrative. All of the characters here; including the callous yet oblivious middle class French housewife and her hangdog husband, are byproducts of France/African imperialism which has given way to a certain perspective. Of course, this perspective is skewered by socioeconomic entitlement which blankets over another form of slavery and appropriation, but Sembène doesn't demonize the white characters. They are clueless and unsympathetic to be sure, but the film's real interest is in the gradual dehumanization of it's central black figure, Diouna (Mbissine Thérèse Diop), a maid who travels from Africa to France in search of a more glamorous life.

At 60 minutes, Black Girl would seem to skimp on a detailed narrative, but Sembène employs an elliptical style; with very little synchronous sound, Senegalese music cues, and voice over set against scenes where Diouna tediously cleans the house and cooks meals. This technique integrates the audience into this world, allowing us to feel the repetitiveness of Diouna's actions, as well as her growing disdain for the casual racism of her white employers, who treat her either like an indentured servant or a foreign object to be gawked at. In one particularly revealing scene, Diouna is kissed on the cheek by an elderly white man during a dinner party because of his uncomfortable fondness for her otherworldly appearance. Moments like these are disturbing because they illustrate a complete lack of self-awareness, and the polite nature of such bigotry is endemic of an entire system poisoned from the inside out. Tragically, despite Diouna's efforts to fight against this form of oppression, her spirit ultimately breaks under the burden of her "otherness."

What's most remarkable about Black Girl is that it's told entirely from the perspective of a black woman. Mbissine Thérèse Diop's expressive, nonverbal performance is subtle and gracious, and the way she uses her posture to evoke emotion is strikingly pared with stream of consciousness voice over narration. There's also a bit of the French New Wave in Sembène's approach here; with jagged editing cross-cutting between hauntingly realistic black-and-white cinematography, but it's the unrelenting focus on one woman's journey of dehumanization which lingers most. During the powerful final scenes, where the middle class French husband travels to Africa in order to make amends through economic means, the visage of a young child stalking him covered in a tribal face mask, seems to suggest the ghosts of all the disenfranchised and oppressed will never be appeased by the lie of decolonization. Hopefully, a film like Black Girl, newly restored and given the full Criterion Collection treatment, will give such ghosts a startlingly new voice.    

 

 

Pillorian

 

Obsidian Arc

7

Living in a post-Agalloch world

by Jericho Cerrona


Forged from the ashes of black metal stalwarts Agalloch's recent demise, (a dissolution, by the way, stemming from intergroup conflict), Pillorian is a band who seeks to usher in the apocalypse by eschewing that former band's more ambient neo-folk tendencies and getting right to the heavy. Honestly, Agalloch vocalist/guitarist John Haughm took to propping himself up as the sole genius behind his band's grandiose mixture of layered riffs, shrieking vocals, and folksy post-rock textures, and subsequently, watched the entire enterprise collapse under the weight of sheer ego. 

At once familiar to fans of Agalloch as well as a shift away from some of the more progressive metal signifiers, Obsidian Arc fully commits to Haughm's method of fast-picking tremolos and full-throated vocals. The results are an album which, aside from a spare acoustic intro and outro on "By the Light of a Black Sun", sees Haughm, drummer Trevor Matthews, and guitarist Stephen Parker forging ahead with symphonic intensity. On tracks like "Archean Divinity", which begins as a doom-laden series of escalating riffs and thunderous drumming before exploding into blast beats and demonic vocal shrieks, and the ferocious Scandinavian-tinged black metal ripper "A Stygian Pyre", Pillorian simply lay down the sonic gauntlet. There's even a brief ambient guitar solo near the end of the latter song which speaks to the band's desire to overlay heaviness with moments of atmospheric texture.

Obsidian Arc will inevitably be linked to Agalloch's past work and by extension, will suffer from such comparisons. Whereas records like 2010's Marrow of the Spirit and 2014's The Serpent & The Sphere are both unqualified triumphs, Haughm's latest effort doesn't have the expectation-defying shifts in tone which caused such controversy in the notoriously strict community of black metal enthusiasts. If Agalloch opened up the parameters of what could be allowed within the genre; (bands like Krallice and Falls of Rauros have openly benefited from their success), then there was an expectation that Pillorian would perhaps further reinvent the wheel in some respects. This is an unfair assessment, of course, but still a natural reaction given Haughm's central involvement, and the foreboding slow build of dread and obsession with nature and rebirth have been replaced here with more streamlined breakneck shredding. There are isolated moments, such as the proggy ambient guitar tones on "The Sentient Arcanum" and the drone of closer "Dark is the River of Man", where Pillorian come close to approximating a more nuanced mode of instrumentation. However, the majority of Obsidian Arc, no matter how skillfully executed, stays in one or two modes of dark/black metal onslaught.

Still, Pillorian's ability to change tempo, shift melodies, and throw in some blood-curdling screams with gargantuan hooks, are on full display throughout. Haughm's self-proclaimed status as a "visionary" may have been at least partially unfounded, glossing over the indispensable contributions of his former bandmates in order to elevate his own cult, but his presence is nevertheless all over Obsidian Arc. If this slightly different, though familiar, direction with a new band feels a bit more rushed (both in terms of the relentless driving force of the songs as well as the opaque conceptual framework of the album as a whole), then it's probably because Haughm felt pressured to conjure classic black metal melodies rather than noodling with ebb and flow. Whatever the case, Obsidian Arc marks a debut of considerable power and pummeling force, only hiding briefly behind Agalloch's formidable shadow before stepping out into the light for some sonorous riffs and crushing doom.