Captain Marvel

 

Cast: Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Jude Law, Ben Mendelsohn, Annette Bening, Djimon Hounsou, Clark Gregg, Lee Pace

Director: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck 

Running time: 2 hours 4 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Within the ever-expanding, box office-bursting, decade-plus journey of the Marvel cinematic universe, do we really need yet another origin story? Well, the truth of the matter is Captain Marvel exists mostly to prime salivating fanboys for the forthcoming Avengers: Endgame, in which Carol Danvers (aka Vers/Captain Marvel) will presumably go head to head with finger-snapping supervillain Thanos. However, for all the cynicism laced into these corporate products, there’s something pleasurable about directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s 1990s-set romp; right down to cheesy needle drop music cues and obvious jokes about dial up Internet and Radio Shack. There’s some convoluted cosmic business involving Vers training with her Kree mentor Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) in order to do battle with an alien race known as the Skrulls, but that more or less comprises the film’s opening 20 minutes.

Once Vers crash lands on earth through the roof of a Blockbuster Video circa 1995, she casually glances at a VHS copy of The Right Stuff before teaming up with Samuel L. Jackson’s government agent Nick Fury (aided by uncanny de-aging tech) in order to stop the imminent Skrull invasion. Boden and Fleck’s screenplay, co-written by Geneva Robertson-Dworet, uses its feminist-leaning messaging bluntly; which may offend those wanting more scenes of Vers smiling while kicking ass. To wit, there’s even a nifty scene where a scuzzy dude on a motorcycle asks her for a smile, and she responds by stealing his bike and peeling off; set to the blaring sounds of 90s alt-rock band Hole. All of this brings us to Brie Larsen; who takes a rather impossible role and delivers a performance full of wit, humor, earnestness, and (yes) emotion. Another critical aspect of Carol Danvers’s backstory; leaked out gradually through flashbacks and memory spurts, is that her emotional velocity often overcame her ability to think rationally. She’s spent a lifetime getting knocked down and ridiculed (as a child by her father, in the military, at bars teeming with sexists), and the early moments with Law’s overseer are key in terms of implementing this gendered messaging. The arc of her character, therefore, is simple yet empowering; that she must befriend and accept her emotions as her greatest strength in order to become the powerful hero humanity deserves.

In terms of plotting and execution, Captain Marvel is decidedly middle of the road (as is the case, sadly, with the majority of these movies). There’s a chase scene set on a train involving a shape-shifting Skrull (and one limber old lady) that’s kinetic and well paced, and the buddy cop banter between Larson and Jackson works well enough. Ben Mendolhlsen also shows up as a Skrull named Talos, and what at first appears to be yet another rote villain role for the talented actor becomes something more nuanced, humorous, and surprising. However, the intergalactic space battles and third act where Danvers (now fully transformed into Captain Marvel) flies through ships like a human photon blast, are par for the course; the kind of rubbery pre-visualized CGI action beats which may give audiences what they expect, but diminish the film’s stronger attributes.

Speaking of which, the film’s best section involves Danvers making a pit stop to visit her former Air Force friend Maria (Lashana Lynch), and their quiet scenes together, mostly involving the bond they once shared, is truly something we haven’t seen in a Marvel film before. It’s a bold move; since most audiences will probably want Danvers to snap out of her amnesia-ridden state and just start exercising her powers, but the fact that Boden and Fleck actually invest time in this female friendship is noteworthy.

As Captain Marvel moves towards its inevitable climatic showdown (and setup for Avengers: Endgame), we get a cute cat, more jokes about slow CD-rom drives, and even a fight scene scored to No Doubt’s “Just a Girl.” Even if the film ultimately adopts the studio house style and only adds a few new (or in this case, retro) wrinkles to an existing template, Larsen’s intelligent determination, emotional pathos, and photon-blasting hands are more than enough to maintain balance in the MCU. Just don’t ask her to smile more.


Transit

 

Cast: Franz Rogowski, Paula Beer, Godehard Giese, Lilien Batman, Maryam Zaree, Barbara Auer, Matthias Brandt, Sebastian Hülk, Emilie de Preissac, Antoine Oppenheim, Ronald Kukulies, Alex Brendemühl

Director: Christian Petzold

Running time: 1 hour 42 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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In films like Barbara and Phoenix, German writer-director Christian Petzold mined past atrocities for subversive effect, and his latest film Transit, plays like a political noir wrapped in an anachronistic setting where past and present collide. An adaptation of Anna Seghers’s 1944 novel of same name which focused on the authors’ escape from Nazi Germany to France, Petzold’s version uses time elliptically; almost as if events are taking place in an alternate-historical reality.

The narrative centers on a technician named Georg (Franz Rogowski), who carries the final manuscripts from a famous author who committed suicide into the safe zone of Marseilles. Georg hopes to flee to America but doesn’t have papers, and much of the film’s knotty plotting comes down to the implication of his hinted Jewishness. Within the world of the film, references are made to internment camps, but ethnicity is largely sidelined in favor of economic disparity. Of course, it’s not a stretch to link the two, and part of the brilliance of Transit is how it utilizes the modern-day milieu and then strips it of contemporary signifiers such as cellphones and computers.

Georg’s initial aim was to return the dead author’s manuscripts to his wife for a sum of money, but things take a turn once he becomes land-locked in Marseilles awaiting the approval of his transit visa. Through fluid editing and compositions shot through reflective surfaces, Petzold conjures a feeling of being stuck in a loop, as Georg continually gets trapped under layers of government bureaucracy. In the meantime, he strikes up a fatherly relationship with a young immigrant boy named Driss (Lilien Batman), and keeps having odd encounters with the hauntingly beautiful Marie (Paula Beers). Eventually, it’s revealed that she’s actually the deceased author’s wife, who keeps hoping her displaced husband will return. Georg and Marie’s meetings are baffling at first, but eventually their courtship becomes heartbreaking since both of them have been dehumanized. What Petzold is ultimately after is the idea of personal worth, of the ways in which the state strips away the identity of those deemed “less than human.” Like his Holocaust drama Phoenix, he does this not by using obvious allegory, but by suggesting that past transgressions are often filtered through historical generational trauma.

The indefinite time period where Transit unfolds makes the film intoxicating, as Petzold never betrays the noir signifiers by thumbing his nose at genre. At the same time, the picture’s ambiguity create a disorienting effect; as it’s never quite clear where the danger is coming from or even what the larger implications of the story are. By assuming the identity of the dead author, Georg essentially becomes a stand-in for all nameless refugees seeking escape. Meanwhile, an unseen narrator infiltrates the narrative as Georg begins reading the deceased’s novel; further highlighting the ways in which storytelling (unreliable or otherwise) is crucial to shaping our notions of history.

Transit could be labeled Kafkaesque in how it destabilizes the protagonist (who remains caught in a pile of red tape), but this also works similarly for the audience because it masterfully exploits our understanding of 21st century displacement. With the rise of Neo-Nazism and the deportation of immigrants on the rise, another period film about the Holocaust (however noble), might not carry the same weight since historical amnesia tends to set in. By giving us a speculative timeline and characters who are constantly shifting, Petzold cannily shows us that no matter what decade we find ourselves in, fascism is always poised to take center stage.




Everybody Knows

 

Cast: Penélope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Jaime Lorent, Ricardo Darín, Bárbara Lennie, Inma Cuesta, Carla Campra, Eduard Fernández, Elvira Mínguez, Roger Casamajor, Sara Sálamo, Sergio Castellanos, Ramón Barea, Marianella Rojas

Director: Asghar Farhadi 

Running time: 2 hours 13 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Over the course of an exemplary career, Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi has perfected the domestic melodrama. However, the particular reference points of the genre; (i.e. sensational plotting, big emotions, and stereotypical characters) don’t exactly apply to the Farhadi brand because he’s always been after something more humane. His latest class consciousness thriller, Everybody Knows, allows him the rare opportunity to move away from the tightly restricted areas of Iran and embrace the wide open vistas of Madrid, Spain. The film still deals in usual Farhadian themes—betrayal, familial secrets, economic disparity— but this time the emotional lives of his characters aren’t operating inside an oppressive societal regime. Instead, the early sections of Everybody Knows maintains a light, sun-dappled tone; following working-class farmer, Paco (Javier Bardem), and his ex-lover Laura (Penélope Cruz), a woman of higher social standing who travels from Buenos Aires with her children to attend the wedding of her sister, Ana (Inma Cuesta).

Laura’s family is warm and boisterous (evidenced by the dancing/wine-guzzling wedding ceremony), but also bitter about their fortune being whittled away by her alcoholic husband. The small-town gossip spreads like wildfire as the film’s title suggests, implicating not only Paco and Laura’s past romance, but also the shocking disappearance of one of Laura’s daughters. This plot turn is unsurprising only because Farhadi has used this trick before in his devastating 2015 film About Elly, and the manner in which the family’s buried secrets trickle to the surface is also par for the course. In pictures like The Past and The Salesman, Farhadi managed to couch blunt symbolism and emotional rawness under the template of geographical, socioeconomic, and political specificity; coming off much denser than the usual garden variety melodrama. Unfortunately, Everybody Knows eschews this kind of subtlety; in part because the larger geographical canvas of Spain makes the proceedings less claustrophobic than the director’s Iran-set melodramas.

Whatever the case, Farhadi leans into the genre elements more forcefully here; getting caught up in narrative machinations involving the kidnapped teen, ransom money, and foreboding text messages. Of course, the actual answer to the mystery is never meant to be dramatically satisfying in a Farhadi film. Indeed, it’s the moral quandaries and class divisions which fuel his flawed characters that ultimately matters. However, too much time is spent moving Paco and Laura around like plot chess pieces to bother with the inner turmoil of their shared history, though Bardem and Cruz are infinitely watchable. By the end, it’s clear Farhadi has allowed the obviousness of his symbolism (escaping pigeons, a crumbling church) to overwhelm the emotional power at the heart of his story.

Everybody Knows has the shape and structure of vintage Asghar Farhadi, but lacks the searing humanism which earns its sentiments by actually engaging with the ugliness of human nature. This time, the soap-opera elements which have defined the filmmaker’s work are used not as entry points into the moral contradictions of his characters, but rather, as screenwriting contrivance.

Movie Pick of the Week

 

Braid

Director: Mitzi Peirone

Year of release: 2019

Running time: 1 hour 22 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Flashy maximalism when it comes to the horror genre is usually reserved for male filmmakers, but Mitzi Peirone’s disorienting debut feature, Braid, is the kind of blunt force trauma to the senses which not only upends expectations, but questions whether or not we should have expectations in the first place. This is the type of film which layers on the hallucinatory visuals, askew camera angles, roving dolly shots, and unsympathetic female characters to the point where emotional investment is all but arbitrary.

Braid initially positions itself as a psychological thriller; with drug dealers Petula (Imogen Waterhouse) and Tilda (Sarah Hay) fleeing NYC after a police raid before arriving at the mansion of isolated childhood friend Daphne (Madeline Brewer). Weaving flashbacks into her trippy anti-narrative, Peirone gradually allows us to see how the bonds of female friendship can mutate into an insidious evil; personified by an absurdist game where Daphne plays dress up as the mother, Petula takes on the persona of a visiting doctor, and Tilda adopts the angst-ridden teenage daughter.

Braid is a twisted, psychedelic horror exercise which at times recalls the stylized camp of 90’s era Brian De Palma mixed with the extremity of Gaspar Noé, but from a decidedly female perspective. The fact that the only male character here is a bumbling detective (Scott Cohen) who gets dispatched in hyper-gory fashion, is proof enough this is a woman’s world. Above all else, it proves Peirone’s aesthetic tricks are in service of her film’s central thesis; that growing up female can be confusing, beautiful, terrifying, and exhilarating.

Music Pick of the Week

 

Pom Poko

Birthday

Year of release: 2019

by Jericho Cerrona

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Norwegian four-piece Pom Poko want to party, and they’re bringing a VIP list of influencers with them; namely Deerhoof, Battles, Marnie Stern, and French musician/poet Lizzy Mercier Descloux. Of course, simply name-checking various artists to which a band is indebted scans reductive, and on their exuberant debut album, Birthday, Pom Poko manage to break out into their own groove. Having met and studied jazz at Trondheim Music Conservatory, there’s a technicality to the outfit’s brand of art-rock; with odd time signatures, off-kilter arrangements, and singer Ragnhild Fangel Jamtveit’s childlike vocals, but there’s sublime pop hooks here too.

Taking their name after a 1994 Studio Ghibli film is instructive, since much of Birthday carries a quirky Japanese vibe (especially Jamveit’s yelping vocal delivery, which is reminiscent of Deerhoof’s Satomi Matsuzaki). Even if the overall tenor of the album is upbeat, slower to mid-tempo tracks like “My Work is Full of Art” and “Honey” does find the band flexing subtler sonic arrangements. The breakneck guitar riffs and cooing vocals on “My Blood” and percussive cowbell-adjacent “Crazy Energy Night” tend to be the norm, infusing the proceedings with a dizzying sense of play. The intricate guitar work, propulsive drumming, and odd entry points into melody might be accomplished with the inventiveness of trained jazz musicians, but there’s nothing calculated about Pom Poko’s joyous attempts at creating warped pop music.

Climax

 

Cast: Sofia Boutella, Romain Guillermic, Souheila Yacoub, Kiddy Smile, Claude Gajan Maull, Giselle Palmer, Taylor Kastle, Thea Carla Schott, Sharleen Temple, Lea Vlamos, Alaia Alsafir, Kendall Mugler, Lakdhar Dridi, Adrien Sissoko, Mamadou Bathily, Alou Sidibe, Ashley Biscette, Vince Galliot Cumant

 Director: Gaspar Noé

Running time: 1 hour 36 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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When it comes to extreme cinema, there are few modern voices as brazen as French filmmaker Gaspar Noé (aside from Lars von Trier, natch). His 2002 psycho-thriller Irreversible had two sequences worthy of the extreme pantheon; one where a man’s face is smashed to pulp by a fire extinguisher, and the other being the infamous rape scene filmed in one long, grueling shot. Then there was 2009’s Enter the Void; an out-of-body sensory experience where the camera was literally a floating POV traveling through the neon-lit hell of Tokyo, and yes, the lens at one point goes directly into a woman’s vaginal canal. With his latest button-pusher, Climax, Noé is up to his old tricks once again with arguably the best unintentional comedy of 2019 so far; a wildly overwrought descent into madness which plays like a Eurotrash version of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò directed by a fleet of drone cameras.

To his credit, Noé does seem to understand the absurdity of his premise; setting his film entirely inside a grungy rehearsal space circa 1996, set to the throbbing sounds of EDM music. Populating these small quarters are a series of annoying archetypes who, when they aren’t dancing up a storm, are entertaining philosophical discussions about such things as the finer points of rimming. Truthfully, the film does contain one truly extraordinary sequence; an exuberant opening dance number where each performer gets a chance to strut their stuff with fearless physicality, and Noé is smart enough to capture this deranged ballet in one long continuous take. However, as soon as the rehearsals end, we are forced to endure long stretches of dialogue which consist mainly of racially and sexually diverse dancers talking shit and hoping to score in more ways than one. This inane banter is all set-up, naturally, for Noé’s predictable swerve into the nightmarish abyss. Someone, it seems, has spiked the sangria with LSD.

Part of the problem with Climax is the lack of characters to really invest in. Once the bad times start rolling after the acid kicks in, there’s very little reason to care about what happens to any of these poor souls. The film is mostly an exercise in extremes which reaches levels of comedic absurdity. Some of the personalities do come through, however; such as Romain Guillermic’s swaggering ladies man, Sofia Boutella’s bi-curious choreographer and big-boned DJ Daddy (Kiddy Smile), who has a memorable moment chewing on a blonde wig once the drugs take flight. Ultimately, the film is less interested in the psychology of its performers than in the ways performance and movement can break down social order. As the dancers start “tripping”, Noé’s roving camera follows their spastic movements, hallucinations, euphoric freak-outs, and awful behavior in a voyeuristic manner suggesting that we too, as the audience, are under the influence. In a way, the film becomes a more ominous version of Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, where a group of wankers are unwilling (or unable) to leave their geographical space as the world closes in on them.

Unlike Buñuel, however, Noé lacks satiric imagination, and therefore the one-note maximalism of Climax starts to grow tedious, even as sequences where someone is set on fire or a woman punches herself in the stomach to abort her unborn baby play as comedic highlights. What’s supposed to be shocking and disturbing comes off more desperate than anything else; a telling example of a filmmaker making his name on shock tactics early in his career being pigeonholed into providing minor tweaks to the same formula. For some provocateurs, it can work over the long haul, (see von Trier’s masterful meta-commentary The House That Jack Built), but in this case, provocation without actual ideas can feel a lot like drinking the spiked cinematic sangria. Noé urgently wants us to come away with a visceral sense of shock and awe, but what’s really left after all the bodies stop twitching, is a soft tickle in the funny bone.

High Flying Bird

 

Cast: André Holland, Zazie Beetz, Melvin Gregg, Bill Duke, Sonja Sohn, Zachary Quinto, Kyle MacLachlan

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Anyone expecting a nuts and bolts sports movie with underdog motifs and come-from-behind victory laps will be largely baffled by Steven Soderbergh’s High Flying Bird; a film which digs into “the game on top of the game.” Of course, this comes as little surprise given the director’s track record for setting up familiar story beats and then pivoting away to explore other ideas. Along with screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney (Moonlight), Soderbergh has taken themes of technology, wealth, and sports negotiations and placed them within the context of white capitalist power structures. In that sense, High Flying Bird is more about endemic racism than characters dealing with an NBA lockout.

The film centers on agent Ray Burke (André Holland), who is vouching for young NBA draft pick hopeful Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg) amidst a stalemate between team owners and the Players Association. The former is represented by Kyle MacLachlan’s invisible mustache-twirling villain and the latter by Myra (Sonja Sohn), who seems to have the players best interests at heart. There’s also Ray’s assistant (Zazie Beetz) running her own game against the system, as well as a smug exec played by Zachary Quinto, who’s constantly reminding everyone how their jobs are in jeopardy due to the lockout. With a very sharp script by McCraney, whose heightened dialogue is reminiscent of the works of David Mamet and Aaron Sorkin, High Flying Bird initially positions itself as a modern take on fighting against the powers that be, but that would ultimately be too easy a position (however understandable) for the film to take. Instead, Soderbergh and McCraney go one step further; showing how Ray’s attempts at breaking the rules in order to start a revolution would have consequences that not everyone, including people of color, would be on board with.

One such dissenter comes in the form of Bill Duke’s Bronx gym coach, who has been around the block several times over and has more of a long game view of the situation than Ray. At one point, he even asks the question “why set it up, if it isn’t going to last forever?” which underlines the dichotomy of reforming a system built upon wealthy whites profiting from a largely African-American sport. On the other hand, the film is also smart about showing how the allure of fame, money, and popularity can trap young black athletes into following the rules set up by this institution. This struggle, personified by Gregg’s green NBA prospect, is bracketed by interview scenes with real-life players talking about the personal and professional challenges that come from signing to the league.

This being a Soderbergh joint, there’s also another layer which permeates the ways in which the characters interact with their environment. Specifically, the film was shot entirely on an iPhone (like last year’s psycho-drama Unsane), and this filmmaking freedom acts as a counterpoint to how media can signal change by putting the power back into the hands of black athletes. To wit, there’s even a one-on-one game between Erick and another NBA hopeful that’s captured entirely on a phone, uploaded to the Internet, and spread across social media like a wildfire. The idea of players taking to the streets or gyms in order to gain traction against corrupt patriarchal greed is telling, and Soderbergh’s aesthetic choices—sharp angles, floating dolly shots, rigid camera pans—mirror a world where information comes in trending bursts.

Eventually, Ray’s scheme to upend the system by giving players more creative and financial power makes High Flying Bird a subversive sports movie which entertains through crisp filmmaking, snappy dialogue, and fine-tuned performances, but also nails the disturbing nature of an economic system based on racial injustice. There’s even a Chekhov's’s manilla folder containing a “Bible” given to Erick by Ray in the film’s opening moments; and its eventual reveal, set to the sounds of Richie Havens, is the kind of punctuation more rousing than any game-winning buzzer beater.

Music Pick of the Week

 

Sneaks

Highway Hypnosis

Year of release: 2019

by Jericho Cerrona

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Eva Moolchan (aka Sneaks) is cooler than you. She won’t make a big deal about it, but it’s true. Starting out playing bass in a bunch of Washington DC punk bands before cutting her teeth with solo efforts like 2016's Gymnastics and 2017's It's a Myth carries a certain trajectory, even if those albums felt more like sketches than full-blown concepts. On what could rightly be considered her feature-length debut, Highway Hypnosis, Sneaks’s stoned swagger comes on methodically like a midnight drive inside a cloud of vapor. Eschewing the post-punk energy of her previous material for a series of tripped-out bmp electro and clipped beats, Moolchan sings/speaks/purrs like a young woman who (yes) has a sense of mischievous cool, but also an endearing goofiness. At times, Highway Hypnosis sounds like M.I.A. filtered through 90’s rave dance music, but somehow comes off even weirder than that.

It would have been easy for Sneaks to blow out her sound by chasing trap-rap trends, but her emphasis on minimal beat-based music in a downtempo mode means that those hoping for a series of bangers might be disappointed. Not that there aren’t bangers here (cuts like “The Way it Goes”, “Suck It Like A Whistle” come to mind), but Moolchan is more interested in throwing sonic curveballs than pleasing commercial sensibilities. There are elements of dub, lo-fi punk, soul, and funk thrown into the mix too, but categorizing everything under a specific genre is ultimately reductive.

Highway Hypnosis spans 13 tracks and clocks in at just under 30 minutes, so no one will ever accuse Sneaks of self-indulgence, but there are more ideas (both sonically and lyrically) packed into every corner of the album than anything in her back catalog. Much of this comes down to producers Carlos Hernandez and Tony Seltzer, whose groves/beats maintain an aural minimalism while still sounding dynamic enough for Moolchan’s playful vocal delivery. Whether it be the 808 electronic drum machine and non-sequitar lyrics on “"Ecstasy", or the psychedelic groove and clicking mouth sounds on “Suck It Like a Whistle”, Sneaks takes listeners on a literal journey—through the streets of Paris, the club scenes in Portugal, the underground areas of Atlanta—while also teasing out a woozy sonic expedition. Meanwhile, seemingly unimportant pit-stops along the way; like the experimental noise-based “"Saiditzoneza", or the repetitive vocals and slap bass on “Holy Cow Never Saw a Girl Like Her”, give the record a broader canvas. The album culminates in fiery lead single “Hong Kong to Amsterdam”, which is probably the closest Sneaks has come yet to the M.I.A. comparisons; with its skittering beat, laid-back flow, and the dancey atmosphere.

However, when all is said and done and every track on Highway Hypnosis has run its course, Sneaks will still be cooler than you.

Movie Pick of the Week

 

Piercing

Director: Nicolas Pesce 

Year of release: 2019

Running time: 1 hour 22 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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In terms of self-conscious homage, Nicolas Pesce’s debut feature, The Eyes of My Mother, was an embarrassing combination of Gothic horror and Michael Haneke-cribbed nonsense. It signaled a young filmmaker aping a particular style without bothering to give us characters who felt like they were existing in the real world. Pesce’s followup, Piercing, is just as flashy, but the aesthetic here contains a playful knowingness along with two performers who manage to flesh out the emotional and psychological contours of their characters. While the film may end abruptly just as it’s beginning to take flight, Piercing goes a long way in correcting the ponderousness of The Eyes of My Mother with a little chloroform, gender politics, and deadly icepick games to liven up the action.

The picture follows Reed (Christopher Abbott), a newly minted father on the brink of madness who travels into the city in hopes of murdering a prostitute. Checking into a hotel, he disturbingly (and humorously) pantomimes his methods for gagging, stabbing, and disposing the body; all set to heightened sound design which foregrounds his unbalanced mental state. He ends up setting his sights on prostitute Jackie (Mia Wasikowska), and what follows is a stylized chamber drama in which two similarly neurotic people feel each other out; aided by Abbot and Wasikowska’s sexually coiled performances.

Piecing is highly indebted to the Italian Giallo sub-genre; with its emphasis on stalking, obsession, and slasher-movie motifs. There’s even whimsical miniature city scapes, rotary phones, and liberal borrowing of scores from Dario Argento’s Tenebrae and Deep Red, just in case we didn’t catch the reference points already. However, Pesce also conjures the off-kilter weirdness of David Lynch (especially in regards to the art design of the hotel where most of the film takes place) and the neurotic relational dramas of Paul Thomas Anderson; with the central dynamic of Phantom Thread being the obvious reference point, along with one particular line reading from Wasikowska inside a taxi clearly referencing Punch Drunk Love.

There’s enough here to suggest Pesce could one day make something which transcends its obvious influences, but for now, Piercing works as a synthesis of affectations from other filmmakers wrapped inside a black comedy about two wayward souls yearning to dive deeper into their twisted obsessions.

Velvet Buzzsaw

 

Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Zawe Ashton, Billy Magnussen, Toni Collette, John Malkovich, Natalia Dyer, Peter Gadiot, Daveed Diggs, Tom Sturridge

Director: Dan Gilroy

Running time: 1 hour 52 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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If writer-director Dan Gilroy had his way, negative responses to his latest satire/horror thriller Velvet Buzzsaw would inevitably be destroyed in a mixture of splattered paint and gushing blood, because taking down something this thoroughly mediocre would involve a level of elitism not unlike the film’s central character, critic Morf Vandewalt (Jake Gyllenhaal). Similar to the dated satire of news journalists as vampires in Gilroy’s 2014 film Nightcrawler, Velvet Buzzsaw is here to announce how the art world is a farce championing commercialism over the purity of outsider art. All of this brought to you by the cynical cash cow that is Netflix, of course.

Truthfully, there’s a nifty idea here in regards to art taking vengeance on exploiters, but Gilroy never trusts the lunacy of that premise. Instead, most of the picture spins its wheels making obvious points about art dealers while trotting out a variety of clichéd character types. Along with Gyllenhaal’s glib critic, there’s world-weary gallery owner, Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo), struggling gallery employee Josephina (Zawe Ashton), Daveed Digs as a local artist, Toni Collette in a bad blonde wig, John Malkovich as a former alcoholic painter, and young receptionist Coco (Natalia Dyer), who, in one of the film’s decent gags, keeps finding dead bodies. From a visual standpoint, Gilroy’s streamlined aesthetic has a certain efficiency, even as the self-conscious filmmaking (complete with a shot where the camera glides through a glass of champagne), never fully leans into its B-movie potential.

Eventually, Josephina discovers a bunch of abandoned paintings following the death of a neighbor, and seeking a way to break into the art world club, brings them to Rhodora, who starts selling at a fever clip. The paintings themselves are pastoral depictions of trauma, but naturally, the rich salivate over their supposed brilliance all the same. Gradually, a supernatural presence unleashes itself upon those who merely hope to profit from the artwork, veering Velvet Buzzsaw into the realm of camp horror. A little of this absurd bloodletting goes a long way, but since the characters here are all cartoons placed against art installation backdrops, there’s very little investment in their demise. Gilroy has manufactured his film to be a joke that’s also in on the joke, but there’s only so many gif-worthy images one can pull out until the whole thing collapses under the weight of low-hanging fruit.

At one point, Gyllenhaal’s snobby critic (who becomes increasingly unhinged during the final act in that very particular way of Gyllenhaal going unhinged these days), bellows “the admiration I had for your work has completely evaporated!" to a young artist. The line is a form of Gilroy critic-proofing his own film, all but admitting that Velvet Buzzsaw is purposeful trash. Therefore, what could have been a pulp answer to Ruben Östlund’s The Square (with shades of David Cronenberg’s lacerating Maps to the Stars), instead turns into a smug Black Mirror episode (minus the tech phobia) where pissed off paintings become Freddy Krueger. Which begs the question. Why debate the merits of art, the rights of an artist, or even why dealers are obsessed with finding the next big thing (aside from financial gain) when the answers are this self-defeating?


The Wild Pear Tree

 

Cast: Dogu Demirkol, Murat Cemcir, Bennu Yildirimlar, Hazar Ergüçlü, Serkan Keskin, Tamer Levent 

Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan

Running time: 3 hours 8 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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There’s a scene near the beginning of Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s The Wild Pear Tree where the film’s central protagonist, disillusioned writer Sinan (Dogu Demirkol) stumbles upon an old crush (a sublime Hazar Ergüçlü) while strolling past a massive tree. The scene plays out casually; allowing the passive-aggressive dialogue between these two people with a shared history to flow with the rhythms of a realistic conversation. The role of language has always been important in Ceylan’s films, but his use of elegiac visuals (at one point, the camera even pulls away to bask in the sunlit leaves softly rustling in the wind), de-emphasizes narrative structure; highlighting how language can form the basis for personal, political, and moral ideals.

Ceylan has crafted talky anti-narratives before in films like Once Upon a Time in Anatolia and Winter Sleep, and The Wild Pear Tree continues in this tradition by being less a coming-of-age story concerning a young writer and more about how lives are molded by time. Centering on Sinan’s aimless intellectual (who comes across like the Turkish version of Llewyn Davis from the Coen Brothers’s Inside Llewyn Davis), as he returns to his hometown after graduating from college, the film initially situates itself as a commentary about young ideals pitted against old world values. This includes the strained relationship he has with his father Idris (Murat Cemcir), who harbors an addiction to horse betting. With a degree in Literature and a newly finished novel (described as a genre-less “meta autobiography”) that he hopes to publish, Sinan is gradually revealed to be a self-involved bore, and this is a crucial point. Whereas a character like Llewyn Davis was presented as a romantic cynic, Sinan’s idealism stems from the naiveté of youth, and yet, his anger remains at least somewhat sympathetic.

As Sinan flounders (even bombing a teacher’s exam that may have secured him a job somewhere in the east), the prickly relationship between him and his father rises to the surface. Meanwhile, his mother (Bennu Yildirimlar) seems to berate Idris for his irresponsible behavior while also holding onto her romanticized past memories of him. However, the family drama here is only part of Ceylan’s ultimate aim; as the film takes digressions involving politics, religion, and literature where Sinan finds himself wrapped up in lengthy conversations with old friends, acquaintances, and in one extended scene, a famous local writer (Serkan Keskin). In a way, the film’s stylistic flourishes—long takes, tracking shots, jarring jump cuts—often detach us from Sinan’s endless moaning; luxuriating in the open vistas and sun-kissed landscapes which he takes for granted.

The Wild Pear Tree is loose and meandering, but never gratuitous. One could reduce the thematic message down to the role of male ancestry and which sins are inherited from father to son and which ones are learned, but that would assume the film is primarily about Sinan’s coming-of-age. There are allusions to political upheaval in Turkey (represented most clearly during a phone conversation Sinan has with a friend in which they laugh about the beating of a student protester) as well as how the tourist industry has affected the economy, which gives the film a broader contextual scope. The density of the conversations here (both in terms of content and how long Ceylan allows them to transpire) and the impressionistic visuals lend The Wild Pear Tree a powerfully cumulative effect. Therefore, the film’s final image can be read in multiple ways— etched by melancholy, despair, and hope— landing with indelible force because we have spent so much time with these characters. Sinan’s morose worldview, too, comes into greater focus. By the end, even he seems haunted and touched by the passage of time.



Deerhunter

 

Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?

7

Death. Decay. Loss. Mental illness. Optimism?

by Jericho Cerrona

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Really, there’s nothing new under the sun. Just ask Bradford Cox, the lanky weirdo mastermind behind the curtain who has been making music as Deerhunter since 2001. His statements regarding physical disorders, sexuality, gender identity, and depression have become canon, but on Deerhunter’s apply titled 8th studio album Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?, the band conjure a certain kind of hope in not knowing.

Fatalism etches its way into nearly every track here, and even when Cox maintains a cheerful disposition (with the instrumentals following suit), it’s almost like crime scene detectives cracking macabre jokes about the deceased in order to remain sane. Paranoia and pessimism have always been a staple of Cox’s songwriting, manifesting itself in either nostalgic pop songs (Halcyon Digest) or abrasive guitar squalls (Monomania). On 2015’s Fading Frontier, electro dream-pop soundscapes were tethered to painful insecurities regarding an eroding American lifestyle. Here, Deerhunter have fully leaned into this demolished myth of the American dream; recording the entire album in Marfa, Texas while picking up matching Western hats to boot. The results are catchy enough to be reduced to “art-pop” and despairing enough to be labeled “baroque bummer rock”, but it’s really just a Deerhunter album. No matter what niche they slip into, they are always entirely themselves.

With the help of musician Cate Le Bon (who plays harpsichord on a few cuts here) and fellow DRINKS collaborator Tim Presley, the production throughout Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? follows a similar template as Fading Frontier in terms of accessibility, but with less studio polish. The tension between pastoral ambiance and krautrock-inspired grooves is apparent, as is the influence of Low-era Brian Eno. Opener “Death in Midsummer” lays down that aforementioned harpsichord along with Cox’s beguiling croon. “No One’s Sleeping” uses glistening guitar tones, horns, and a shuffling rhythm to disarming effect, since the song was written as a eulogy for murdered British politician Jo Cox. “Greenpoint Gothic” is a woozy Eno-influenced instrumental featuring drums and synths. “Element” and “What Happens to People” are pastoral dream-pop ditties conjuring both curiosity and sadness, with the later being especially representative of Cox’s uncanny ability to write earworm melodies drenched in lyrical melancholy. Other sonic detours include “Détournement” (in which Cox intones reactionary responses to our current world via robotic vocoder) and the haunting “Tarnug”, which sounds like a beautifully deranged children’s lullaby. Overall, the album’s brisk 36 minutes manages to cover a variety of sounds and emotions, but the fallout is consistent; the world is broken, and we left with more questions than answers.

Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? is, in many ways, a response to Halcyon Digest, considered by many to be the band’s masterpiece. The nostalgic hue permeating that record wasn’t a reactionary mistake, but more of a distillation of where Cox was at that particular time in his life. Now 36, he is older and wiser, but also more prone to debilitating hopelessness. The great strength of this record is that Cox knows unadulterated nihilism isn’t the answer. Instead, he sees the outer apocalypse in conversation with the inner one. What happens to people?/They quit holding on/What happens to people?/Their dreams turn to dark…he sings at one point. We will all die one day, the world will still be here (unless ecological destruction catches up with us), and time will stutter on. But, at the very least, we can listen wistfully to the music as we vanish into nothingness.

Glass

Cast: James McAvoy, Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Sarah Paulson, Anya Taylor-Joy, Spencer Treat Clark, Charlayne Woodard

Director: M. Night Shyamalan

Running time: 2 hours 9 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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M. Night Shyamalan has always been a charlatan. Taking any of his films seriously (yes, even The Sixth Sense) is actually doing the writer-director a disservice, since he works firmly in the register of the B-movie. 2000’s Unbreakable was low-key and ponderous, but also undeniably goofy. The Village was a disastrous in-joke about his penchant for plot twists. Lady in the Water was a deconstruction of how a writer of kitsch campfire stories could actually be the savior of mankind (played, unsurprisingly, by Shyamalan himself). His 2016 hit Split, wherein James McAvoy portrayed a multiple personality serial killer, delayed its true intentions as a belated sequel (and villain origin story) for Unbreakable, where a grumpy Bruce Willis showed up in the final shot. Shyamalan’s latest project, Glass, is the climax of a trilogy; converging story threads from two films separated by some 16 years into one unwieldy genre clash. Whatever one ultimately thinks of Glass, you have to hand it to Shyamalan; the guy is doing whatever he wants with a mixture of ego, earnestness, and self-aware humor.

The films begins where Split left off, with Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy) going through a variety of his personalities while terrified cheerleaders huddle chained together inside an abandoned warehouse. Enter David Dunn, aka “The Overseer” (Bruce Willis) who is still doing his under the radar crime-fighting thing throughout Philadelphia, except now under the guise of a security company, co-led by his son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark, reprising his Unbreakable role). Dunn sleepily (or is it just Willis’s somnolent acting?) locates McAvoy’s super villain (aka “The Horde” or “The Beast”) and has a pushing/punching mini fight with him while freeing the shell-shocked teen girls. Shortly thereafter, both are caught by the authorities and thrown into a mental institution run by Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), a gaslighting psychiatrist bent on convincing superheroes they are simply mentally unwell. Dunn’s locked chamber is fitted with water cannons (his kryptonite), while Crumb’s cell is padded with strobing lights which cause him to switch personalities whenever they flash. Obviously, this last bit is merely a ploy in order for McAvoy to launch into his acting exercise at a fever pitch, and a little of this thespian mugging goes a long way (especially when the other actors are so sedated), but the gimmick starts to wear thin by the film’s midpoint.

Dr. Staple’s aim is to pit rationalism against faith, and Shyamalan believes so strongly in the strength of his scattered ideas (it’s the power of cinema, get it?) that the middle portion of Glass plays like the kind of self-reflecting lesson about believing in the power of magic not seen since the days of Lady in the Water. Of course, there’s a third character in this insane asylum triangle; Samuel L. Jackson’s Elijah Price (aka “Mr. Glass”) the brittle bone disease comic-obsessive who was revealed as a master supervillain during the climax of Unbreakable. In a stroke of perversity, Shyamalan chooses to have the titular star of his movie remain heavily drugged, twitching, drooling, and not uttering a word for the first 70 minutes. Meanwhile, Dunn’s son is trying to convince Dr. Staple that his pops is just a curmudgeonly good samaritan, while Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), the captive set free by the Horde in Split, and Elijah’s mother (Charlayne Woodard) seek their own methods in trying to liberate the captives.

The way to read Glass in which it isn’t a complete misfire is the idea that disappointment is crucial to Shyamalan’s sense of misdirection. In setting up expectations for a certain kind of movie, he goads the audience into thinking they are getting a small-scale comic book retort to the MCU, when in actuality, there are two separate genres clashing together here; the superhero film and the B-movie psychological thriller. While the film doesn’t work in the traditional sense—with its clunky dialogue, uneven pacing, and laughable contrivances—when has a Shyamalan movie ever worked in the traditional sense? Some will see his observations about comics (complete with cringe-worthy meta dialogue and dated references) as being some 20 years behind the curve, but the world of Glass (like Split and Unbreakable before it) doesn’t take place in the real world. In a way, Elijah Price’s masterplan (involving a villain team-up, institution jail break, and showdown in a parking lot) is yet another misdirection practical joke. There’s even a wink towards a spectacular fight atop a skyscraper between Dunn and The Horde, but if one thinks that’s ever going to happen, one hasn’t been paying attention to Shyamalan’s career.

There are simple pleasures to be found in the film’s aesthetics—gliding camera work, odd angles, striking lighting choices—and Jackson in particular gives a neurotic, wounded performance during the film’s final third. However, if the whiff of a climax; complete with multiple rug pulls involving shamrock tattoos and a dangerous puddle of water makes one laugh in disbelief, then that also infers Shyamalan has ever been able (or willing) to let go of his dopey tendencies. The man has always been a charlatan. His films operate snugly in the realm of pulp. When, in trying to diagnose the problems plaguing our heroes and villains, Dr. Staple says, “My work concerns a particular type of delusion of grandeur”, she is, of course, talking about Shyamalan’s self-mythologizing ego. Having faith in yourself (despite personal failures like The Village, The Last Airbender, and The Happening) is the real superpower, and thinking the anti-superhero therapy session Glass would provide any other insights is like expecting a twist ending where none exists.



If Beale Street Could Talk

 

Cast: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Colman Domingo, Teyonah Parris, Michael Beach, Dave Franco, Diego Luna, Pedro Pascal, Brian Tyree Henry

Director: Barry Jenkins

Running time: 2 hours

by Jericho Cerrona

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“I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through glass.”

This line, spoken by Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) while visiting her lover Alonso “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James) at a prison visiting area, is at the heart of Barry Jenkins’s swooning adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name, If Beale Street Could Talk. The film’s understanding of Baldwin’s prose and ideological constructs informs the aesthetic choices (from characters looking directly into the camera), to the way emotional breakthroughs are delivered through literal and figurative obstacles. Above all, Jenkins (by way of Baldwin) gets at how America’s prejudices often obliterate the integrity of authentic love.

From the outset, If Beale Street Could Talk uses a fractured narrative which dips in and out of Tish’s recollections. Her pregnancy with Fonny’s child informs the structure, not to mention familial strife, even as Fonny remains in prison awaiting trial for the rape of a Puerto Rican woman, Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios). Though he insists he didn’t commit the crime (and has various witnesses attesting to his alibi), the justice system is set up to incriminate African American men for simply living in a certain geographical area. During an early scene, Tish admits being pregnant to her mother, Sharon (Regina King) and father, Joseph (Colman Domingo), which creates a palpable sense of tension in the room. Tish’s body language is cautious, hesitant, and expecting the worse; she is, after all, young and unmarried, with the father of her child in jail. When her sister, Ernestine (Teyonah Parris) stands up and gives her a vote of confidence, things lead to an extraordinary sequence where Fonny’s judgmental mother (Aunjanue Ellis) attempts to use the Bible to shame and condemn, only to be beat down (literally) by Tish’s family unit. It’s a moment of startling pain and empathy; reaffirming the idea that no matter the hardships, we all need each other in order to survive.

As he did with Moonlight, Jenkins is working in an impressionistic register; informing scenes with a melancholy sweep which gives us an emotional headspace in which to internalize the narrative. The dreamy aesthetic works both as a shorthand for love’s unpredictable ebb and flow, as well as conjuring an almost displaced sense of time. Rather than using stylistic flourishes as empty posturing, however, Jenkins situates the lyricism as a means for tapping into darker, more uncomfortable truths. For example, a shot where Sharon arrives at an airport in Puerto Rico is filmed in a tableau bursting with color and slow-motion, emphasizing the mother’s stern determination to save her daughter’s situation. The very next scene, however, upends this by showing her fidgeting uneasily with a variety of wigs in order to appear more confident. It’s a heartbreaking moment, and King (who is sublime throughout) absolutely nails the combination of desperation and pathos.

There are other times where the film achieves this kind of balance, such as a long conversation between Fonny and old school buddy Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry). While things begin jovially, the discussion takes a somber turn once Daniel begins talking about his time in prison. His admission of white men being the devil and his irrevocable trauma for what he’s endured locates the sense of hopelessness African Americans feel while navigating a system built to subjugate them. Therefore, Jenkins’s film is not only a tragic love story, but also a portrait of the dehumanization (physically and spiritually) people of color experience through America’s racist systems.

At times, If Beale Street Could Talk traffics in stereotypes (Ed Skrein’s racist cop, Diego Luna’s saintly Hispanic waiter, and Dave Franco’s woke Jewish realtor come to mind), but such archetypes simply reinforce the different forces swirling around Tish and Fonny’s romantic courtship. There are evil forces in the world, and benevolent ones. There are also innocent forces, as evident in the birth of Tish and Fonny’s child, who wails at a world ready to devour him. This duality; of tragedy and hope—where the father remains unlawfully caged while the child roams freely— is central to Baldwin’s mix of cynicism and conviction. For his part, Jenkins honors this ideology while also making something that feels very much his own; full of life, love, and heartbreak.

Favorite Films of 2018

 

2018 felt like hitting the reset button after 2017’s political, societal, and planetary meltdown of epic proportions. Though American studio releases continued chasing the reboot/rehash culture, there was a marked shift where films with diverse perspectives like Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians captured the zeitgeist. This gave the industry a much needed boost, though foreign films and documentaries remained steadfast in showcasing the wide-ranging spectrum of human experiences. Empathy and anger stood side by side (Blackkklansman, Blindspotting), while auteurs found time for quietly contemplative inner dialogues (Roma, If Beale Street Could Talk). Of course, there was plenty of brain-dead entertainment too (Venom, The Predator) and even trolling masters sticking their fingers in the wound of a sensitive culture (The House that Jack Built). Mostly, though, 2018 was a year in which there were no clear distinctions of what would work, be profitable, or move the needle, and the resulting list of 15 favorites proves the art form can still give us a glimpse into experiences different from our own. Long live the films. May they never die.


15

The Nothing Factory

Pedro Pinho's neorealist epic about workers in an elevator factory who are being pushed out by corporate managers is a universally searing portrait of the state completely giving up on the working class. By turns languid, funny, sad, and unexpected (those late musical interludes!), The Nothing Factory is the working class zero opus you didn't know you needed.

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14

Leave No Trace

Rarely has a film about America's apathy towards its veterans actually deemphasized ideology in order to push compassion, but Debra Granik's deeply felt film about a father and daughter surviving off the grid does just that. A powerful parable about the falseness of the American dream, Leave No Trace understands that empathy extends to all living things, whether they choose to live as part of a community or apart from it.


13

Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?

Travis Wilkerson’s self-narrated essay/documentary investigates the 1946 murder of an African-American by a white grocery store owner in Alabama, and becomes an indictment of whiteness. Images of broken down grocery stores, family photos, and deserted streets are interspersed with interviews and Wilkerson’s grave narration; deftly linking the cyclical nature of racial violence with cross-dissolving editing schemes.

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12

Life and Nothing More

Writer-director Antonio Méndez Esparza handles black oppression through a subtle lens in this intimate film about a small family in rural Florida. The absence of a father figure, economic struggle and familial discord are present, but Life and Nothing More plays out more like a gentle ellipsis than a heavy-handed narrative; using spatial distances and naturalistic conversations to encourage us observe rather than judge.


11

The Other Side of the Wind

A work of madness with a wounded heart; Orson Welles’s “lost” film (shot over the course of six years from 1970-1976) is the story of an aging patriarch desperately trying to stay relevant as the world he helped shape disappears behind him. Stylistically bold, narratively meta, and obsessed with Hollywood myth-making, The Other Side of the Wind is an unclassifiable slice of movie history.


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10

November

A mixture of violence, romanticism, surreality, and grotesque comedy, Estonian writer-director Rainer Sarnet's November is unlike anything you’ll see all year. Bathed in fog, teeming with distorted black metal guitar riffs, and saturated in gorgeous black-and-white cinematography, the film’s central love is mainly an excuse to tether metaphoric/folkloric language to freakish imagery. 


9

Scarred Hearts

Radu Jude’s unique adaptation of Romanian writer Max Blecher’s final novel unites political fury with a macabre dissection of the body. Blecher died at age 28 from musculoskeletal tuberculosis, and Jude’s striking widescreen imagery takes in the poet’s physical immobility with pathos, while also criticizing the legacy of Romanian fascism. A philosophical, but also humorous, examination of literary ambition, anti-semitism, and medical minutiae.

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8

Western

A German construction crew is sent to Bulgaria to work on a hydroelectric power plant in Valeska Grisebach’s understated commentary on power, privilege, and wounded masculinity. Following a stoic pacifist as he befriends villagers living nearby while also navigating his hot-headed fellow workers, Western brilliantly uses silence and medium-to-long shots to make political statements without ever preaching.


7

Let the Sunshine In

The search for a partner is at the heart of Claire Denis’s exquisite Let the Sunshine In, which moves from hope to sadness in a manner complimenting the film’s fascination with how love can corrode from the inside out. Aided by Juliette Binoche’s extraordinary central performance as a divorced mother drawn to men with low moral standards, Denis not only inverts the romcom, but sneakily lays bare the inherent falseness at the genre's core. 

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The House That Jack Built

Danish provocateur Lars von Trier often uses the extremity of human suffering as a model for emotional and psychological substance, and his latest doozy The House That Jack Built, is no exception. Following Matt Dillion’s serial killer as he maims and murders, the victimization narrative operates rather cunningly as probing self-critique. The ability for artists to create morally questionable art results in a shocking, darkly funny, and strangely transcendent masterwork.


5

If Beale Street Could Talk

Writer-director Barry Jenkins’s euphoric adaptation of Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name is tender, poetic, harsh, and unbearably moving. Following the romantic courtship of Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) and Alonso “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James) and the subsequent false imprisonment of the latter, Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton create wondrous compositions which match the interior emotions of his characters. There’s injustice, tragedy, and heartbreak here, but If Beale Street Could Talk is primarily a humanistic work of art.

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4

First Reformed

Ethan Hawke plays a middle-aged pastor deeply questioning how the religious community have denied the destruction of the planet in Paul Schrader’s intellectually dense, surprisingly funny, and aesthetically daring First Reformed. Mixing the transcendental style of filmmakers like Robert Bresson, Carl Theodor Dreyer, and Yasujirō Ozu, with Schrader’s own "God's lonely man" template, the film is a startling riff on modern radicalism, ecology, and suffering as a call to arms. 


3

Zama

Never before has the horrifying face of colonialism been as sadly deadpan than in Lucrecia Martel’s Zama; a film which often plays like a droll comedy where a waiting man must continue waiting as bureaucratic red tape piles up. Martel uses class distinctions in order to draw out oblique thematic connections, with unfussy compositions and details packed into every frame. The results are a major film from a major filmmaker; conjuring a Kafka-esque vision of comic snubs that ends with a haunting exclamation mark.

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24 Frames

The final, posthumously released film from Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami is made up of 24 single-shot vignettes where ordinary scenes are reconstructed through a variety of VFX work. Taking inspiration from Kiarostami’s own photographs and then imagining what would happen the moment after the picture was taken, the results are gorgeously zen-like in presenting wintry settings devoid of human interaction. 24 Frames understands the passage of time, and perhaps even the inevitability of Kiarostami’s own passing, in a way which reaches toward the profound.


1

Personal Problems

Though technically made in 1980, Bill Gunn’s “meta-soap opera” only played on a few TV stations before disappearing unceremoniously. Resurrected for a limited theatrical run in 2018, Personal Problems is a towering work; giving us late 1970s-era Harlem African American life through the prism of grainy video. Gunn and co-writer Ishmael Reed allow scenes to play out in long takes, detour into seemingly unconnected vignettes, and have story threads circle back in on themselves. Intimate yet sprawling, experimental yet emotionally resonant, Personal Problems is an extraordinary tapestry of lives we rarely experience, told in a way not yet duplicated.

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The "Whiff Test" Films of 2018


The basic parameters of the cinematic “Whiff Test” are this: these are films with some measure of artistic merit, but present themselves at a certain point during the screening where one senses a rather dreadful stench. You will also most likely see at least a handful of these choices on other critic’s best of the year lists. Therefore, there will be no VOD horror trash, big budget superhero fodder (Venom, natch), or lame romcoms represented here. Instead, my least favorite films of 2018 were movies that had all the ingredients for greatness, but somehow traveled too far up their own ass to survive. So, relax, sit back, and get a whiff of 2018’s most egregious turkeys.


10

Annihilation

Writer-director Alex Garland's sci-fi mission movie about a team of scientist officers traveling into a mysterious zone is a film of grand imagery, but little imagination, using trippy visuals to paper over thin characterizations and a lack of emotional depth. Why even venture into “The Shimmer“ if the results are this snooze-inducing?

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9

Private Life

Don’t let the fine acting and critical praise fool you; writer-director Tamara Jenkins’s latest is simply another “neurotic middle-aged white people bitching about their privilege” movies. New York artists trying to have children while undergoing a midlife crisis is the kind of bougie lameness we’ve seen for decades, and Jenkins’s combination of earnest drama and physical comedy is the type of forced “quirkiness” passing for realism that feels completely reductive in 2018.


8

Tully

Director Jason Reitman teams up with writer Diablo Cody for the third time for this annoying treatise on the barbarity of modern motherhood. Charlize Theron plays a very pregnant mum stuck in a boring marriage who hires a night nanny, and as magical-realist flourishes begin cropping up, Tully  shows its cards as a gimmicky narrative en route to the predictable character epiphany.

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7

Hold the Dark

Jeremy Saulnier’s latest thriller is mostly a laughable dirge into the abyss of human darkness which doesn’t seem to realize how ridiculous it is. Jeffery Wright plays an Alaskan wolf hunter. Alexander Skarsgård is a traumatized war veteran on a killing spree. Riley Keough is a stoic mother who likes wearing animal masks while naked. And the wolves (gasp!) are just a metaphor for the savage evil of humanity. Whiff.


6

Mute

Duncan Jones’s labored passion is like a watered down version of Blade Runner meets Minority Report in which a mute Amish bartender wades through a dystopian society looking for a missing waitress. Paul Rudd and Justin Theroux show up mugging wildly as private surgeons for a crew of gangsters, but the film’s crushing monotony and derivative world-building ultimately represents the nadir of Netflix-approved content.

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5

How To Talk To Girls At Parties

Adapted from a Neil Gaiman short story of the same name by John Cameron Mitchell, this spirited mess about a young lad falling for an alien girl in 1970’s London attempts to merge the punk movement of the time with cultic kitsch, but ends up as a shallow tale of teenage awkwardness rather than a statement on individuality. Oh, and while it may be many things, it’s definitely not punk.


4

American Animals

A film that has no reason to exist, Bart Layton's fiction/nonfiction hybrid centered around the stealing of rare books from a Kentucky college’s library gives us four young men smugly attempting to atone for their sins. With its faux-heist signifiers and Eroll Morris-lite pretensions, American Animals is yet another pointless story humanizing bored white criminals. Yuck.

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3

22 July

The 2011 Norway attacks by Anders Behring Breivik that left 77 people dead was an unspeakable atrocity, and director Paul Greengrass cheaply uses this real-life tragedy as a soapbox for simplistic moralizing. The purpose here might be to open up a dialogue about how someone like Breivik exists, but there’s little artistic or political utility in Greengrass’s exploitative approach; rendering his film as yet another dramatic thriller trivializing actual human suffering.


2

Vox Lux

Vox Lux is Brady Corbet’s laughable commentary on the superficiality of celebrity; made all the more grating by Natalie Portman’s repetitive over-acting as an adult pop star in meltdown mode. The film lacks any real understanding of how pop music actually functions in society, instead choosing to show how pain, tragedy, and self-destruction is good for pop branding. Glib, banal, and condescending; Corbet ultimately adopts the same signifiers he’s seeking to condemn.

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1

Suspiria

Luca Guadagnino’s cover version of Dario Argento’s 1977 classic is self-serious nonsense which fails to deliver on even the most basic horror movie level. Tilda Swinton plays three roles. Nazism, political violence, half-hearted nods to feminism, and (gulp) old man confessionals about dead wives gets thrown into the mix. The film makes the fatal mistake of pivoting away from actually being a horror movie and talks down to an audience expecting genre thrills. Sadly, the only spell being cast by Guadagnino here is a steadily building sense of boredom.


The Favourite

 

Cast: Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, Nicholas Hoult

Director: Yorgos Lanthimos

Running time: 2 hours

by Jericho Cerrona

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No one is ever going to accuse Yorgos Lanthimos of selling out and going Hollywood, but his latest effort, The Favourite, is probably the closest he’s ever come to making a crowd-pleaser. With a streamlined script from Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, the Greek auteur’s penchant for meandering storytelling (as seen in films like Dogtooth and The Lobster) has been reigned in, though he certainly doesn’t skimp on the arty flourishes. With flashes of anachronistic costuming, foul-mouthed dialogue, and comedic detours, The Favourite is mostly an off-beat lark, though what’s most surprising here is just how much Lanthimos actually shows empathy for his characters.

Taking place in the early 18th century, the film follows the gout-infested, childish Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), her closest friend and secret lover, Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), and Sarah’s cousin, Abigail (Emma Stone), who has survived multiple horrors in order to arrive at Kensington Palace seeking employment. Upon learning of the Queen and Sarah’s clandestine romantic relationship, Abigail hatches a scheme to seduce the Queen as a power move to climb up the royal ranks. What follows is a lively, if surprisingly straightforward (for Lanthimos), three-way costume/character drama. There are elements of Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship in the modernized banter, and even Albert Serra’s tragicomic The Life and Death of Louis XIV in the depiction of silly wigs and deteriorating bodies. However, Lanthimos doesn’t completely trust the screenplay’s subversive streak and occasionally gets in his own way; using a variety of low-angle camera placements, fish eye lenses, and showy whip pans.

The aesthetic garishness of The Favourite is only mildly annoying, seeing as how the film really exists as a showcase for three sublime performances. Colman pouts, whines, and acts like a spoiled child, but there’s a heartbreaking sense of arrested development as we learn little snippets of her past; including why she keeps 17 caged rabbits in her bedroom. A scene where she gorges on cake in between bouts of inconsolable tears is both disturbing and funny, which is exactly the tone Colman strikes throughout. Weisz, meanwhile, probably has the film’s most deliciously mean-spirited dialogue, and she delivers it with swaggering confidence that we later learn is somewhat of a mask for the genuine feelings she has for the queen. Stone uses the familiarity audiences have with her screen presence to disarming effect as she plots, schemes, and undergoes the movie’s most satisfying character arc. Nicholas Hoult’s supporting turn as young minister Robert Harley is also worth noting as the lone male figure with prominent screen time; a powdered dandy with power who underestimates all three women and becomes, in a nice gender reversal, something of an emasculated pawn.

The Favourite features a twisted love triangle which also happens to include a waging war with France, increased taxes, and broader issues lurking just outside the confines of the royal court. Lanthimos seems most interested in the private tug-of-war between the three women, which includes a “sex positive” queerness angle which plays refreshingly matter-of-factly, but after an intriguing buildup, the film refuses to push into unexpected territory during the third act. Perhaps it’s a compliment that Lanthimos doesn’t embrace his inner weirdness as an alienating construct like much of his past work, but instead, trusts his actors to provide most of the engagement. However, just when you think he may be going for softball ending, the final shot refracts everything we’ve seen into a nightmarish hall of mirrors; reinforcing the notion that when it comes to power, human beings really are grotesque animals.

Vox Lux

 

Cast: Natalie Portman, Raffey Cassidy, Jude Law, Stacy Martin, Jennifer Ehle, Christopher Abbott

Director: Brady Corbet

Running time: 1 hour 54 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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There’s a potentially provocative idea at the heart of Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux, visualized during the opening moments in which a school shooting massacre launches the career of a girl who survived the incident. There’s something perverse about the collision of pop culture and violence, and the way in which Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) and her sister Eleanor (Stacy Martin) pen a song in memory of their slain friends which becomes an anthem for a grieving nation. As Willem Dafoe’s omnipresent narrator explains, Celeste changes the “I” to “we,” in the song’s chorus; reconfiguring personal pain as universal. The tune turns into a chart-topping hit, thrusting Celeste into pop stardom guided by her scuzzy manager (Jude Law). However, the notion of pop culture’s relation to mental illness or national tragedies is never fully explored, and instead Vox Lux becomes a rather thin pop star in decline narrative; complete with a grown up Celeste (Natalie Portman) struggling with alcoholism and the trappings of fame.

Structured in three parts with foreboding titles like “Prelude 1999,” “Act I: Genesis 2000-2001,” and “Regenesis 2017,” Vox Lux takes a lot of time going nowhere while saying nothing particularly of interest. By framing Celeste’s introduction into celebrity culture around the wide-ranging tide of history (911 is mentioned fleetingly), and a present day terrorist attack where the assailants don masks similar to ones used in one of Celeste’s early music videos, Corbet ends up replicating the very things he’s denouncing. Vox Lux is about the emptiness of the pop culture machine and how people who become famous at an early age never mature emotionally beyond that point, which is exemplified by Portman’s grating performance as a star in meltdown mode. Taking on a generic New Jersey accent and flailing about with calculated gestures, Portman’s acting here is unintentionally hilarious. Meanwhile, the film’s commentary on the superficiality of celebrity is laughably self-serious (complete with Dafoe’s philosophical narration and Scott Walker’s thunderous score), without any satirical humor to offset the somber tone.

The film’s final act involves Celeste’s return to her home town of Stanton Island for a concert. There’s a forced reconciliation with her estranged sister Ellie (still played by Stacy Martin) and her daughter Albertine (played by Raffey Cassidy, aka the young Celeste). There’s an extended scene where mother and daughter go to a diner where she berates a fan, and a throwaway line of dialogue mentioning a car accident settlement and racist tirade, but for the most part, Corbet steers away from anything resembling psychological depth. His real aim seems to be to approximate the kind of disposable narrative arcs regarding celebrities which have become commonplace. To that end, the climax is an extended concert where Portman robotically dances, thrusts, and belts out generic pop bangers flanked by glittery, sci-fi inspired backup dancers. Corbet wants to thumb his nose at pop culture’s brutality and the “branding” of American life, but sadly, he lacks any real understanding of how pop music actually functions in society.

Vox Lux is the kind of anti-poptimist vehicle which is just as vapid as say, the angle of A Star is Born, where pursuing one’s artistic dreams is all that matters. As a distillation of how pain, tragedy, and self-destruction is good for pop branding, Vox Lux is banal, glib, and condescending; adopting the same signifiers it’s seeking to condemn. At one point, the young Celeste says, “I don’t want people to have to think too hard, I just want them to feel good.” By contrast, Corbet also doesn’t want people to have to think too hard. He just wants them to feel bad.

Roma

 

Cast: Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Marco Graf, Fernando Gregiaga, Daniela Demesa, Carlos Peralta, Nancy Garcia, Jorge Antonio Guerrero

Director: Alfonso Cuarón

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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The introductory shot of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma is minimal yet ostentatious. The frame is fixed on a cobble stone street as water sloshes back and forth, creating a mirror which captures a plane flying overhead. As the camera tilts upward revealing a maid cleaning dog feces off the driveway, the image becomes a microcosm of the ways in which the film will straddle the line between authenticity and wistful impression. It’s the kind of opening salvo only a filmmaker of Cuarón’s caliber could pull off, and yet it emphasizes his tendency toward affected formalism. In films like Children of Men and Gravity, Cuarón proved his ability to stage mind-boggling tracking shots and uninterrupted long takes, and Roma is filled with this kind of showboating, albeit in a more minor key.

The story here concerns the maid from the opening image, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), who works for the family of Dr. Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), a mysterious man who is constantly away from home. The man’s wife, Sofia (Marina de Tavira), and their children live in luxury, but the absence of the patriarch haunts nearly every scene. Cuarón frames the narrative through the perspective of Cleo, though we do get a sense of the family’s point of view, which is further complicated by the film’s detached aesthetic. Cleo is often dwarfed in compositions, looking insignificant amongst the spiraling staircases of the family home, and in one particular shot, appearing as a tiny speck in the frame while watching a martial arts training session.

Cleo is basically a surrogate mother for the children, and the performance of first time actor Aparicio is a tremendous feat of natural mannerism, facial expression, and gesture. When she has to deliver more emotionally fraught scenes late in the film, she is also fully believable, but Cuarón thankfully doesn’t overburden her with melodramatic hysterics. Instead, Cleo represents a somewhat angelic symbol of servitude and class division, which Cuarón often captures through stunning visuals; such as one key shot where the camera floats upwards revealing a throng of maids hanging clothes on rooftops of lavish homes stretching far into the distance.

There’s melodramatic elements to Roma, including familial infidelity, but Cuarón’s studied aesthetic approach keeps sentimentality at bay. The formal tics on display, such as how the camera moves slowly across rooms in rigid pans, is almost comical, but perhaps that’s partially the point. Even though the film gets all the period appropriate details right— the 1970s clothing, home decor, architecture, bustling Mexico City streets—the way the camera takes everything in feels somehow removed from reality. The crisp black and white cinematography is gorgeous, but it’s also the vision of someone accessing their memories and presenting an evocative version of these recollections. This makes Cleo’s station in life all the more helpless, as if she’s not fully in control of her own story. In this way, Roma can be read as an auto-critique in which Cuarón is questioning his own privilege while also paying tribute to the woman who raised him.

Without an auteurist reading where Cuarón is infiltrating Cleo’s story in order to comment on his own guilt, Roma might play as a film where the main character is a hollow cipher. The picture lacks a sense of spontaneity and lived-in authenticity, even as all the visual details ring true. This push and pull between honoring this woman and making her into an angelic symbol creates a fascinating dynamic, foregrounded by an aesthetic which tries to overcompensate for Cleo’s lack of an inner life. However, the film works as well as it does because of Aparicio’s unforced truthfulness. Despite Cuarón’s ornate precision, Aparicio grounds everything. She is the voice worth listening to. Hers is the life worth caring about.


Favorite "New To Me" Films Seen in 2018


If new release viewing in 2018 was kept to an all-time low, old films once again came out swinging in spectacular fashion. From going deep into the Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber archives to hitting some key blindspots (De Palma, Fellini, Fassbinder, I’m look at you), this year was a gallery row of cinematic shock and awe. The resulting 10 “New To Me” films listed here gives me further confidence that the future of the movies resides in the past.


10

Boiling Point (1990)

Japanese provocateur Takeshi Kitano’s second feature is a riotous fusion of offbeat humor, shocking violence, and gangster tropes following a young baseball player who gets in deep with the local yakuza. As a weathered gangster owing a debt to the mob, Kitano himself commands the screen with his stoic gaze and crooked smile, and his film follows suit as a rambling, hilarious, and unpredictable odyssey into the heart of darkness.

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9

The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926)

Lotte Reiniger’s pioneering fantasy film based on stories from The Arabian Nights is the oldest surviving animated feature, and it’s a doozy. The combination of manipulated cardboard shadow cutouts, color tinting, and frame by frame animation is mind-boggling, gorgeous, and haunting. The simple collision of sound and imagery has rarely been this tactile, putting most modern 3D animated fare to shame.


8

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover (1989)

Peter Greenaway’s operatic satire is literally Brechtian in using every cinematic trick in the book as social metaphor; which includes neon-red lighting, artificial sets, and gaudy costumes. There’s revenge tragedy, cannibalism, and a freewheeling Michael Gambon chewing scenery as an overbearing gangster, but Greenaway’s heightened style and political points regarding tyranny never overwhelm the film’s macabre entertainment value.

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7

Brief Encounter (1945)

David Lean’s swooning adaptation of Noël Coward’s play Still Life is the godfather of illicit romance movies, featuring tremendous performances from Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson as doomed lovers after a chance meeting on a train platform. Shrouded in fog, shot in crisp black and white, and enhanced by a lush score, Brief Encounter is a bonafide classic.


6

The Servant (1963)

Joseph Losey’s The Servant is rarely mentioned in the pantheon of great movies, but it should be. Essentially a chamber drama about a wealthy aristocrat who hires a cockney man-servant, the film is a shrewdly funny, suspenseful, erotic, and wildly unpredictable comedy of manners. Harold Pinter’s acidic dialogue stings, and Dirk Bogarde as the valet who begins pulling the strings, is absolute perfection.

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5

Hi, Mom! (1970)

Brian De Palma crams French New Wave, Hitchcock, and experimental theater into this deceptively complex film which manages three major story threads; all involving a young Robert De Niro playing a Vietnam vet moving through different social environments. What starts as a shambolic comedy morphs into a parody of public television and finally, a socio-political rant about race relations. Daring, hilarious, and unexpected.


4

Ordet (1955)

Carl Theodor Dreyer’s masterpiece about family, religion, and death is without a doubt one of cinema’s most rigorous works of beauty. As the camera follows members of a poor family dealing with life’s hardships, Dreyer achieves something both austere and intimate; revealing the ways in which religion can provide comfort as well as engender blind zealotry. The ending, meanwhile, is one of the most moving sequences ever put to film.

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3

Fox And His Friends (1975)

One of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s crowning achievements, this story of a poor circus worker who is systematically drained of his lottery money by upper class leeches, is a damning encapsulation of social darwinism. Though attacked in some quarters for its depiction of queer culture at the time, Fassbinder’s hardened cynicism about humanity in general, regardless of sexual orientation, is his true aim. Tragic, funny, tender, and unsparing.


2

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

This silent era astonishment from Carl Theodor Dreyer is one of the most starkly emotional and haunting pictures ever made. Following Joan of Arc’s trial right up to her execution, Dreyer uses the art of atmospheric lighting and closeup to startling effect by drawing on Renée Falconetti’s extraordinary central performance. Her face, caught in throes of spiritual epiphany and fearful misery, will linger forever.

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1

Nights of Cabiria (1957)

A naive prostitute roams the underbelly of Rome in search of love in Nights of Cabiria; a sweeping, near spiritual moviegoing experience where director Federico Fellini’s aesthetic gifts are completely at the service of Giulietta Masina’s all-time great central performance. A soul-stirring depiction of a life trapped in stasis, featuring one of cinema’s most heartbreaking final images.