The Other Side of the Wind

 

Cast: John Huston, Peter Bogdanovich, Oja Kodar, Susan Strasberg, Robert Random, Joseph McBride, Mercedes McCambridge, Cameron Mitchell, Paul Stewart, Edmond O'Brien, Lilli Palmer, Geoffrey Land, Peter Jason

Director: Orson Welles

Running time: 2 hours 2 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Orson Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind is an incisive look at one of our most brilliant auteurs wrestling with the new wave of late 1960’s art cinema. Taking elements of his 1973 mocumentary F for Fake and bleeding it into a meta-deconstruction of the Hollywood machine, The Other Side of the Wind deflates patriarchal power while also basking in its privileges. It’s a film which began production in 1970 and then stretched on for nearly six years; ballooning out of control even as Welles seemed to relish the idea of never completing it. It’s a work of madness that has, at its center, a wounded heart; the story of an aging patriarch desperately trying to stay relevant as the world he helped shape disappears behind him. It is the vision of the ultimate Hollywood classist fearing his demise at the hands of a more politically radical wave of new cinema, and then attempting to outsmart them all.

The basic premise is this: Jake Hannaford (John Huston) an iconic director is celebrating his 70th birthday while attempting to complete a film entitled The Other Side of the Wind. The picture in question is one of those erotic narrative-less works recalling late 60’s hippie drug culture (ala Easy Rider) with the arty pretensions of a Michelangelo Antonioni joint. Despite his cigar-chomping ego, Hannaford is afraid of the younger batch of Hollywood elite; including Brooks Otterlake (Peter Bogdanovich), a filmmaker not unlike the real-life Bogdanovich, who at this time would have been riding a wave of success from The Last Picture Show. Out of money and missing his leading man, John Dale (Robert Random), who stormed off set after multitude abuses by the filmmaker, Hannaford’s aims are to leach funds from producers at the party, even if no one involved seems to have any idea what The Other Side of the Wind is actually about.

Structured like a shaggy hang out movie, Welles’s virtuosic techniques come together to create a disorienting atmosphere where multiple realities converge. As Hannaford encourages the press to film his birthday bash, we get bodies scurrying everywhere; with cameras in nearly every inch of the frame and lenses zooming. The effect is like a three-ring circus gone awry, predating reality TV and Internet culture. Once again, in both style and form, Welles was way ahead of the curve here, even as narrative coherency is mostly absent.

As someone obsessed with myth-making and his own status as a legend, Welles’s notion of cinema as one continuous loop of content is embraced with such gusto as to be prophetic. Throughout, the picture changes from color to black and white, incorporating a variety of film stocks and allowing bursts of light and motion to infiltrate the frame. Dialogue overlaps, the editing is propulsive and jagged, the score jazzy, and the use of montage breathtaking. The usual Welles technique of deep focus (in which the foreground, middle-ground and background are all in focus) are done away with altogether in lieu of frames-within-frames and compositions shot through refracted surfaces.

Throughout, we get long stretches of the unfinished Hannaford project where John Dale and an unnamed woman (Oja Kodar, Welles’s lover and co-writer) play a sensual game of cat and mouse. Phallic imagery abounds, as does psychedelic colors and an old man’s parodic vision of hippie youth culture. There’s a level of self-awareness here, exemplified by Hannaford’s arrogance in thinking he could really pull this kind of thing off, which extends to Welles’s grasping for relevance near the end of his career. And yet, sections of the Dale/Kodar film are ludicrously thrilling; including a bravura sex scene inside a moving vehicle, allowing Welles to achieve the rare carnal set piece which actually stimulates the senses.

Interestingly, the world Hannaford depicts onscreen is diametrically opposed to the one he actually inhabits. Though his party is filled with booze, cigars, and women, there is little chance of scoring. The only notable female character here, for instance, is a Pauline Kael stand-in played by Susan Strasberg, who is on hand to expose Hannaford’s inadequacies. In fact, he seems much more comfortable lording his power over men, including Bogdanovich’s Otterlake, and younger newcomers to the scene such as Dale. The self-destructive nature of Hannaford—his inability to complete the film while sabotaging working relationships and maintaining a god-like facade—is an intensely personal spilling of the soul by Welles, whom may have never completed another feature even if he had lived to tell the tale. In that way, The Other Side of the Wind has a haunting allure; a movie about creation, destruction, and self-loathing that works mostly because it remains unfinished.







Suspiria

 

Cast: Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Mia Goth, Lutz Ebersdorf, Angela Winkler, Ingrid Caven, Elena Fokina, Sylvie Testud, Renée Soutendijk, Chloë Grace Moretz, Jessica Harper

Director: Luca Guadagnino

Running time: 2 hours 32 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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One could say, if they were being charitable, that Luca Guadagnino’s remake/reimagining/cover version of Dario Argento’s 1977 classic Suspiria goes so far into its own direction as to be admirable. Whereas Argento’s film was an operatic fusion of dream logic and bright red gushing blood untethered to narrative coherency, Guadagnino’s take is downbeat, austere, and attempting to ground itself in reality. Argento used violence as an exaggerated series of garish images; a primal call to embrace the ludicrous exhilaration which the horror genre can attain. By comparison, the new Suspiria is self-serious nonsense made by talented people which fails to deliver on even the most basic horror movie level.

Having all the hallmarks of a passion project, Guadagnino’s film is overlong, meandering, and overstuffed with plot. Taking the skeletal narrative of the original and then diving into world-building isn’t inherently a mistake, but one has to parse through what the filmmaker has added here and question its existence. While it’s laudable Guadagnino refuses to ape Argento’s Giallo style (which would have been reductive), he nonetheless layers in pastiche of another sort. There’s a heavy Rainer Werner Fassbinder influence here; from the drab late 70’s Berlin setting to the use of crash zooms, but without the German wunderkind’s perverse humor and affinity for actors. Meanwhile, the fractured editing and kitschy post-production slow motion brings to mind the work of avant-garde filmmakers like Peter Greenaway and Derek Jarman. And if one is looking for less obscure influences, there’s a specific deep focus shot that’s ripped straight out of Brian De Palma’s Obsession. However, unlike De Palma, who often uses pastiche as a means for lurid entertainment value, Guadagnino seems almost terrified of entertaining the audience.

Suspiria is not a film about Susie (Dakota Johnson, purposefully affectless), the talented Mennonite dancer from Ohio who arrives at the Markos Dance Academy in Berlin, circa 1977. Nor is it about Susie’s relationship with Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton, purposefully morose), her tightly wound teacher. The role of witchcraft, so prevalent in Argento’s original, is also not that important here, replaced by Guadagnino’s interest in political machinations. The film is really about Dr. Josef Klemperer (Swinton again, purposefully old and boring), a psychiatrist whose wife went missing during the Holocaust, and whose used here primarily as a narrative device to represent past atrocities. In fact, Guadagnino spends so much time with Klemperer as he investigates tales of witchcraft at the dance academy, that Suspiria could have alternately been titled Senior Coven Sleuth: The Movie, but that would also require a film with a sense of humor.

Every once in a while, Guadagnino finds a particular image or sequence that works; such as an extended dance scene using jagged cross-cutting and bone-snapping grotesquerie. However, as viscerally effective as such moments are, they are never tied to anything remotely compelling from either a character or narrative standpoint. They simply exist, devoid of the one thing that a truly great horror film can achieve; a sense of psychic dread. Suspiria is too formally up its own ass to care about involving us in this way; its badge of courage rests in pivoting away from base horror signifiers and talking down to an audience wanting genre thrills.

As Klemperer’s investigation begins to take the focus away from Susie’s dealings with the witches, Guadagnino’s real obsessions start to take center stage. Klemperer’s personal misery is a thematic sign-post about never forgetting the horrible atrocities human beings are capable of throughout history, and this exposition-heavy messaging completely derails the film. Meanwhile, Thom Yorke’s slowcore music is also a problem; especially when he starts morosely crooning over montages which feel utterly disproportionate to one another. Yes, it would have been a miscalculation to try and emulate Goblin’s brilliant prog-rock score from the original, but the Radiohead singer’s contributions here feel overly ostentatious.

As Suspiria draws to a close; complete with a bafflingly laughable (not in a good camp way) finale where the blood finally starts gushing, the film’s interest in Nazism, political violence, half-hearted nods to feminism, and (gulp) old man confessionals regarding dead wives tips the scales into the realm of embarrassment. What this Suspiria lacks is sensuality, danger, psychological insight, and horrific imagery linked to the kind of terror which tingles the spine (no, Holocaust metaphors don’t really fit the bill). Instead, we get a turgid, scare-free Red Army Faction/Lufthansa Flight 181 hijacking history lesson along with some leftover body horror scraps to nibble on. Sadly, the only spell cast by Guadagnino here is a steadily building sense of boredom.





The Criterion Corner

 

Sisters

Director: Brian De Palma

Year of release: 1973

by Jericho Cerrona

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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 Brian De Palma’s stylish 1973 horror thriller, Sisters.



Brian De Palma’s early work was marked by satirical commentary and zeitgeist-defining wit. Just look at 1970’s Hi Mom! starring a young Robert De Niro, which morphs from a sleazy soft-core comedy into a pointed satire on race relations in America, and 1972’s Get to Know Your Rabbit, which takes on corporate greed and dehumanization. 1973’s Sisters was his first legitimate genre film, and the one where the Alfred Hitchcock influences which would unfairly dog the rest of his career really took center stage. In many ways, the film is about voyeurism (one of Hitchcock’s pet themes) and how media can desensitize. This is glimpsed from the very first scene, in which a blind woman Danielle (Margot Kidder), enters a dressing room where a man, Phillip Woode (Lisle Wilson), is changing. Of course, the woman isn’t really blind, and the whole thing is revealed to be a Candid Camera-style prank show called Peeping Toms (a clever wink to the Michael Powell film, Peeping Tom).

Though Sisters is superficially a horror thriller; complete with Danielle’s stalker ex-husband, Emile (William Finley), the eventual murder of Phillip, and a nosy neighbor/reporter Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt) on the case, De Palma layers in social commentary along with genre thrills. Philip is African-American, and the early scenes involving the TV show being watched by an all white audience is telling. Additionally, Phillip wins two tickets to a place called The Africa Room for playing along with the show, and the way he timidly smiles and brushes it off locates the dehumanizing effects of institutionalized racism.

Though many claim him to be an empty technician, skillful with the camera but out of his element otherwise, what is often missed in discussions about De Palma is his razor-sharp sense of humor. The obvious fusion of Psycho and Rear Window here is intentional, of course, but Sisters is also hip to the understanding that we are familiar with this cinematic language. Therefore, much of the pleasure of the film is not in anticipating the plot twists, but in admiring the finesse in which the picture executes them. To wit, there’s an all time classic split-screen sequence here involving two 9-minute simultaneous shots contrasting the hiding of Philip’s body with Grace’s attempts at exposing the murder that is among the best directing of De Palma’s career.

If Sisters lacks some of the outlandish artistry and auto-critique brilliance of De Palma’s later works such as Dressed to Kill and Body Double, it more than makes up for it with social satire, an antic horror-fused finale, and Bernard Herrmann’s lively score. But perhaps the film’s biggest hat trick is allowing Kidder, best known for playing Lois Lane in the Superman series, an opportunity to cut loose; essentially playing dual roles as a woman trapped inside a fractured psyche. It’s her inner trauma that ultimately lingers; along with savage post-60’s cynicism, technical craftsmanship, and the sight of a lonely birthday cake strewn across the ground. Bravo, Mr. De Palma.

Madeline's Madeline

 

Cast: Helena Howard, Miranda July, Molly Parker

Director: Josephine Decker

Running time: 1 hour 34 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Writer-director Josephine Decker’s Madeline’s Madeline is a work of pure narcissism. And yet, all works of art are narcissistic extensions of their creators to varying degrees. The titular character (played by revelatory newcomer Helena Howard) may be a teenager at a New York theater company, but she’s so keenly aligned with Decker’s sensibilities that the fusion is never hidden from the audience. The notion that artistic creativity (not to mention risk-taking) can converge with real life experiences is at the center of the film, which purposefully veers away from traditional storytelling in order to conjure a state of emotional/psychological instability.

In a way, Howard’s breakthrough performance as a prodigy struggling with mental illness of some sort achieves the very thing Decker is attempting to capture aesthetically. But much like in real life, the messiness of glorifying the artist means there’s an insularity to Madeline’s Madeline which makes it frustratingly uneven. That filmic subjectivity— taking elements of the coming-of-age narrative and splintering it into emotional fragments—is fully on display here. The line between reality, art, and dreams is blurred; as are the edges of the frame shot in hazy hues. Decker’s roving camera is often so close to the actor’s faces as to produce claustrophobia. The soundtrack is layered with heavy breathing, out of sync dialogue, and clattering noise. Whether or not this works for particular audiences is up for grabs, but there’s no denying Decker’s commitment to purging Madeline’s psyche through cinematic techniques.

The film’s central dynamic rests between Madeline and her mother, Regina (Miranda July), whose relationship is complicated, to say the least. Then there’s Evangeline (Molly Parker), the theater director who seems to be steering her experimental play into the realm of Madeline’s personal life. The film’s central line, “What you are experiencing is just a metaphor” is spoken by multiple characters and recurs throughout; preparing us to take everything we see as subjective experience. When Madeline takes a scalding iron to her mother in one of her outbursts, for example, we are led to believe that it was either a dream or a projection of violence in order to impress her theater director. This kind of tension exists throughout Madeline’s Madeline, but there are times where Decker’s ambiguous posturing threatens to derail the emotional honesty of her film.

Near the climax, Madeline has a breakthrough of inner clarity in which she reenacts the supposed attack on her mother, and the unbridled energy of Howard’s performance absolutely sells the moment. For once, Madeline is not in control of her performative gifts. For once, the feeling of rejection from Regina is laid bare. Decker probably would have been wise to end her film there, but like her lead character, she just can’t help herself. Therefore, the finale; in which Madeline and her theater troupe retaliate against Evangeline by prodding her with cat masks and choreographed dance numbers in the streets, feels like the easy way out.

Of course, this wild explosion of artistic creation is meant to signify Madeline’s advancement, but it sidesteps the film’s more troubling questions. For one thing, she is still a child, and by extension, a narcissist. She cares only for her own thoughts and feelings. Evangeline, and to a lesser degree, Regina, are disparaged and then brushed aside. How could Madeline fulfill her artistic ambitions if her mother wasn’t at all supportive? Likewise, without Evangeline, she would have no artistic outlet at all. By fully embracing Madeline’s ego-driven mania, Decker understands the personal power of art, but also its limitations. And yet, for all its stylistic boldness and feral intensity, Madeline’s Madeline ultimately leans into art as therapy clichés instead of seriously dealing with a young woman’s disorienting coming-of-age.

Movie Pick of the Week

 

Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc

Director: Bruno Dumont

Year of release: 2018

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Weirdo French auteur Bruno Dumont is the quintessential poster child for being up to something. His last two features, Li’l Quinquin and Slack Bay, were mannered genre pastiches that used deadpan comedy as a means for exploring societal norms. Before that, he made miserablist dramas like Humanité and Hors Satan; films in which tickling the funny bone was nowhere within reach. His latest effort, Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc, might be his weirdest creation yet; a stilted period piece in which the young religious figure speak-sings over blastbeat drumming and head-banging metal riffs.

The film takes place in 1425, where Jeannette (initially played by Lise Leplat Prudhomme, then later by Jeanne Voisin) is undergoing a spiritual awakening while the British lay siege to France. Shot in Dumont’s typical static tableaux, most of the film is a series of vignettes in which Jeannette sings poetic lines about her calling and the political state of France to the prog-metal fusion score by French musician Igorrr. Meanwhile, Prudhomme’s warbling singing voice and amateurish acting creates a distancing effect which helps the humor settle into a groove.

Once Jeannette’s uncle, Durand (Nicolas Leclaire) shows up as a means of escape from the island, Dumont’s film morphs into an extended riff on domestic mundanity, complete with Jeannette’s mother plucking chicken feathers as Durand dabs (yes, dabs) in the background. In these surreal moments, Dumont conjures a strange fusion of non-professional stiltedness with precise mise-en-scène. It’s a bizarre brew; funny in its odd juxtapositions, but also touching in its awkwardness. While not as dense in scope or layered tonally as most of his past work, Jeannette nonetheless showcases Dumont’s willingness to take the up to something moniker and drape an iconic historical figure over it.

 

Music Pick of the Week

 

Julia Holter

Aviary

Year of release: 2018

by Jericho Cerrona

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Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Julia Holter has made an uncompromising masterwork with Aviary; a kaleidoscopic, 90-minute trip through the compositional cosmos. If 2015’s critically acclaimed Have You in My Wilderness was zen chamber pop for lazy days, then Aviary is what happens when Holter retreats so far inward that her brain starts to explode.

While it’s easy to praise artists for going more avant-garde, Holter has always used the contours of pop music in order to explore psychological states of being. Here, she uses a variety of baroque instrumentation— piano, sax, harps, strings, choral chanting, drone—and then wraps them around her otherworldly, often overlapping, vocals.

“Everyday is an Emergency” is a doomsday lament for the end times set to mournful bagpipes. “Another Dream” is some serious Brian Eno shit; with space age synths, fluttering harps, and processed alien vocals. “I Shall Love 2” is a gorgeous mantra of human compassion in which Holter sings What do the angels say? I shall love. “Underneath the Moon” sounds like a trip down a Tibetan river on LSD. And the list goes on and on, with Holter stretching herself further into the outer reaches. Aviary is an experiential album, but also deeply personal. Political, but not didactic. Experimental, but never alienating. Most of all, it is Holter’s most ambitious and mature work to date; leaving the listener reeling, lost in the sonic ether.

The Symbiotic Sanctum: 10 Horror Films

 

With Halloween fast approaching and moviegoers getting into the spooky season, a curated list of horror films seemed like a no-brainer. While avoiding obvious classics (1978’s Halloween, The Shining, Psycho, Rosemary’s Baby, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Night of the Living Dead etc), I decided to shoutout a few lesser seen gems which could pair well with the lights turned down low, a bottle of witch’s brew, and eyes glued to the screen rather than sinister shapes moving around just outside the window.


House

(1977)

Nobuhiko Ôbayashi’s madcap ghost story is the kind of curio usually reserved for midnight viewing; ie. severed hands banging on a piano, clock gears spewing blood, dismembered heads, demon cats, and supernatural watermelons. Acid-fueled horror predating Sam Raimi and Adult Swim, and an absolute blast.

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Dressed to Kill

(1980)

Often labeled a plagiarist of 50’s/60’s cinema tropes, Brian De Palma is much more keen on transgressive antics with this Hitchcockian giallo riff in which a call girl, frustrated house wife, and creepy psychiatrist get drawn into a convoluted plot. A master class in filmmaking; lurid, funny, violent, and thrilling.


Re-Animator

(1985)

Stuart Gordon’s riotous debut took Grand Guignol horror to new levels with this satirical takedown of Reagan’s America. A scientist discovers a fluid which brings living tissue back to life, but the real aim of Gordon’s bizarro concoction is to show how gory practical effects and Jeffrey Combs’s unhinged central performance can actually derive empathy for the human race.

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Inland Empire

(2006)



Anchored by Laura Dern’s extraordinary performance and filmed on grainy digital video, David Lynch’s riff on loss, confusion, and rabbits dressed in human clothes is nothing less than a waking nightmare. The horror movie as unadulterated madness.






Hour of the Wolf

(1968)

A dysfunctional relationship between an artist and his long-suffering wife is at the center of Hour of the Wolf, but by investigating the unstable psychology of his characters and offering up some truly unsettling images, Ingmar Bergman gives us one of the scariest horror movies ever made by digging into the emptiness of human existence.

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What We Do in the Shadows

(2014)

Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi’s vampire mockumentary is more than simply a spoof; playing off a variety of horror tropes while endearing us to its cast of eccentric characters. There’s blood, gore, and werewolves, but What We Do in the Shadows is never less than clever about revealing how cinema has impacted horror iconography.


Carnival of Souls

(1962)

Herk Harvey’s lo-fi curio about a car crash survivor is best appreciated as a precursor to the works of George A. Romero and David Lynch. The cheap production values and stilted acting deepens the film’s strangeness; conjuring an eerie feeling which permeates the startling black and white imagery and droning organ score.

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Opera

(1987)

Dario Argento’s last great film in the giallo mold; part The Phantom of the Opera, part Macbeth, with elaborate tracking shots, primary colors, and an obsessive killer taping pins under the eyes of our traumatized heroine. Beautiful, savage, and yes, operatic.


The Lords of Salem

(2012)

Rob Zombie’s audio-visual tour de force about a dreadlocked woman falling in with some satanic happenings in Salem, Mass is like witnessing John Carpenter reimagining The Shining by way of The Wicker Man. Miraculously, Zombie pulls it off with his own unique blend of unnerving sights, sounds, and demonic umbilical cords.

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Angst

(1983)

The sound design is all-encompassing, the camera tracks and swirls (sometimes mounted on bodies), and the Krautrock score mounts its aural attack in Gerald Kargl’s disorienting experiment. A pure shot of anxiety-induced horror which is all the more terrifying because it refuses to offer up explanations for the unnamed psychopath’s motives.


Bad Times at the El Royale

 

Cast: Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Cailee Spaeny, Lewis Pullman, Chris Hemsworth, Nick Offerman, Xavier Dolan, Jim O'Heir

Director: Drew Goddard

Running time: 2 hours 22 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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The titular setting for writer-director Drew Goddard’s latest genre exercise is a brilliant creation; full of garish wallpaper, kitschy carpets, neon signs, and a retro jukebox providing the film’s Motown-heavy soundtrack. Goddard is also a smart enough writer to infuse the hotel with an eerie atmosphere of past ghosts withering under the reign of Nixon, the Vietnam War, and the Mansion murders. Essentially an Agatha Christie-style mystery weaving a variety of characters together while also riffing on the structure of every post-modern thriller since Pulp Fiction, Bad Times at the El Royale boasts terrific performances and a cheeky premise, but ultimately veers off into goofy blood-splattered nonsense. It’s too bad, since Goddard has ambition and style to spare.

The film opens in 1969, where the El Royale is now a deserted wasteland when it used to be a bustling gambling hub. Run almost entirely by an awkward bellhop, Miles (Lewis Pullman), who gives each guest a prolonged pitch about the site’s iconic history straddling the California-Nevada border; the hotel has the vibe of being slightly out of time, which translates to a newly arriving group of strangers. There’s a priest (Jeff Bridges), a femme fatale with a secret (Dakota Johnson), a soul singer en route to Reno (Cynthia Erivo), and a traveling vacuum salesman (Jon Hamm), who all turn up one night for shelter. Of course, these are stock characters with ulterior motives, and Goddard initially has fun teasing out information about each one of them.

Once a hidden corridor running along one side of the hotel is discovered, Bad Times at the El Royale shifts from chamber drama into voyeuristic neo-noir, punctuated by moments of violence. Nothing is as it seems. No one can be trusted. Two-way mirrors provides moments of tension and ample excuses for Erivo to belt out doo-wop a cappella hits. As the camera snakes between rooms, we get pieces of each character’s backstories and how they ended up at the hotel. This gambit—complete with chapter breaks—is novelistic but also frustrating, since it stalls any sense of narrative momentum. In trying to deepen his character’s inner lives via flashback, Goddard loses the thread; forgetting that all we need to know is already being telegraphed through his very game cast of actors.

Once Chris Hemsworth’s swaggering cult leader, Billy Lee, enters the fray, Bad Times at the El Royale almost completely falls apart. Despite excellent turns from Pullman, Bridges, and especially Erivo, Hemsworth’s wannabe Manson clone takes over the film in a way which speaks to its larger issues as a self-critique of macho cruelty. This is exemplified in a scene where Erivo’s African American singer calls him out by saying “I’m bored of men like you” after he forces the remaining guests to indulge in a game of Russian roulette-style barbarity. The moment feels like Godard’s half-hearted concession to the #meToo movement, but plays somewhat embarrassingly since Hemsworth’s cult hippie eats away most of the third act’s running time.

Truthfully, Goddard may have gotten carried away by the success of his genre-defying previous feature, Cabin in the Woods. That was a film which actually subverted expectations while also being an entertaining horror comedy. Bad Times at the El Royale is too enamored by its own sleight-of-hand narrative gimmicks to be fully satisfying as either pulp trash or a stylish exercise. The hotel is a marvelous setting, but being trapped there for 140 minutes begins to feel like another kind of audience subversion; i.e. boredom.



22 July

 

Cast: Anders Danielsen Lie, Jonas Strand Gravli, Jon Øigarden, Isak Bakli Aglen, Maria Bock, Thorbjørn Harr, Seda Witt, Ola G. Furuseth, Hilde Olausson

Director: Paul Greengrass

Running time: 2 hours 23 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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If there was ever any doubt, the 2011 Norway attacks by Anders Behring Breivik that left 77 people dead was an unspeakable atrocity. The killer, a stone-cold sociopath (played by Anders Danielsen Lie) stockpiled weapons, disguised himself as a police officer, and gained access to an island where a Workers’ Youth League summer camp was being held. The subsequent aftermath, where Breivik was treated humanely by the Norwegian government while victims mourned the loss of loved ones, is the real aim of director Paul Greengrass’s retelling. Before we get there, however, there’s 40 minutes of goosed-up exploitation cinema to wade through. If United 93 was Greengrass’s visceral attempt at pummeling audiences into submission concerning an American tragedy, then 22 July cheaply uses a real-life Norwegian catastrophe as a soapbox for simplistic moralizing. 

During the film’s opening stretch, the film cuts between Breivik loading bombs and weaponry into an unmarked van and various high school students innocently enjoying themselves at summer camp. Using his typical hand-held shooting style, Greengrass ratchets up the tension by using standard movie suspense tactics, such as an ominous score and scenes where characters tearfully deliver speeches moments before death. All the while, Breivik prowls through the forest in wide shots reminiscent of a Peter Berg action thriller as he indiscriminately mows down victims fleeing for their lives.

One particular student comes into focus, Viljar (Jonas Strand Gravli), who delivers a speech about what he would do if he was Prime Minister shortly before the massacre. Meanwhile, the actual PM, Jens Stoltenberg (Ola G. Furuseth) is evacuated after a bomb planted by Breivik detonates outside a government building in Oslo. The rest of the film pivots into a blunt drama juxtaposing Viljar and Breivik; with the former learning how to walk again due to his gunshot injuries, while the later espouses his bigoted, though ideologically muddled, views.

During the third act, July 22 transforms into a courtroom procedural where family members of the deceased are forced to endure Breivik’s prepared statements while Vilijar undergoes rehab, laughably edited in montage like something out of the Rocky franchise. Greengrass may want his film to open up a dialogue about how and why someone like Breivik exists, but July 22 ends up coming across morally facile. The characters here feel like chess pieces for a political warning rather than human beings who actually suffered through this tragedy. The catharsis, therefore, is cheap. What is the point, after all, of dramatizing such a heinous event? There is little utility, whether artistic or political, in Greengrass’s approach here; rendering his film as yet another dramatic thriller trivializing actual human suffering.

First Man

 

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Pablo Schreiber, Christopher Abbott, Ciarán Hinds, Ethan Embry, Kyle Chandler, Jason Clarke, Corey Stoll, Patrick Fugit, Shea Whigham, Lukas Haas, Cory Michael Smith, Brian d'Arcy James, Brady Smith, Philip Boyd

Director: Damien Chazelle

Running time: 2 hours 21 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Writer-director Damien Chazelle’s meteoric rise is a curious case. His feature debut, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, showcased a cineliterate fondness for John Cassavetes and Jacques Demy, while his obsessive jazz drama Whiplash revealed a knack for propulsive editing and egotistical male protagonists. Of course, his bonafide breakthrough, La La Land, set its sights on reviving the MGM Hollywood musical while netting him a Best Director Academy Award in the process. At just 33 years of age, Chazelle has been likened to a wunderkind in the Steven Spielberg mold (though his films bare little resemblance to the king of pop cinema), leading him to attempt the most prestigious of all genres; the biopic.

Interestingly, Chazelle has chosen to forgo slick populist entertainment which usually wins Oscars in favor of an intimate drama about American hero Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling). Shot in a grainy, hand-held visual style not unlike early 70’s films, First Man demythologizes the American space program by shedding the jingoistic DNA of similar space flight pictures like The Right Stuff and Apollo 13. Tactile in its technical details while shaggy in plot, First Man is closer to the films of Christopher Nolan and Terrence Malick than Spielberg or Ron Howard.

Of course, Chazelle doesn’t have the anti-narrative poetry of Malick and lacks the discipline of Nolan on his best days. Still, Josh Singer’s spare screenplay does give him apple room to probe the mind of Armstrong as a man of few words whose reluctance at playing hero is telegraphed early and often. As played by Gosling in his patented stoic mode, Armstrong is taciturn and glum, but also obsessively driven; (i.e. a standard Chazelle male protagonist), and though the actor excels at capturing Armstrong’s inwardness, he fails to truly make us forget we are watching a performance. Call it the curse of being Gosling, but he’s just not someone who can effectively disappear into roles. Singer’s script also doesn’t do the film any favors by leaning too heavily on the biopic crutch of the dead child. The tragic death of Armstrong’s two-year-old daughter before he joined the NASA Astronaut Corps was certainly a major turning point in his life, but Chazelle’s insistence on using flashback and hallucination in which the child is consistently foregrounded begins to feel like the kind of lazy cliché he was probably hoping to avoid.

Meanwhile, Claire Foy gives a wonderfully raw performance as Janet Armstrong, but like most movies fixated on the lonely American male, her role is severely underdeveloped. Essentially at wit’s end due to her husband’s dangerous job and emotional vacantness, Coy is forced to cycle between a few basic modes; concern, tenacity, and warmth, but does so effectively. Other NASA contemporaries pop in and out, most notably Ed White (Jason Clarke), Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) and Michael Collins (Lucas Haas), but this is ultimately Armstrong’s story. As such, it is a film unusually obsessed with process and procedure, not to mention grief.

Once the Apollo 11 reaches the surface of the moon, Chazelle treats us to images both awe-inspiring and eerie, but the real strength of First Man is its somber detachment from myth-making. Instead of pop culture pandering, the film reveals the terrifying reality of these endeavors (not to mention the human cost) where made-made vessels essentially sent human beings out into the vastness of space, possibly to die. Only a misguided moment on the moon’s surface which ties back into Armstrong’s anguish over the loss of his daughter feels like the kind of Ron Howard-esque swing into sentimentality Chazelle had otherwise been successful at curbing. In that moment, First Man feels like typical Hollywood awards bait. Otherwise, this is the rare prestige bummer movie where our American hero is sad and muted rather than gregarious and flag-waving.


Movie Pick of the Week

 

Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?

Director: Travis Wilkerson

Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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The image of Gregory Peck sitting silently in the courtroom from Robert Mulligan’s 1962 film adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is the first thing we see in Travis Wilkerson’s self-narrated essay/documentary, Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? However, these scenes have been tinted in a red hue and repeatedly looped, creating a feeling of unease and disorientation. Wilkerson’s film, which investigates the 1946 murder of African-American Bill Spann by white grocery store owner S.E. Branch in Dothan, Alabama, is at once deeply personal and universally resonant. Ultimately, Wilkerson’s urge to remove the layers of racism within his own family line (Branch was his great-grandfather) becomes an indictment of whiteness. Though his intentions are well-meaning, Wilkerson is still just another white man with a camera trying to elevate black lives lost in time.

Long-held still shots of broken down grocery stores, family photos, and deserted streets are interspersed with interviews as well as Wilkerson’s grave narration, which gives the film a haunted quality. The cyclical nature of history, with its violence against people of color is intrinsically linked to the picture’s editing schemes and cross-dissolving of various media (music, onscreen text, and color inverted imagery is repeated throughout), but there’s also a keen sense of self-incrimination here. Reconnecting with estranged aunts and even reaching out to one involved with white supremacy in the Klan-friendly town of Cottonwood, Wilkerson consistently questions his entire project; relegating it to the realm of exploitation under the guise of “wokeness.”

Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? is a fascinating study in contradictions. By interrogating his whiteness, Wilkerson opens up his film for a white audience to do the same; following his painful journey in attempting to give a dead African American man a sense of dignity by looking inward and wrestling with privilege. While the conclusions the film comes to aren’t surprising, they have the effect of giving us the opportunity to take another look at something we’ve seen before; like Gregory Peck standing with his head held high, body covered in blood.



Music Pick of the Week

 

Gentleman Surfer

Hard Pass

Year of release: 2018

by Jericho Cerrona

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Prog is often viewed, whether unfairly or not, as the uncool genre—relegated to bloated concept albums, fantastical lyrics, and the towering guitar solo. Of course, prog is a broad term; fusing everything from jazz, classical, punk, new wave, to electronic music. Sacramento, Ca band Gentleman Surfer could easily be tossed into the prog pool, and they’re probably sick of hearing about it. The traits are there; mostly instrumental compositions, labyrinthine rhythms, odd time signatures, analog keyboards, bizarro sound effects, etc. However, vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Jon Bafus, keyboardist Zack Bissell, guitarist Barry McDaniel and bassist Blake Armstrong have been ripping their own brand of demented madness for years now, and on their fourth album, Hard Pass, they just keep on slaying.

Prog or not, Hard Pass is bananas. The self-titled opening track starts with what sounds like a rattling accelerator before dovetailing into knotty bass lines and loopy sing-along vocals. The rest of the track feeds off blippy keyboard washes, squealing guitar lines, and blistering forward momentum. There’s frenzied drums, rolling synths, and wacky muddled vocals (“Pharmaglob”), 16-bit dungeon level sounding jams (“Newt Dots”), wild start-stop tempos and demonic voices (“Emulated Egon”), and proto-punk freakouts (“Woven Grover”), but Gentleman Surfer never sound like they are simply wanking. The songs here feel improvisational, but have clearly been put together painstakingly and with tremendous artistry.

If 2013’s Blaks was a masterwork of loopy dementia and 2015’s Gold Man and even deeper plunge into the avant fringes of prog (there’s that word again), then Hard Pass seems to be a synthesis of everything Gentleman Surfer have accomplished up until this point. There’s a joyous enthusiasm that translates to the listener in how these nimble musicians play off one another that might even eclipse the band’s previous work. Above all else, Hard Pass can be best appreciated loud, perhaps under the influence, and with a very open mind.

Venom

 

Cast: Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed, Scott Haze, Reid Scott, Jenny Slate

Director: Ruben Fleischer

Running time: 1 hour 52 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Ruben Fleischer’s frenzied take on one of Spiderman’s most iconic adversaries is essentially a romcom between spiraling hard-nosed reporter Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) and a gooey outer space mollusk speaking in gravelly tones. The idea of a man attempting to reconcile with a voice in his head and a “parasite” inside his body has all the trappings for sublime body horror/Lovecraftian weirdness, but Venom actually plays more like an early 2000’s comic book movie elevated slightly by Hardy’s goofy comic abilities. 

Through a flurry of early montages, we learn that Eddie Brock is a Vice-style investigator with his sights set on tech billionaire Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), who is killing poor people throughout San Francisco via human trials wherein alien symbiotes bond with human hosts. Eddie gets the scoop by stealing confidential legal documents from his lawyer girlfriend, Anne (Michelle Williams), goes to Drake’s company for an interview to entrap him, and is quickly fired for his actions. There’s also a scientist working for Drake played by Jenny Slate whose mostly on hand to allow Eddie access to the compound’s quarantined zone where he inevitably bonds with the powerful alien life form.

If Venom’s first half is cluttered and plodding, then the middle section where Eddie and the creature become entangled does manage to find a comedic rhythm. This has little to do with Fleischer’s direction, which ranges from pedestrian to downright incoherent, and is entirely due to Hardy, who channels Nic Cage by way of Elmer Fudd with a riotous physical performance. A sequence where Eddie interrupts a lunch between Anne and her new surgeon boyfriend, Dan (Reid Scott), by chewing on seafood and immersing himself inside a lobster tank, is a prime example of an actor taking bland material and punching it up with all manner of tics, spasms, and funny faces.

The romcom elements of Eddie and Venom’s love-hate relationship is humorous for awhile, but Fleischer never settles on a consistent enough tone for this material to work over the long haul. Moving at a dizzying pace, Venom eventually descends into parodic CGI vomit; including a climatic duel between our anti-hero and a rival symbiote with all manner of Zack Snyder-esque crashing, punching, and explosions. It’s about as thrilling as watching the homeless population writhe in agony as tentacled globs swirl around their intestines while an Elon Musk analog twirls his imaginary mustache.

There’s a sense throughout Venom that Hardy is steamrolling his journeyman director into taking the standard comic book narrative into loopier territory. But the actor’s dedication in leaning into the material’s trash/cult curio potential is ultimately a moot point, seeing as this is still a major studio release taking place inside (or just outside) the MCU. As such, it cannot fully embrace the Sami Raimi Darkman vibes existing at the edges of a rather dull origins story. Instead, Fleischer settles more for Ghostrider/Daredevil vibes, with Hardy’s mumbly, spastic, tater tot-munching slapstick delivering in between dull swaths of plot exposition and deafening action sequences.







The Sisters Brothers

 

Cast: John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed

Director: Jacques Audiard

Running time: 2 hours

by Jericho Cerrona

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The longing for sensitivity inside the soul of lawless men has been at the center of writer/director Jacques Audiard’s filmography for years. Just look at the piano-playing delinquent in The Beat My Heart Skipped, the hardened prisoner looking for spiritual awakening in A Prophet, or even the soft-spoken Sri Lankan refugee turned badass in Dheepan. These are all men hiding in the shadows who still desire something close to happiness.

Audiard’s latest film, The Sister’s Brothers, is an odd one. A darkly comic western following the journey of titular brothers Eli (John C. Reilly) and Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) as they track down a man responsible for creating a formula for easily detecting gold, the film nonetheless fits squarely into Audiard’s fascination with lonely men looking for a way to escape their loneliness. It also should be noted that Reilly bought the rights to the 2011 Patrick deWitt novel upon which the film is based, and is credited as executive producer. This means there’s a level to which his talents as a character actor— that mix of social awkwardness and sadness—is perfectly suited to the role of Eli; a man who simply wants to finish one last job and be done with the business of killing altogether. On the other hand, his brother Charlie relishes the opportunity to kill insofar as it offers him a big pay day and plenty of booze, which likewise fits Phoenix’s brand of loose-cannon acting.

The Sisters Brothers follows a parallel narrative track, switching between Eli and Charlie’s exploits with that of the mark they are following, Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed). Once Warm teams up with John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), a man originally sent to capture him, the film moves into more introspective territory. As played by Ahmed with a soft gaze and sober intellect, there’s a homoerotic subtext to Warm and Morris’s relationship which also reads as a larger allegorical statement on the possibilities of an undiscovered country. Though there are violent interludes, shoot outs, and drunken shouting matches, The Sisters Brothers is an uncommonly cool-headed film. One might even call it gentle.

Still, this being an Audiard joint, there’s no shortage of nihilistic consequences for the actions of selfish men. In the film’s third act, things take a tragic turn as the two narrative tracks converge. Warm’s utopian idea of a society presaging socialism is a melancholic take on the eventual collapse of democracy, with the greed for gold ultimately trumping everything. All the while, Reilly and Phoenix play off each other wonderfully as polar opposites trapped in a geographical space which makes sensible life all but nonexistent. When a character asks Eli why he continues to put up with Charlie’s dim-witted recklessness, he simply stares off and mutters, “He’s my brother.” It’s a simple yet powerful sentiment which informs the film’s unexpectedly tender ending, which may be the most lyrical filmmaking of Audiard’s career. However, even this climax is tinged with despair because we know that for the Sisters brothers, it’s a feeling that ultimately won’t last.

Movie Pick of the Week

 

Love after Love

Director: Russell Harbaugh

Running time: 1 hour 31 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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There have been a number of films examining the lives of upper class suburban families imploding from grief, but Russell Harbaugh’s Love After Love is notable primarily for its stillness; a balanced, melancholic, and bravely subdued film which eats away at you gradually. Shot on 16mm through prolonged zoom lenses and accompanied by a free jazz/blues/ piano-driven score from composer David Shire, Love After Love at times feels like peeking in on the most searing aspects of family pain.

Observing a variety of characters at a distance and with incredible empathy, Harbaugh’s film moves elliptically, beginning with a jovial picnic in which we see the family patriarch, Glenn (Gareth Williams) in good spirits surrounded by loved ones. One ellipsis later, and we are looking at the man on his deathbed, wheezing in agony as his wife Suzanne (Andie MacDowell) and sons Nicholas (Chris O’Dowd) and Chris (James Adomian) tend to his needs. The rest of the film details how each family member reacts in the wake of Glenn’s death. Some, like Nicholas, go into self-destruct mode; which includes divorcing his wife Rebecca (Juliet Rylance), lashing out passive-aggressively against his mother, and taking up with much younger Emilie (Dree Hemingway). Chris is less abrasive about his grief, silently taking to the bottle while feeding self-pity into his stand-up comedy routine. Meanwhile, Suzanne retreats inward; burying her grief behind pleasantries and half-smiles. McDowell is absolutely devastating in her most complex work since Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape. A scene where she wanders into what looks like a High School dance—disoriented and dazed—is one of the acting feats of the year sans dialogue.

Love after Love takes what could have been a Lifetime movie of the week premise and gets at the troubling contradictions of the grieving process. There are no easy answers. People don’t always react in socially appropriate ways. Families often subdue their most primal instincts under the guise of keeping the unit together. O’Dowd’s Nicholas is a particularly self-involved disaster, and it’s to the film’s credit that it never betrays brutal honesty for maudlin uplift. Sometimes the misery of losing a loved one is more improvisational than literal, more introspective than performative; messier, untamed, and more like real life.







Music Pick of the Week

 

Armand Hammer

Paraffin

Year of release: 2018

by Jericho Cerrona

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Billy Woods has been around the block. Born in Washington D.C., but spending most of his life in NYC, Woods came up in the same mid-90’s scene as Cannibal Ox and Company Flow, but really didn’t reach public awareness until dropping 2012’s History Will Absolve Me. Three excellent solo releases followed, but his work with producer Elucid (known for experimental/spacey sounds) has unearthed some of the more forward-thinking hip hop releases in recent memory. Their latest collab, Paraffin, might be their tightest yet; a dense catalog of underground rap not unlike 90’s boom-bap and the early work of RZA. Lyrically, the album focuses on Western capitalism, blackness, and societal discord. It’s often funny, drenched in irony, and yet starkly urgent. Trump is never mentioned, but he doesn’t need to be with lines like To be seen and not seen at the same time is a mindfuck/Black buck on the cut “Ecomog”.

Though noisy and left-field, Armand Hammer aren’t making extreme hip hop in the mold of Death Grips or Shabazz Palaces. There’s an accessibility to Paraffin which should bring in fans of old school New York rap as well as younger listeners, who will groove to the strong flows, killer verses, and hard-hitting instrumentals on display here. This really is a cohesive record, with each track flowing seamlessly and giving us a deep meditation on being black in America. Throughout, Elucid’s beats are often hazy, fractured, and psychedelic. Plucked detuned guitars, rattling high-hats, fried out beats, and wonky jazz interludes are the order of the day, with Woods creating a lyrical tapestry of rage, confusion, and surprising humor. On the track “Reverse with Ornette”, he lays down lines like Riding dirty in a lemon, Semper Fi waving weapons at the peasants/hearts and minds that don’t work, start squeezing off one at a time; a signifier for black men getting gunned down for nothing. And yet, he ends the first verse with the darkly humorous jab Even his message drafts got the malware attachment.

As an album, Paraffin brilliantly straddles this line between bleak, topical, and clever. This isn’t some Soundclound trap or mumble rap nonsense. This is the sound of two men who have lived, seen the life, and are simply trying to survive. It’s an important record, but one which never announces its importance through trying to appease to the current hip hop zeitgeist, which may actually hurt its chances catching on with the masses. This would be a shame, since Armand Hammer are following in the tradition of acts like Cannibal Ox, Deltron 3030 and Madlib in distilling black consciousness amidst the crumbling apocalypse that is America.

Hold the Dark

 

Cast: Jeffrey Wright, Alexander Skarsgård, Riley Keough, James Badge Dale, Julian Black Antelope, Tantoo Cardinal, Beckham Crawford

Director: Jeremy Saulnier

Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Jeffery Wright, the consummate character actor who often improves scenes merely by showing up, is given a rare central role in writer-director Jeremy Saulnier’s latest thriller, Hold the Dark. Wright has a knack for both outlandishness and subtlety; imbuing his characters with off-kilter tics, or in the case of his infamous role in Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat, a sense of tenderness. As Russell Core, a wolf tracker/author, Wright brings a quiet soulfulness to a character which on paper exists mostly as a cipher. It’s a pity then, that the film itself fails him, since Sauliner’s take on William Giraldi’s novel of the same name (adapted by friend and co-actor Macon Blair), is mostly a laughable dirge into the abyss. Brutal violence in the Alaskan wilderness has never felt this pointless since last year’s Wind River.

Sauliner’s gifts up until this point have been in maintaining a mood of intense dread punctuated by moments of shocking violence. Both Blue Ruin and Green Room showed how humans pushed to their breaking points (psychologically and physically) could be capable of heinous acts. These films used gore not to titillate the audience (ala the work of Quentin Tarantino), but rather, to reveal the messiness of how real violence often manifests itself. Truthfully, there are stretches during Hold the Dark; particularly a tense extended police shootout, where Sauliner achieves this sublime fusion, but such moments are fleeting. On the whole, the director’s penchant for obvious metaphors and blunt formalism makes Hold the Dark silly in its brooding self-seriousness. Once the thematic goal is laid bare (spoiler alert: wolves are just a metaphor for the savage evil of humanity!), Sauliner’s film falls apart under the weight of its own ridiculousness.

Without moments of levity, humanity, or even comprehensible behavior, it’s difficult to engender much empathy for the kind of soulless archetypes trotted out here. The initial narrative involves children going missing from a small Alaskan town. Wright’s echo-friendly tracker is brought in by Medora Slone (Riley Keough), to hunt the wolf which apparently killed her son. Medora’s husband, Vernon (Alexander Skarsgård), is fighting in the war in the Middle East, introduced by stoically gunning down a bunch of foreigners before brutally stabbing one of his own. Medora speaks in hushed whispers, wears a weird mask at one point, and stumbles around naked. Vernon, meanwhile, is sent back home after being injured and almost instantly goes on a sociopathic killing spree. Of course, the entire wolf tracking episode is a red herring, with the narrative shifting into a ham-fisted treatise on America’s bloodlust for violence.

Medora and Vernon are such blank slates that whenever the focus moves away from Core (which is more often than expected), Hold the Dark feels like bland miserablism for its own sake. As things near the predictably bleak and bloody conclusion, Sauliner mistakes his rather straightforward genre exercise for something more profound. Had he played into the material’s ludicrousness (complete with Inuit curses, slasher masks straight out of The Strangers, and arrow attacks), then Hold the Dark could have been a clever midnight movie riff. Instead, Sauliner wants to make big statements about humanity, which is too bad. A world-weary Jeffery Wright hunting down mystical wolves could have been much more meaningful.

BROCKHAMPTON

 

Iridescence

5

Self-help studio therapy

by Jericho Cerrona

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What a difference a year makes for hip-hop supergroup (or “boy band”) BROCKHAMPTON, who stormed into public consciousness in 2017 with their highly lauded Saturation trilogy. Some may view the group’s rise as a sad commentary on the Internet age, where SounCloud rappers and meta-pop stars flourish while mainstays of the industry (Eminem, here’s looking at you, kid) stumble into irrelevancy. The truth is the insane amount of music BROCKHAMPTON managed to unleash in such a short amount of time actually delivered the goods; showcasing 15 members playing off one another’s strengths effortlessly. Saturation II was an especially potent distillation of the band’s strengths; combining funky synth-laden production with aggressive rapping and pop-oriented song structures.

However, trouble was brewing even before signing a huge deal with RCA records and hunkering down in London’s famous Abbey Road studios to record major label debut, Iridescence. Allegations of sexual misconduct against founding member Ameer Vann hit hard, causing a split with arguably the most talented MC in the band. Cancelled tour dates and written apologies followed, and very quickly, the mighty BROCKHAMPTON seemed to be on the verge of implosion. Would the painful in-group shakeup, not to mention financial payout for signing the RCA deal, relegate the talented young men creatively bankrupt? For all its production muscle and ambition, Iridescence is indeed the sound of a band swallowed up by expectations; whether external or self-imposed.

Right off the bat, the most noticeable thing about the album is its lumbering excess. On the surface, this isn’t such a bad thing, since BROCKHAMPTON have always thrived on their unbridled abrasiveness and unchecked emotion. Part of the outfit’s appeal is how they manage to cram each member’s songwriting prowess into the length of any given song, but throughout Iridescence’s 15 tracks, the band equate loudness (with every conceivable sonic bell and whistle) as a sign of maturity. Take, for example, album opener “New Orleans”, in which producers bearface and Jabari Manwa allow a weak bass kick, low hum of distortion, and Merlyn Wood’s dancehall verses to plod along for over 4 minutes. The song is a repetitive start to a record which rarely, if ever, finds its footing. “Thug Life” attempts to combine sugary piano with 90s R & B style crooning, but even here, BROCKHAMPTON sound as if they are trying too hard. Rather than stripping the song back (the piano motif is actually quite lovely), Kevin Abstract’s cheesy chorus regarding the trappings of wealth take the tune into the realm of self-parody. We get it. Becoming overnight celebrities is a bummer, and money isn’t everything. This theme is also explored on piano ballad “Tonya” and trip-hop influenced “Tape”, in which Matt Champion raps about Vann’s absence in ominous tones. The tale of DIY trailblazers caught in the whirlwind of success has been captured in all its messiness, but this arc is so predictable as to be nearly irrelevant at this point.

The album’s two best tracks, “Where the Cash at” and “District”, showcase the band at their most focused. Both are typical BROCKHAMPTON bangers in that they feel raw and unhinged; using the newfound studio sheen to fuck with sound, tempo, and vocal range. Elsewhere, there are novel stabs at honesty, such as Abstract’s confession to being attracted to men on “Weight” and the Gospel-tinged choir refrains throughout “San Marcos”. Most of the time, however, Iridescence comes across like a product of studio overhaul.

Ultimately, there are too many voices here. Too many ideas. Too many producers throwing in sonic arrangements. Of course, with a group this large and a major label debut this anticipated, the pressure to deliver on every conceivable level must have felt overwhelming. In many ways, Iridescence caves into these pressures while only occasionally allowing a purity of vision to peek through. Sadly, BROCKHAMPTON sound desperate, and their strain of braggadocious introspection about the perils of fame, is in dire need of the edit button.

Guerilla Toss

 

Twisted Crystal

7

Tossing in earworm melodies to go along with the weird

by Jericho Cerrona

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If slap bass isn’t back in vogue, no one bothered to tell New York new wave/noise band Guerilla Toss, whose latest album, Twisted Crystal, goes full bouncing fret on multiple occasions. Of course, getting out the funk, as it were, isn’t that surprising in this case. On their last record, GT Ultra, Guerilla Toss managed to dispel the notion that they had no interest in making pop music; (albeit pop music coded in acid), by cranking out some exuberantly fun tunes. Twisted Crystal is a far mellower listen, but no less bizarre; playing like psych new wave spun through a worn out VHS tape.

One of the major changes for the band (who have been kicking around since 2010), is the clarity of singer Kassie Carlson’s vocals. Of course, one listen to 2013’s abrasively bonkers Gay Disco and you can be forgiven for wondering if this is even the same group in terms of sound. Still, Carlson’s growth as both a singer and lyricist is probably the most forward-thinking aspect of Guerilla Toss’s recent move to DFA records; a label specializing in experimental dance music. In the past, Carlson couched her scrappy melodies behind reverb and effects, but throughout Twisted Crystal’s nine tracks, she allows herself less leeway in terms of fading into the background. The interplay between guitars, synths, angular percussion, and her voice is much more melodic here than on previous releases, starting with opener “Magic is Easy”, which sounds like 70’s funk rock recorded inside a fish bowl. Meanwhile, lead single “Meteorological” is easily the most straightforward her vocals have ever been as she adopts a spoken word style delivery reminiscent of David Byrne or Grace Jones, which is foregrounded by blipping sound effects, lazer synths, and a dancey backbeat.

Guerilla Toss channel more avant-pop on “Come Up With Me”, which feature that aforementioned slap bass, along with kitschy guitar leads, shimmering keyboards, and a killer chorus. Meanwhile, “Walls of the Universe” feels like a trip deep into the cosmos, with Carlson’s robotic vocals overlapping amidst spacey strings and synth crescendo. Is she disappearing into the nexus of the universe or simply enjoying the ride? The line between genuine introspection and winking pastiche is a fine one, and what’s so enjoyable about Twisted Crystal is the way it throws out philosophical ideas regarding the unknown without ever betraying the band’s vibrant aesthetic.

Twisted Crystal is undeniably a pop record, but one that takes its cues from 70s/80’s acts like Brian Eno, Laurie Anderson, Talking Heads, Kraftwerk, and Gary Numan. However, though Guerilla Toss’s influences are obvious, this is not some cynical pastiche job. In their own unique way, the band manage to distill the outlier tendencies of these aforementioned acts with the more accessible signifiers of modern pop. If Gay Disco and 2016’s Eraser Stargazer bombarded the listener with an array of conflicting sounds, then Twisted Crystal, and to a lesser extent GT Ultra, open their arms to melody as a defining trait. The sonic detail here is just as ambitious and overwhelming, but more focused on songwriting and less intent on blowing your hair back via sheer lunacy. And therein lies the album’s magic. It combines the whacked-out with the serene, the absurd with the reserved, the spiked high with the placid come down. And, less we forget, there’s that slap bass to contend with. There will always be that glorious slap bass.

Mandy

 

Cast: Nicolas Cage, Andrea Riseborough, Linus Roache, Ned Dennehy, Olwen Fouéré, Bill Duke, Richard Brake, Line Pillet

Director: Panos Cosmatos

Running time: 2 hours

by Jericho Cerrona

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If writer-director Panos Cosmatos’s previous feature, 2012’s Beyond the Black Rainbow, was an hallucinogenic pastiche of the films of David Cronenberg and John Carpenter’s Dark Star, then his latest plunge into 80’s Astro lamp psychedelia, Mandy, should have fanboys tripping big time. Though superficially a revenge thriller in which Red Miller (Nicolas Cage) must avenge the brutal murder of his lover, Mandy (Andrea Riseborough), the film is much more concerned with pop-cultural artiness than streamlined genre thrills. Though set somewhere in the California wilderness circa 1983, the film could just as easily take place within the pages of Heavy Metal magazine.

During the film’s opening stretch, Cosmatos allows us to spend time with Red and Mandy as they lounge around their quiet home. Red is a blue collar worker who cuts down trees, enjoys a good smoke, and indulges in Eric Estrada knock-knock jokes, while Mandy comes off like a former D & D fanatic lost in her horror/fantasy paperback novels. Cage and Riseborough have an easygoing chemistry which helps humanize characters who could have come off like accessories amidst Cosmatos’s over-determined visual style. Set to the synthy drone of late composer Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score and filled with neon reds, pink/white hues, and protracted slow zooms, Mandy is retro wankery that somehow overcomes its influences.

Once cult leader Sand Jeremiah (Linus Roache), enters the picture, things take a turn toward the twisted. Mandy is kidnapped by the cult, forced to take a potent drug cocktail, and endure a druggy monologue about sexually enslaving women. During this sequence, Cosmatos overlaps imagery with a variety of cross dissolves; saturating the frame with pinkish hues at a delayed pace. The scene ends with Jeremiah revealing his flaccid member, to which Mandy howls in mocking disgust; emasculating the leader’s messiah complex. Here and elsewhere, the film is commenting on the absurdity of the male ego and the ludicrous lengths it will go to get what it wants. At the other end of the wounded masculinity spectrum is Red; a former alcoholic who witnesses the vicious murder of his partner and must inevitably go on a mission of vengeance.

Along with the death cult, there’s a ghoulish biker gang recalling a mixture of Hellraiser and Mad Max who have been warped by a hallucinatory strain of LSD. Of course, Red gathers a variety of weapons in order to embark on his killing spree, and one key scene has him meeting with an arms dealer (Bill Duke, chewing scenery), who fills him in on the fantastical exposition regarding the demonic roving bikers. From here, Mandy transforms into a ultra-violent riff on male loneliness; complete with a scene in which Cage, clad in his underwear and swinging a bottle of whiskey inside a bathroom, has an emotional breakdown. Though this moment may appear locked into the meme-worthy pantheon, Cage actually melds his live wire outrageousness with notes of primal sadness. As the film moves on, his performance becomes more mournful and heartbreaking. Sure, there are the obligatory “big” set-pieces; like a chainsaw duel which ends in a particularly satisfying geyser of blood, but the film becomes more emotionally resonant as we witness Red falling deeper into the abyss.

Mandy is a phantasmagoric cinematic experience; slow, hypnotic, violent, and melancholy. Cosmatos’s excessive formalism will not be to everyone’s tastes, and there’s a sense in which some of the experimental notes of Beyond the Black Rainbow have been excised for a more straightforward revenge narrative here. Still, Cage holds the entire thing together as a man purging the hate in his heart only to lose his soul completely. Ultimately, we are locked into his blood-soaked face and white bulging eyes as he stares off into oblivion. Resurrected in retribution. Lost in grief.