Death Grips

 

The Year of the Snitch

8

Junk folder punk

by Jericho Cerrona

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Death Grips are still here. Death Grips have put out at least one album per year since their inception. Death Grips are post-fan service. Death Grips are noided. Death Grips are, umm, online.

Perhaps the most shocking thing about the Sacramento, Ca hip-hop/noise/industrial trio's sixth studio album, Year of the Snitch, is that it exists at all. For who could have conceived of a universe in which a group which released 2011's mixtape Ex-Military in 2011 and seminal The Money Store a year later, would still be using the Internet as their troll-heavy marketing tool? Of course, real Death Grips fans (and they are an army lurking on Reddit forums) would suggest that there's more going on here than Shrek memes and surprise self-leaked albums. 

Honestly, if Death Grips managed to crash and burn in spectacular fashion--see their post Money Store fuck off to major label Epic Records--then it's reasonable to assume they would have disappeared inside the Internet void by now. Instead, they've managed to release a string of albums in wildly different modes while still maintaining their distinctive sound. Part of the band's mojo stems from their use of public and private abstraction. On the one hand, their music remains excitingly inscrutable, while on the other, you aren't going to see frontman MC Ride dropping revealing Instagram posts. In a way, Death Grips have used the Internet to both bolster their mystique as well as troll their fanbase/critics. 

If 2016's Bottomless Pit was a sonic summation of the band's M.O. (rap, grime, electro, noise, rock, among other things) inching them back towards the accessibility of game-changer The Money Store, then Year of the Snitch is something else entirely. While still maintaining their signature sound, rapper MC Ride, drummer Zach Hill, and producer Andy Morin take a leap into genre-bending absurdism this time out. Sure, the album is still noisy as fuck; but also weirder, looser, and more unusual than anything they've attempted yet. Featuring turntablist DJ Swamp and Tool bassist Justin Chancellor (though the latter's contributions, much like Bjork on Side 1 of The Powers that B, remain tough to accurately pin down), Year of the Snitch is all over the map; fusing electronica, hip-hop, prog, psychedelia, Krautrock, metal, and even 90's techno into one unholy stew.

Revelations come right away with opener "Death Grips is online", which blares like a 1995 Netscape rave before descending into seesawing synths and Ride's shrieks. The muddy soundscapes continue with "Flies", where lyrics about suicide merge with lo-fi beats and some of Ride's most understated (and melancholy) rapping. "Black Paint" scrapes off some of that Jenny Death-adjacent rock instrumentation; with ascending guitar riffs, abrasive shouting, rolling drum fills, and turntable scratches that eventually crescendo in a fit of squealing keyboards. It's easily the heaviest song on the album (aside from the appropriately titled "Shitshow"), and one likely to get old school fans primed to explode. Allusions to the Mansion family comes during bizarre electro mashup "Linda's In Custody", Hill gets to show off his off-timing drumming with "The Horn Section", a throwback to his early days jamming in instrumental outfit Hella, and then there's "Streaky", which is either a trap rap in-joke or an attempt at the kind of Soundcloud banger Death Grips usually seek to invert. Either way, it's ridiculously catchy; farcical and hip swaying in equal measure.

Leaning hard into the experimental side of things is no huge surprise given Death Grips' uncompromising nature, but much of Year of the Snitch is baffling in all the best ways possible; resisting easy readings, coherent themes, or even musical consistency. By the time Shrek director Andrew Adamson shows up intoning I’m in the studio with Death Grips. They have a dilemma, but they’ll win their dilemma on Dilemma, one half expects the entire project to collapse under the weight of its own inward-looking absurdism. However, and this has been abundantly clear over the years; Death Grips are potent songwriters. No matter how off-kilter things get--the vaporwave toss off "Little Richard" and jazz trip "The Fear" come to mind--there's no denying the band are operating at the height of their powers.

During the final track, "Disappointed", Death Grips pretty much call out their fanbase for reading too much into the band's mythos. We could all learn a lesson from this. Stop analyzing. Stop obsessing. The Internet is a gross, hostile place. Death Grips fans are biased. In other words (or in the words of Ride), Talk less, show less, snatch yours trap doors. Amen.

Let the Sunshine In

 

Cast: Juliette Binoche, Xavier Beauvois, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Alex Descas, Philippe Katerine, Josiane Balasko, Laurent Grévill, Bruno Podalydès, Paul Blain, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Gérard Depardieu

Director: Claire Denis

Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes

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On the surface, Let the Sunshine In is a major left turn for provocateur Claire Denis, a filmmaker whose work is littered with nihilistic characters. Films like the erotic horror drama Trouble Every Day and seedy noir Bastards pair her minimalistic style with naturalistic performances and a dread-inducing mood. By contrast, Let the Sunshine In is a compact 95 minute slice-of-life about a fragile woman looking for love. Of course, since the woman in question is played by regular Denis collaborator Juliette Binoche, and because the film refuses to indulge in bland romcom conventions, there's an undercurrent of melancholy lining up with the director's previous work. The search for a partner--with all the inconsolable pain of feeling superlative emotions and then losing them--is at the heart of the film, which moves from hope to sadness in a way complimenting Denis' ongoing fascination with how love can corrode from the inside out.

Binoche stars as Isabelle, a divorced mother/business woman who seems drawn to men with low moral standards and self-delusion. The film's opening moments are telling; an awkward sex scene between her and Vincent (Xavier Beauvois) a rich married banker, which plays like two androids mechanically performing their duties. When Vincent asks her if she came faster with former lovers, she slaps him and rolls over dejectedly. And yet, Isabelle continues seeing him; captured masterfully in a series of fluid camera movements where the couple chat inside a bar, even as Vincent condescendingly berates a young male bartender. During their meeting, it's clear this guy is a pretentious asshole, but the way Binoche registers layers of regret and shame is a masterstroke of acting. In fact, Binoche is so good here in a very demanding role that Isabelle's mental health is often a reasonable point of debate. Is she simply deluded by the fantastical idea of true love, or is her quest for fulfillment more of a toxic necessity; something she must pursue no matter what the consequences? Neither Denis nor Binchoe make Isabelle's often frustrating behavior clear; leading to a film aching with a truthful kind of despair. Unlike most movie characters, Isabelle is a complicated person with ideas and urges which don't always follow a logical path.

As Isabelle falls in with a variety of lovers, including a vain actor (Nicolas Duvauchelle) and an uneducated foreigner she meets on a business trip (Paul Blain), Denis tightens the screws to reveal a possible terrifying truth; that some people just might be unloveable. This is not the kind of messaging we are accustomed to in our romantic dramas, and yet Binoche's performance is so rich--registering moments of vulnerability, anger, flirtation, sexual ecstasy, and gut-wrenching heartbreak--that we still empathize with this woman on her path of self-destruction. By the time Gerard Depardieu shows up as a psychic charting Isabelle's future love life, we are inclined to chuckle at the absurdity of it all, and yet even in these scenes, Denis nails the deep-seated agony of loneliness. 

Part of the brilliance of Let the Sunshine In is the way it plays with our sympathies for static character arcs and irrational decision-making. One may be inclined to shake Isabelle by the neck  and tell her to wake up, but herein lies the point. This is a woman so desperately addicted to the idea (or feeling) of love that she will always force the issue. It's like attempting to curb a drug addict off their habit by simply explaining to them how their fix isn't going to make them happy in the long run. Isabelle will always choose to fall in love, too afraid she will lose the feeling with the possibility of being alone, and too oblivious to the damage she's causing to herself. In this way, Denis not only inverts the romcom, but sneakily lays bare the inherent falseness at the genre's core. 

 

 

 

 

 

Music Pick of the Week

 

Kamasi Washington

Heaven and Earth

Year of release: 2018

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Saxophonist, composer, and multi-instrumentalist Kamasi Washington isn't fucking around when it comes to concept albums as expressions of purity, seeing as how 2015's triple album The Epic was an appropriately titled behemoth blending traditional jazz roots with modern flourishes. The 37-year-old mastermind may have outdone himself, however, with Heaven and Earth; a sprawling, genre-bending three hour opus which winds, dips, and solos all over the place with the finesse of a man twice his age.

Utilizing elements of Doo-wop, progressive, latin, funk, R & B, and classic jazz, Heaven and Earth is split into two halves; the first covering the outward manifestation of the world (Earth) and the second getting into the more inward realities (Heaven). Throughout, Washington wails on his tenor sax like a man possessed, but also allows regular collaborators--his band Next Step and members of collective the West Coast Get Down--a chance to shine. Horns, keyboards, a tight rhythm section, guest vocalists, and even a full orchestra get into the mix; resulting in a dizzying and dense listen.

Whether it be inspired remakes of the Freddie Hubbard classic "Hub Tones", or the cinematic sweep of "Fists of Fury" (complete with the vocal refrain Our time as victims is over / We will no longer ask for justice / Instead we will take our retribution invoking the Black Lives Matter movement), Heaven and Earth is overflowing with technical skill and masterful compositions. There's progressive time signatures and retro synth ("Can You Hear Him"), soulful R & B balladry ("Testify"), Slow tempo Cannonball Adderlay-esque jams ("Connections") and lush jazz-fusion epics ("The Space Travelers Lullaby"), but that's simply scratching the surface. Above all else, Washington's work here is unrivaled within the modern jazz landscape; marrying Afro-futurism with jaw-dropping conceptual musicianship. The record's length may be daunting, but Heaven and Earth is ultimately worth the journey; reaching moments of transcendence as it moves from everyday concerns into the cosmic stratosphere. 

Movie Pick of the Week

 

Tehran Taboo

Director: Ali Soozandeh

Year of release: 2018

Running time: 1 hour 36 minutes

 

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Ali Soozandeh’s feature debut, Tehran Taboo, is an animated film only insofar as it uses a rotoscoping technique where computer-generated visuals are layered over live-action imagery. We've seen this before, most notably in Richard Linklater's Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, but the technique goes back even further to efforts such as Yellow Submarine and Ralph Bakshi's The Lord of the Rings. In most cases, this is simply a stylistic choice, but Tehran Taboo uses the aesthetic as a necessity since shooting in Iran is out of the question.

Soozandeh's film is about repressed desire; where casual sex, drinking, and partying are happening just like in any other metropolitan city, but are hidden underground for fear of being dragged out into the light. Tellingly, the film exposes the hypocrisy of a society which condemns sexual practices while secretly indulging in them. This is exemplified by the opening scene where a taxi driver picks up a prostitute, Pari (Elmira Rafizadeh), with her young son in tow. While receiving some oral attention, the driver stops the car abruptly in rage after spotting his daughter holding hands with a man on the street. The rest of the film follows Pari's attempts to convince a judge (Hasan Ali Mete) to sign her divorce papers, her neighbor Sara (Zar Amir Ebrahimi) dealing with pregnancy, and a musician, Babak (Arash Marandi) trying to get money to pay a dubious doctor to "restore the virginity" of his nightclub one-night stand, Donya (Negar Mona Alizadeh). 

There isn't a lot of subtlety to Tehran Taboo, but should there be? This is a blunt piece of work about the double standards inherent within a society prizing itself upon moral rules. The narrative's focus on the female character's fight against oppression is itself a brave stance, as are the small moments of joy and humor strewn throughout the misery. Recurring scenes set inside a photo studio where women sit in front of a blank backdrop while an offscreen photographer suggests a specific color for the background, reinforces how the state controls every facet of citizen's lives. This kind of patriarchal dominance is upended, at least briefly, during the film's deeply powerful finale, where a woman cuts red cloth into the shape of a bird's wing and dances on a rooftop. Though we understand that this act of rebellion will be fleeting, there's something poignant about her choosing the present to feel alive, even as it can never last. Tehran Taboo is full of such moments; merging pain, anger, and bewilderment with the hope that perhaps, in some other timeline, there exists a life worth living.

 

  

 

 

Won't You Be My Neighbor?

 

Cast: Fred Rogers, Joanne Rogers, François Clemmons, Yo-Yo Ma, David Newall, Joe Negri

Director: Morgan Neville

Running time: 1 hour 33 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Perhaps the most discouraging thing about Morgan Neville's documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor?, is just how much society has disregarded Fred Rogers' message of love, peace, and human decency. If there was ever a time in which his landmark PBS children's show Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, was needed to combat the deluge of human greed, cruelty, bigotry, and Trump-era delusion, then this is it. There's even an opening scene here depicting a puppet named King Friday XIII of the land of Make-Believe announcing his plans to build a wall in order to quell the rising fears of change within his kingdom. Neville understands the obvious modern-day irony, but the real heart of his film is Rogers' moral radicalism exemplified by his extraordinary gift in communicating with children.

Using archival footage and interviews with those who worked alongside Rogers, Won't You Be My Neighbor? encompasses a three decade-plus career in a streamlined, though meticulously crafted, manner. Neville uses plenty of footage from the PBS show throughout the years, but the real surprise is the archival material where Rogers sits alone at a piano discussing getting on the wavelength of children in order to engender positive self-image. There's something almost saintly about a man so polite and kind-hearted that one may fear Neville has a few shocking bombshells in store, but the demons here are mostly of the workaholic variety. For example, one of Rogers' sons at one point describes the hardship of having the "second coming of Christ as a father", and there's also Rogers' near autistic tendency of keeping his weight exactly at 143 pounds; a number, by the way, translating numerologically to "I love you."

Rogers' views on child psychology extended not only to the way his show was engineered-- lo-fi sets, ragged-looking puppets, simple props, slow pacing--but also to his belief that we should never talk down to children. Tellingly,  Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood delved into topics like divorce, depression, death, and even the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, in a way which never sugarcoated the truth, but treated children with respect. Confronting the horrors of real life was integral in Rogers' ideal version of childhood, even as its simple pleasures were also to be cherished. Still, for all of his progressivism, there were elements plaguing his career; like the way he handled François Clemmons, who played Officer Clemmons on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, whom he asked to not come out publicly as gay for fear of losing funding. It wasn't until many years later during a private encounter that the two men reached a mutual understanding, and Clemmons' tearful response to eventually seeing Rogers as a father figure will cause even the most cynical audience member to wipe away a tear or two.

Won't You Be My Neighbor? is less concerned with peeking behind the curtain into the private life of a famous figure and more about appreciating it's subject's methodology. Neville understands that Rogers' message of love, understanding, and speaking honestly to children wasn't a passing fad. One only needs to look to his iconic 1969 senate testimony to secure the $15 million to keep public television from going extinct to recognize that for Rogers, this was more than simply his life's work. It was providing children all over the world the one thing that's sorely lacking in adults; hope. Even if Neville's film often feels emotionally manipulative, it's the kind of manipulation we could use more of these days, convincing us that for the brief span of 93 minutes, every human life has worth.

 

 

 

SOPHIE

 

OIL OF EVERY PEARL'S UN-INSIDES

9

Plastic. Elastic. Pop.

by Jericho Cerrona

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At its very basic level, pop music seeks to give the listener a comforting feeling; incorporating current sounds into an accessible package by using medium to short song lengths, verse-chorus structures, and catchy hooks. However, this is a fairly reductive description since there's real craftsmanship in making an exemplary pop tune. While many artists simply copy and paste a formula, the very notion that pop music is at the center of the culture means experimentation is essential in redefining the rules.  Los Angeles-based Scottish producer/singer/songwriter Sophie Xeon (aka SOPHIE), who has spent the last few years working with everyone from Madonna, Charli XCX, and Vince Staples, understands the contours of pop music very well. In fact, with her debut album OIL OF EVERY PEARL'S UN-INSIDES, the former recluse opens up both lyrically and musically; using the foundations of pop and then warping it to her own ends. The results are thrilling, disorienting, pleasurable, and brilliant.

Utilizing elements of bubblegum pop, R & B, EDM, drone, ambient, industrial, and noise, SOPHIE's take on pop music is both transgressive and subversive. Thematically, the album revolves around gender identity and feeling loved inside your own skin. Sonically, it takes accessible song structures and chews them up inside a latex-crunching pop machine. Opening track "It's Okay To Cry" is a bit of a curveball right away based on what's to follow; with twinkly piano, warm synths, and clean vocals setting the stage. Clearly, SOPHIE wants the listener to open up and trust her intentions. There's a wounded vulnerability here; a soaring invitation to allow one's anxieties, fears, and pain to be enveloped within the auditory journey. It's a surprising opening salvo, and one that SOPHIE will build upon, often in unpredictable fashion, for the remainder of the album.

For a record about self-empowerment and reclaiming one's identity, OIL OF EVERY PEARL'S UN-INSIDES often unfurls like a schizophrenic war of contrasts--pairing jarring kick drums, abrasive noises, and vocals which sound buried inside a digital processor with tender balladry, gorgeous synth-scapes, and genuine emotion. "Ponyboy" is a filthy BDSM-inspired dance track full of herky jerky rhythms, humorously affected vocals, and a driving metallic beat. "Faceshopping" takes the deliciously simple line My shop is the face I front/ My face is the real shop front and makes a discordant banger out of it; all squealing keyboard, clanking percussion, and propulsive basslines. Some of the more melancholy tracks, like the absolutely beautiful synth-arpeggio backed "Is it Cold in the Water?" and the warped R & B ballad "Infatuation", showcase SOPHIE's smart incorporation of pop styles with mind-bending production. Truthfully, nothing out right now sounds quite like OIL OF EVERY PEARL'S UN-INSIDES. Even when we get an infectious dance-pop tune like "Immaterial", which inverts Madonna's "Material Girl" into a giddy Chiptune blast, there's a strange detour such as instrumental "Pretending", which rumbles along like a lost Brian Eno B-side. 

Obfuscation is a central theme in SOPHIE's work (both in terms of creating a public persona and the actual ways in which the songs flirt with pop accessibility), and this contrast is at the heart of identity never finding a fixed station. Though she covers consumerism, obsession, sexuality, and body mutilation, SOPHIE never pigeonholes herself here (tellingly, there are no lyrics specifically mentioning the words queer or trans), instead allowing the music itself to speak volumes. For example, when guest singer Cecil Believe sings I don’t even have to explain/just leave me alone now/I can’t be held down on "Immaterial", there's a direct link to the feminine/masculine dichotomy trans people live with every day. SOPHIE, like everyone else, simply wants to love and be loved. To exist. To be.

By the time closer "Whole New World/Pretend World" comes rumbling along at just over 9 minutes, SOPHIE has engendered so much good will that the glitchy, atonal weirdness she conjures as her exit strategy feels more than simply cathartic; it's the journey of pop music writ large. The highs and lows. The comfortable pleasure oozing into squelching waveforms. Bombast as sentimentality. The Disneyfication of pop star branding reverse-engineered. A whole new world, as it were. If the future does indeed reside in our ability to transform, then SOPHIE is making the case that being yourself (in whatever gendered or non-gendered form that takes) is the true aim of pop music.  

 

   

  

Symbiotic Recommends: 10 Albums

 
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Flasher

Constant Image

Artist info here


Jean Grae/Quelle Chris

Everything's Fine

Artist info here

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Palberta

Roach Goin' Down

Artist info here


Karen Meat

You're an Ugly Person

Artist info here

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Rafiq Bhatia

Breaking English

Artist info here

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serpentwithfeet

Soil

Artist info here


It Only Gets Worse

Fireplace Road

Artist info here

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Maeth

Whaling Village

Artist info here


Iguana Death Cult

Femme Fatale

Artist info here

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Hereditary

 

Cast: Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Ann Dowd

Director: Ari Aster

Running time: 2 hours 7 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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WARNING! This review contains King Paimon-adjacent spoilers


Writer-director Ari Aster's feature debut, Hereditary, is a film about a family disintegrating, the inexorable weight grief has on the mind and body, and how curses can be tracked through the genetic line, appearing as signs of possible mental illness. At least, that's what its makers would have you believe. Actually, Hereditary mainly concerns a doomed family succumbing to a royal demon as part of hell's bureaucratic hierarchy. The picture's first half is the kind of intriguing/ponderous dirge passing for arthouse horror these days--i.e. long takes, discordant music cues, occasional frightening imagery, and fraught family squabbles--before descending into giddy madness during the final 30 minutes. Though many will find the last act disconnected from all that came before, the film's gear shift into Rosemary's Baby/ The Wicker Man territory is actually its strongest asset, almost as if Aster finally decided to wake up make his manic horror movie. It may have been too little, too late.

Truthfully, Hereditary is going for a more visceral kind of horror for the majority of its running time. Things begin with the death of the family matriarch, to which diorama artist Annie Graham (Toni Collette) confesses at the funeral at just how complicated their mother-daughter relationship was. Her husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne) sulks around dealing with things internally and trying to keep the peace. Their son, Peter (Alex Wolff) is your typical pothead high school student--emotionally fragile, disaffected, pining for the cute girl in class-- while mentally challenged younger sister, Charlie (Milly Shapiro) mostly lurks around acting creepy and clucking her tongue. The film's opening image-- a shot which moves slowly around Annie's studio before pushing in on a bedroom diorama housing Steve and Peter, is instructive-- this is a family trapped inside their own insular world of pain.

The impetus for structuring a horror film around the terrifying reality than you may not be safe within your own family unit is a fine idea. In fact, many recent attempts within the horror genre have used similar narrative strategies, such as Robert Egger's The Witch and Trey Edward Shults' It Comes at Night. However, Aster's aesthetic tics often undermine his attempts at observing the frayed wounds of a dysfunctional family. Favoring long takes, slow camera pans, and symmetrical mise-en-scène (complete with saxophonist Colin Stenson's disorienting score), the film has a showy formalism which works in fits and starts, particularly with single images. However, Aster too often falls prey to self-indulgence; padding out scenes in order to elicit supposed tension. The results are often frustrating; as if the film is spinning its wheels by using the blanket of "atmosphere" in place of narrative momentum.

The film's best early moments involve the actors digging into the unstable psychology of their characters. A dinner table scene where Annie explodes in a fit of hysterical rage after months of buried emotion is an example where Aster's filmic patience pays dividends. Collette, whose performance is pitched somewhere between ridiculous and breathtaking, absolutely nails the moment; showing how Annie's pent-up anger stems from not only from grief, but also the disdain she has for her own children. It's an ugly scene, but a truthful one.

Less successful are the moments where Peter's bong-ripped teenager stares off blankly and begrudgingly takes his sister to a house party where he hopes to get closer to his school crush. Of course, this all leads to the film's most shocking moment involving an allergic reaction and a speeding rush to the hospital. As if the tone of impending doom wasn't already suffocating enough, this event shifts the family's emotional/psychological state into complete free-fall. It's an effective twist; one landing with a certain amount of sickening dread because Aster remains locked in on Peter's dazed expression. Still, the director just can't help himself, eventually cutting to a horrific image that is both unnecessary and exploitative. He wants the audience to be shocked and disturbed, but it mostly feels like Lars von Trier-level provocation.

Once Anne Dowd shows up as a fellow grief support group patron offering Annie a shoulder and an ear, Hereditary begins showing its cards. Sequences involving séances, supernatural malevolence, and creepy naked old folks standing in dark corners of the room begin pilling on as the tone lurches toward silliness. Honestly, this turn into literal evocation of classics like The Exorcist, The Shining, and especially Rosemary's Baby, takes the film from a self-serious drag into the realm of near shlock, which is where things should have been operating all along.

As occultic shenanigans unspool (complete with a goofy page-turning moment where Annie discovers her mother was some kind of cult queen in an old book in the attic), Hereditary reaches a level of maximum lunacy. This is a good thing because, as much as Aster tries to convince us to take all of this seriously, the film's climax reveals the themes of mental illness and familial trauma to be something of a red herring. Turns out this family was doomed from the start; controlled by a high ranking demon named King Paimon, who was simply looking for a hunky male host body. Therefore, the heightened climax; complete with Stenson's swelling saxophones as Peter is crowned demon king, reveals two things: one, cult members are really into nudity, and two, beheadings are somehow necessary within Hell's inner workings. All hail King Paimon, indeed.    

Movie Pick of the Week

 

Summer 1993

Director: Carla Simón

Year of release: 2018

Running time: 1 hour 36 minutes

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There's no shortage of autobiographical coming-of-age films centering on the naivete, confusion, and simple pleasures of childhood, but Carla Simón’s Summer 1993 is miraculously free of narrative cliches and moralizing. Told elegantly from the perspective of six-year-old Frida (Laia Artigas) as she moves from Barcelona to a small Catalan village following the death of her parents, Simón’s film develops an atmosphere of authenticity in which plot points are backgrounded by simply spending time with her characters. Specifically, the bond that forms between Frida and her aunt, Marga (Bruna Cusi) is rendered as a realistic push and pull dynamic. Therefore, the tragic backstory here is never used for cheap shock value or to manipulate our emotions, but instead to show us how Frida adapts to a situation in which she's not quite developed enough to fully grasp the consequences.

The time, place, and setting of Summer 1993 is important because it not only locates a space before technological connectivity, but also points to the specter of AIDS perhaps being the cause of Frida's parents' death. Unlike a lot of filmmakers who may have used this as a way of conjuring maudlin nostalgia or worse yet, a cautionary tale narrative, Simón is much more interested in the daily activities and sensory experiences of a child. For example, Frida's interactions with her younger cousin, Anna (Paula Robles) come across completely believable; especially late in the film where she leaves her out in the woods alone, perhaps as a call for attention.

Summer 1993 is a deceptively simple family drama that understands and appreciates the psychological state of a child. Since she's in nearly every frame, Artigas must be utterly convincing as a kid struggling to make sense of a tragic situation, and she more than carries the film on her tiny shoulders. Her scenes opposite David Verdaguer as uncle Esteve are filled with warmth and spontaneity; highlighting the friction Frida has with Marga, who must shoulder more of the emotional heavy lifting in this new-found family dynamic. It would have been easy and tempting for Simón to take her autobiographical trauma and turn it into a movie of the week weepie, but Summer 1993 is much wiser than that; an empathic and ultimately powerful reminder that looking back can sometimes be more illuminating than looking forward.  

 

Music Pick of the Week

 

DRINKS

Hippo Lite

Year of release: 2018

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Upon a cursory listen of weirdo power duo Cate Le Bon and Tim Presley's latest album under the DRINKS moniker, Hippo Lite, one might be inclined to mutter, "yeah, but where are the songs?"

Of course, such a response is intentional, seeing as how both Le Bon and Presley have spent the better part of their respective career's banging out experimental psych/freak folk/garage rock. Presley has mostly recorded under the name White Fence (though he did have a stint in the reformed version of The Fall before Mark E. Smith's passing) and has collaborated with fellow psych rocker Ty Segall on multiple occasions. Le Bon, on the other hand, has used her wispy voice and angular guitar work to carve out her own idiosyncratic niche with a series of solo albums. The duo's previous team up as DRINKS was 2015's Hermits on a Holiday; a combination of freeform post-pop shronk that sounded like two outsiders having a blast without limits. With Hippo Lite, the lack of traditional songs is even more intentional; playing like a warped children's album assembled by a couple of stoned adults caught in a feedback loop.

It's hard to articulate a record feeling so playful when things sound this off-kilter, but Hippo Lite is bursting with fun, and at times baffling, sonic arrangements. Opener "Blue From the Dark" has an acoustic lullaby vibe coming out of a broken music box. "Real Outside" struts and slithers with a rudimentary electronic beat, out of tune guitar, and Le Bon's humorously detached vocals. "Corner Shops" is a deconstructed funk song; complete with a bobbing bassline and (almost) danceable groove. And then there's the in-joke "Ducks", with it's broken clock noises, bizarre guitar arpeggios, and near incomprehensible lyrics. Cuckoo is a tame word for it.

Fortunately, a tune like "Ducks" is something of an anomaly in an otherwise brilliant, though undeniably strange, record. There's something inviting about Hippo Lite, something that resists easy classification, something that draws you in even as it purposefully pushes away. With Presley and Le Bon as wayward guides, experimental pop (?) has never sounded this antagonistically welcoming. Let that freak flag fly.

Parquet Courts

 

Wide Awake!

8

Dad rock gets political

 

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“Collectivism and autonomy are not mutually exclusive.”

That's a line from the song "Total Football" which perfectly encapsulates the thematic concerns running throughout Parquet Court's sixth album, Wide Awake! The Brooklyn band; made up of vocalist/guitarist Andrew Savage, guitarist Austin Brown, bassist Sean Yeaton, and drummer Max Savage, have carved out a pretty sweet niche revolving around the anti-establishment sensibilities of punk and the sardonic weirdness of early 70's art rock. It should be noted that Wide Awake! was produced by Danger Mouse, and therefore sounds more polished than past material while still maintaining a wonky charm. The newfound sociopolitical "seriousness" as it were, is also something of a tease; both earnest and artificial, searing and absurdist. As a whole, Wide Awake! is a total blast; a party album about the numbing ills of modern life that can be cranked loud at a backyard barbecue. 

The idea of a lo-fi post-punk outfit getting together with a producer like Danger Mouse (whose worked with huge acts like U2 The Red Hot Chili Peppers) might initially sound like a sellout move, but the truth is Parquet Courts have never been about fitting into a pre-conceived genre box. Maybe it's just the musical landscape we've found ourselves surrounded by in 2018, but there's something almost novel about a band employing guitars, bass, drums, and clever lyrics as their main selling point.

Again, going back to that tune "Total Football", and particularly that stellar line, one can clearly see the use of drunken sports anthems as a rallying cry for the plight of the working class zero. However, there's always been something slightly embarrassing about the visage of white men screaming via microphone about the plight of the oppressed, but Parquet Courts use that to their advantage; referencing Black Panthers, The Beatles, poets, and Italian singers before dropping a big diss on football star Tom Brady. The idea of yet another rich white man profiting from our collective need for patriotic entertainment is rife with satire; as is Savage's beat poetry rants on "Violence", which are positioned as defeatism before a haunted house-style organ and cartoon voices kick in. Meanwhile, "Before the Water Gets Too High" uses Sean Yeaton's funky bass lines as the main groove while Savage speaks in weathered tones over Max Savage's unflappable drumming. There's also alt-country ballads ("Mardi Gras Beads"), Jay Reatard-esque punk ("Almost Had to Start a Fight/In and Out of Patience"), synth-laden prog rock ("Back to Earth"), and even a little David Byrne homage with the dancey title track. Most impressively, Parquet Courts really diverge from their signature sound on songs like the children's choir-backed "Death Will Bring Change" and Elton John-influenced pop stomper "Tenderness".   

Wide Awake! splits the difference between the working class anger of 2014's Sunbathing Animal and the more subdued tones of 2016's Human Performance. The push toward funk and Americana is a welcome one, as is this idea that Parquet Courts are maturing without sacrificing their integrity. In fact, retreating into yet another batch of rowdy post-punk anthems would have seemed, at this point in the band's trajectory, something of a letdown. Fears of an uber-producer takeover are also unfounded, as Danger Mouse's contributions seem relegated mostly to better production quality and a few instances verging on power pop. No, Parquet Courts are fully in command of their collective angst, political malaise, and danceable punk; culminating in the band's most cohesive, genre-hopping record yet. Again, if Collectivism and autonomy are not mutually exclusive", then the sounds of Wide Awake! just might be the protest album from four dorky white guys we all need right now.

 

 

 

Solo: A Star Wars Story

 

Cast: Alden Ehrenreich, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, Woody Harrelson, Thandie Newton, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Paul Bettany, Jon Favreau

Director: Ron Howard

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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It's hard to believe an Imperial overload like Disney would dispatch of filmmakers responsible for rehashing old properties and turning them into cash cows. Of course, this is exactly what happened with Solo: A Star Wars Story, wherein original directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (best known for cynical assembly line drivel like The Lego Movie and 21 Jump Street) were tossed out of the galaxy far, far, away for riffing on set with improvisations, costing the studio millions while giving Star Wars emperor Kathleen Kennedy cosmic migraines. To think there's actually fan outcry over what Lord and Miller's film would have looked like-- as if these guys are outlaw auteurs or something-- rather than the sad reality that Solo: A Star Wars Story just isn't a movie that needs to exist in the first place.

The film does exist, however, credited to director Ron Howard, who apparently reshot 70% of Lord and Miller's original vision; leading to a case of a younger corporate product being replaced with an older, more seasoned corporate product. If this all sounds incredibly reductive, the fact that Rian Johnson's The Last Jedi came out less than six months ago, is indicative of Disney/Lucasfilm's widespread commoditizing of modern entertainment. Star Wars used to be something fans swooned over; debating the mythology and filling in the gaps of the larger universe while clutching to the hope that another entry would surface sometime within the next decade. Now, it appears fan-culture has wrought something too good to be true. Like Marvel, Disney no longer has the need to create interesting narratives or films that work on their own terms. They only need to fit into brand awareness; perpetuating a cycle of nostalgia and pandering that results in safe, risk-adverse consumer product. Of course, Star Wars has always been partially about selling toys, so is this aggressive push for more spin-offs and prequels inherently detrimental?

Well, Solo: A Star Wars Story is neither an embarrassment to Disney's bragging rights nor an exciting piece of escapist entertainment. Instead, it feels like the case of a Hollywood veteran director stepping in to right a spacecraft that was probably crashing into an asteroid field anyways. With a script by Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan, the film aims to be a mishmash of classic genres--heist picture, war movie, rouge cowboy Western--mixed in with a Han Solo prequel following the canonical character (played by Alden Ehrenreich) as he runs scams on his home-planet of Cornellia. There's a childhood sweetheart, Qi'Ra (Emilia Clarke), whom Han is separated from early on before teaming up with thief cum imperial officer, Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), whose rowdy crew includes a multi-limbed alien, Rio (voiced by Jon Favreau) and kick-ass girlfriend, Val (Thandie Newton). After surviving some hellish trench combat, Han's goal of buying his own ship in order to get back to Qi'Ra leads him into dangerous territory, including the company of mercenary Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany).

There's some streamlined pleasures to be had throughout Solo which makes it far from the dismal trash heap many feared. For starters, Ehrenreich wisely downplays Solo's sneering cynicism and goes for less of an impression of Harrison Ford (an impossible task, anyhow) than a clever riff on an iconic character. His chemistry with Clarke, whose Qi'Ra is unfortunately a bit of a red herring, crackles whenever their scenes are allowed time to breathe. Meanwhile, Donald Glover goes in the opposite direction as Lando Calrissian, doing a full-on mimicry of Billy Dee Williams; complete with vocal inflections, hand gestures, and suave cape collection. This works mostly because Lando's screen time is kept to a minumum--truthfully, he's fulfilling the role of Han from the original trilogy--popping up periodically to offer a snide aside or dumbfounded facial reaction. Meanwhile, Lando's relationship with female co-pilot L3-37 (voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge) adds a few new wrinkles to the Star Wars mythology; including the notion of droid gender equality and revolution.

Beyond the fact that Solo is essentially a $250 million fan-film; complete with cringe-inducing winks at how Han got his last name, whether or not he "shoots first", and his eventual ownership of the iconic Millenium Falcon, there's a dispiriting sense that the film's very existence is questionable. Han's winning banter with Lando, Chewbacca's habit of ripping limbs, and a nifty train heist sequence almost make up for the sluggish pacing and pandering fan-service; for instance, does anyone care about the infamous Kessel Run or the face-palming late reveal of a certain canonical villain?

For every moment that feels fresh (i.e. Lando's possible robo-sexuality), there's a dozen more giving us answers to things we never wanted answers for, which begs the question; why make a movie centered on a character whose backstory is almost entirely irrelevant? Han Solo was always a breath of fresh air because he was the wise-cracking cynic who gradually developed a bit of conscience over the course of the original three films. So, this is not Ron Howard's fault, and no, Lord and Miller's possible riff-heavy version would likely not have been much of an improvement, either. The fault, ultimately, aligns with the corporate empire of Disney/Lucasfilm; whose incessant desire to crank out more product is beginning to sputter and buckle under the strain of fan expectation and general audience fatigue.

 

 

 

 

 

Iceage

 

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Maturity sounds a lot like your heroes
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In the world of punk, ambition counts. In fact, the genre is notorious for being risk-adverse; channeling raw energy, confrontational attitude, and youthful dissatisfaction as a means to an end. This may sound like a reductive argument since there are always exceptions, but a band like Iceage have built their brand upon unleashing grueling punk/goth rock that never pretended to be anything but a sonic onslaught. The Danish outfit's searing debut, 2011's New Brigade, still remains a quintessential post-punk/hardcore statement made by four friends under the age of 21. Not even being to legally buy a beer at the local pub is an essential aspect of what drove Iceage's methodology; that reckless rage, the flailing attempts at finding one's identity, the snot-nosed fuck you to adult responsibility. New Brigade encapsulated all of that, with singer Elias Rønnenfelt's nearly unintelligible, abrasive rants leading the charge.

But, of course, people grow up. They learn. They adapt. Iceage's last album, 2014's Plowing Into the Field of Love, felt like awkward baby steps toward the idea of maturity rather than an actualization of it; adding layers of baroque rock, alt-country, and piano balladry to the mix. The results were uneven; like a group of sweaty punk kids climbing out of the basement and onto an anthem-sized stage in hopes of courting a larger audience. This all leads to their latest record, Beyondless, in which Rønnenfelt and company do their best The Birthday Party era Nick Cave impression, with decidedly mixed results.

It's not as if the intent isn't noble, and again, ambition counts for a lot, but Beyondless often comes off like young men equating dour self-seriousness with artistic growth. Iceage have always been an angry band, but by slowing things down and issuing social commentaries (complete with strings, horns, and stuttering piano) something gets lost in translation. There's the melodic opener "Hurrah", in which Rønnenfelt spits out police state proclamations like No, we can’t stop killing / And we’ll never stop killing over a driving rhythm section and soulful guitar work. Meanwhile, the Sky Ferrreira collaboration "Pain Killer" goes full orchestral pomp; with blaring horns and a repetitive chorus giving off a decidedly Foxygen vibe, except without the winking humor. The grimness continues with country-ish dirge "Under the Sun" and the sludgy, Iggy and the Stooges-inflected "The Day the Music Dies", wherein Rønnenfelt slurs his way through over-produced bombast. The angst here sounds earnest enough, but the band mostly fail at channeling this inner turmoil into a rallying cry. If anything, most of the music feels like confessional diary entries scribbled out during drunken jam sessions. Moody ramblings work wonders for Cave, and The Rolling Stones made a living out of contorting sensual debauchery into primal rock n'roll, but Iceage are often playing against their strengths here.

This doesn't mean there isn't an appealing nihilism to Beyondless. In the span of 40 minutes, the band manage to take the lyrical mantra The future’s never starting/ The present never ends from the chorus of “The Day The Music Dies" and apply it writ large. This is an apocalyptic record; part classic rock throwback, part horn-fueled beat poetry, part sonic noir about the end of all things. The album's standout track, "Catch It" exemplifies this by luring the listener into it's twisted web. Building slowly like a marching rite of passage with Rønnenfelt repeating phrases, the song morphs-- drums ascending, strings breaking, middle eastern chimes humming--before everything erupts into a psychedelic frenzy of distorted chords and atonal horns.

With this song alone, Iceage prove they could be capable of moving into The Velvet Underground territory; using the Lou Reed mode of sing-speak narratives and rock experimentalism to challenge genre altogether. However, some of the band's other attempts at homage; like the sloppy saloon rock of "Showtime" and the neo-folk ditty "Thieves Like Us" feel like young men playing a round of middle-age pastiche karaoke. There's a long history of young rock band's trying to outrun the shadow of their heroes, and Iceage are on the right track; but only time will tell if they can carve out their own version of gothic punk Americana and maybe, just maybe, crack a smile or two.

  

First Reformed

 

Cast: Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric the Entertainer, Michael Gaston, Van Hansis, Victoria Hill, Philip Ettinger

Director: Paul Schrader

Running time: 1 hour 53 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Writer-director Paul Schrader has nothing left to prove, and yet he's been trying to atone for his sins (aesthetic, personal, spiritual) ever since his screenplay for Martin Scorsese's 1976 classic Taxi Driver put him on the map. His career has been scattershot; with the writing trifecta of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and The Last Temptation of Christ representing the height of his powers. 1999's Bringing Out the Dead should also be mentioned as part of the Scorsese collaboration canon, though it's far less revered. If late period directing efforts like the Bret Easton Ellis penned The Canyons and genre toss off Dog Eat Dog were Schrader's nod toward exploitation sleaze, then First Reformed emerges as his rather blatant Robert Bresson/Carl Theodor Dreyer/Yasujirō Ozu homage. This is all intentional, of course, since Schrader has never been afraid of announcing his influences; (he wrote a book about this very thing after all, titled Transcendental Style In Film). However, it's much easier for cinephiles and the critical elite to praise that iconic Taxi Driver screenplay or the poetic ambition of 1985's Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters than the low-rent (charms?) of The Canyons or even the sensual camp horror of 1982's Cat People.

With First Reformed, Schrader has made something which uses these influences as the basic foundation, but then eventually allows for idiosyncratic touches to break the mold. There's the geometric framing of subjects and their environments invoking Ozu, the boxy 1.37:1 aspect ratio reminiscent of Dreyer (particularly The Passion of Joan of Arc), the static framing wherein the camera rarely, if ever, moves; an obvious nod to Bresson. However, every so often Schrader deviates from this aesthetic--an odd camera movement here, a hint of surrealism there--which purposefully stands out, jolting the audience into active participation. It's a film obsessed with the themes and motifs Schrader has been investigating his entire career; using the "God's lonely man" template in order to riff on modern radicalism, ecology, and suffering as a call to arms. Opening with a slow dolly pushing in on a white Dutch Reform Church in upstate New York, First Reformed seems to be announcing itself as serious slow cinema. The delight and surprise of Schrader's film, though, is just how tonally audacious it becomes; morphing from dead-eyed debates about religion and environmentalism into darkly comedic sequences of self-destruction and secular/spiritual euphoria.

The film centers on Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke), a middle-aged pastor in charge of the antiquated First Reformed chapel, which acts as a kind of tourist stop en route to Abundant Life, the megachurch down the street led by charismatic Pastor Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer). Toller is a man isolated; his faith torn, his internal psyche shattered. We learn that his son died in the Iraq War, and that his quiet demeanor and friendly smile betray deep-seated anxieties. Jeffers, who is overseeing First Reformed's 250th anniversary re-consecration, seems to trust Toller only as much as he can keep him in line, considering a dubious climate denier CEO (Michael Gaston) is helping finance the ceremony. Toller is skeptical; especially after meeting pregnant Mary (Amanda Seyfried) and her mentally unstable husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger), a man who turns out to be a radical environmentalist. 

Toller's conversations with Michael cause him to deeply question the ways in which the religious community have denied the destruction wrought upon the planet, leading to a sense of self-doubt and finally, obsessive mania. As played by Hawke in the best performance of his career, Toller is a man unhealthily trapped inside his own thoughts; choosing to write his daily ruminations into a journal (mirroring the narrative strategy of Taxi Driver), while pissing blood and drinking himself into oblivion. Instead of relying on his boyishness, Hawke allows the wrinkles on his face and the grey in his hair to communicate how the aging process--coupled with internal/spiritual turmoil--can systematically break down body and mind. It's a great performance; subtle, heartbreaking, and simmering with rage which may, if provoked, rise to the surface.

Halfway through First Reformed, a horrific incident occurs, which turns Toller from a passive observer into a politicized believer. In a way, Toller's rebirth is similar to what happened to Schrader himself. Raised in a strict Calvinist home, Schrader eventually discovered the transcendental foreign cinema of Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, et al. For him, it was akin to a religious conversion. For Toller, the sins of man against the environment are a microcosm of their vile apathy writ large. Those profiting and engaging in such sins must be punished and atone. Like Travis Bickle, Toller believes himself to be some kind of avenging angel. When his his ex-wife, Esther (Victoria Hill), who leads the megachurch's choir, reaches out to him out of genuine care and concern, Toller's rebuke of her is somehow just as brutal as Bickle's brothel killing spree. Here is a man lost and flailing; and yet we empathize with him because there's a human longing for the world to make sense, to be governed by moral order, to have purpose.

First Reformed, despite its slow cinema pedigree, is gripping stuff-- intellectually dense, surprisingly funny, and aesthetically daring-- culminating in a finale where Schrader completely abandons the rules and goes for broke. The camera swirls, the music blares, and the audience sits slack-jawed in the throes of cinematic rapture. Is the ending hopeful? Blasphemous? A fever dream? Has Toller found fulfillment by embracing his suffering? Such questions abound after the screen goes black, but one thing is certain; First Reformed is a stone cold masterwork.

 

 

 

 

 

How to Talk to Girls at Parties

 

Cast: Alex Sharp, Elle Fanning, Ruth Wilson, Nicole Kidman, Stephen Campbell Moore, Eloise Smyth, Matt Lucas, Ethan Lawrence, A.J. Lewis, Joanna Scanlan

Director: John Cameron Mitchell

Running time: 1 hour 42 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Adapted from a Neil Gaiman short story of the same name by John Cameron Mitchell and Philippa Goslett, How to Talk to Girls at Parties aims to be a punk intergalactic love story, but as directed by Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Itch, Rabbit Hole), the film's evocation of the 1977 Croydon punk scene is purely cosmetic. Meanwhile, the love story is devoid of any emotional or dramatic stakes; reduced to two characters making googly eyes while romping around London in montage. Never mind this is a movie about a horde of alien visitors bent on lulling unsuspecting humans into their cultic mansion; How to Talk to Girls at Parties is depressingly earth-bound. In short, it's a spirited mess; never quite finding the right tone for all it's tangental ideas and themes. One thing is for sure, though. It's certainly not "punk."  

The story begins with young Enn (Alex Sharp) running around town with his two buddies, John (Ethan Lawrence) and Vic (A.J. Lewis) doing things a lot of young kids do in punk movies; trashing stuff, spitting, cursing, and basically acting like royal assholes. Of course, they don't really care about the ethos of punk. Instead, adopting the fashion and slogans is simply a way to get laid, and one of the richest areas for prowling tail is the local underground music venue, overseen by Queen Boadicea (Nicole Kidman), the aging punk with a platinum back-combed bob. Kidman's whole look is a rather shameless nod to David Bowie's wardrobe from Jim Henson's cult favorite Labyrinth, and sadly, Boadicea remains a lame archetype; relegating to bulging eyes, sneering, and representing little more than the depressed old guard. In any event, the boys eventually make their way to an afterparty at a mansion where, unbeknownst to them, a haven of chanting aliens are preparing for, well, something.

Once Enn meets Zan (Elle Fanning), an alien with a thousand yard stare and habit of licking people's faces, he's instantly smitten. Despite the overtly creepy trappings of the mansion--the color scheme is straight out of A Clockwork Orange and the inhabitants are constantly performing strange dances and ceremonial mantras-- none of the boys seems to care as long as it leads to possible sex. Of course, that is until Vic gets cornered into some possible male/female anal probing, which sends him bolting out of the party in a state of panic. What follows is basically a situation where Zan must weigh out her fascination with human boy toy Enn and her colony's interplanetary designs. Romance occurs, not so much because it makes sense from a character stand point, but because the narrative dictates that romance must occur, and the film's second half devolves into incoherence where neither the state of the galaxy is at stake nor the character's emotions.

This is all too bad, since Mitchell shows flashes of style and Fanning in particular gives Zann more nuance than the character has any reason to elicit on paper. The problem is that culture clash love stories are rarely interesting, and even with the added novelty of 70's kitsch, it's all cosmetic vamping en route to a truly laughable finale where we are expected to care about aliens wrapped in British flags jumping from buildings (Brexit metaphor, anyone?) while our two planet-crossed lovers weep and moan. None of what transpires here, especially in the final third, has anything to do with the aesthetic of punk rock (Mitchell seems to be going for a glam meets camp angle anyhow), and what we are left with is a movie without a voice. How can you make a film about the punk scene and then relegate the actual music (much less what it stands for) to the fringes, save for a key Pere Ubu reference? This is probably because How to Talk to Girls at Parties is more or less what its title implies; a shallow reading of teenage awkwardness rather than a statement on loneliness, individuality, and anti-establishment rage wrapped in a sci-fi love story.

 

 

 

 

The Criterion Corner

 

Z

Director: Costa-Gavras

Year of release: 1969

Running time: 2 hours 7 minutes

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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 Greek-born filmmaker Costa-Gavras' 1969 searing political thriller, Z.


“Any resemblance to real events, to persons living or dead, is not accidental. It is DELIBERATE".

Thus begins Costa-Gavras’ 1969 thriller/procedural/political diatribe, Z; a film famous for not only influencing an entire generation of politically-minded filmmakers, but also actively engaging in a revolutionary debate as it was occurring. More than simply the story of a left-wing politician (Yves Montand) killed by a passing motorist, Z is the work of a filmmaker in peak control of his powers; the camera swooping, the editing jaggedly propulsive, the synth/folk score by Mikis Theodorakis giving everything a sense of playful danger. There's also intentional humor here too--this isn't some self-serious slog even though the subject matter is very serious--especially from side characters like a blue-collar witness (George Géret), who wants to testify against the corrupt powers even after being beaten to a pulp and landing himself in the hospital. 

In terms of plot, Z is essentially a fictionalized account of the 1963 killing of Greek opposition leader Gregoris Lambrakis in front of witnesses and police, but it never feels like a dull history lesson. Montand's sensitive, deeply layered performance as the Lambrakis stand-in certainly helps give the film's second half an air of tragedy after he's clubbed to death in the streets following a political speech. As the Royal Court conspire to cover up the murder as a drunk-driving accident, Gavras ingeniously plays around with the timeline, introducing new characters and incidents; with two particular action set-pieces (one where a Montand ally jumps onto the killer's moving vehicle, and the other where an opposition lawyer is chased along sidewalks and into a park) emerging as highlights.

Though obviously an attack on the fascist-leaning right, Z never descends into parody or leftist propaganda. This is mostly due to Gavras’ adeptness at handling genre elements; if anything, the film moves like a breathless thriller, complete with traditional thug baddies (Marcel Bozzuffi and Renato Salvatori, both having a ball), giving everything a fast-paced energy. Additionally, the gorgeously grainy imagery by renown cinematographer Raoul Coutard, clever time-shifting narrative structure, and Montand's dignified performance makes for a powerful piece of political art. Timely, resonant, and an essential addition to The Criterion Collection  

Movie Pick of the Week

 

The Nothing Factory

Director: Pedro Pinho

Year of release: 2018

Running time: 2 hours 57 minutes

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Sitting somewhere between Stephane Brize's drama The Measure of a Man and the Dardenne’s Two Days, One Night with a dash of filmmaker Michel Gomes (Tabu, Arabian Nights), Pedro Pinho's The Nothing Factory is the working class zero opus you didn't know you needed. A film with a limited audience, Pinho's neorealist epic about workers in an elevator factory who are being pushed out by corporate managers is nonetheless a universally searing portrait of the state completely giving up on the working class.

Filmed in a documentary style; with handheld cameras and what feels like a mixture of professional and non-actors, The Nothing Factory differs from the realist working class dramas of the Dardennes, for instance, because it leaches out the individual and instead focuses on the systematic breakdown of the workplace. Many scenes simply feature workers sitting around discussing their plights. In one bravura sequence, an extended argument about Marxism, ecolology, and capitalism becomes one of the most intellectually stimulating moments of the year. Even if we don't know these people, their passionate speechifying gives way to empathy and finally, anger. 

Though slapdash and sprawling at 177 minutes, Pinho's film is also strangely intimate; showing the mundane aspects of the worker's lives--drinking, performing in local punk shows, getting their nails done, playing soccer--and then contrasting that with the imposing sterility of the factory. In fact, one could make the case that this relatively empty space once bustling with activity is in fact the film's protagonist. In any case, the workers' choice to strike and eventually self-manage becomes a fulcrum in which to see the ways in which the Portugal's crumbling infrastructure is permanent and omnilateral; signaling the end of a certain way of life. Instead of fist pumping, flags, or violent political action, there are intense debates with management which eventually shift to collective power gaining control. Though mostly grainy and naturalistic, The Nothing Factory does go expressionistic with a late swerve into musical numbers where the marginalized workers get a chance to sing and dance; if only for a moment, to forget their working class woes by rhythmically sticking it to the man.

 

 

 

 

 

Music Pick of the Week

 

Sleep

The Sciences

Year of release: 2018

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It's reasonable to assume that after nearly two decades, rumors of a new record from stoner metal revolutionaries Sleep was little more than the woozy mutterings of a bong-ripped slacker from the 90's who used to be cool. However, on April 20th (take a hit, maaan), the San Jose, Ca heavyweights did just that; releasing their fourth full-length, The Sciences, to an unsuspecting audience who had either forgotten they still existed or were primed to discover their sonic onslaught for the very first time.

Now in their 40s, the members of Sleep sound as sludgey and propulsive as ever; delivering an album full of thick basslines, heavy riffs, and of course, singer Al Cisneros' Ozzy-like mantras about the cosmic powers of weed. Yes, there's actually a song called “Marijuananaut’s Theme” here, and being under the influence while listening to the psych-doom crescendos certainly helps, but Sleep are no gimmick band. This is effortlessly performed stoner metal that ebbs and flows like a flaming, hurtling beast. Along with Cisneros, the power of guitarist Matt Pike and drummer Jason Roeder (both of whom have had success with projects like High on Fire and Neurosis) adds to the sense of escaping from the world. Even if previous efforts like 1992's Holy Mountain and 2003's Dopesmoker (which was actually an old recording from the 90's re-edited) are now considered canon within the genre, they were essentially demos; made with a lack of means and proper recording equipment. The thing about The Sciences is that it sounds absolutely phenomenal without once sacrificing that fuzzy, distorted charge that has become the band's signature.

Throughout The Sciences, Sleep lay down massive lurching riffs ("Sonic Titan"), seesawing guitar solos ("Antarcticans Thawed") and even some ambient tracks (opener “The Sciences” and closer “The Botanist,”), all foregrounded by Cisneros bellowing into the ganja-infested void. This is the kind of Black Sabbath worship that understands what made Sabbath great; (rather than the trite appropriation we often get with younger metal bands these days) by using repetition and heaviness in a way transcending pastiche. Ultimately, The Sciences is the kind of escape from the world we need right now; in all its crushing, doom-laden, bong-ripped glory. 

   

 

The Rider

 

Cast: Brady Jandreau, Tim Jandreau, Lilly Jandreau, Cat Clifford, Terri Dawn Pourier, Lane Scott, Tanner Langdeau, James Calhoon, Derrick Janis

Director: Chloé Zhao

Running time: 1 hour 44 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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There's something about certain areas of the American landscape which seem to attract those outside the country looking to find beauty in the most unlikeliest of places. Chinese filmmaker Chloé Zhao’s sophomore feature The Rider taps into this quickly disappearing pocket of the U.S. in a way which speaks directly to this fascination. In this case, its the area near South Dakota's Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, which was the setting of Zhao's previous film, 2015's Songs My Brother Taught Me. The director's interest in this material is genuine, and even though The Rider is an often beautiful film, it's also a depoliticized work which blurs fact and fiction in order to shield itself from the broader context regarding the fading myth of the American cowboy.

Real-life bronc rider Brady Jandreau plays a version of himself as Brady Blackburn, a local cowboy recovering from a traumatic head injury. His family, which includes real-life father Tim, and younger sister Lily (who has Asperger’s syndrome) are barely scraping by, compounded by the fact that Brady's dreams of riding stardom are seriously threatened by the fact that one more time on the horse could be his last. Meanwhile, the shadow of Brady's paraplegic friend, Lane Scott (also playing a version of himself) hangs over the proceedings. In real life, the charismatic Scott was injured in a 2013 car crash, and Zhao cannily uses old footage of the former bull-riding star to reinforce the inherent tragedy of the situation.

Though The Rider utilizes a docu-drama approach, the story itself is rather pedestrian; playing more like a typical TV drama than the impressionistic mood piece style would initially suggest. The logical outcome of the narrative seems to be Will Brady retire his dreams, or get back on the literal and metaphorical horse, and where the film eventually goes isn't entirely novel, either. However, what does work is the presence of Jandreau, who is essentially playing out a slightly tweaked version of his actual life, and his scenes opposite his sister and adrenaline-junkie cowboy friends crackle with naturalism. Zhao also demystifies the allure of America's heartland; adding layers of disillusionment and hopelessness along with the visual acknowledgement of the physical abuse such a lifestyle entails. 

At times, The Rider breaks from the documentary approach to allow moments of lyricism and cinematic grandeur. While sequences of Brady riding along a meadow at sunset are undeniably gorgeous, the use of soaring music and slow motion also draw attention to the hybrid approach, thus lessening the emotional impact. The film's best moments, like an extended scene of Brady training an unruly horse, are observed simply and unremarkably; giving rise to the notion that watching someone with a tremendous talent do what they do best is its own reward.

Comparisons to Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler are apt here, but unlike that film, which seem to revel in its depiction of the human body's deterioration, Zhao sees no such heroism in the act of self-flagellation. Instead, Brady is a young man cut off from the rest of the world; sullen, brooding, but inexorably tied to caring for his family and his love for the rodeo. If this world of hyper-macho men risking life and limb seems superficially hollow, The Rider wisely observes these people without judgement and generates empathy for a cultural milieu usually reserved for mockery. If it had examined the region's history of colonialism and moved away from its more typical story elements, Zhao's well-meaning picture could have harnessed sociopolitical power. As it stands, The Rider is an occasionally affecting story of a young man who sees no other option apart from his passions; with director and star finding uncharacteristic beauty in deconstructing the myth of the rugged American cowboy.

 

 

 

 

 

The Sonic Vault

 

Introducing The Sonic Vault; in which your tireless critic dives into the past for records which have in some way defined his music obsessions. The first album up for discussion is Billy Corgan's post-Smashing Pumpkins side-project Zwan and their 2003 release Mary, Star of the Sea


ZWAN

Mary, Star of the Sea

Year of release: 2003

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The 1990's were a decade defined by the self-righteous rock star. From the flannel-wearing slacker turned grunge hero Kurt Cobain to the drug-addled excess of Scott Weiland, it was the last time in recent memory where a single personality could sell a movement. If the aughts have seen the idea of the rock star being supplanted to hip-hop artists like Kayne West, then the 90's were the final gasp of (mostly) white men doing their best deity pose while cranking out guitar solos. Billy Corgan was perhaps the apex of this trend; with The Smashing Pumpkins becoming arguably the most successful band to come out of the alt-rock scene. Corgan, too, was something of a ego-driven believer in his own mythos as a rock n'roll savior. However, this mythos, like most deriving from hubris, soon became laughable once the man reached middle age. Similar to beat poet frontman Jim Morrison, Corgan was someone who earnestly bought into his own hyped genius. Still, the fact that the Pumpkins were able to crank out more than one classic record should not be minimized, even as Corgan often downplayed the artistic merits of his own bandmates in order to elevate himself.

This is all to say that before eventually reforming the Pumpkins in 2005, there was this little album called Mary, Star of the Sea under the Zwan moniker that pretty much came and went. It should be noted that the record was a financial flop upon its 2003 release, and that tumultuous in-fighting (which Corgan bitched about in some damning interviews) led to the group breaking up just as quickly as they had appeared. Still, Mary, Star of the Sea is a legitimately fantastic listen; more pop-oriented than anything Corgan had done up until that point, with melodies and hooks for days. Essentially a supergroup featuring guitarist David Pajo (of Slint), guitarist Matt Sweeny, bassist Paz Lenchantin (of A Perfect Circle), and Pumpkins stalwart drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, the first impression is just how upbeat the music comes across. What happened? Had Billy traded in his black Gothic robes and snarling angst for optimistic love songs?


"If the final years of the Pumpkins had seen drug abuse, delusions of grandeur, and in the case of 2000's Machina, critical and commercial disaster, then Zwan seems to have been a way of resurrecting a more youthful sense of purpose..."


Thematically, the album trades in the self-pitying gloom of past Corgan dirges for spiritual renewal and, umm, yes "love." There's a certain cheesiness to Mary, Star of the Sea which uses shimmery guitar chords, backup female vocals, wailing solos, and intricate drumming in a way not dissimilar to some of the dopey grandiosity of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. If the final years of the Pumpkins had seen drug abuse, delusions of grandeur, and in the case of 2000's Machina, critical and commercial disaster, then Zwan seems to have been a way of resurrecting a more youthful sense of purpose. Never mind that Corgan was in his late 30's at the time. Mary, Star of the Sea is still a glorious throwback to the simplicity and anthemic songwriting of 1993's Siamese Dream.

All this talk of the Pumpkins is inevitable since Zwan, despite the integral achievements of the other band members, feels very much like a re-funneling of Corgan's past. Sunny, bright, and pop-friendly, the bulk of the album's 14 songs are like spinning the dial through 90's FM radio and landing on a series of head-bobbing hits. Though there a few clunkers in the track list ("Baby, Let's Rock", "Settle Down"), the majority of the music here crafts a mood of lazy summertime bliss with the occasional overdub, Chamberlin's herculean drumming, and a squealing guitar solo.

Lyrically, Corgan still waxes about religious zeal and messiah complexes, but the cosmic "bigness" of such things were paired down into stadium-friendly rock with hints of actual emotion. Lost loves. Romantic yearning. Spiritual uplift. It's all here in spades. On "Declarations of Faith", Billy sings, Maybe we were born to kiss another/Maybe we were born to run forever/Maybe we were born to come together/Whatever, and the results are surprisingly touching. Elsewhere, the acoustic love ballad "Of a Broken Heart" and the keyboard-led "Desire" crackle with startling intimacy. Of course, Corgan just can't help himself and eventually gives into bombast with the 14-minute ”Jesus, I/Mary Star of the Sea”, a proggy detour into lumbering melodies and psychedelic noodling that nonetheless climaxes rather spectacularly. Seems like even a wayward soul can revert to overzealous proclamations. For better or worse, the guy had never been one for subtlety.

Mary, Star of the Sea is the kind of album that reminds one of the scattered brilliance Corgan once yielded during his early to mid 90's heyday. It's less bombastic than a Pumpkins record, but still manages to have those nuggets of pop melody and distinctive guitar tones that became staples of the decade's sound. It now feels like something of a lost treasure; relegated to the post-Pumpkins downfall of Corgan's career slide into self-parody. In truth, it is easily the best thing he has made since Siamese Dream, and nothing since (including his revamped Pumpkins output), even comes close to approximating the grand melodies and concise songwriting on display here. If the days of the self-righteous rock star are indeed a thing of the past, then we can still remember fondly the days when prophet Billy stopped whining and decided to smile.