mother!

 

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Michele Pfeiffer, Ed Harris, Brian Gleeson, Domhnall Gleeson

Director: Darren Aronofsky

Running time: 2 hours

by Jericho Cerrona

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Sometimes, gifted artists become enamored by their own creations. Sometimes, they dispense faux-modesty while harboring delusions of grandeur. Sometimes, they create from their gut instinct with a mixture of sweat, panic, and hemorrhaging blood. Such artists buy into a self-mythology (encouraged by a throng of worshipful fans) predicated on the notion that whatever comes spilling out of their heads should be admired simply for existing. A filmmaker like Darren Aronofsky, who is no stranger to extreme characters whose drive for perfection leads them toward madness, seems keenly aware of the messianic artist exercising the creation/destruction model. So much so, that he's baked that theme into his latest gonzo chamber drama Mother!, along with overt religious symbolism, creaky horror tropes, ecological themes, and trendy sociopolitical allusions. The results are simultaneously oppressive, repetitive, goofy, and singular. There's no doubt Aronofsky is straining for the kind of polarizing, WTF sensibility that's inspired legions of admirers to hold up films like Pi and Requiem for a Dream as personal favorites, but this time, he's bought into his own self-mythology in a way which blocks out the audience altogether.

Whereas in the past, Aronofsky has couched his penchant for symbolism and surrealism within the realm of actual characters operating in the real world (The Fountain and Noah are notable exceptions), here he's working independently in the mode of allegory. Jennifer Lawrence plays the titular "mother", while Javier Bardem is the ineffectual poet husband (listed only as "Him" in the credits). They live in an old Victorian home in the middle of nowhere. He's the sulking artist trying to recapture some of his former glory struggling with writer's block. She's the subservient muse, quietly encouraging her husband while dutifully going about remodeling the entire home. Meanwhile, the walls groan, creak, and yes, hemorrhage blood as the lady of the house stops to telepathically communicate with the beating heart hidden deep within the rot-infested structure. If all of this doesn't sound bizarre enough, two strangers emerge in the form of a doctor and his wife (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer, respectively) who barge into the couple's home and upend their seemingly idyllic living space.

For the first two-thirds, Mother! plays as a kind of Roman Polanski-esque chamber drama with tinges of psychological horror. Is Lawrence an unreliable narrator (much like the protagonist in Pi, Natalie Portman's obsessive dancer in Black Swan, or any number of characters from Requiem For A Dream), or is there something more overtly supernatural afoot here? Aided by regular cinematographer Matthew Libatique, Aronofsky keeps his camera tight and hand-held, shooting from Lawrence's increasingly bewildered wife's perspective. As Harris and Pfeiffer become more of a nuisance, the closeups become more restrictive; relegated to either point of view shots, over the shoulder angles, or quick whip pans. The horror elements come mainly in the form of purposefully heightened sound design (lots of abrupt noises, floorboard creaks, and garbled dialogue placed high in the mix), as well as the aforementioned visual imagery of the house as a living organism of some kind. The lack of a conventional score, too, creates a rigorous sense of claustrophobia which accentuates the odd behavioral choices of the characters.

During the film's early stretch, one gets the sense that Aronofsky's undeniable virtuoso filmic techniques may actually be informing the narrative, but this too, proves to be a cheat. Instead, what gradually becomes clear is that Aronofsky isn't interested in psychology, human behavior, or even creating a situation in which the audience's shock can be registered as meaningful. Instead, the film unravels--at first somewhat casually, then in a more unintentionally laughable way--even as Aronofsky makes it clear how diligently he paid attention during Old Testament class.

For all it's weirdness and willingness to buck convention, Mother! feels like a desperate experiment announcing itself as little more than a meta deconstruction of the artist's ego coupled with Biblical allegory. There's auteur worship, the way women pacify men's supposed genius by playing the muse, the destructive nature of fandom, the collapse of society, the fall of man, and yes, a Cain and Abel subplot complete with thudding Jesus metaphor. Which all begs the question; who cares to unravel such allusions when the human beings onscreen are simply chess pieces in Aronofsky's cosmic game of Paradise Lost? Lawrence certainly huffs, puffs, and hyperventilates onscreen admirably, but by design, she's playing an intentionally passive archetype. Bardem broods, sulks, and occasionally turns on the charm, but he also feels somewhat lost here; especially during the final stretch where Aronofsky cranks up the nightmarish visions of a civilization gone to hell. Only Harris and Pfeiffer seem to be enjoying themselves as the unwanted house guests, winking and vamping with real gusto. Their scenes are spiked with an almost Brian DePalma-tinged flair for camp, something Aronofsky seems generally afraid to follow through on tonally. Meanwhile, his clear affinity for Luis Buñuel's The Exterminating Angel--with the inherent absurdity of random strangers coming in and out of the house at will while acting very strangely--is only superficial, as Mother! never leans into the absurdist premise in order to unleash its satirical potential.

If Mother! is meant to be read as a pure pitch black comedy, then Aronofsky may indeed be a genius for so thoroughly throwing everyone off the scent. However, while he must be fully aware of the inherent silliness of his conceit, nothing in the film (or his back catalog) suggests that he's simply wanking off the audience. In interviews, he's suggested that the screenplay was born out of confusion related to natural disasters and human societal violence which kept him up at night, which leads one to infer that he wants us to take all of this nonsense seriously. Unfortunately, the film's meta elements of the God-like creator molding, shaping, and then destroying his muse for the sake of all humanity comes across like an unironic form of self flagellation; the case of no one in the room having the balls to tell the artist that not all ideas are good ideas. In reality, Mother! is akin to Bardem's supposed beautiful poem etched in a flurry of emotions after realizing he was to become a father--all sound and fury, signifying nothing.

 

 

  

It

 

Cast: Jaeden Lieberher, Bill Skarsgård, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Wyatt Oleff, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Nicholas Hamilton, Jackson Robert Scott

Director: Andrés Muschietti

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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There's a reason Stephen King's 1986 novel, It, has gained such iconic status among the annals of supernatural literature, and this isn't just because clowns are inherently terrifying. Over the decades, King has managed to tap into both subliminal and literal fears, setting many of his stories in the quaint epicenter of small town America. His novella The Body, which was later adapted into the 1986 film Stand By Me, and It, which saw light as a 1990 ABC miniseries, were both distillations of King's obsession with the loss of childhood. Much of his subsequent work has dealt with this idea that adults are the real boogeyman, and that as one grows up, their inability to regain their childhood innocence creates another kind of terror. One could argue that Stand By Me successfully extrapolated these themes into cinematic language, but aside from Tim Curry's iconic performance as Pennywise the clown, It the TV miniseries has not aged well. Now, director Andrés Muschietti has attempted to tackle King's over 1,000 page opus by truncating the book's larger thematic concerns and trotting out an R-rated romp in a somewhat cynical attempt at cashing in on the 80's nostalgia trend. The results are dutifully polished, but somehow unsurprising; barreling along like a haunted house fright-fest without bothering to connect scenes via tension-building, atmosphere, or discernible narrative momentum.

The film begins in 1988, when young Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) is sent out into a rainstorm by his older brother, Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) to float a paper boat down the street. Of course, poor little Georgie meets the sharp-toothed demonic clown, Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) and is dragged into the sewer, vanishing forever. Cut to one summer later, and we are introduced to a rag-tag group of kids (coined the "Loser's Club"), led by Bill, who jet around the small town of Derry, Maine on their bikes investigating the mysterious disappearances of local children. Laid out as a series of character types--the stutterer, foul-mouthed nerd, overweight new kid, lone spunky girl, etc--the young actors are fighting an uphill battle with a screenplay (written by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman) that positions them as little more than props for a pandering Amblin-style adventure tale. From the Gremlins bedroom poster, shots of local cinemas playing Lethal Weapon 2, and copious period-specific music cues, It seems more interested in transplanting the novels original 1950's setting to the 1980's in order to further pacify those yearning for tepid nostalgia ala Netflix's Stranger Things.

Of course, the primary draw for most will be the uncanny sight of Pennywise writ large on the big screen, but the interpretation here by Skarsgård is much too campy to truly terrify. Caked in Tim Burton-esque makeup, twirling his eyeballs, and vamping about, Pennywise isn't a projection of childhood fears, but rather, an over-designed product of studio horror movie propaganda. When he taunts the children by morphing into their specific fears--an undead zombie, blurred possessed painting, evil father, etc--the results feel like a product of CGI-enhanced mayhem rather than deep-seated terrors rising up to the surface. For his part, Muschietti shoots everything in a relatively clean style, evoking early Spielberg and Tobe Hooper's Poltergeist in terms of relentlessness pacing. However, the film lacks both the charm of those peak Spielberg adventure films as well as the creeping sense of dread which marks the best King adaptations like The Shining (which King famously despised). Instead, scenes ratchet up without warning; complete with the prerequisite clashing sound effects and strident strings on the soundtrack, and therefore, the film never really feels like it's heading towards a worthwhile destination. Worst of all, Muschietti takes one of the book's creepier lines, "We all float down here..." and pays it off visually, which completely runs against the disturbing nature of the whispered mantra echoing from within nightmarish sink drains.

It fully leans into maximalist horror imagery without stopping to assess just how childhood fear actually works. This is the picture's fundamental flaw. It mistakes loud noises, piercing sound design, and contrived friendship banter for the legitimate pain and helplessness of growing up. Only a few moments, particularly involving Sophia Lillis as the plucky female member and Jeremy Ray Taylor as the awkward new kid in town, ring true. Otherwise, the earnest cast mostly flounders, especially anything involving a roving gang of lame bullies who mercilessly pick on our heroes for no other reason that bullies in movies behave badly. One sequence where the bone-headed leader confronts his abusive police officer father is laughable, especially considering no time has been invested in exploring this relationship. Truthfully, the absence of adults (aside from a few cartoonish parents) is meant to signify the gap between childhood and adulthood, but the film handles this thread in clunky fashion.

The anxiety of growing up--the social foibles, puberty, distrust of adults, the disillusion of friendships--is a powerful way nostalgia can actually haunt us decades later. Pennywise is a phantasmagorical apparition of irrational fears made tantalizing by their proximity to our formative years. However, this latest cinematic incarnation of It loses sight of this resonance by amping up the oppressive set-pieces to the point where you are more likely to be scared into exhaustion than frightened by confronting the very real evil within yourself. 

 

 

 

Good Time

 

Cast: Robert Pattinson, Ben Safdie, Buddy Duress, Taliah Webster, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Barkhad Abdi, Peter Verby

Director: Joshua Safdie, Ben Safdie

Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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If a word comes to mind in regards to the work of directors Joshua and Ben Safdie, it's desperation, seeing as how their films are littered with characters hustling, scrambling, and urgently trying to survive in a society which either tosses them aside or disregards their existence altogether. From their jittery debut about a questionable part-time father, Daddy Longlegs, to the manic hyper-intensity of street addicts flailing about in Heaven Knows What, the Safdie's cinema is one of extreme desperation. Shooting in a loose, semi-realistic approach with handheld cameras, a mix of professional and non-actors, and an obvious love of the seedier aspects of New York City, the brothers have, in only four features, developed an idiosyncratic style all their own. Their latest riff on Scorsese's After Hours by way of 90s grunge neo-noir, Good Time, sees them entering straightforward genre territory while still retaining their distinct aesthetic.

The film opens with a scene taking place between a psychiatrist (Peter Verby), and Nick (Ben Safdie), a young man with a learning disability in which slurred utterances give way to tears just as Connie (Robert Pattinson) bursts into the room to upend the meeting. Nick and Connie are brothers, with the later believing the entire psychiatry angle is a crock as he pulls his sibling out of the situation in order to enlist his help with a bank heist. After their robbery meets a snag, Nick ends up in jail on Riker's Island, while Connie stealthily evades the police en route to coming up with a plan to procure his brother's bail money. What follows is a harrowingly kinetic thriller which rarely lets up; giving one the sense that characters reacting in flight or fight response to the flurry of drugs, cash, and poverty are hopeless in a way which blurs real-life socioeconomic concerns with the visceral pulse of genre filmmaking. 

As the low-rent criminal given to blending into different sketchy situations, Pattinson draws on his good looks and charm to create a character residing in a moral grey area. There's a scruffy bravado at play here in the way Connie turns on the charisma if the circumstances call for it, while at other moments, his amped-up intensity means he's likely to fly off the handle without warning. Whether it be extorting an older woman, Cory (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who seems infatuated with him, or weaseling his way into the apartment of Haitian grandmother, Annie (Gladys Mathon), and her teenage granddaughter, Chrystal (Taliah Webster), Connie is a deft manipulator of those either below or just at the poverty line. Though the film stops from time to time to allow quiet moments (such as Connie and Chrystal's initial sweet-natured rapport, which turns creepy on a dime), it's primary mode is one of near-constant movement. Aided immensely by composer Oneohtrix Point Never's throbbing electronic score (often played very loud in the sound mix), Good Time emerges as a nightmarish trip through the city's grimy underbelly, shot through neon-lit signs and darkened corridors by the gifted cinematographer Sean Prince Williams.

Once dim-witted fellow criminal Ray (Buddy Duress) shows up mid-way through, the film splinters off in unpredictable directions, upping the tension as the noose tightens further around Connie's neck. Throughout, the Safdie's make unorthodox decisions; such as a lengthy montage flashback detailing Ray's prior criminal behavior which led him to come in contact with Connie, and most strikingly, shooting the climatic chase on the street from a zoom lens atop a high-rise apartment building. Such directorial choices feel distinctive given that, at the end of the day, this is a fairly linear chase picture eschewing character development, backstory, and extended dialogue-heavy encounters.

There's a tragic undercurrent running through the pulsating veins of Good Time, but the Safdie's never push things into the realm of didacticism. Pattinson's wounded vulnerability, masked by freewheeling energy and swagger, suggests Connie has at least a measure of self-awareness. Despite his resourcefulness, Connie's innate desperation means that he comes to understand and accept the inevitability of his fate. This desperation, so consistently present in all of the Safdie's work, becomes a fulcrum in which to view the typical anti-hero narrative as a crutch, and ultimately lends an unexpected emotional power to the film's haunting final frames.

 

 

 

Symbiotic Recommends: 10 Albums

 
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Coca Leaf

Deep Marble Sunrise

artist info here


Broken Social Scene

Hug of Thunder

artist info here

 

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Dizzie Rascal

Raskit

artist info here


Moon Diagrams

Lifetime of Love

artist info here

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Ex Eye

Ex Eye

artist info here



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Palm

Shadow Expert

artist info here


A Giant Dog

Toy

artist info here

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Tera Melos

Trash Generator

artist info here


Oh Sees

Orc 

artist info here

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Tyler, The Creator

 

Flower Boy

8

Lazy summer soul-bearing with a dash of satire

by Jericho Cerrona

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26-year-old rapper/producer Tyler, The Creator is no stranger to controversy. In fact, he's built his brand on an ever escalating series of Internet-savvy trolls and pokes at PC culture. After the demise of blog-hyped rap collective Odd Future, Tyler went off on his own, disappearing into the netherworld of narcissistic meme wars, homophobic slurs, and bracing musical bravado. 2009 mixtape Bastard and 2011 followup Goblin now feel somewhat quaint in Trump's America; less transgressive than juvenile, more of a social media trigger warning for millennial snowflakes than an actual modus operandi from a young rapper with something to say.

Now, with Flower Boy, Tyler has supposedly "grown up" and made a mature record detailing a new found social consciousness, earnest stab at vulnerability, and the most attention-grabbing headline: his apparent identification as a gay black man. When word initially leaked that Tyler was coming out on his latest album, the response on social media was predictably polarized. Some praised him for his bravery, but most simply thought it was another way to stir up a reaction. Let's not forget, Odd Future made shockwaves years ago with homophobia and rape lyrics, and as a solo artist, Tyler has more or less continued waving that flag. There's a tension throughout Flower Boy--on the one hand, it's the least vile and most seemingly genuine thing Tyler has done yet, while on the other--there's a sneaking suspicion that underneath the left-field production and gravely voice, he's pulling yet another mean-spirited joke. Such is the pitfalls for any young artist known for provocation and controversy; it's hard to tell sincerity from satire.

Knowing what we know of Tyler (on and off stage) will undoubtably color one's reaction to Flower Boy. However, taken on its own merits, this is a beautifully arranged, surprisingly meditative hip-hop record. Unpacking Tyler's lyrical preoccupations is another matter, and determining whether or not he's actually being sincere or simply adopting a persona is instructive, but not necessarily essential. Can someone largely known for hate speech be forgiven? Does Tyler even want forgiveness? Are his pleas for connection and lovestruck longing for a male suitor (referenced here as "95 Leo") to be taken seriously, or has the anti-comedy mold of misogyny and vitriolic hate merely grown into something more outwardly acceptable? 

As an album, Flower Boy doesn't exactly answer these questions, and it's probably not meant to. Instead, Tyler lets us into his headspace through the power of verse and production. On "Foreword", he nods towards the Black Lives Matter Movement while simultaneously using the platform as a way of addressing his sexual orientation. Shoutout to the girls that I lead on/For occasional head and always keeping my bed warm/And trying they hardest to keep my head on straight/And keeping me up enough till I had thought I was airborne. Whether this is an apology for his previous homophobic preoccupations or simply a plea for understanding is debatable, but it's nonetheless a shocking opening salvo from someone known mostly for dick measuring contests and faux-braggadocio. The sensitivity training continues with cuts like "See You Again", which sounds like N.E.R.D. crossed with a sultry R & B jam, the synth-driven lovestruck ballad "Garden Shed", and "Glitter", which sees Tyler leaving infatuated voicemails for his elusive male crush. Throughout, the incorporation of funky beats, wonky keyboard flourishes, auto-shifting vocals, and Neptunes-inspired soundscapes keeps things floating in the realm of pleasurable awe. Of course, there are appropriately savage tracks here too that we've come to expect, such as "Who Dat Boy", which opens with creepy violin strings and off-kilter synths like something of a Darren Aronofsky film before exploding into an all-out rant, and the bong-ripped slow banger, "Pothole."

Those expecting a standard rap album will most likely be disappointed by Flower Boy. Tyler seems more interested in jazzy interludes, old school R & B, and progressive elements than typical verse/chorus/verse flows with club-ready beats, but this makes the record much more satisfying. 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. Here, there's a rigor and clarity that hints at progression and maturity, even if it's still too early to unequivocally state that Tyler has officially grown up. In a way, Flower Boy is a deconstruction of public persona as well as a radical attempt to understand how much private longings should be made public. Behind all of the controversial verses, pitch black horror imagery, and ego-stroking seems to be a forward-thinking artist interested in both aggression and tenderness. Guest spots from the likes of Pharrell, Frank Ocean, Corinne Bailey Rae, Estelle, and others also point to this fact, as if he hopes to redefine himself as the spiritual funk/soul grandson of Quincy Jones.

Has the detached, homicidal observer transformed into the open-hearted "loneliest man alive" or has great effort simply been spent creating another post-modern troll on listeners who have grown accustom to knowing everything about their idols via social media? Part of the fascination with Tyler is our inability to get a firm read on him. As such, Flower Boy is either a daring Andy Kaufman-esque con, or the evolution of the artist in full bloom, and honestly, does it really even matter?

 

 

 

Ingrid Goes West

 

Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Elizabeth Olsen, O'Shea Jackson Jr., Wyatt Russell, Billy Magnussen

Director: Matt Spicer

Running time: 1 hour 37 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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The opening shot of Matt Spicer's debut feature, Ingrid Goes West, is telling. A woman sits in her car, face smeared with makeup, tears, and vengeful spite as she frantically scrolls through her iPhone "favoring" various Instagram photos of what looks to be a lovely wedding. The woman in question is Ingrid (Aubrey Plaza) and the act of violence that follows is indicative of her psychological and emotional state as well as the tone Spicer will be attempting to modulate. The moment where she maces the beautiful bride, calls her an awful name, and is eventually tackled by a guest, is both wryly funny and unnerving. As a film, Ingrid Goes West also has one finger on the rib cage and the other on the constant scroll of social media obsession.

This incident, we learn, isn't exactly isolated. After the death of her mother, Ingrid inherited $60,000 and without any discernible friends or responsibilities, sought fulfillment through her fixation on Instagram celebrities. The bride was one such "friend", while another comes in the form of Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen), a Southern California entrepreneur and social media personality whose fashion-forward, aesthetically pleasing Instagram posts draw Ingrid in like a moth to the flame. As a coping mechanism for grief and loneliness, the promise of widespread connection via the Internet is unquestionably tantalizing, and the early scenes in Ingrid Goes West exploits the dichotomy of finding community alone through the flicker of brightly-lit screens. With a jaunty score, deft editing, and Plaza's uncanny ability to wring emotional truth out of Ingrid's suffocating isolation, Spicer's film initially seems like a playful satire on the vapidness of this kind of facile culture. The truth, however, is much more interesting and ultimately cunning, as the picture moves from winking deconstruction into the realm of neo-noir psychosis; eventually landing somewhere closer to a heartfelt examination of our global need for intimacy.

As Ingrid heads for Venice Beach in search of her #blessed online bff, there's the sense that her search will end in extreme disappointment, or worse yet, a trip back the mental ward. Moving into an apartment near Taylor's pad (where she lives with her dog and hipster artist husband), Ingrid's lone acquaintance seems to be her landlord, Dan (O'Shea Jackson Jr.), who comes to visit with vape pen and "screenwriter for hire" business cards in hand. In one of the film's lazier bits of writing, Dan is posited as a lovable nerd obsessed with Batman who dreams of writing the next major movement in the Caped Crusader's cinematic canon. Despite this annoying character quirk, Jackson Jr. makes the character work through sheer charisma and laid back charm alone. His scenes with Plaza, who initially wants nothing to do with his company, are keenly played for comedic effect and genuine pathos by both performers.

Even though 90's female-fronted revenge noir vehicles like Single White Female are evoked throughout (there's even a line of dialogue drawing that specific connection), Ingrid Goes West is a film aimed squarely at millennials who are on the one hand, too cool for social media conventions, while on the other, liberally indulging in them. As Ingrid begins copying Taylor's favorite things; coffee shops, clothes, restaurants, hairdresser, etc, the inevitable meeting of the two women seems poised for disaster. Surprisingly, Spicer chooses to not only humanize Taylor, but also draw the mismatched pair into a charged friendship, even if such a connection is based on very little pertaining to reality. Taylor is a shallow fraud, but also undeniably recognizable, and the bonding scenes between Olsen and Plaza are convincing insomuch as they direct us to the ways in which most connections formulate nowadays. Taylor's husband, Ezra (Wyatt Russell) is also a recognizable figure; the supposed high-minded artist who shoves his nose at the banal conventions of social media whoring, but whose art consists entirely of found objects with hashtags sprayed over them.

Ultimately, Ingrid Goes West stumbles slightly in its final third after Taylor's obnoxious brother, Nicky (Billy Magnussen) is introduced as a foil to the girl's budding friendship. Shirtless, coked up, and wearing tight shorts, Nicky is sadly also a recognizable character, but not in the ways the film would have you believe. Certainly, the sting of oblivious white privilege is intentional here, but Spicer simply uses Nicky as a plot device en route to a zany blackmailing plot, complete with a botched kidnapping. As the film dovetails into psychological madness, Ingrid herself goes off the rails in a way that feels contrived, if not for the sublime work of Plaza. Her acting here allows for one to reconsider past roles--those vacant-eyes, the sharp-tongued sarcasm, that closed off emotional component--are all brought to bear, but she also plunges headlong into the darker elements of her character in a way which feels revelatory.

Not even a rather trite ending, complete with a viral-tinged twist, can completely take away from a shrewd distillation of how we are living now. Instead of simply lampooning the time we waste staring into our phones, or wagging a finger at damn millennials, Spicer recognizes how these things are wholly imbedded into daily life. The trick is understanding that identity exists irrespective of social media traps, and that even someone like Ingrid can find relief in knowing that she can love and be loved, if only for a moment as the world keeps scrolling.

Maudie

 

Cast: Sally Hawkins, Ethan Hawke, Kari Matchett, Gabrielle Rose, Zachary Bennett, Billy MacLellan

Director:  Aisling Walsh

Running time: 1 hour 56 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Nova Scotian folk painter Maud Lewis was a real person. She lived, suffered debilitating arthritis, enjoyed painting cards and walls inside her humble home, slaved as a housemaid to an emotionally abusive fishmonger, Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke), and eventually died poor and destitute. The true story tagline here; a strong-willed woman fights against her crippling physical aliments, poverty, and loneliness in order to create art reflecting the world as she saw it, may have sounded good on paper, but in execution, Maudie traffics in erroneous signifiers. For one thing, director Aisling Walsh hits all the familiar narrative beats in constructing this idea that Maud, with her hunched posture and crooked smile, was a free-spirited artist, but the film refuses to confront the ugliness inherent at the heart of the story.

Truthfully, Maudie is a depressing examination of misogyny run amok; a case of the crotchety narcissist gradually coming to his senses and learning to care for the lovable disabled artist. As played by Sally Hawkins in a sensitive, fully committed performance, Maud is someone who always seems optimistic regardless of her circumstances. She takes all forms of passive-aggressive abuse as simply something pertaining to her lot in life, which includes being treated with indifference by her brother, Charles (Zachary Bennett) and aunt, Ida (Gabrielle Rose). Longing to move away from her stifling home life, she responds to an advertisement placed by Everett for a housekeeper, which leads her into yet another form of psychological torture. Things start changing when a urbane New Yorker, Sandra (Kari Matchett), takes notice of Maud's simple paintings strewn around the house and urges her to sell her art.

The problem with Maudie is both one of intent and familiarity. The screenplay by Sherry White abandons any hint of nuance that may have existed in the real-life story of how two damaged people find one another, instead rushing through predictable plot beats. There's the awkward initial meeting, the off-kilter romance, the ups and downs of Maud's artistic career, the couple's separation, and then their eventual reunion. For his part, Hawke mostly grunts and growls his way through the proceedings. Gravely miscast, with his boyish face and good-natured posture clashing with his character's gruff demeanor and cranky attitude, Hawke's chemistry with Hawkins is nearly nonexistent. It's like they are acting in two entirely different movies.

All of this, incidentally, is rendered by Walsh as an emotionally simplistic tale. The intention seems to be to paint Maud's suffering (both physically and psychologically) as a kind of "love conquers all" narrative, complete with the misanthropic suitor coming around and learning how to feel something. This kind of backwards thinking in terms of gender was surely present during the time, and as a filmmaker, Walsh has no business sugar coating such facts, but the film makes the fatal flaw of presenting Everett's misogyny as a kind of innocent character defect leading to an apparent change of heart. Instead of wrestling with it's uncomfortable subject matter, Maudie is a film desperate to be liked and admired. Maud's childlike pastorals evoking the Eastern Canadian landscapes are also given short shrift, only glimpsed in small doses instead of being the central focus. Maud's art, which helped her overcome extreme obstacles and rekindled her youthful spirit, should have contextualized her suffering and offered redemption. Instead. it's simply an extension of a dramatically inert story about the arthritic savant falling in love with a man too dim-witted and emotionally stunted to appreciate her. 

Logan Lucky

 

Cast: Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Riley Keough, Daniel Craig, Katie Holmes, Seth MacFarlane, Jack Quaid, Brian Gleeson, Katherine Waterston, Dwight Yoakam, Hilary Swank

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Running time: 2 hours

by Jericho Cerrona

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Writer-director Steven Soderbergh has a distinct knack for the "the hang out" movie genre, wherein theme and narrative is filtered through the prism of characterization and setting. With the Ocean series, there's the inherent thrill of planning and executing the perfect heist, but Soderbergh's real aim seemed to be simply getting a group of A-list actors together in order to preen and riff. Meanwhile, the true crime story The Informat! has the veneer of a biographical thriller, but instead plays out like an absurdist satire where we learn, rather uncomfortably, what it's like to be trapped inside the deranged mind of the central figure. Even his underrated 1995 crime noir The Underneath has a crafty heist plot, but Soderbergh inverts such tropes to offer a commentary on fragile male ego, wrapped in arty color schemes and fractured editing. Ultimately, his work is nearly always obsessed with milieu and character rather than standard narrative beats, and his latest post-retirement lark, Logan Lucky, is no exception.

Taking place in Boone County, West Virginia and following the dimwitted Logan brothers Jimmy and Clyde (Channing Tatum and Adam Driver, respectively), Logan Lucky is yet another Soderbergh romp which uses genre machinations in order to spend time with a very specific community. Jimmy is a former football star turned miner who, as the film opens, is laid off for having a limp, while Clyde is an Iraq war veteran working as a bartender who is constantly teased for having a mechanical hand. Jimmy has a hairdresser sister, Mellie (Riley Keough) and a stubborn ex-wife Bobbie Jo (Katie Holmes), but he's mostly interested in the big score. After a series of leisurely paced scenes introducing the various hillbilly characters populating Boone County, the brothers enlist notorious bank safe cracker Joe Bang (Daniel Craig, sporting bleached blonde hair and an appetite for hardboiled eggs) whom they bust out of prison, to pull a heist snatching cash from a vault buried in the Charlotte Motor Speedway. What follows is a breezy, absurd lark with affable performances and a genuine sense of place.

It's clear that Soderbergh and screenwriter Rebecca Blunt (an Allen Smithee-esque pseudonym) have genuine affection for these hick heist members, and rather lean into mean-spirited farce (the film is full of bad tattoos, fast cars, southern drawls, and beer-chugging American iconography), Logan Lucky actually makes a case that these are real people existing in a pocket of the country Hollywood usually mocks. The actual intricacies of the heist itself are ludicrous--cockroaches, car dealers, a discarded cake, prison riots, and combustible gummy bears make the rounds here--but Soderbergh's self-aware filmmaking craftsmanship and the mostly game cast means that the film never takes process too seriously, but instead, leans more firmly into personality as its selling point.

To this end, the film's two best performances come from Driver (channeling Tim Blake Nelson) as Clyde Logan and Keough as the hairdresser with a sharp tongue and knack for painting cockroaches. Meanwhile, Tatum's low-key charisma keeps us guessing as to just how smart or dumb Jimmy really is, but everyone onscreen is nearly upstaged by Craig who, perhaps as a response to recent James Bond malaise, is fully committed to his particular brand of hillbilly quirk as Joe Bang. It's an amusing bit of stunt casting and Craig certainly feels rejuvenated in the role, but his performance does verge into caricature at times. However, such antics are understated when compared to Seth MacFarlane's insufferable mugging as a Nascar energy drink buffoon. Adopting a loopy British accent and wearing a Jheri curl while engaging in bar fights, MacFarlane feels like he belongs on the cutting room floor of Talladega Nights, and that's obviously not a compliment.

In keeping with the Soderbergh's hang out vibe, Logan Lucky eventually unravels it's plot and sticks around in order to fill us in on where all the characters ended up post-heist. By the time Hilary Swank shows up as an F.B.I. investigator attempting to make sense of the fallout, the film seems to be stalling in order to further complicate the criminal's motives, but the results have the tinge of anti-climax. Either way, it's nice to have Soderbergh back (as if he even really went anywhere) and though it would have been nice to see him outside his comfort zone a bit, there's still something reassuring about watching him riff, southern style.

 

 

Movie Pick of the Week

 

Kuso

Director: Flying Lotus

Year of release: 2017

Running time: 1 hour 26 minutes

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How many conceivable bodily fluids can ooze, emanate, discharge, puss, and explode from the human (or non-human) body? Kuso, the Dadaist-inspired vision of drugged-out madness from musician/producer Flying Lotus (a.k.a. Steve Ellison), gives an answer to that question while also creating new ones. 

As a testament to the power of provoking the audience, this experiment works as a half-lucid mishmash of mixed media where Ellison and his creative team seemed to have spent most of their time bong-ripped while trying to outdo themselves in the shock value department. Make no mistake, this film (if it even is one) is beyond repulsive; a very sick joke which uses every gross-out gag in the book--deranged sex, shitting, farting, ejaculation, feces smearing, maggot-eating, blistering boils, Tim Heidecker emerging from a toilet--for a very specific aim. Whereas shock horror efforts like The Human Centipede wallow in depravity for its own sake, Ellison's obsessions are more absurdist and playful. Structured as four loosely connected vignettes concerning zombie-fied California residents surviving a catastrophic earthquake, Kuso is less concerned with narrative than with unspooling a low brow version of Pasolini's Salo as directed by Adult Swim alumni.

The Adult Swim angle here is apt (and not only because Heidecker of Tim and Eric's Awesome Show Great Job! shows up), but also because of the overall visual aesthetic, which combines paper collage-like interludes, stilted line deliveries, awkward freeze frames, VHS-level video quality, and gnarly practical effects. The results are a trigger warning movie that could only exist in our disposable Internet culture--disgusting, off-putting, undisciplined, at times very funny--like scrolling through hours of web junk only to find more lines to cross and further buttons to push. As free-association sophomoric splatter art, Kuso is definitely up to something. Hell, it may even inspire a very niche (and twisted) audience to follow Ellison down the rabbit hole of George Clinton's infested anus and then back again. Either way, this scatalogical 93-minute vision of post-apocalyptic nonsense is something.

Music Pick of the Week

 

Guided by Voices

How Do You Spell Heaven

Year of release: 2017

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At this point, it's foolish and entirely reductive to chart the dismantling and reformation of Dayton, Ohio lo-fi rock legends Guided by Voices' career. After getting the classic lineup back together in recent years, singer/songwriter Robert Pollard broke things off, reformed the group with new musicians, and continued touring. After two releases in 2016, GBV unleashed the 32-song monster August by Cake earlier this year, featuring Doug Gillard, guitarist Bobby Bare Jr., bassist Mark Shue, and drummer Kevin March. This type of thinking is in keeping with Pollard's insane prolific streak (a similar reformation occurred during the 90s), but there was still something disappointing about August by Cake. It felt too sprawling. Too expansive. Too in love with it's "on the road" touring excess. Now, with How Do You Spell Heaven, Pollard and company get back to what they do best; creating pleasurably crunchy, confident, and jangly rock n'roll.

On songs like "Paper Cutz" and "Diver Dan", Pollard sounds positively alive, swaggering his way through the kind of earworm melodies that have become GBV staples, whereas "King 007" surprises by beginning as a folk jam before erupting into a krautrock-inspired groove. There are other nice variations on the band's patented mold here too. For example, "How to Murder a Man (In 3 Acts)" starts slowly like rumbling dirge, goes into a wailing chant-filled series of drum fills, and then segues into an acoustic-churning outro. There's even an instrumental break in the form of "Pearly Gates Smoke Machine", which chugs along like Southern-tinged booze rock where one can imagine Pollard's drunken slurs poking out from under the bombast.

Ultimately, there's a clarity of expression to How Do You Spell Heaven which places it, at the very least, near the upper echelon of 2000s-era GBV. As a vocalist, Pollard sounds clearer and more coherent than ever. Musically, his new batch of musicians, while lacking the scrappy charm of the classic lineup, are able to convey the effortless glisten and melancholy that allows their individual talents to shine while still sounding very much in unison with Pollard's traditional sound. The results are strangely uplifting for someone who has spent decades with 100-plus releases under his belt making music simply because he wants to. Instead of being disinterested and burnt out, Pollard seems inspired to dream. Something is revealed, slashing at your arm/something you can feel, sounding the alarm, he sings on the 80s-sounding "Nothing Gets You Real", and after all of this time, we are inclined to lean forward, nod agreeably, and rock out.  

 

 

 

Arcade Fire

 

Everything Now

5

Society sucks, as does scolding from a band who should know better

by Jericho Cerrona


If there's a trajectory to the ever declining state of Western Civilization ( be it economical, political, artistic, psychological, whatever), then the post-Trump era seems to be the tipping point. At least, that's what indie rock icons Arcade Fire would have us all believe. To be fair, this regression into tyrannical anarchy isn't really anything new. Even taking a cursory glance at history reveals the cyclical nature of this decline--wars, political hypocrisy, racial unrest--that is part and parcel of humanity's narrative, American or otherwise. That said, there are few torchbearers less adept at handling what can be perceived as a slide into irony than Arcade Fire. This is a group of multi-instrumentalists who blew open the modern indie rock landscape with their effervescent 2004 debut, Funeral, and later distilled the notion of nostalgic small town Americana on Grammy-winning LP The Suburbs. Even when things got somber, like on their sophomore effort Neon Bible, there was grandstanding declarations of hope and renewal breaking through the hazy fog. For better or worse, being critical and commercial darlings of a certain kind of rock n'roll bombast meant that when the perceived universe went to shit in 2017, there were expectations that somehow, Arcade Fire would offer some form of relief.

Instead, the group's fifth studio album Everything Now, represents a marked shift away from the kind of optimistic joy (mixed with darkness) they've been dabbling in for over a decade. Like their previous record, 2013's sprawling new wave/disco-influenced Reflektor, stripping away the earnest stadium-ready sound of the past and moving onto strobe-lit dance floors feels like a stark reaction to public perception. Accusations of pretentiousness and U2-level Messiah complexes (particularly when it came to singer Win Butler) have been leveled at the band for years, but up until now, Arcade Fire have been able to back up their oversized ambitions with legitimate songwriting. Everything Now trades in the guitars for synthesizers, millennial uplift for Trump-era cynicism, and coherent tunes for egomaniacal finger-pointing. This attempt to "lighten up" and make a dance record about the inherent fakeness of our content-binge culture isn't a terrible idea on it's face. It's simply that irony doesn't suit a band like Arcade Fire, who have spent so much time masquerading as sacred purveyors of life, love, and other hippie mantras.

More galling than the PR campaign behind the release of the album-- a "fake news" blog, ridiculous costumes, Fidget Spinners, Ritalin cereal, a bogus negative review of the upcoming record--is the actual music on display. It would be one thing for Arcade Fire to chastise it's audience by holding up a mirror to the ways in which we are stuck inside a feedback loop of screen-based distractions by actually saying something meaningful, or at the very least, clever. Instead, Everything Now is just as vapid and trite as what it's criticizing. Part of what has made Arcade Fire such a powerful force has been the purity of their vision. Even if you found their grandiose sentiments dopey, their earnestness was never in question. They meant well. They aspired to huge things. They may have come across pretentious and downright silly, but the strength of their convictions were matched by soaring harmonies, layered instrumentation, and Butler's commanding wail.

Everything Now has none of the band's previous purity of vision. There's a song called "Peter Pan" where Butler literally (and rather creepily) intones Be my Wendy/ I'll be your Peter Pan over a half-baked dub beat. "Chemistry" is a horn-fueled failure on every level, an embarrassing attempt at 80's kitsch whose chorus, You and Me/ We Got Chemistry/ Baby You and Me is probably the worst songwriting of the band's career. "Signs of Life" sounds like Saturday Night Fever filtered through LCD Soundsystem, with a throbbing bassline and upbeat tempo. However, lame declarations like Looking for signs of life / Looking for signs every night / But there’s no signs of life indicates that Arcade Fire find no real pleasure in partying the night away. It's all meaningless. Vapid. Finite. Sure, that makes sense, but then what's the point in concocting such a danceable slice of 70s-cribbed disco? Ditto for "Electric Blue", a David Bowie homage which asks Regine Chassagne to reach a falsetto that she just simply can't hit. The results are both pleasurable (the track has a competent synth-pop groove) and aggravating, with Chassagne's alien-like vocals reaching new levels of ear scrapping annoyance. Elsewhere, on the electro-tinged "Creature Comfort", the band attempt to lambaste fame and vanity by applying a narrative concerning a girl who nearly kills herself inside a bathtub. She told me she came so close / Filled up the bathtub and put on our first record / Saying God, make me famous / If you can’t just make it painless. Of course, the first record in question is Funeral, and of course, the patronizing attitude Arcade Fire take towards this young fan (whether the story is true or not is irrelevant) verges on narcissistic obliviousness.

Everything Now does contain a few fleeting glimpses of Arcade Fire's strengths. "Put Your Money On Me" has a rhythmical sense of building momentum, with layered production and an ABBA-esque vocal refrain. "We Don't Deserve Love" is a somber meditation on giving up during our trying times, with a simple fuzzed-out synth and Butler's earnest falsetto giving way to a rather beautiful chorus of overlapping chants. During these moments, the band hint at the less superficial, more honest record that could have been. Ultimately, the most disappointing thing about Everything Now, beyond the limp songwriting, is the condescending attitude it adopts masked as winking satire. Lyrically insipid, conceptually trite, and musically uneven is the order of the day here, and try as they might, Arcade Fire cannot convince us that this is all somehow the point. The soulless cynicism the group seem to be parodying (hence the marketing rollout) is the very thing that ultimately derails their artistic statement. In other words, if you are going to create art scolding us about the dangers of our modern media landscape, then, well, just make it painless.

Shabazz Palaces

 

Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines/ Born On A Gangster Star

7

The state of hip-hop, as seen from the cosmos

by Jericho Cerrona


Getting a proper handle on Seattle duo Shabazz Palaces remains a futile enterprise. When their debut Black Up materialized out of the Internet ether in 2011, it signaled the reemergence of a brand of abstract hip-hop most closely aligned to artists like Flying Lotus, Madlib, and MF DOOM. Featuring the talents of Ishmael Butler (a.k.a. Palaceer Lazaro, formerly of jazz rap unit Digable Planets), and multi-instrumentalist Tendai "Baba" Maraire, the duo occupied a niche within the hip-hop community prizing sonic experimentation and bizarre thematic concerns over recycled club bangers. 2014's Lese Majesty followed; a psychedelic free-jazz rap epic which bucked conventions and was even more lyrically obtuse than their debut. This has all lead to the simultaneously released Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines and Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star, which is like listening to an alien life form's diary entries while traveling through interstellar prog-rap portals. Or something. The brilliance of Shabazz Palaces has always been their ability to confound, obfuscate, and challenge the listener, and their latest madcap astral projection of contemporary America is no exception.

Narratively speaking, the two records are linked by Butler playing the role of Quazarz, a sentient being sent from some distant galaxy to patrol two dystopian parallel versions of America. The results are thrilling weird (as expected), but also connected to a familiar horror present in the modern day black experience. We post-language, baby, we talk with guns, Butler raps on "Welcome to Quazarz", a cogent reminder that this is no imagined dreamscape, but an actual reality. Elsewhere, on cuts like "Late Night Phone Calls", we are faced with the intangibility of human contact dispersed through post-Tinder language, while "Eel Dreams" reimagines our content-saturated existence as an electro-fueled series of hazy beats. Of the two records, Quazarz Vs. The Jealous Machines is the more accessible; with melodic song structures that poke at our reliance on digital technology. Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star is the much more abstract listen, but together the albums form a world-building paradigm which Shabazz Palaces milks for whatever specific or non-specific themes one wishes to pull from them. In a way, the duo are creating defiant art while trolling an audience that will likely overpraise or dismiss them for being "challenging" and "polarizing."

Like a lot of artists these days, Shabazz Palaces are obsessed with the idea of being slaves to a screen-based digital landscape where commercialization of content is king. Even Arcade Fire, those unhip indie rock stalwarts, have traded in the earnest bombast for cynical commentary on vain Instagram culture on their latest LP, Everything Now. However, unlike Arcade Fire, Butler and Maraire make no attempts at unlocking their labyrinthine conceptual framework. Instead, they drop bread crumbs (interstellar sex, mechanical computer parts, Frank Herbet allusions, political mumbo-jumbo) that can either be viewed as giving listeners interpretive power or simply blowing celestial moon dust up their asses. Of course, all of this is foregrounded by woozy, lo-fi instrumentals which rarely stick around long enough to land a sustainable groove. Even the more dance-heavy tracks, like "Fine Ass Hairdresser", stutters away it's initial beat-driven sound, while the thumping groove on "That's How City Life Goes" gives way to a herky jerky rhythm which stimulates the brain while leaving the hips in a constant state of flux. 

As a distillation of jazzy hip-hop in the Brainfeeder mold, Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines and Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star is a daring, if obtuse, project that nearly topples over into self-parody. What keeps everything from devolving into prog cosmos-spanning nonsense is Butler's keen ability to tie the high concept into something resembling life in the here and now. Police brutality, capitalism, and the ways in which rap music has been utilized as a diseased form of materialism are key themes. During "30-Clip Extension", Butler lets loose one of his more searing verses; Flossing in a peripheral sanity / chauvinist with feminine vanities / Puffing out his tattoo’d chest / towering his arrogance / Monetizing intelligence / all while narrowing our elegance / Parodying Our sufferance for a pittance like a pence penance / Some bitch shit so that’s your favorite rapper and he’s the best?  Crucially, he's mocking not only egotistical MCs, but also hip-hop culture at large, performed in a hushed flow that feels even more biting than if delivered as a hardcore rant.

Taken together, Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines and Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star at times feels more like an art installation piece rather than a coherent hip-hop album--heavy on science fiction, tech phobia, and skeletal drum loops--low on easily accessible song structures, but there's legitimate ambition here. Call it Afro-futurism, abstract sci-fi rap, whatever. Mostly, it sees Butler and company looking forward by reaching backward; whether that be through the prism of 90s hip-hop traditionalism or imaginary worlds as seen from distant planets.

 

A Ghost Story

 

Cast: Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara

Director: David Lowery

Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


Writer-director David Lowery is no auteur, no matter how many laughable long-takes and irritating slow pans he manages to squeeze into his latest film, A Ghost Story. Perhaps he grew impatient with incessant studio notes given to him during the production of his remake of Pete's Dragon, or simply mythologized the impact of his debut feature, the equally dull and ponderous Ain't Them Bodies Saints. Whatever the case, there's no excuse for putting audiences through the kind of self-serious nonsense masquerading as high art Lowery attempts here. Sure, maybe you've seen a few "Second New Wave" Taiwanese films, but let's not get carried away. Those with a keen understanding of foreign slow cinema will balk and chuckle throughout A Ghost Story, seeing it for the turkey that it truly is.

Along with cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo, Lowery does manage to conjure a few arresting images, but even the decision to shoot in the boxy 1.33:1 aspect ratio feels like a faux-arty gimmick rather than a natural extension of the story. What story, exactly, you ask? Well, the loose narrative centers around a couple, credited as "C" and "M" (Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara), who live in a Texas home, are seemingly in love (they argue a lot, which is supposed to signify a "complicated" relationship), and often hear mysterious sounds in the dead of night. When Affleck's mopey musician suddenly dies in a car accident, he's resurrected as your prototypical white sheet-wearing ghost with eyeholes cutout. From there, the film lurches ahead with the ghost returning to the Texas house to silently observe M's cycle of grief, which apparently manifests itself in a single shot pie-eating sequence. Yes, Rooney Mara nearly eats an entire pie whilst holding back tears as Affleck's passive specter lurks in the background, and the unfortunate thing is such a moment will largely be regarded as "brave" for allowing emotional honesty to emerge through all of that Gluten Free crust. However, this decision highlights Lowery's misunderstanding of the ways in which slow cinema can be powerful. Simply allowing something to play out in real-time does not necessarily connote character depth, and the results here are painfully contrived.

Once the ghost begins traveling through time (or existing outside the confines of time, as it were), A Ghost Story moves away from the idea of being bound to a loved one or certain geographical space, and more into the realm of cosmos-spanning science fiction. Clearly, Lowery is attempting a poetic meditation on time and existence, but the film is so in love with itself that it suffocates any humor, sensuality, and relatable emotional specificity from the story. There are brief snapshots of the couple's life before the accident (the most annoying of which involves symphonic indie pop music Affleck's bore has been slaving over), but nothing is ever gleaned about them as human beings. Worse still is the inclusion of Will Oldham (a.k.a. Bonnie Prince Billy) as a drunken party goer occupying the same Texas house at some indeterminate time, blathering on about the history of humankind as Affleck's ghost looks on. The way the party stops as everyone leans in to listen Oldham's stream of consciousness rants is crucial as to why the film is tone-deaf beyond belief; there's no conceivable reality in which the majority of these people wouldn't flee as soon as this sad hippie started speaking.

Had Lowery approached A Ghost Story with a sense of irony or playfulness, his odd experiment could have worked, but the film is striving so hard to be oblique that it comes across smug. It's the worst kind of art-house indie noodling; looking down on it's audience and expecting them to find something profound or existential by presenting beautifully composed images devoid of human feeling or context. What may have worked as a 15-minute short film takes on dreaded self-importance as it drones on into oblivion; telling us nothing about it's characters, the supposed afterlife, or what it means to terrorize a Mexican family by smashing dishes in one of the film's only attempts at "haunted house" style antics. Sadly, once you peek underneath those flowing white sheets, there's nothing there.

 

Dunkirk

 

Cast: Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, Kenneth Branagh, Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, Harry Styles, James D'Arcy, Jack Lowden, Barry Keoghan

Director: Christopher Nolan

Running time: 1 hour 46 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


There's always been an aestheticized coldness to the films of Christopher Nolan which has garnered both adoration and frustration; drawing comparisons to the likes of Stanley Kubrick for the remove to which he often lays out his puzzle-like narratives. In Nolan's best work, this aesthetic precision has resulted in some awe-inspiring visuals, such as Heath Ledger's Joker leaning his head out of a taxi cab during The Dark Knight, the zero-gravity fight sequence in Inception, or any number of shots from the cosmos-spanning epic Interstellar. However, the issue for Nolan has never been a lack of visual audacity, but more in the way he chooses to cut his images together into a coherent story. When tied into a narrative framework warranting such chronology-bending tricks, like Memento or Interstellar, the results can be spectacular. However, when this approach is tied into a historical context, you get something like Dunkirk, an ambitious, if dramatically inert, tackling of how 400,000 Allied soldiers were trapped on the northern coast of France during World War II as the Germans approached.

In terms of pure technique, the film is an unqualified triumph; full of widespread visions of harrowing destruction and thrilling airborne dogfights, but it's also a picture which feels strangely aloof from the reality of human suffering. Part of the problem is Nolan's insistence on interconnecting several narrative threads when no such time-shifting tricks are necessary. At first, the lack of expository information and character development is a bold choice, as we are instantly thrown into a state of disorientation following a terrified soldier, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), as he attempts to make his way from the titular beach onto a departing rescue ship. With the aid of Hans Zimmer's pounding metronomic score piercing through the din of gunfire and approaching German planes, Dunkirk firmly establishes a tone of hopeless chaos which matches the film's rhythmic editing scheme. Perhaps as a response to war film clichés, Nolan also dispenses with the usual setting up of his rag-tag group of soldiers, instead attempting to immerse us in the overwhelming confusion of nameless men simply trying to survive. During its opening stretch, Dunkirk successfully conveys the idea that such tropes are the stuff of Hollywood manipulation; only there to set up the audience with emotional surrogates which will inevitably pay off later. Unfortunately, though Nolan's main aim here seems to be to use all of his visual skills as a filmmaker to bludgeon the audience into a state of nerve-ridden shock and awe, no amount of visual spectacle can paper over a lack of human connection. In other words, Dunkirk roars and spits fire in glorious 70mm, but it's like watching a highly skilled technician order the building of a massive World War II-themed Erector Set and then forgetting about all of the blue collar workers who slaved over its elaborate construction.

As indistinguishable characters are introduced; a frightened private (Aneurin Barnard), a paranoid infantryman (Harry Styles) Tom Hardy's daring RAF pilot, a civilian captain (Mark Rylance) whose private boat is used as an evacuation vessel housing a shell-shocked pilot played by Cillian Murphy, one gets the feeling that Nolan isn't interested in the human cost of war. Instead, the characters, which also includes Kenneth's Branagh's stoic commander, are utilized more or less as chess pieces to be shuffled around so that the film can jump around in time. Rather than cross-cutting between the various subplots, Nolan chooses to muddle up the timelines, giving many of the action sequences (which replay from different perspectives at varying points in the film) a feeling of spatial incoherence. Of course, such slipstream editing is meant to mirror the disorientation of the soldiers, but the events depicted would have had more visceral impact if told in a linear fashion. 

Beyond the film's structural failings, the clinical editing means that there's very little in the way of human drama, psychological insight, or historical specificity. What at first felt novel--eschewing backstory, making the soldiers appear physically indistinguishable from one another, the reliance on sound and image to evoke tension--begins to feel distancing and mechanical as the film proceeds. The subplot involving Murphy's traumatized pilot and Rylance's wily civilian, for instance, had the potential to dig deep into their opposing ideologies and the emotional fallout of a military debacle, but it's quickly dropped in lieu of more muddled continuity problems. However, in terms of visual craftsmanship, there are individual images in Dunkirk which rival anything Nolan has attempted yet. For example, there's a breathtaking shot where a Spitfire engine fails and the plane simply glides, like a graceful bird, across the smoke-filled skies. During such moments, Nolan conjures the kind of grand, large-scale moviemaking (shot on 65mm celluloid, of course) to which he so strenuously aspires.

To that end, cinephiles claiming the art form isn't on a downward trend will likely champion the film as a towering example of blockbuster filmmaking of the highest order. Surely, the term masterpiece will be tossed around. While there's no question Nolan has the raw talents to create distinctive visuals (although the monochrome color palette here does give things a kind of monotonous visual sameness, despite the fireworks on display), it's almost as if he devises single images to take one's breath away without bothering to connect such image-making to an emotional core. If war is the ultimate dehumanizing machine which turns men into faceless instruments, then maybe Dunkirk succeeds at its own type of impersonal demonstration of aesthetic above all else. Still, as Rylance's brave civilian captain approaches enemy territory in order to save countless lives toward the climax, we are not struck by his selflessness so much as we are distracted by the film's unrelenting bombast and Nolan's stubborn unwillingness to allow a grace note to emerge from the fog of war.

 

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

 

Cast: Cara Delevingne, Dane DeHaan, Ethan Hawke, Clive Owen, Rihanna

Director: Luc Besson

Running time: 2 hour 17 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


Imagine Jar Jar Binks directing a multi-million euro sci-fi extravaganza starring the Na'vi from James Cameron's Avatar while gorging on squiggly alien banquet food, and you may have some idea of what's going on in Luc Besson's Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. This is one of those loopy space operas in which it's clear from the outset that character depth and narrative coherency is besides the point, and that Besson's larger aim is to distill the kind of 1960/70s serial adventures he grew up on. While many will claim his latest madcap creation rips off Star Wars and its ilk, the truth is George Lucas actually cribbed heavily from Jean-Claude Mézières and Pierre Christin's graphic novel Valerian et Laureline, which began in 1967.

The story, such as it is, involves Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevinge), two 28th-century cops who leap from one dimension to the next as dictated by Commander Arün Filitt (Clive Owen), who resides inside a massive spaceship. After waking from a nightmare in which he envisions the destruction of a gorgeous planet inhabited by Na'vi-esque beings, Valerian jumps into action in order to retrieve a strange animal known as a "converter" from the black market. Of course, DeHaan's wannabe outlaw constantly tries to woo the snarky Laureline, who rebuffs his rather sudden marriage proposal even as she smiles coyly while walking away. The bulk of their relationship is supposed to play as cute banter en route to the inevitable "love conquers all" finale, but Besson's unwillingness, or perhaps naïveté, in understanding what kind of movie he's making actually makes the results weirdly charming. Truthfully, the way Valerian's creepy womanizer is meant to be dashing is indicative of old-fashioned male heroes, ala Han Solo or Chris Pratt's Star Lord from Guardians of the Galaxy. Should this archetype still be kicking in 2017? Of course not, but no one has bothered to tell Besson, and certainly DeHaan purposefully refuses to sell anything close to sex appeal. His chemistry with Delevinge is nonexistent; even as she struts, winks, and generally seems like she gets what type of film she's making.

This is all to say that while the character dynamics and overall plotting seems to have been written by a 10-year-old, the sense of visual imagination and drunken "everything plus the kitchen sink" approach to blockbuster filmmaking is something rarely seen on this scale. For better or worse (and many will say worse), Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is an unrelenting burst of CGI splatter art; with ships, creatures, planets, and sci-fi psychedlia whizzing throughout every corner of the frame. The tone is antic; at times playing like a warped version of a space opera Looney Tunes cartoon as it zips along a series of inter-dimensional chases, outer space dog fights, and near-misses which epitomizes Besson's colorfully juvenile aesthetic. Characters speak in wooden hushed tones or deliver ear-scraping one-liners as cutesy CGI aliens blather on about primitive humanoids. There's an alien banquet in which Laureline wears an extravagant plate-shaped hat, an underwater excursion involving a crusty old captain and gigantic dinosaurs, and a gooey blue shapeshifter (played by Rhianna) who at one point inexplicably does some flexible pole-dancing. All the while, Besson peppers political symbolism into his screenplay, even as whatever supposed real-world parallels are completely eradicated by the sight of Ethan Hawke mugging as a nose ring-wearing pimp.    

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is uncool sci-fi during a moment where geek culture has collided with mainstream tastes in a way which feels counterintuitive. Unlike the sleek action-packed accessibility of the recent Star Trek films or the ironic hipness of Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy, Besson's embrace of kitsch, camp, and goofiness feels like a purer manifestation of the genre which at one time was the bane of dorky teenagers everywhere. If anything, this overstuffed, visually audacious 137-minute slice of pop junk cinema will have those long-dormant Jar Jar fans crawling out from under their dusty Naboo hiding places.

   

 

 

 

Harmonium

 

Cast: Kanji Furutachi, Mariko Tsutsui, Tadanobu Asano, Momone Shinokawa, Taiga, Takahiro Miura, Kana Mahiro

Director: Kôji Fukada

Running time: 1 hour 58 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


Writer-director Kôji Fukada's Harmonium is a parable about the consequences of past sins; fusing spare domestic drama with a strain of taboo darkness lingering just outside the edges of the narrative. It's a work of startling subtlety; imbued with an undercurrent of tragedy and empathy which speaks to Fukada's skill with framing his actors into tightly controlled geographical spaces. Though it toys with genre (there are elements of psychological thriller along with family drama), Harmonium is first and foremost a deeply devastating story about how secrets and lies can destroy one's sense of domestic normalcy. 

From the outset, Fukada establishes a sense of place and routine within what appears to be a fairly standard household. There's the young girl of the house, Hotaru (Momone Shinokawa), who constantly plays the titular instrument, much to the annoyance of the father, Toshio (Kanji Frutachi), an anti-social metal worker who often ignores his long-suffering wife, Akié (Mariko Tsutsui) who dotes on her daughter while going about daily chores. During these early scenes, the film foregrounds the family's disconnected, yet efficient, living situation without drawing too much attention to the lack of warmth that should be felt there. Alternating between moments of Toshio meticulously cutting sheets of metal in the garage with languorous shots of Akié cleaning dishes and tending to her child, Fukada brilliantly exploits a schism in their relationship without ever dipping into melodrama.

A shift in the narrative occurs when, out of nowhere, a stranger named Yasaka (Tadanobu Asano), appears as a houseguest and employee. Toshio hires and takes the man in without ever consulting Akié, creating yet another layer of social awkwardness. Gradually, we come to realize that Yasaka is actually an old friend of Toshio's who recently was released from serving an 11-year prison sentence for murder. Through its second act, Harmonium toys with audience expectations in ways both obvious and profoundly surprising. For example, the two men share a rigorously respectful relationship which hints a different set of rules entirely; something Fukada purposefully teases out as a nod to tension-building.  Meanwhile, Yasaka seems genuinely ashamed of his past misdeeds, something that the religious-minded Akié clings to as a sign of benevolence. During one seemingly innocent scene, the overly polite stranger comes out of the shower shirtless and stops to admire Hotaru's harmonium-playing, creating a reaction from Akié which underscores her unspoken attraction to him. 

What's most startling about Harmonium is that even though we know ominous things are forthcoming (Fukada liberally uses foreshadowing and symbolism not as a crutch, but as an invitation), the film keeps us second-guessing our assumptions about these characters. The sense of emotional and psychological unraveling is keenly felt through Fukada's use of symmetrical framing and detail-oriented set design, along with perfectly pitched performances; especially Tsutsui, who gives Akié a layered vulnerability which grows more desperate as the picture proceeds. There are more twists and turns to come, including a reveal taking place eight years after the events of the second act which take the film even deeper into the realm of grim nihilism. However, this cruelty isn't purposeless or mean-spirited, but rather, a natural extension of Fukada's themes. The subsequent absence of Yasaka from the narrative creates a haunting, destabilizing effect; forcing the remaining characters to question and challenge their own beliefs and assumptions about life.

Harmonium is a visceral gut-punch of a film; a morality play which ironically ends with the once stoic Toshio confronting his own demons wrought by a series of terrible past decisions. The concluding scenes may appear unfathomably bleak, but are they are necessary in revealing the often cryptic nature of human motives? Is the tragic ending inevitable or inextricable? Are the issues of guilt, regret, and violence cyclical, or can they be stopped or supplanted? While Harmonium never seeks to explicitly answer these questions, it does prove the power of cinema to conjure the darkest depths of human emotions.   

Okja

 

Cast: Ahn Seo-Hyun, Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal, Giancarlo Esposito, Paul Dano, Hee-Bong Byun, Shirley Henderson

Director: Bong Joon-ho

Running time: 1 hour 58 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


There's a salient message at the heart of Bong Joon-ho’s Okja which speaks to the ways in which we use the trusting nature of animals for our own ends, slaughtering them for mass food consumption without ever questioning such actions. Such a message is notable, and in many ways absolutely necessary, but the heart of Bong's film--the nurturing relationship between young Korean farm girl Mija (Ahn Seo-Hyun) and the titular creature-- speaks for itself. Unfortuantely, the director also feels the need to push the issue with bludgeoning satire; doling out cartoonish corporate big-wigs and shrill farce which overwhelms the simplistic beauty of Mija and Okja's friendship.

The film is at its best during the first act, where we witness Okja (who resembles a hippo by way of lab retriever) bonding with Mija in the Korean wilderness where she lives with her grandfather (Byun Hee-bong). During one lovely sequence, Mija tumbles off a cliff and is saved by the gentle giant, which Bong captures with a rapt awe conjuring the best of Spielberg and Miyazaki. In terms of special effects, Okja is a marvelous creation; seamlessly blending into the natural environments and for the most part, believably interacting onscreen with human characters. Of course, capturing companionship moments between a child and her fantastic creature are meant to gear us up for the inevitable gut-punch, and Okja is no exception.

During a 2007 prologue in which the head of the Mirando Corporation, Lucy (Tilda Swinton) announces her plan to end world hunger by dispersing pigs across the world to farmers for a 10-year period, we get a fairly clear picture of where the narrative is heading. Of course, Okja is deemed the biggest and best of their creations, and is therefore shuttled off to New York City in order to be paraded before the public en route to the eventual corporate slaughter. There's an Animal Rights Activist group on hand, led by Jay (Paul Dano) an idealistic rouge who hopes to rescue and return Okja to her natural habitant, as well as a Steve Irwin-esque TV show personality (Jake Gyllenhaal) whose ultimate motivations are never really made clear beyond greed and vanity. At around the mid-point, Okja transforms from a touching Charolette's Web-influenced children's film into a violent, frantically-paced action picture; full of spirited foot chases, careening vehicles, and gunfire. While this shift is relatively clunky from a tonal perspective, Bong does stage the action set pieces with considerable flair, including one bravura sequence inside a strip mall where Okja, flanked by the militant Animal Rights group, plunges headlong through everything in her path.

The visions of mass slaughterhouses and the ways in which Okja is taken hostage and violated, are necessary components for driving home the film's message about capitalism and the heartlessness of corporate greed, but Bong oversteps by heightening the satire to the point of no return. Swinton, playing dual roles, is mugging for no apparent reason, but she's a model of restraint compared to Gyllenhaal, who unleashes one of the most unhinged, self-indulgent performances in recent memory. While it's true that farce in Korean cinema has a zany quality, plugging American actors into these scenarios dulls the effect and just looks like showboating. Worse of all, this kind of over-ripe satire completely drowns out what had made Okja such a special film up until a certain point; namely, the elegant power of Mija and Okja's relationship.

Had Bong side-stepped the tonal miscalculation of playing the corporate world as hyperactive cartoons, instead focusing on deepening Ahn’s heartbreaking performance and the toll Okja's loss has on her psychological and emotional state, then the film may have transcended the sum of its many moving parts. Instead, it comes across like a well-meaning PSA announcement regarding the horrors of capitalism. The fact of the matter is that all of us, no matter how well-intentioned, enable corporations to continue their horrific practices every day. By giving us grotesque caricatures of this world, Bong dilutes our complicity in Okja's suffering by allowing us to laugh at these corporate goons and root for their downfall. The real truth, however, is less simplistic and intrinsically tied up in socially conditioned behaviors. It's too easy to simply mock major corporations while feeling superior to their inanity, and Okja, for all it's fable-like charm, can't overcome its heavy-handedness as moral lesson. 

Music Pick of the Week

 

Guerilla Toss

GT Ultra

Year of release: 2017


Brooklyn-based noise makers Guerilla Toss are one of the more fascinating genre-blenders in recent years; distilling a sound that can only be categorized as schizophrenic with elements of new wave, post-punk, squawking jazz, and experimental dance music. In the past, their work has straddled the line between dizzying psychedelics and ear-scraping noise with little regard to listener's eardrums. On their latest dance-acid trip GT Ultra, the band seem aware of this tenuous line by embracing melody and sonic texture without completely abandoning their freak flag.

Coming on at times like a weird combination of Talking Heads and The B52s, GT Ultra sees singer Kassie Carlson flinging out shouted/sung/spoken word-style rants over drummer Peter Negroponte's propulsive drumming, Greg Albert's funky bass, and keyboardist Sam Lisabeth's warbly analog synth lines. Overall, the tunes have a firm emphasis on production clarity, even as tracks like "Dog in the Mirror" thump with jagged tropical-sounding percussion and spacey blips. On "Skull Pop", they even indulge in some geeky 80s dance kitsch, while album closer "Dose Rate" sounds like a digitized PSA announcement with remnants of 70s soul/funk dosed in mushrooms.

Throughout, Guerilla Toss seem like they are setting certain parameters for themselves while simultaneously never becoming boxed in. At any given moment, the music sounds like it could go in any number of directions, but there's a newfound confidence on display here that feels like a step toward maturity. If on their past records the band relished the chance to unspool chaotic jams simply for the sake of it, then GT Ultra is the sound of that chaos blossoming into something richer and more accessible, but still highly idiosyncratic.

 

Movie Pick of the Week

 

Slack Bay

Director: Bruno Dumont

Year of release: 2017

Running time: 2 hours 2 minutes


French writer-director Bruno Dumont has specialized in a very specific brand of art-house miserablism for years; trafficking in severe narratives which revel in provocative and often grotesque imagery. 2014's Lil Quinquin seemingly bucked this trend by adopting a comedic bent to his very controlled style; with slapstick pratfalls and mugging performances running rampant over a macabre murder mystery plot. With his latest madcap creation, Slack Bay, Dumont leans even further into arch physical comedy and baroque social critique in a way which will both delight and baffle audiences.

Playing like an Agatha Christie murder mystery with a cast of grimacing, gawking, socially oblivious buffoons stumbling around, Slack Bay works in a very deliberate way where Dumont weds his exacting formalism to flights of fancy and absurdist satire. At times, the film suggest Buñuel by way of Monty Python, but Dumont doesn't cut the action frenetically and the humor is so peculiar that many will find it off-putting. The film's three central groups; the wealthy inbred Van Peteghem family, the poor laborer clan the Bruforts, and the law enforcement duo of inspectors, are basically on hand to symbolize exaggerated versions of class differences.

Ultimately, both the rich and poor are distorted manifestations of bureaucratic control and social norms, with the main joke seeming to be the inescapable pull of "eating the rich", if only the ones doing the eating were somehow above reproach. Characters roll down hillsides, careen off chairs, make silly faces with silly walks and engage in silly conversations. Juliet Binoche shows up as a rich aristocrat and engages in some of the most shrill over-acting this side of late period Johnny Depp. There's blood, body parts, and a quasi-romance between a poor ferrymen and a gender-shifting member of the elite. All the while, Dumont manages to place the camera (with sublime assistance from cinematographer Guillaume Deffontaines’s widescreen compositions) in such a way as to inspire awe.

For all of its farcical underpinnings, Slack Bay is an often gorgeous-looking film; with one particular moment of psychics-defying magical realism edging toward territory worthy of Fellini. If anything, it once again finds everyone's favorite French enfant terrible in a wily, rib-tickling mood.

 

The Beguiled

 

Cast: Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Colin Farrell, Angourie Rice, Addison Riecke, Oona Laurence, Emma Howard

Director: Sofia Coppola

Running time: 1 hour 33 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


Sofia Coppola has made a career out of mining the contradictions of feminine beauty-- the naivety and awkwardness of girlhood, the uncertainty and yearning of early adulthood, the bourgeois privilege of being white and well-off--to such a degree that her films have often been criticized for lacking specificity and substance. From the melancholy of time passing in Lost in Translation, the ironic revisionism of Marie Antoinette, to the detached insularity of Somewhere, Coppola has prioritized tableaux set to dreamy music cues over fully-formed narrative cohesion. When it works, this lack of standard plotting can be liberating since she's free to indulge in certain thematic preoccupations through aesthetic alone. In her misunderstood satire The Bling Ring, for instance, Coppola actually deconstructed teenage privilege; with the idea of how being young, bored, and insanely wealthy can lead to desperation bordering on psychosis. 

With The Beguiled, Coppola has made a Civil War-era chamber drama which uses her penchant for naturalism and dreamlike atmosphere to spin a tale of how men attempt to systematically break down the interior lives of women. That she does this with a mixture of languid pacing, evocative closeups, and picturesque mood during the first two acts before swerving into Hitchcockian thriller territory in the final third, is to be applauded for a filmmaker who normally eschews conventional payoffs. This is not to say that the film, adapted from the 1966 Thomas P. Cullinan novel which also spawned a 1971 Don Siegel version starring Clint Eastwood, is necessarily a crowd-pleaser, but it's certainly the most accessible picture Coppola has attempted yet. 

Taking place at a Seminary for Young Women in Virginia during the Civil War run by headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), The Beguiled is steeped less in historical accuracy (for one thing, Coppola completely writes the issue of slavery out of her screenplay) and is more interested in an aestheticized movie version of the rural South. During the opening moments, shot with lush beauty by cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd, we witness pre-teen student Amy (Oona Lawrence) stumbling upon a wounded Union soldier named John McBurney (Colin Farrell) while picking mushrooms in the forest. Once McBurney is brought back to the school to rest and recover, the film becomes a slowly building exercise in how each of the women react to this stranger in differing ways. The school's oldest pupil, Alicia (Elle Fanning) for example, eyes the soldier almost like a school girl crush; her unformed sense of sexual longing simmering with every glance and flirtatious movement. On the other hand, Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), one of the teachers, sees McBurney as a possible way out of her monotonous existence.

In it's purest form, The Beguiled is a Gothic psychodrama, but Coppola resists the urge to turn the film into a shrieking example of how men attempt to dominate the "weaker" sex. Instead, she's concocted a rather shrewd feminist-leaning black comedy in which the women are drawn to McBurney for a variety of complex reasons and not simply out of sexual desire. During a rather humorous dinner table scene, for example, the ladies go to great lengths to praise a particular apple pie that McBurney has admitted is his favorite type of desert. One girl says she baked it, another claims to harbor the special recipe, while another still blabbers about it also being her favorite. All of this is staged by Coppola with a keen understanding of editing, comedic rhythm, and a knack for framing her actor's reactions to achieve lived-in authenticity. Of course, it helps that Farrell is able to portray McBurney as a man both charming and intensely brooding. His scenes opposite Fanning, Kidman, and especially Dunst, are charged with an air of sexual tension and tug-of-war social dynamics that speaks to the film's simple, yet elegant, shifting emotional psychology.

The Beguiled eventually has to arrive at it's hairpin resolution, and even though it's a climax we see coming, Coppola still manages to push forward the notion that male dominance, hiding behind demure smiles and ingratiating compliments, is one of society's great evils. By giving each of her women characters agency, Coppola successfully channels an inversion of the usual revenge-thriller trope. Here, women aren't so much consumed by jealousy or hysteria as they are gripped by feminine solidarity, pushed to take extraordinary measures in order to preserve their fragile community. In that sense, The Beguiled is a film about female desire in which the real awakening doesn't involve consummation with a dark and handsome stranger, but rather, hinges on a dish of mushrooms best served cold.