Ty Segall

 

Freedom's Goblin

8

Segall's School of Rock

by Jericho Cerrona

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On his 2017 self-titled release, Southern California singer-songwriter Ty Segall seemed to be in a caring and sharing mood; alternating between Marc Bolan-esque glam, Beatles-imbued balladry, and worship of all things The Kinks. It wasn't a surprise to anyone paying attention to his trajectory, coming off like a natural extension of a decade-long pursuit for channeling 60s/70s style into an accessible rock n'roll package. The abrasiveness of 2016's Emotional Mugger was gone; replaced by the vision of a tireless musician nearing the age of 30 who had perhaps tried out every pose he could think of. It was more or less a sonic survey, and predictably, an entry point for all things Segall up until that point.

His latest record, Freedom's Goblin, also won't shock anyone attuned to the man's knack for wearing influences proudly, but there's also more ambition here, not to mention a newfound attraction to sprawl, that makes this perhaps his boldest release yet. Recorded over a lengthy period between five studios and the help of returning producer extraordinaire Steve Albini, Freedom's Goblin is a grab bag of post-punk, disco, funk, sludge metal, Jagger-esque rock stomp, Beatles-adjacent balladry, and everything Marc Bolan. Expected, yes, but also sublime.

Threatening self-indulgent bloat, Freedom's Goblin stays the course by never allowing the running time--19 tracks, around 75 minutes--to get in the way of earworm melodies and controlled songwriting. Tunes like opener "Fanny Dog" about his beloved pet, rollick along with self-deprecating lyrics and boisterous horns, and a reworking of Hot Chocolate’s 1978 single “Every 1’s A Winner” keeps the funky rhythm, but adds more fuzzy guitars. Elsewhere, there's nice variation to the usual Ty template, such as the sleazy glam-disco of "Despoiler Cadaver" and the squealing jazz freak-out, "Talkin 3", which sees Segall adopting a hoarse falsetto that feels like it might break apart at any moment.

Freedom's Goblin is really about being at a place in your life where contentment and excess aren't mutually exclusive. Recently married (check out the blistering punk anthem "Meaning" with wife Denee on lead vocals), Segall seems to be relishing the chance to jam in studio with a revolving cast of talented musicians without the need to indulge in sloppy rock decadence. It's a tricky balance; loud, bombastic dirges mixed with plaintive balladry, but Segall manages to pull it off.

For every barn-burner, like the Black Sabbath-inspired "She", there are a handful of gentle acoustic numbers ("Cry, Cry, Cry", "I'm Free", "My Lady's on Fire") which not only conjure The Beatles, but more surprisingly, Neil Young and Wilco. As a kitchen sink double-album where no genre is off the table, the listening experience really should be unwieldy, but the amount of pop hooks rising from every guitar solo and skronking saxophone means that there's a little something here for everyone. Of course, such an assortment of disparate elements might feel messy from the standpoint of conceptual consistency, but it's hard to argue that, from song to song, Freedom's Goblin emerges as the most unqualified version of Segall's school of rock to date.   

Black Panther

 

Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Andy Serkis, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Letitia Wright

Director: Ryan Coogler

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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First things first. Marvel movies are no longer really movies, if they ever were to begin with. As a vast commercial machine existing to appease demographics, set up larger cogs, and continue into infinity (and Infinity Wars, natch), the franchise assembly line resists subversion just based on the business model alone. Moments of inspiration, wit, and creativity can still be found within these constraints, but such moments have been fleeting.

Of course, this is all well and good, depending on perspective. These things are designed to be lobotomizing sedatives; fueling fanboy nostalgia and escapism to the point where the artistic merits of the films themselves become irrelevant. However, what happens when filmmakers with actual discernible talent get tossed into the fray? The results might look something like writer-director Ryan Coogler's Black Panther; a Marvel product through and through--with standard plotting, fake CGI action, and mandated Stan Lee cameo--but also real emotion, dramatic stakes, and committed performances struggling against formula. 

An animated prologue featuring N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown) narrating the history behind the fictional African nation of Wakanda as well as the origins of a powerful metal called vibranium, sets the stage effectively without the need for unnecessary character introductions; although we do get a flashback to Oakland, Ca circa 1992, where a young N'Jobu has exiled himself due to differences of opinion regarding Wakanda's place in the realm of foreign aid. T’Chaka (Atandwa Kani), N’Jobu’s brother and Wakanda’s king, shows up unannounced and during an intense exchange, murders him, setting in motion a tale of the sin's of the father being passed to their sons. In this case, the next in line to rule Wakanda is T'Chaka's son, T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman), who will eventually become the titular hero, and Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), the son of N'Jobu who has his own ideas about usurping the throne.

If all of this sounds like a convoluted set-up en route to the usual superhero shenanigans, Coogler's sensitive handling of his character's emotional pathology means that Black Panther is the rare Marvel movie in which dramatic stakes actually play a significant role. Meanwhile, the visual representation of Wakanda as a utopian society free from colonialism and hiding from the horrors of the rest of the world is a bold synergizing of Afro-futurism and indigenous folklore. The bursts of color--from the tribal costumes, jewelry, natural hairstyles, and evocative natural landscapes --is painstakingly detailed, aided by composer Ludwig Göransson and Senegalese musician Baaba Maal's percussively rhythmic score, which especially roars to life during hand-to-hand combat sequences atop a waterfall. Throughout the moments set in Wakanda, one can sense a deeply impassioned undercurrent simmering underneath the shabby veneer of the Marvel playbook, giving us something we haven't yet seen on this scale in a movie before; unadulterated, unashamed blackness.

There is a plot here, and it follows a pro forma trajectory, but what's most surprising is the film's commitment to emotional wounds. T’Challa’s rise to the throne after the death of his father is mirrored by the exploits of Killmonger, who joins forces with deranged baddie Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis, non-motion captured and mugging wildly). Lupita Nyong’o's Nakia is more than simply a romantic interest to T'Challa; proving herself handy with both humanitarian efforts and weaponry, and spear-wielding female bodyguard Okoye (Danai Gurira) shares affection for kickass moves as well as Daniel Kaluuya's W'Kabi, a local Wakanda resident who has high hopes for the new king's reign. Perhaps most inspired of all is the inclusion of Shuri (Letitia Wright), T'Challa's tech gadget wizard sister, who provides both brains and sassy attitude to the proceedings. Meanwhile, Killmonger has his own motivations for seeking the throne--driven more by pain and grief than standard issue villany--which gives the character a tragic dimension, embodied by Jordan with swagger and soulfulness.

There is only one major non-black character here; C.I.A. operative Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), who is mostly on hand to look befuddled in his whiteness surrounded by a throng of dark-skinned agents of authority. Mostly, though, Coogler wants to examine how people of color react to their own; culminating in the convergence of T'Challa and Killmonger's opposing ideologies, which of course, results in a physical battle as well. To that point, as successful as the film is in its exploration of human drama, it somewhat fails as a superhero action spectacle. This has been an ongoing problem with the Marvel films; as shoddy action choreography and subpar CGI has become par for the course, and Black Panther, for all it's inspired costuming and set-design, cannot overcome the Marvel house style. A James Bond-inspired shootout inside a casino is a lively highlight, and a prolonged car chase is fun for a while before eventually being dragged down by awkward staging and rubbery effects. Meanwhile, the snooze-inducing finale where charging CG Rhinos and tribes engage in a large-scale battle while Black Panther and Killmonger fall through corridors punching each other like video game avatars, undercuts much of what makes the film so special.

Of course, the example of representation on such a massive scale is a historic leap forward even if the film itself isn't revolutionary. The alt-right will likely boycott. Think pieces will be written at a fever pitch. Hashtags about wokeness will crop up. But will anyone actually remember the movie after the next deluge of Marvel ventures are shoved down our collective throats? Coogler's valiant attempts at reconfiguring a brand hopelessly tied to formula is important for a variety of reasons, but most of all, perhaps, is the idea of a young person of color looking up at the screen in awe; overwhelmed and empowered. They will remember. They will dream. They will reach into their past in order to inspire their future, and that matters.

 

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

MGMT

 

Little Dark Age

7

More pop, less weird, but still chasing psychedelic highs
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MGMT may never make an album as brilliantly bonkers as 2010's Congratulations. Considered by many to be a middle finger to everyone who swooned over smash singles "Time to Pretend", "Electric Feel" and "Kids" from their hugely successful debut album, Oracular Spectacular, the record was actually a distillation of duo Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser's sonic obsessions. The fusion of druggy psych and electro-pop may have hit the Coachella scene like a mainstream bong rip back in 2007, but on the whole, Oracular Spectacular was a much weirder record than those singles suggested. Therefore, Congratulations merely doubled down on that strangeness; coming off like a wonky cross between Television Personalities and Syd Barrett. 2013's MGMT followed; another left-field swing into proggy noodling which once again denied fans the obvious hooks and melodies they craved.

The generational optimism MGMT helped usher in became a curse for the band, since they were never really interested in making mass appeal pop music to begin with. The two albums which followed Oracular Spectacular weren't simply reactionary moves, but exist as a natural pivot into the off-kilter soundscapes dominating the rest of that record. MGMT's resilience in making the kind of music they want, regardless of expectations, is noteworthy in parsing their latest release, Little Dark Age. Some will see it as a "return to form" after nearly a decade of self-indulgent excess, while others will criticize the duo for conceding to a slicker pop sound. The truth is somewhere in between, as Little Dark Age relishes the chance for a more focused set of songs which bridge the gap between accessible 80's synth-pop and acid-fueled psychedelia.   

At its heart, MGMT's latest is about thirtysomething malaise; the absurdity of being young enough to have some level of aspiration, but old enough to realize that it's probably all for naught. If Oracular Spectacular was a free-love ode to living in the moment, then Little Dark Age is the attempt to reconcile wasted youth with the uncomfortable vanities of contemporary life. Opener "She Works Out Too Much" is a telling example of this theme; a satiric riff on keeping up with a girlfriend who is active both in the physical sense as well as the social media sense. With its self-aware instructional audio cues and chintzy keyboard flourishes, the tune sets up an ironic distance that comes and goes throughout the record. There's goth darkwave with an infectious hook ("Little Dark Age"), anthemic power-pop ("Me and Michael"), and mocking tales of self-defeat and suicide ("When You Die"), but mostly, MGMT tap into the idea of inverting pop tropes in order to experiment with their now patented sound. At their worst, they fall back on flat textures, like the dub-influenced  “TSLAMP" about the tech phobia of spending too much time on your phone, or the psych-folk ditty "When You're Small", which plays more like a parody of stoner balladry than a homage. At their best, they utilize a mishmash of vintage keyboards, jazzy interludes, and stereo-panning soundscapes that rarely overwhelm some of the more focused songwriting of their career.

Elsewhere, MGMT lean into the pop pastiche of artists like Ariel Pink (who gets a vocal harmony on "When We Die") and John Maus (especially the retro synth work on "One Thing Left To Try"). Though VanWyngarden and Goldwasser certainly know their way around a gorgeous melody, they don't quite have the self-reflexive charm of someone like Pink; a guy whose spent decades reappropriating past sounds and aesthetics into something approaching originality.

Nonetheless, throughout Little Dark Age, MGMT strike a rather elegant balance of sugary pop and moody introspection; getting a few hooks out of their system while basking in the paranoia and fear of burning out in your mid-30's. There's a telling line during "When You Die" which speaks to this idea of using shimmering pop in order to hint at darker impulses, as VanWyngarden sings Go fuck yourself… don’t call me nice again. It sounds eerily like someone who made his name on empowering zeitgeist-chasing anthems now doubling down on the sham of it all, and maybe that's just the kind of sentiment, for better or worse, we need in 2018.   

  

 

Movie Pick of the Week

 

Mary and the Witch's Flower

Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi

Year of release: 2018

Running time: 1 hour 42 minutes

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As the first animated feature from the production company, Studio Ponoc, Hiromasa Yonebayashi's Mary and the Witch's Flower feels like a natural successor to the Studio Ghibli house style. While the film may ultimately lack Hayao Miyazaki's visionary fingerprints, there's still something almost miraculous about the sight of a girl, her broomstick, and a black cat emerging from hand-animated brushstrokes. 

There's more than a hint of Kiki's Delivery Service and Harry Potter here as the bored but plucky Mary (Ruby Barnhill ) is whisked away from her great-aunt's scenic country home to the ancient school of magic on the floating world of Endor. There's a mad professor (voiced by the great Jim Broadbent), and a headmistress (Kate Winslet) who may not be what she seems, but mostly, Mary and the Witches Flower is about the awkwardness of youth. Mary simply wants to belong, to feel included, to be admired for who she is, mop of curly read hair and all. The inclusion of a hapless adolescent male character whom she must eventually rescue is a nice inversion of the damsel in distress trope, though it does turn the film's third act into little more than a series of chases. Still, Mary's resolve in the face of scientific exploration run amok, and her realization that magic and science can be equally abused, is a nifty thematic message in a children's film.

Though not as intellectually or emotionally rigorous as the works of Miyazaki (of which it will inevitably be compared), Yonebayashi's attention to visual detail--the magic school of Endor is a marvelous mixture of medieval, organic, and futuristic design, for example--makes Mary and the Witches Flower a richly rewarding experience. In an era where children's fare is watered down with recycled jokes and sloppy CG effects, the repurposed elements here feel entirely welcome; an invitation to lose oneself in a long-dead style of animation; one magical shape-shifting flower at a time.     

Music Pick of the Week

 

Shopping

The Official Body

Year of release: 2018

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Throbbing bass, intertwining guitar lines, and deadpan call-and-response vocals dominate London-based Shopping's third album, The Official Body, as does political fervor. Unlike the angst of a politically-minded band like Protomartyr, however, Shopping use their post-Brexit emotions as a springboard to keep those hips moving. The results are an infectious slew of dance-punk songs; not unlike the output of The B52's, Devo, or Tom Tom Club in their rhythmic ebb and flow.

Vocalist/guitarist Rachel Aggs, bassist Billy Easter and drummer Andrew Milk create a consistent mood of head-bobbing, even as the lyrics touch on political outrage and gender identity. As a queer woman of color, Aggs layers her nimble fret work with subtle observations about fitting into a socially acceptable niche, like on "Shave Your Head", where Milk sings I can’t I can’t I can’t tell you apart before Aggs steps in with the cry of Break free/Feel frustrated. 

Throughout The Official Body, there's a blend of minimalist melodies with protest consciousness, making it that rare album of emotional catharsis that never announces its self-importance. As the world burns all around us, Shopping may be proving that the resistance exists not in angry picket lines, but on a euphoric dance floor.

 

 

 

 

Favorite Films of 2017


If 2016 felt like a disastrous year for the human race, then 2017 was a political, societal, and planetary meltdown of epic proportions. Major American studio releases continued to chase reboot, rehash, and regurgitation culture; representing the nadir of a floundering business model. On the other hand, foreign films and documentaries flourished; showcasing a wide range of experiences reinforcing the daring artistic creativity human beings are capable of. The American films that did capture the zeitgeist; Jordan Peele's Get Out for example, were so steeped in political sentiment that the idea of post-Trump era cinema honestly felt like a rallying cry. Coupled with the "Me Too" movement, which saw Hollywood reeling as the swamp began to drain, and 2017 (as scary as it was) saw a significant shift in the culture. The list of films represented here showcases that glimmer of hope that can stir within us. That cinema can still move us. That the movies matter. Long live the films. May they never die. 


10

Dawson City: Frozen Time

Bill Morrison's extraordinary documentary tells the story of the 1978 discovery of over 500 nitrate film prints dating from 1910 to 1920, and links that discovery with the Klondike Gold Rush. Ambitiously mounted, painstakingly researched, and edited with delicate grace, Dawson City: Frozen Time is an act of preservation with the full knowledge that time decays all things, imploring us to look closer at the faces eroding from the edges of a burning reel. 

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9

The Work

Men serving heavy-duty time in Folsom Prison engage in an intensive four-day group therapy program in Jairus McLeary's astonishing documentary The Work. This is a film depicting toxic masculinity being drained from the inside out, with unexpected bursts of emotion, violence, and soul-bearing. Difficult to watch, but also an essential snapshot of the cyclical nature of fatherless sons.


8

Good Time

Joshua and Ben Safdie's riff on Scorsese's After Hours sees the duo entering straightforward genre territory while still retaining their distinct aesthetic. Aided immensely by Robert Pattinson's scruffy charisma and a throbbing electronic score, Good Time emerges as a nightmarish trip through the city's grimy underbelly, shot through neon-lit signs and darkened corridors by the gifted cinematographer Sean Prince Williams. A breathless neo-noir ride.

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7

Personal Shopper

The emotional complexity of Olivier Assayas's Personal Shopper doesn't rest on whether spirits exist or not, but on how human beings choose to deal with the living and remember the dead. Using striking compositions, deft camera movements suggesting things unseen, and a thoroughly distinctive central performance from Kristen Stewart, Assayas has crafted a striking meditation on identity.


6

Nocturama

A diptych showing acts of terrorism from a group of Paris youngsters, Bertrand Bonello’s latest is a seemingly political film which treats politics obliquely. A stunning work of aesthetic control and tone; jumping from planning, execution, to hanging out inside a decadent shopping mall, Nocturama uses the millennial obsession with technology as a jumping off point for a damning critique of post-modern culture. 

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5

A Quiet Passion

The historical specificity of poet Emily Dickinson as an elusive presence given to flights of fancy and crippling melancholy makes Terence Davies's A Quiet Passion that rare biopic which transcends the genre. Anchored by Cynthia Nixon's transformative performance, the film nails the essential element of why art is important and consequently, why someone like Dickinson was such a major figure worthy of adoration. 


4

The Salesman

Asghar Farhadi doubles down on the symbolic nature of his film's title, drawing on not only Arthur Miller, but domestic melodrama and procedural thriller in The Salesman; the tale of a series of simple mistakes which splinter into a horrible event. A triumph of humanism which earns its sentiments by engaging with the ugliness of human nature rather than running from it.

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3

Harmonium

Writer-director Kôji Fukada's Harmonium is startling in how emotional and psychological unraveling is tied into symmetrical framing and detail-oriented set design. Essentially a domestic drama about a family coming unglued after the arrival of a mysterious stranger, Fukada's devastating gut-punch of a film conjures the darkest depths of the human soul while still leaving you with more questions than answers. 


2

Columbus

South Korean-born writer-director Kogonada's remarkable debut feature charts the friendship between a young woman and an older man in a way which feels almost radical; with the mysterious pull of human interaction bracketed by the town's imposing architectural structures. Quietly unassuming, aesthetically beautiful, and unbearably moving; Columbus is the rare American film which takes the time to move at its own hushed rhythms. 

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1

Phantom Thread

For pure cinematic pleasure, Paul Thomas Anderson's tale of a couturier and his muse set in 1950s London is tough to overcome. The film is a subversion of the troubled male genius placating a woman who inspires his art, a 21st-century acknowledgment of female autonomy, a brittle black comedy of manners, and a visually ravishing love story. Above all else, Phantom Thread is Anderson's most mature and mysterious work; by turns haunting, strange, lovely, and neurotic. The year's greatest achievement by a long stretch, and possibly a masterpiece.


Other favorites that just missed the list:

Song to Song, I, Olga Hepnarova, The Untamed, I Called Him Morgan, Mudbound



Favorite Films of 2017


If 2016 felt like a disastrous year for the human race, then 2017 was a political, societal, and planetary meltdown of epic proportions. Major American studio releases continued to chase reboot, rehash, and regurgitation culture; representing the nadir of a floundering business model. On the other hand, foreign films and documentaries flourished; showcasing a wide range of experiences reinforcing the daring artistic creativity human beings are capable of. The American films that did capture the zeitgeist; Jordan Peele's Get Out for example, were so steeped in political sentiment that the idea of post-Trump era cinema honestly felt like a rallying cry. Coupled with the "Me Too" movement, which saw Hollywood reeling as the swamp began to drain, and 2017 (as scary as it was) saw a significant shift in the culture. The list of films represented here showcases that glimmer of hope that can stir within us. That cinema can still move us. That the movies matter. Long live the films. May they never die. 


25

The Human Surge

Argentinian director Eduardo Williams's debut feature, The Human Surge, is one of the year's most daring experiments, following the lives of various young people in Buenos Aries, Mozambique and the Phillipines by focusing on their aimless addiction to technology. The film casts a strange spell of documentary/fiction vérité, with one passage of time in particular representing one of the most formally audacious transitions ever put to film. 

 

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24

Actor Martinez

With Robert Altman-esque zoom lenses and a semi-improvised tone, Mike Ott and Nathan Silver's Actor Martinez emerges as either an exploitative stunt or simply a commentary on our need to exploit and be exploited. A struggling actor attempts to tap into his inner thespian...or something. Hilarious and oddly moving. 


23

Staying Vertical

The brilliance of director Alain Guiraudie's Staying Vertical is that it never explicitly tells us what should be taken seriously or what is meant as a droll joke. A drifting screenwriter randomly marries a woman he meets on a farm, runs away with her young child, and gets into some truly bizarre sexual situations in a film which evokes late period Luis Buñuel. Absurdly comic and wildly provocative.

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22

The Florida Project

If 2015's Tangerine was writer-director Sean Baker's lo-fi view of adult friendship, then The Florida Project is his Technicolor epic about childhood. The story of a precocious 6-year-old, her haphazard mother, and the kindly motel manager that watches after them is so lovingly realized that the effect is one of total immersion.


21

Mimosas

The basic plot of Oliver Laxe's Mimosas involves two nomads carrying a sheikh's remains across a perilous mountainside joined by a strange wanderer obsessed with the supernatural, but the bewilderingly gorgeous landscapes dwarf the human characters. The results are episodic, bewildering, and hypnotic; a cinematic experience which actively resists classification.

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20

Get Out

A dead-eyed satire about white upstate liberals who are obsessed with the idea of blackness as long as they can control it, Jordan Peele's Get Out was 2017's movie of the moment.  Deftly balancing comedy, drama, satire, and horror elements without ever losing control of the tone, Peele's film proves to be an intellectually probing look at 21st-Century racism.


19

Lady Bird

The pleasure of writer-director Greta Gerwig's Lady Bird is the way it doesn't try to upend genre expectations. Instead, the film is an intelligently realized depiction of high school life told with a streak of welcome passive aggressiveness. The central prickly mother/daughter relationship is ultimately the heart of the film, proving Gerwig understands that paying attention and love are often the same thing. 

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18

Slack Bay

Playing like an Agatha Christie murder mystery with a cast of grimacing buffoons, Bruno Dumont's Slack Bay mixes exacting formalism with absurdism to brilliant effect. The film's three central groups are basically on hand to symbolize exaggerated versions of class differences, with everyone's favorite French enfant terrible in a rib-tickling mood. Slow cinema as gonzo satire.


17

Rat Film

While superficially about a rat control problem in Baltimore, Theo Anthony's Rat Film is a vast, time-shifting study in racial oppression, residential segregation, and the quirky people inhabiting impoverished spaces. Surrealist imagery, chilly narration, and an electronic score by Dan Deacon capture the insidious nature of the powerful preying on the powerless in this strangely mesmerizing essay film. 

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16

The Lost City of Z

Writer-director James Gray's The Lost City of Z is a vision of two tales of obsession. The first concerns an archaeologist searching for a fabled civilization at the dawn of the 20th century, while the second is of a filmmaker searching for his own version of transcendence. Gray's marvelous-looking epic is ultimately more interested with the internal purgatory of the mind than the geographical space of the jungle. 


15

I am Not Your Negro

Ingeniously meshing archival footage of James Baldwin with clips from old films, commercials, still photographs, and other mixed media, Raoul Peck's I Am Not Your Negro presents a staggering collective vision of the United States as a nation drowning in self-delusion and hatred. Peck's towering achievement shows how Baldwin's mission to reflect our bigoted institutions became a microcosm for the moral emptiness of the human soul.

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14

Behemoth

Zhao Liang's Behemoth is a work of stunning power and socioeconomic specificity examining the dehumanizing effects of industrialization in China. Structured around a naked wandering man (who becomes our Virgil-like guide in Dante's Divine Comedy mode) as he gazes out toward natural landscapes, Liang's film offers us a visual lesson in guerilla-style formalism and a reminder of how environmental decay aligns with human loss.


13

The Ornithologist

A man traversing the wilderness of northern Portugal in search of rare birds forms a stand-in for 13th-century Saint Anthony of Padua in João Pedro Rodrigues's The Ornithologist; a modernist queer narrative that's baffling, surreal, and yet completely cohesive. A major work from a major filmmaker.

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12

On the Beach at Night Alone

Hong Sang-soo dives into his personal life with the revealing On the Beach at Night Alone, which gives Kim Min-hee the spotlight as an actress dealing with the aftermath of an affair. Autobiography and aesthetic distance combine in fascinating ways as Min-hee delivers a raw, sensitive, and masterful performance as a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. 


11

The Death of Louis XIV

Watching an overweight, gangrene-infested king slowly waste away might sound like an exercise in audience trolling, but Albert Serra's blackly funny The Death of Louis XIV remains a singular achievement. A perverse, immaculately designed period piece with a herculean turn by the great Jean-Pierre Léaud, Serra's obsession with minutiae, sound design, and the human body creates a study in bringing aristocratic royalty down to the realm of mere mortals.

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Phantom Thread

 

Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Since his 1996 debut Hard Eight, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson has accumulated the status of wunderkind sensation, especially following 1997's critical smash Boogie Nights and 1999's sprawling yet divisive Magnolia. Since then, he's settled into the rarefied category of genius auteur with a series of films (Punch-Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood, The Master, Inherent Vice) that, to varying degrees, have become part of the cinematic canon. As one of his generation's most consistent directors, his filmography has spurned the kind of mythic discussion usually reserved for reclusive foreign filmmakers. However, especially in interviews, Anderson comes across like a Southern California Valley native who loves movies of all stripes (he has a soft spot for SNL alums, including Adam Sandler) rather than the serious-minded artist one would expect. With his latest work, Phantom Thread, he's crafted perhaps his most mature film; by turns haunting, strange, gorgeous, funny, and perverse.

There's a single image that occurs near the end of Anderson's lavish yet intimate period piece that encapsulates the entire experience. Reynolds Woodcock, the dressmaker in 1950s London played by Daniel-Day Lewis, is intricately sewing a dress, and Anderson gives us a brief insert shot of his gnarled fingers. This image--of the toll a control freak getting down and dirty with his craft has on the body--is the kind of detail that could easily have been be left out. Day-Lewis and Anderson, though, are the type of artists who delight in such specifics, and Phantom Thread is full of details like that. This is a tactile cinematic experience; the way the film looks, sounds, and feels is all of a piece with immersing us inside a uniquely sealed-off universe. Most of the film takes place inside an ornate townhouse (known as "the house of Woodcock") where spiraling staircases are used as gliding elevators for seamstresses, maids, and models. As Johnny Greenwood's majestically gorgeous score (incorporating classical motifs, recurring piano, and jazzy interludes) swirls around the mansion's corridors, Anderson cuts elegantly rhythmic montages showing us Reynolds's daily routines.

The particulars of Mr. Woodcock's rituals--the way he shaves, puts on socks, sketches his dress designs, and eats breakfast--are important insofar as they give us a clue into the artist's headspace. A man of order and routine, Reynolds must create a very particular dimension in which to work, and as a member of privilege, his mode of passive-aggressiveness reflects a strident need for self-control. During the early moments, one of his lovers is seen trying to get his attention during breakfast, to which Reynolds scolds her, takes an angry bite of a Danish, and storms out of the room. The woman is sent packing; signifying the way Reynolds's mood can shift when his precious routine is threatened, and Day-Lewis makes even the most mundane activity endlessly fascinating. Rather than the hulking physical presence and explosive rage of Daniel Plainview from There Will Be Blood, the actor retreats inward here; creating a recessive character with a lilting voice and knack for obsessive behavior.

Anderson is wise to so fully absorb us in Woodcock's world that when he meets a waitress, Alma (Vicky Krieps), and begins wooing her, the eventual disruption of his ritualistic lifestyle is felt like a knife loudly buttering toast. If Anderson wore his influences earnestly during the early part of his career--the Scorsese-esque tracking shots during Boogie Nights, the Altman ensemble interconnectedness of Magnolia--here his nods feel less insistent and more of a piece with his growing maturation as a filmmaker. At times, Phantom Thread recalls Kubrick; the chilly remove and period stateliness of Barry Lyndon feels like an influence, as do the scenes of Reynolds and Alma driving along abandoned roads at night, which are executed in a way resembling Alex's joyrides in A Clockwork Orange. Perhaps more overt is Anderson's homages to Hitchcock, especially Rebecca and Psycho. There's even a shot of Reynolds peering at Alma through a peep-hole.

Phantom Thread is not a film in which the plot matters, although where Anderson takes the story is genuinely surprising. The film's concerns have more to do with the emotional and psychological effect positions of power have on relationships. This is something Anderson has been interested in over the past decade; the neurotic lovers of Punch-Drunk Love and the Freddie Quell/Lancaster Dodd relationship from The Master come most immediately to mind. Here, we have a story where the troubled male genius finds his submissive female muse. The trope of the older man in a position of power seducing the ingénue is well-worn territory, but Anderson subverts this notion by having Alma subvert the dynamics of the relationship. There's an astonishing sequence during their first date where Reynolds measures Alma for a dress. This is basically a sex scene in which he overpowers her by flexing his artistic impulses, but it's a masturbatory gesture; the equivalent of selfish pleasure derived from one's own work rather the woman standing in plain sight. Alma's reaction to this event--at first submissive, then cautious, before eventually pushing back--is a turning point, shifting the film almost entirely into her perspective. Krieps is absolutely remarkable here in a tricky role; getting us to both understand and be unsure about Alma in a way that plays into the couple's strange courtship.

Even as Anderson's camera begins to favor Alma, Phantom Thread is by no means simply the tale of a strong-willed woman toppling the patriarchy. That would be fine, but the film is much more complicated than that; emerging as a bizarre love story, a statement on 21st-century female autonomy, a brittle black comedy of manners, and a vision of the matriarchy coexisting within the patriarchy. To this final point, the way the character of Reynolds’s sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville) is used within the story is crucial. As played by Manville in a striking and wry performance, Cyril is essentially the wife, caregiver, manager, and confidant of Reynolds, but she can also take him to task in a way others cannot. More importantly, Cyril comes to respect and understand Alma in a manner foreign to Reynolds. Rather than simply appear as someone stridently doing what's "best" for her brother, her motives and reactions are much more complex.

The idea of powerlessness as the optimal state is key to where Phantom Thread eventually goes, as this may be the first time in an Anderson film where a female character so fully resurrects the pathetic male need for powerlessness. As a symbolic placeholder for Reynolds's mother (whom we see in one incredible hallucination scene), Alma taps into these psychological areas as a way to shift the power dynamic. Rather than play merely as a reductive Freudian construct (though it could be read that way), Alma's choices reflect not only Reynolds's suppressed desires to be drained and then revived, but also her longing for control and empathy. The film's ending is ridiculous, but knowingly so, and Anderson wants us to laugh in befuddlement at the couple's deranged logic. In fact, Phantom Thread is one of Anderson's most subversively hilarious pictures; deriving nervous comedy out of the sound of buttered toast and the silence of awkward glances. It's a the kind of gambit very few filmmakers could get away with, but Anderson, much like Reynolds, is such an exactingly precise artist that the only choice is complete and utter surrender.

The Post

 

Cast: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood, Sarah Paulson, Allison Brie, Matthew Rhys, Carrie Coon, Jesse Plemons, Zach Woods, David Cross

Director: Steven Spielberg

Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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As a loving tribute to the bygone age where newspapers were actually integral to society, Steven Spielberg's The Post has the urgency of historical retrospect on its side. The film cannily exploits the moral quandaries inherent in the way American democratic values could be bought via fancy dinner parties by creating the sensation of information in constant motion. As the camera pushes in on ringing phones and moving breathlessly through hallways, The Post feels like a classic Spielberg adventure thriller; think All the Presidents Men reimagined as Jurassic Park.

After Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) leaks the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times, the Nixon administration bares down on the newspaper industry, even as that industry was built upon connections to those in political/governmental power. The Post zeroes in on this particular time in the country; following Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep), the longtime owner of The Washington Post after her husband's suicide in 1963, her crotchety editor, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and the rest of the newspaper staff, including Bob Odenkirk as resourceful reporter Ben Bagdikian. The screenplay by Josh Singer and Elizabeth Hannah is smart in the way it positions thorny relationships with major power players; including former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), who shows up for Graham's dinner parties, and Bradlee's friendship with John F. Kennedy. The film's central moral predicament; of whether or not Graham will print the Ellsberg’s leaks, is bracketed by the paper's failing financial state and the vision of a lone woman inside a boardroom full of old men in suits. 

At its heart, The Post is about preserving American values through the act of truthful reporting, filtered through a quasi-female empowerment angle where Graham must stand up to systematic sexism. However, though Spielberg pushes this idea by framing Streep in stark contrast with ineffectual men, the film seems only partially interested in institutional sexism. There's a lot of speechifying, whirling camera movements, and reporters scrambling to keep up with information, proving Spielberg is clearly more excited by rough-worn journalism than the complex moral dilemmas lurking on the edges. During the film's best scenes, The Post leans into an energizing thriller atmosphere; especially moments where Bagdikian uses multiple pay phones to interact with mysterious sources. For his part, Odenkirk delivers the film's best performance; a sharp, wry piece of acting that enlivens the idea of chasing leads which could shape history.

Driven by John Williams's strident score and Spielberg's inventive direction, The Post is never less than entertaining, but there's something unconvincing about it's gee-whizz attitude when the culture of the time was much more fractious. The Pentagon Papers revealed the government's deception of the American people, which was a major shift, but other than nod towards the death of thousands in the war, the film's Capra-esque vision of the era feels disingenuous. The film is an emboldening acknowledgment of the power of the press, but it could have used more nuanced confusion of the times and less self-congratulatory fist-pumping. In its earnest attempts at speaking urgently to our fake news Trump era, The Post somehow feels hopelessly stuck in the Hollywood movie past.

 

 

 

 

Call Me By Your Name

 

Cast: Timothée Chalamet, Armie Hammer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar, Esther Garrel

Director: Luca Guadagnino

Running time: 2 hours 12 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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In terms of sensuous Mediterranean landscapes cued as rhythmic visual romance, one should look no further than Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name; a fairly straightforward coming-of-age story illuminated by its exotic locale. Truthfully, Guadagnino has always been interested in narratives about desire and longing; with 2009's I Am Love and 2015's A Bigger Splash both using location, diegetic/non-diagetic music, and dreamy soft-focus lensing in order to lull the audience into a state of rapt affection. Call Me By Your Name is perhaps the most literal-minded love story of the three, but it's also the filmmaker's most earnestly heart-felt; the story of the bond between 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and visiting older academic, Oliver (Armie Hammer) over the course of one lazy summer in Italy. 

Unlike previous Guadagnino films, the aesthetic charms here are more restrained and less brash. There's no flashy dance sequence like in A Bigger Splash, for instance, or the kind of food fetish strangeness running throughout I Am Love. Instead, Guadagnino positions his actors against stunning backdrops, framing Oliver in particular as an Adonis-like statue to whom the inexperienced Elio is drawn. The film's use of music, from piano-laden motifs (which instruct the inner life of aspiring pianist, Elio) to songs written and sung by folk artist Sufijan Stevens, are also integral in establishing a mood of swirling romanticism. What transpires is at first a tentative flirtation between Elio and Oliver (there is a marked age difference), which then blossoms into something more deeply profound. 

Adapted by James Ivory from André Aciman’s 2007 novel and taking place in 1984, Call Me By Your Name is thankfully free of the hand-wringing of many queer love stories, instead positioning Elio and Oliver's relationship as something both cautious and acceptable. To the latter point, Elio's father, Mr. Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg, wonderful as always), who has taken Oliver in as his research assistant, is well aware of their growing connection and is surprisingly understanding. His lengthy monologue near the film's climax is both narratively contrived as well as dramatically moving; the kind of talky digression reserved for stage play exposition rather than real life. Stuhlbarg, however, makes the moment sting with the pang of truth.  

If there's a flaw to Guadagnino's stylistic mode here, and its a minor problem, its that the more reserved mood seems to push down the unruly passions of his lead characters. Both Chalamet and Hammer are quite skilled at projecting the inner lives and outer lives of Elio and Oliver. The latter is head-strong and confident, but closed off emotionally, while the former is an inexperienced lover who nonetheless has the emotional risk-taking of youth on his side. However, the film's breezy casualness renders their love affair as something of a minor blip on life's journey. Surely, there's wisdom in the idea of experiencing something wild and untamed for only a brief moment; something that will especially inform Elio's maturation later in life, but Call Me By Your Name doesn't quite earn its gut-punch ending.

The film's final frames, which are given sensitivity and pathos by Chalamet, are nonetheless merely a marking of a young kid's inexperience rather than a fully-formed devastation which Guadagnino seems to be going for. Still, in one of the film's best sequences, Oliver's stoic facade drops for a moment, admiting Elio "knows more than anyone here" as the two circle each other separated by a WWI memorial. It's moments such as these that Call Me By Your Name truly soars; just the story of two men tentatively learning about one another, literally divided by history. 

 

Favorite Performances of 2017


2017 was a year filled with idiosyncratic performances drawing on autobiographical, political, and emotionally resonant influences. Narrowing things down to 15 key players (with no distinction between male and female, lead and supporting) was a difficult task, but in keeping with the social themes of 2017, women dominated the list. Hopefully, 2018 will bring even more defiantly personal and challenging works of thespian brilliance to the table. 


Kristen Stewart

Personal Shopper

Kristen Stewart dominates every scene as a young woman dealing with the loss of her recently deceased brother in Olivier Assayas' haunting Personal Shopper, It's a richly nuanced performance; observational and heartfelt, inward yet expressive, with the best text messaging acting ever put onscreen. 

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Michalina Olszanska

I, Olga Hepnarova

In Petr Kazda and Tomás Weinreb's remarkable film about a sociopath, I, Olga Hepnarova, Michalina Olszanska's brilliant central performance resists easy clichés Through slouched posture, deadpan line deliveries, and just a hint of vulnerability beneath the surface, Olszanska crafts a mesmerizing portrait of youthful narcissism that lingers.


William Dafoe

The Florida Project

Sean Baker's deeply humanist The Florida Project may center on a group of children running around a purple-colored budget motel near the Magic Kingdom, but it's soul resides in William Dafoe's work as a kindly motel manager. Though outwardly a father figure, Dafoe layers his performance with hints of disappointment as a man stuck in life who still hasn't lost his ability to care.  

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Jena Malone/Riley Keough

Lovesong

Jena Malone and Riley Keough play longtime friends who experience non-platonic feelings while on a road trip in So Yong Kim's beautifully wrought Lovesong. Through expressive glances, both actors create fully realized women caught in contrasting directions by the pull of time. Rarely has chemistry between two leads been this naturalistic, and ultimately heart-breaking.


Cynthia Nixon

A Quiet Passion

In A Quiet Passion, filmmaker Terence Davies and star Cynthia Nixon's sensibilities merge so fully that 19th Century poet Emily Dickinson emerges as a flawed and deeply complex woman forced by her society to retreat from reality. Nixon's performance is a transformative high-wire act which modulates between wry humor, defiant rage, deep sadness, and finally; physical and mental deterioration.

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Mariko Tsutsui

Harmonium

Kôji Fukada's masterful Harmonium is a parable about the consequences of past sins, but it's Mariko Tsutsui's shattering performance as the long-suffering wife, Akié, which grounds the film. There's a naked fragility coupled with pent-up desire and anger which Tsutsui allows us to glimpse gradually, until it may be too late.  


Robert Pattinson

Good Time

Joshua and Ben Safdie's grunge neo-noir Good Time hurtles forward at a breakneck pace, and Robert Pattinson keeps up by drawing on his natural charm as low-rent criminal Connie. There's scruffy bravado and amped-up intensity here, but also a lonely self-awareness which gives the film its wounded heart.  

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Aubrey Plaza

Ingrid Goes West

As a millennial take on 90's female revenge noir Single White Female, Matt Spicer's Ingrid Goes West is thoughtful and disturbing, but the real star here is Aubrey Plaza; whose usual sharp-tongued sarcasm is tweaked slightly to allow for more layers. Plaza invites us to peek behind the facade and see the sadness inside Ingrid in a way which feels revelatory.


Jason Mitchell

Mudbound

Dee Ree's ambitiously mounted epic, Moundbound, is full of great performances, but its Jason Mitchell's turn as a young black man sent home after fighting in the war which really haunts. Cocksure yet sensitive, playful but brimming with indignation, Mitchell's multi-faceted work here reveals the hypocrisy of 1940's America, which sadly still exists today.

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Haley Lu Richardson

Columbus

Haley Lu Richardson gives the year's most warmly empathetic performance in South Korean-born writer-director Kogonada's remarkable feature debut, Columbus; nailing the feeling of being young, aimless, and curious as she crafts a tentative friendship with Jon Cho's visiting stranger.


Laurie Metcalf

Lady Bird

The brittle bond between Saoirse Ronan's titular 17-year-old and her mother, played by Laurie Metcalf, is the backbone of Greta Gerwig's winning Lady Bird. Metcalf's shows us various sides of a woman struggling to provide for her family while balancing her contradictory feelings towards her daughter; raising a seemingly typical coming-of-age story into something more deeply felt.

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Daniel Kaluuya

Get Out

Daniel Kaluuya uses deliberate facial gestures and dumbfounded double takes as a man trapped inside a mansion full of Obama-voting whites in Jordan Peele's genre-hopping debut feature, Get Out. Kaluuya's role is so central to why the film works and his acting so underplayed here that it may well get overlooked, but he's nonetheless unforgettable as a black man standing up to 21st-Century racism.


Kim Min-hee

On the Beach at Night Alone

Hong Sang-soo’s stripped-down On the Beach at Night Alone might initially appear to be yet another variation on the public/private emotion story he's dabbled in before, but Kim Min-hee's tremendously subtle performance casts this one in a different light. As a woman reacting to a failed romance with a married older filmmaker (aka Sang-soo), Min-hee is both enigmatic and empathetic; someone with outward self-confidence who is also shrinking away from life.

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Jean-Pierre Léaud

The Death of Louis XIV

Jean-Pierre Léaud delivers an astonishing performance as a dying king in Albert Serra's procedural-like drama. Completely immobile; with an unwieldy Old English wig and velvet comforter, Léaud's specific gestures, facial movements, and rigorous breathing is highlighted as doctors and clerics flood into the room tending to his every need. Never before has wasting away been this eccentrically fascinating.


Betty Gabriel

Get Out

As Georgina, the black housekeeper living on a white liberal estate in Jordan Peele's socio-thriller, Get Out, Betty Gabriel delivers a tour de force with only a handful of scenes. At first disorienting in her politeness before becoming deranged with intensity, Gabriel somehow captures the raw emotions of a soul trapped inside someone else's body.

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Least Favorite Films of 2017


The difference between the "worst" and "least favorite" is a necessary distinction here because these are all films that had potential to be worthwhile. Therefore, Adam Sandler Netflix cash grabs, animated poop emojis, Will Smith/Orc actioners, and Michael Bay wank jobs will not be represented here. These are the year's greatest follies. The ones that tried and failed to make me forget the horrific reality of being alive and coherent in 2017. When people claim cinema is alive and well, I'll point them to these turkeys. 


10

Alien: Covenant

 

Like a bored technician checking off the appropriate boxes during an exam, Ridley Scott trots out a greatest hits demo reel of the Alien franchise with this uninspired clunker. A rag-tag crew gets trapped on a planet, makes regrettable decisions, and becomes infected by squiggly creatures ready to burst out from every orifice of the human body. Meanwhile, the audience hits the Xenomorph snooze button. 

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9

Mother!

Darren Aronofsky's latest is the worst kind of unironic self flagellation; a meta deconstruction of the artist's ego coupled with Biblical allegory. Had the film leaned into its satirical premise, it could have been absurdist pulp entertainment. Instead, Aronofsky loves himself too much to party.


8

Loving Vincent

A case where spending years creating thousands of impressive animations results in a project which renders Van Gogh's art less mysterious. Directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman have concocted a bland coming-of-age story instead of digging into the past and present power of Van Gogh's art, and the results are agonizingly simple-minded.

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7

Downsizing

Matt Damon stars as a bland schlubby white guy who undergoes a scientific shrinking procedure in Alexander Payne's toothless satire about consumerism, global warming, and liberal guilt. A grand statement on humanity this is not, with the inclusion of a downsized Vietnamese woman (Hong Chau) representing the absolute nadir of cheap shot accent jokes. This film needs to shrink until it disappears. 


6

Wakefield

Bryan Cranston plays a man hiding out in the abandoned attic above his family's garage in Robin Swicord’s banal chamber drama. Of course, he learns valuable life lessons while growing a gnarly beard and getting enjoyment out of his wife's distress. Just another story of an upper-class white male asshole in 2017. 

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The Killing of a Sacred Deer

The aesthetic tics of Yorgos Lanthimos finally get the better of him with this Kubrick rip-off about a surgeon's weird relationship with a high school teen. Everyone speaks in clipped sound bites, Bach blares on the soundtrack, and the revenge plot spirals into nonsense. Yorgos seems to hate humanity, and who can blame him, but these people are too dull to care about hating.


4

Wind River

A simple tale of revenge and loss is made nearly unwatchable due to sloppy hand-held camerawork and exploitative flashbacks in Taylor Sheridan's wannabe Cormac McCarthy thriller. Indigenous Native cultures being used as a backdrop for a stoic white man playing avenger is yet another narrative that needs to be buried under ice in 2018.

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3

The Dinner

A group of rich intellectuals sit around a table over the course of one very long meal complaining about their lives in Oren Moverman's misguided sermon. The hypocrisy of American capitalism is laid bare with a sledgehammer as characters are used as mouthpieces in order to indict an audience who has probably already passed out due to sheer boredom. Check, please!


2

Kong: Skull Island

A bloated monster mashup where every edit, lame needle drop music cue, and incomprehensible set-piece is so shrill that you can't even appreciate John C. Reilly's goofy turn as a bearded island dweller. Kong may be huge, but director Jordan Vogt-Roberts' tonal aim is tiny. There's no humanity here. Just a feature-length movie trailer of CG-laden vomit.

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A Ghost Story

Those with a keen understanding of foreign slow cinema will see David Lowery's painfully self-conscious A Ghost Story for the turkey that it truly is. Casey Affleck wears a sheet with eye holes cut out, wanders around his surroundings, and watches Rooney Mara eat an entire pie. The rest is a cosmic-spanning meditation on "Big Themes" that never bothers to embrace the audience. The worst kind of smug art-house noodling, and 2017's greatest folly.


I, Tonya

 

Cast: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Julianne Nicholson, Paul Walter Hauser, Mckenna Grace, Bobby Cannavale, Ricky Russert

Director: Craig Gillespie

Running time: 2 hours

by Jericho Cerrona

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In director Graig Gillespie's condescending I, Tonya, real-life figure skater Tonya Harding is given the slick biopic treatment; portrayed here as a tough-minded victim who overcame a toxic home life en route to her Olympic dreams. Of course, we know that in 1994, Harding was involved in a plot to harm her skating rival, Nancy Kerrigan, but Gillespie's film (from a screenplay by Steven Rogers, based partly based on his interview with Harding) wants us to root for her as an underdog hero. Casting Harding as a product of her environment--underprivileged, uneducated, abused--and charting her remarkable, albeit brief, rise to fame is a noble endeavor, but I, Tonya wants us to mock low-class caricatures and then feel guilty about it. This kind of double-standard (think the glib finger-waving of The Big Short) means that Margot Robbie's committed performance gets lost amidst queasy comedy and fourth wall breaking. Because domestic abuse, misogyny, and clubbing the leg of a competitor is funny, right?

Making a satire out of the media blitzkrieg that was the Harding/Kerrigan debacle isn't a stretch, since the way consumers played into the white trash hick vs. royal princess narrative is par for the course. However, by structuring his film around contradicting interviews with Harding, her mother Lavona (Allison Janney) and her abusive former husband, Jeff (Sebastian Stan) among others, Gillespie tries to complicate something that really isn't that complicated.

Superficially, the film follows a fairly standard biopic arc; starting chronologically with her harsh upbringing in Portland, Ore, her strict skating work ethic, struggles being taken seriously by the Olympic judges, and the eventual plot to attack Kerrigan. The film adopts a non-linear approach; jumping back and forth in time, switching to mockumentary-style interviews, and even having Harding look directly at the screen to implicate the audience. There are multiple period-appropriate needle drops, kinetic editing, bursts of shocking violence, and roving steadicam shots, but treating this story as some kind of Goodfellas-style epic seems odd since it robs the film of the one thing it truly needs to work; empathy.

As a treatise on class, sexism, and celebrity culture, I, Tonya suggests that Harding had to overcome her monstrous mother and bipolar husband in order to prove herself; becoming the first skater ever to land the near impossible triple-axel. However, since the supporting players here are such broad stereotypes--at one point, Janney is wearing a fur coat with a bird on her shoulder-- the essential point of Harding's humanity gets sidelined. During the third act, Gillipsie spends way too much time on the plans of a few would-be criminals attempting to injure Kerrigan, spiraling the film into a wannabe Coen Brothers farce, and though we do see Harding's rival in glimpses (portrayed here by Caitlin Carver), Kerrigan is essentially a plot machination in order to bolster Harding's shaggy underdog story. For I, Tonya to work at all, Kerrigan must be rendered a complete non-person; relegated to the infamous screams of "why?" post-attack. The way the film treats this development is similar to the way it treats issues of domestic violence; as a glib punchline.    

There are limits to the kind of self-aware filmmaking Gillipsie adopts as faux-brash attitude here. Instead of trusting us to sympathize with Harding's plight and be able to sift through her more damning traits, I, Tonya pokes fun at the redneck dialogue, bad mullets, and violent episodes and then chastises the audience for enjoying themselves. Laughing at uneducated rural Americans is just as pathetic as a broken shoelace during an Olympic figure skating event, and unfortunately I, Tonya just keeps on laughing, and tripping.

 

 

 

 

 

Favorite "new to me" films seen in 2017


One of my main goals for 2017 was to watch more older films than new releases; a task which took me down obsessive rabbit holes searching for the kind of shock and awe only cinema can provide. Focusing in on The Criterion Collection and blindspots from filmmakers like Spike Lee, Bruno Dumont, and Francis Ford Coppola, 2017 was a year filled with genuine surprises and masterpiece-level discoveries. The resulting 15 "new to me" films listed here gives me hope that the future of cinema very well may reside in the past.


15

Carnival of Souls (1962)

A woman survives a car crash, takes a job as an organist, and begins having bizarre visions in Herk Harvey's low budget exploitation picture which feels like a prime influence on George A. Romero's seminal Night of the Living Dead. Groovy undead makeup, a killer organ score, and zombie slow-dancing makes this a macabre horror classic. 

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Paterson (2016)

Jim Jarmusch's quietly meditative masterpiece concerns a bus driver named Paterson (Adam Driver) who writes poetry, but has minor ambitions as an artist. A film about the creative process that actually takes the time to consider the slow pull of time; marked by the ordinary details happening on the fringes of life that often go unnoticed. 


13

In a Lonely Place (1950)

Humprey Bogart delivers a complex, towering performance as washed up screenwriter Dixon Steele in Nicholas Ray's noir chamber drama; which initially feels like a mystery thriller concerning the murder of a young hat-check girl, but eventually reveals itself as more fundamentally concerned with irrational male delusion. Bleak and brilliant. 

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12

3 Women (1977)

Shelley Duvall, Sissy Spacek, and Janice Rule star as the titular "3 women" whose different personalities clash, interlock, and merge in Robert A;tman's wholly original psychodrama/dark comedy. Altman claimed he thought up the film after a dream, and the results are one of the most haunting films about identity ever made.  


11

One More Time with Feeling (2016)

In July 2015, Nick Cave’s 15-year-old son, Arthur, died after falling off a cliff in England. Director Andrew Dominick, shooting in black-and-white with 3D cameras, taps into the way grief paralyzes as Cave records the Bad Seeds album, Skeleton Tree following the tragedy. A probing, raw, and heart-wrenching act of creation as catharsis.

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10

Humanité (1999)

Polarizing auteur Bruno Dumont's dissection of how the human body is abused and discarded is a rigorous work obsessed with ideas of morality, desire, and the link between sex and violence. The central plot follows an emotionally vacant investigator seeking answers to the murder of an 11-year-old girl; but Dumont isn't interested in plot, but in process. 


9

Play Time (1967)

Monsieur Hulot (Jacques Tati) and a group of American tourists repeatedly cross paths during a single 24-hour period in this masterful, nearly wordless example of mis en scene. Shot in glorious 70mm with ingenious compositions and visual gags, Play Time is like observing a master builder set up his architectural playground and then watching the dominoes fall.

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8

Brand Upon the Brain! A Remembrance in 12 Chapters (2006)

Canadian cult weirdo Guy Maddin's singular melodrama is shot mostly in black & white; with vintage pop-culture iconography, silent movie tropes, and avant garde editing.  Memories have never been this nightmarish or perversely funny.


7

I Vitelloni (1953)

Federico Fellini’s second solo directorial effort is a semi-autobiographical tale of five young men drifting through their hometown which both satirizes and embraces male arrested development. Rich characterizations, alluring atmosphere, and bleak/funny neo-realism is at the forefront, but its Fellini looking honestly at Italy's post-war issues, that really lingers. 

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6

Vampyr (1932)

A young man obsessed with the occult stumbles through a small town cursed by a vampire in Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer's baffling and enigmatic Gothic classic. Astounding tracking shots, erie juxtapositions, and double exposure optical effects makes this one of the most terrifying horror films ever made.


5

Seven Beauties (1975)

Lina Wertmuller's audacious farce is one of the most unlikely Oscar nominees ever; a fractured epic about egotistical fool Pasquali (a monumental Giancarlo Giannini) shambling through Italian history. Dismembered pimps, totalitarianism, whip-carrying female Nazi commandants, and the Holocaust all factor in; with Wertmuller deftly straddling wacky comedy with stark drama.

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4

Ugetsu (1953)

Two men leave their wives to pursue their own obsessions, but Kenji Mizoguchi’s masterpiece is no ordinary morality play. Instead, the film touches on wartime tragedy, dissects the male ego, and emerges as a powerful ghost story like no other. Ugetsu may be set in 16th-century Japan, but its themes are not bound by any time or place.


3

Read Beard (1965)

Akira Kurosowa's deeply felt story of a 19th century doctor (played by the great Toshiro Mifune) and his young pupil is a daringly intimate epic. Most startling is the film's lack of cynicism; with Kurosawa championing the goodness of humanity, even as tragic events occur throughout. Compassionate, human, and sweeping,

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2

Fists in the Pocket (1965)

Marco Bellocchio's mesmerizing debut is the all-time dysfunctional family movie; a twisted, darkly funny takedown of bourgeoisie values and Catholic morality. This is a film about young male rage and pent-up angst, with Swedish actor Lou Castel delivering a tour de force as the antihero, Alessandro. Bellocchio, meanwhile, shoots everything with explosive style.


1

Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946)

Experimental filmmaker Maya Deren's astonishing silent short combines avant-garde editing, dance choreography, and gender issues to formulate a master thesis on feminine strength. Throughout, Deren's camera captures women in various states-- content, playful, confused, fearful--while statuesque men attempt to pursue as a means of possession. Dreamlike and shockingly contemporary.

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Star Wars: The Last Jedi

 

Cast: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Lupita Nyong'o, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Gwendoline Christie, Kelly Marie Tran, Laura Dern, Benicio del Toro

Director: Rian Johnson

Running time: 2 hours 32 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Warning: Since the force is strong with this review, proceed at your own spoiler-filled risk

 


If Star Wars: The Force Awakens existed mainly so that director JJ Abrams could appease fan-service nostalgia in this age of remixes, then Rian Johnson's Star Wars: The Last Jedi is what happens when nostalgia is no longer enough when there are disturbances in the force. The way the film sets up hotly debated fan-theories and then roundly deflates them is a risky move; making this the rare studio film based on a beloved property willing to polarize without completely abandoning the visual look and themes of the series.

Probably the boldest idea here is the rejection of legacy; the way cyclical tales from the past inform the present and future stakes of the characters inhabiting a galaxy far, far away. The Last Jedi makes a point that, to quote a certain brooding villain in training, "letting the past die" might actually lead to genuine revolution. Therefore, fans hoping they'd get answers regarding Rey's origins or a deep-dive into the diabolical nature of Supreme Leader Snoke will walk away disappointed, or worse yet, outraged.

The Last Jedi more less picks up where the The Force Awakens left off, with Rey (Daisy Ridley) trapped on a remote planet with the hermit-like Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) whom she hopes will take the mantel as the titular "Last Jedi" and join the fight against evil. But first, Johnson treats us to a zippy opening action sequence featuring cocky flyboy Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) engaged in a space dogfight while General Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher) looks on strategically. Meanwhile, Domhnall Gleeson continues his British vamping as General Hux, hellbent on destroying any last semblance of the resistance fighters, even as Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) keeps sulking behind his Vader-esque black helmet. Clearly relishing his chance to deliver Star Wars spectacle, Johnson breathlessly moves his camera through corridors and windows while maintaining a sense of breakneck pacing, giving the film a jolt of energy right out of the gate.

Once the actual plot kicks in, Johnson can't fully distance himself from the Disney-approved narrative trajectory of the franchise; with mini-adventures, close calls, hero journey motifs, and characters being split up to later be reunited being par for the course. More interestingly, the talented writer-director of indie favorite Brick and inventive sci-fi brain-bender Looper subverts fan expectations and expands on the themes in unexpected ways. Whereas Star Wars has always been about the battle between light and darkness by finding the balance of the force, The Last Jedi posits grey areas and heroic archetypes with tortured psyches. The film's most startling idea is its visualization of the psychic connection between Rey and Kylo Ren in which two opposing viewpoints communicate separated by time and space. Simply through framing and deft positioning of the actors, Johnson achieves a brilliant synthesis of cosmic consciousness without any need for fancy CGI.

What happens in The Last Jedi isn't as important as the way it happens. Reformed Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) is back, but instead of pairing him up with Rey (the expected route), he's joined by an engine room worker, Rose (Kelly Matie Tran), who stake out a perilous mission to disable the enemy’s tracking device. Rey hands Luke a lightsaber, but he isn't remotely interested in fighting. In fact, he's mostly moping around the island and waiting to die. Call it a mid-life Jedi crisis. Supreme Leader Snoke seemed like the new Emperor from his brief introduction in The Force Awakens, but he's an easily disposable foil here; issuing orders from a throne room guarded by red warriors next to a backdrop that looks like something out of a Dario Argento film. And so on it goes, with moments where the film seems to be taking the expected turn, only to pivot into surprising territory.

Additionally, Johnson goes for big, operatic visuals here--a spacecraft being split in two followed by silence, Luke sitting atop a mountain flanked by a giant orange moon, a dizzying action set-piece on a planet where streams of bright red salt trail behind speeding starfighters--while also nailing the more emotional scenes. At times, The Last Jedi feels closer to the mythic spectacle of Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood than the Lucas-inflected homage of The Force Awakens

The Last Jedi is probably too long and over-plotted, but there's a real sense of Johnson enthusiastically staking the deck and then watching his cards fall. Unlike the pandering warm hug of The Force Awakens, this one posits a somewhat radical notion; that anyone, no matter their lineage, has the possibility to harness the powers of the force. Let the past die, indeed. The Last Jedi burns down those old Jedi temples and reconstructs a clean slate; one with a blurred line between good and evil, the dark side and the light.

 

 

 

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Favorite Albums of 2017


2017 felt like the end of civilization as we know it; politically, socially, and in a wider sense, artistically. Widespread racism, misogyny, the Alt-Right Movement, and an egomaniacal President signifying the worst of humanity continued to dominate as musicians used the fear, paranoia, and outright rage at the state of things as a means of expression. There was also a sense of music as a coping mechanism, but overall, even this felt overpowered by larger evils present in our world. Nevertheless, this list of 15 favorites runs the gambit; from churning power chords, retro 60's pop, deceased legends hollering into the void, and unorthodox hip-hop voicing the kind of sentiments we all wanted to express but couldn't find the right words. Above all else, every single record represented here provided a small measure of relief from the absurdity of being alive in 2017. Long live the music. May it never die. 


15

Thundercat
Drunk

Bassist, singer, and producer extraordinaire Thundercat's third album, Drunk, is a Flying Lotus-backed foray into jazz/R & B/synth-funk that pokes its finger into the ribs of racism and keeps on chuckling.  

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14

Escape-ism
Introduction to Escape-sim

As former frontman for Nation Of Ulysses, The Make-Up, The Scene Creamers, Weird War, Chain & The Gang, among other projects, Ian Svenonius is nothing if not prolific. On his latest solo venture, he crafts a lo-fi anti-pop album full of yelping vocals, analog drum machines, and chintzy melodies. 


13

Midnight Sister
Saturn Over Sunset

It's Andy Warhol and The Velvet Underground meets hipster cool with Midnight Sister's breathless debut, Saturn Over Sunset; a toe-tappin' pop noir record for Tinseltown dreamers. Catchy and warped in equal measure. 

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12

Kamasi Washington
Harmony of Difference

Saxophonist and composer Kamasi Washington follows up 2015's appropriately titled The Epic with a shorter EP that nonetheless feels grand in scope and dense in execution. Combining ’60s/70's jazz with R & B touches and calypso rhythms, Washington crafts arrangements which feel both meticulous and improvised.


11

King Woman
Created in the Image of Suffering

Bay area doom doesn't get much heavier than the debut LP from King Woman; a beautiful and punishing mix of shoegazey guitar chords, ghostly vocals, and astral post-rock instrumentation. A doomsday prophecy for our turbulent times.

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10

Ariel Pink
Dedicated to Bobby Jameson

Pop provocateur Ariel Pink goes back to his early 2000's cassette days for a riff on the pitfalls of fame; conjuring pastiche, sleazy glam poses, and long-forgotten modes of production in order to comment on our need for self-reflection. Goofy and introspective, as only Pink can.


9

Brockhampton
Saturation II

A Los Angeles rap crew bent on dominating the scene, Brockhampton released three albums in 2017, but their second was the best of the lot; a swaggering, politically-minded, and humorous collection of 16 cuts backed by funky/synth-laden production. 

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8

Omni
Multi Task

Atlanta trio Omni follow up their excellent 2016 debut Deluxe with the less abrasive, but still vintage-sounding Multi Task, which traffics in late 1970's Wire/ Talking Heads influences. Simple, jaunty, no fuss post-punk performed with care and efficiency. 


7

Yves Tumor
Experiencing the Deposit of Faith

Yves Tumor's latest self-released compilation meshes ambient music with pop-oriented sounds by using repetitive loops and glistening soundscapes to enter the realm of the spiritual. Intimate, vast, and hypnotic.

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6

Guerilla Toss
GT Ultra

Brooklyn-based noise makers Guerilla Toss distill elements of new wave, post-punk, squawking jazz, and experimental music on their latest dance-acid trip GT Ultra; embracing melody and sonic texture without completely abandoning their freak flag.


5

Bjork
Utopia

After 2015's breakup album, Vulnicura, Bjork heads into the stratosphere of romantic infatuation with Utopia; a flute-laden, bird-chirping collection of love songs that get at the swooning feeling of new beginnings. Four decades-plus into her extraordinary career, Bjork continues to both dazzle and confound.

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4

Tyler, The Creator
Flower Boy

While everyone was busy kneeling at the feet of Kendrick Lamar, 26-year-old rapper/producer Tyler, The Creator quietly dropped the best hip-hop album of 2017. Beautifully arranged, surprisingly meditative, while also boasting typical bangers, Flower Boy is Neptunes-inspired, funky, sultry, and unpredictable. 


3

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith
The Kid

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith's The Kid is the electronic musician's most ambitious effort yet; a sprawling, four-part chronicle of life's stages performed like a futurist pop manifesto. Emotional, experiential, challenging, and gorgeously attuned to the human condition.  

 

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2

Alan Vega
IT

Suicide's Alan Vega may have passed away in 2016, but his last recorded work, simply tilted IT, is the sound of a man wailing into the void. Vega's relationship to New York is represented here as fear and confusion over the tides of change; backed by droning industrial electronics and cacophonous vocals. Like Bowie's Blackstar, IT is an influential genius's haunting final will and testament writ large.


1

Protomartyr
Relatives in Descent

The first great post-Trump election record comes from Detroit rabble rousers Protomartyr's Relatives in Descent; a series of tightly dirges expressing fear, paranoia, doubt, and even some much-needed wit, in the face of destruction. Throughout, frontman Joe Casey stammers, slurs, and waxes poetic amidst crunchy power chords and atonal dissonance, making this the sound of an entire generation watching the world burn, one non sequitur at a time. 

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The Disaster Artist

 

Cast: James Franco, Dave Franco, Seth Rogen, Alison Brie, Ari Graynor, Josh Hutcherson, Jacki Weaver

Director: James Franco

Running time: 1 hour 43 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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The real question hovering over James Franco's latest bizarro meta experiment, The Disaster Artist, is why? Why was this movie made? Why does it exist? Why is Franco feeling the need to lionize writer-director-star-egomaniac Tommy Wiseau into the category of misunderstood genius? There's certainly potential in peeking behind the scenes of the 2003 cult classic The Room to unpack how one of the worst films ever made actually came to be. There's also potential in dissecting the deranged figure of Wiseau, the film's triple-threat creator, in so far as he symbolizes a mutated form of Hollywood vanity. Furthermore, the idea of why people enjoy or become obsessed with colossally terrible movies is something worth exploring, but The Disaster Artist barely even acknowledges such potentials. Instead, the film pivots into the realm of sub-Jud Apatow bromance with the predictable arc of loveable weirdos following their dreams. The Room is unbelievably inept, but fascinatingly so; leaving one laughing in slack-jawed disbelief. The Disaster Artist, on the other hand, is simply inept, and the joke seems to be on the audience.

Based on Greg Sestero's 2013 tell-all book of the same name, Franco's adaptation is problematic because it wants to both mock The Room as well as pay tribute to its loopy charms. The film's introduction is almost a litmus test for what's to follow; featuring a gallery of celebrity guests (including Adam Scott and J.J. Abrams) gushing over The Room backed by swelling music cues. It's obvious from the outset that Franco and company will be straining under their adoration for Wiseau's magnum opus as well as the temptation to to punch down. In the film's first scene, we see how Tommy Wiseau (James Franco) and Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) met during an acting class in San Francisco where the former thrashes around the stage around doing a demented version of A Streetcar Named Desire. An odd friendship soon develops between the earnest but shy Greg and the outspoken yet vampiric Wiseau, making The Disaster Artist a low-rent tale of following your dreams in Hollywood.

Once the two land in Los Angeles (Tommy has an apartment there and inexplicably deep pockets), their failure to land significant acting roles leads them to envision a film of their own; one which will make them stars and take the industry by storm. Greg gets a girlfriend (Alison Brie, given nothing to do), while Tommy looks on like a betrayed, wounded puppy. The Disaster Artist, therefore, is not that dissimilar from other cameo-packed male bonding comedies like I Love You, Man, but Greg and Tommy's relationship never goes anywhere remotely interesting. It's simply scene after scene of Greg acting gung-ho, protective, or upset with his strange friend, and then Tommy acting out defensively. Additionally, once the film veers into the actual making of The Room, the laughs come mainly from recognition (if you are one of the initiated) or simply through Franco's uncanny impression.

Of course, Franco is nothing if not committed; nailing the odd speech patterns and peculiar laugh of this larger than life character, but the performance never really transcends skilled mimicry because, well, the real Wiseau already seems like a caricature. The notion that he's somehow an outsider genius artist like Ed Wood also never tracks, since the creation of The Room seems to have sprung from escalated hubris and self-delusion rather than an earnest love of movie making. The only moment here that truly gets at this contradiction is one in which Wiseau terrorizes the cast and crew during an uncomfortable love scene. The on-set tantrum that follows speaks to Wiseau's misogyny, arrogance, and lack of self-awareness, but The Disaster Artist otherwise brushes off or never fully engages in these darker aspects.

Perhaps the film's biggest failure comes during the final reel, where Franco and his writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber posit the "so bad it's great" phenomenon catching on almost immediately during the packed premiere of The Room. This decision, complete with lame reaction shots of the crowd laughing uproariously, feels painfully dishonest, as does Wiseau's awkward speech after a standing ovation. In real life, it's clear Tommy wasn't in on the joke until years later after realizing his creation's cult-like fandom. Here, Franco suggests a man with more self-awareness and less ego, which is nearly impossible to take seriously.

If anything, the "how did The Room this movie get made" query can be inverted to ask, "why did The Disaster Artist get made?" Other than as a vanity project for Franco (just like Wiseau, get it? It's meta!), or to prove meticulous recreation--right down to sets, costuming, and lighting--there doesn't seem to be any reason for The Disaster Artist to exist. Therefore, the obvious takeaway here is to watch The Room, which has more bewildered laughs and uncompromising strangeness than anything on display here, despite Franco's best Wiseau laugh.    

 

 

Movie Pick of the Week

 

Mudbound

Director: Dee Rees

Year of release: 2017

Running time: 2 hours 14 minutes

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Epic in scope yet personal in intimate details, Mudbound tells the story of two families; one white, one black, in a way which feels both novelistic and cinematic. Covering a period of about five years, from America's entry into World War II to its immediate aftermath, Dee Ree's ambitiously mounted effort uses the literate inspiration (its based on a 2008 novel by Hillary Jordan) not as a curse, but as a means for delving into the innermost thoughts of its characters. The way the film uses multi-character narration becomes a daring way of giving voices to the voiceless; as these are people separated not only physically from their families, but emotionally as well.

From an aesthetic standpoint, Rees and her cinematographer Rachel Morrison have concocted a period look that not only gets the details right, but also the tactile sense of atmosphere. The scenery is littered with dilapidated shacks ruined by economic decline, long stretches of Mississippi farmland, and of course, that titular mud; which is caked on shoes, clothing, and faces throughout. From a character standpoint, Mudbound also succeeds because it allows multiple perspectives to be in conversation thematically, even if certain characters never share significant screen time together. Jason Clarke as a hard-bitten family man and Cary Mulligan as his put-upon wife are quite good here, but the two standout performances belong to Garret Hedlund as a dashing drunk scarred by his time in the war and Jason Mitchell as a young black man also sent out to battle. The post-war scenes between Mitchell and Hedlund are fascinating; for here are two men with nothing in common aside from the horrors of combat, but whose bond remains one-sided, since one still has white privilege upon his return while the other faces horrors of a different kind.

Mudbound tackles family bonds, racism, and socioeconomic concerns with the breadth, scope, and historical specificity rarely seen in American cinema. Meanwhile, the film's intense climax, which almost pushes things into the realm of pure exploitation, is nonetheless a searing indictment of the social hierarchy of 1940's America. Sadly, the current day parallels are apparent, and all the more tragic for it. In the end, Mudbound is a film about mourning the present with hopes for a better future; if only the entire structure of American racism could somehow be torn down.

Music Pick of the Week

 

John Maus

Screen Memories

Year of release: 2017

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Six years after causing a buzz on the indie circuit with We Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves, underground weirdo John Maus is back with Screen Memories; a lo-fi series of synth-pop excursions that sound, well, exactly like a John Maus record. With his droopy, echo-laden vocals and nonsensical lyrics, Maus channels the sinister and the silly in equal measure, and if Screen Memories feels like more of the same, it's nonetheless a singular achievement. Aside from fellow collaborator Ariel Pink, there isn't anyone else doing this kind of bizarre pastiche pop with such conviction.  

Spacey synths loop and weave, the basslines are thick, and Maus's voice often gets lost in a reverb void of celestial waves. The songs consist mostly of a combination of synth-pop and punk rhythms, and the lyrics are knowingly ridiculous, but Maus's spooky delivery and use of baroque keyboards conjures old horror movies. Apparently, Maus even spent two years building his own modular synthesizer.

The biggest takeaway from Screen Memories is that somehow a sonic blender of Max Headroom, Ian Curtis, and Kraftwerk are exactly what we need in 2017. Maus continues to explore outdated modes of melody and texture in a way that many of his supposed retro-pop futurists simply aren't off-kilter enough to master. There's an absurdity to the tone of apocalyptic doom running throughout the album, from the hilariously morbid "Pets" to the glistening death trip of closer "Bombs Away." Perhaps, the idea of laughing in the face of ultimate annihilation is simply the most appropriate response. Either way, Maus will be there; with modular synthesizer and Gothic falsetto in tow. 

 

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

 

Cast: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage, Abbie Cornish, Caleb Landry Jones, Kathryn Newton, Lucas Hedges

Director: Martin McDonagh

Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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The work of writer-director Martin McDonagh has often been compared to the Coen Brothers. The balance of dark humor with moral seriousness is certainly there in spades, but whereas the Coens have little to no faith in humanity, McDonagh seems genuinely interested in how human beings can turn a corner while being trapped in a bleak world. Both In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths juggle black comedy with moral consciousness, but his latest, Three Billboards Outside Ebbings, Missouri, is probably the most streamlined effort yet in terms of character arcs. Wisely doing away with some of the goofy farce of Seven Psychopaths while maintaining the acidic ruthlessness of In Bruges, Three Billboards is a comic-tragic tale of complicated people doing vicious things in the name of anger and pain.

Superficially, the film has a streak of vigilante justice that incurs understanding, if not empathy. However, McDonagh complicates the narrative by giving most of the characters here more than one layer of shading. The story concerns Mildred (Francis McDormand), a grieving mother who will not accept any excuses for the unresolved nature of her daughter's rape and murder. The titular billboards, located just outside the sleepy town of Ebbing, are blank until Mildred takes it upon herself to use them as a podium for her outrage directed at the local police department. The chief, Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) is specifically called out in bold letters, prompting controversy among the community. Crucially, the billboards are not only a way for Mildred to reignite her daughter's case, but also prime her deeply ingrained feelings of hopeless exasperation.

When Mildred goes up against chief Willoughby and a dim-witted cop played by Sam Rockwell, demanding the blood of every man in town to be drawn for DNA, she's deadly serious and we believe her. McDormand digs into the portrayal of a woman broken by life and scarred by tragedy with a mixture of steely-eyed resolve and whip-smart comedic timing. It's a role tailor-made for the actor, but McDonagh's script is constantly shifting our sympathies. Obviously, what happened to her daughter is beyond horrific, but Mildred is not some saintly avenging angel or unstoppable badass. When she snaps and becomes physical, like in one hilariously gruesome scene involving a dentist, its genuinely shocking at just how far she's willing to go. The humanity of Mildred, however, occasionally peeks through her untethered indignation during quieter moments; like a monologue she has after spotting a lone deer at her daughter's burial site, and a few surprisingly tender moments opposite Harrelson, who brings emotional nuance and humor to what could have been the standard issue town chief role.

This attention to character shading--which also includes key supporting turns from Caleb Landry Jones, Peter Dinklage, Lucas Hedges, and John Hawkes--elevates McDonagh's writing a notch above the more predictable murder mystery subplot. As a narrative, Three Billboards doesn't necessarily go anywhere revelatory, and even concludes on an ambiguous note, but it's our time spent with these characters that matters. The film seems to be getting at finding a moral order amidst the despair, even if that moral order is tweaked or demented. Most of the people depicted here have awful tendencies; and in the case of Rockwell's bumbling fool, harbor legitimate racism and violence, but McDonagh doesn't apologize for their actions. Instead, the film holds seemingly contradictory elements in tandem. For example, how much do we root for Mildred when clearly she has allowed her undeniable pain to overtake any sense of rationality? How can we see Rockwell's bigoted cop turn a corner and offer a semblance of what could be considered a "good deed", when he's so clearly reprehensible?

The answer to these questions seems to be held in the picture's center-piece sequence; a confrontation between Mildred and Willoughby inside an interrogation room. What begins as a darkly comic series of back and forth jabs quickly turns into an intensely heated argument, culminating in a splash of blood. Without giving too much away, the way both characters react to the sudden shift speaks to McDonagh's thematic methodology; with small glimpses of vulnerability being more shocking than any of Mildred's self-righteous crusading. 

However, for all its crackling performances and razor-sharp writing, Three Billboards is often clumsy in other areas. A brief flashback involving Mildred's teenage daughter is unnecessary at best, and emotionally manipulative at worst. Meanwhile, Lucas Hedge's role as Mildred's son is given short shrift in the third act where he all but completely disappears from the proceedings. A few more scenes exploring his obvious grief over losing his sister and the overwhelming frustration with his mother's actions would have helped round out the family dynamic. There's also the unfortunate addition of a 19-year-old female airhead that Mildred's ex-husband, played by John Hawkes, is dating as a cover for his own internal anguish. It's the one instance of obvious caricature where McDonagh is clearly laughing at a character rather than with them. It's an easy joke and recycled far too many times to be tolerable. 

Still, Three Billboards succeeds as a film about channeling our anger at the world while also being imprisoned by that anger. In our sensitive times, it dares to provoke the audience with vicious hate speech and freewheeling characters operating outside the confines of traditional screenwriting. These people are flawed, messy, and in many cases, irrevocably damaged. Such is reality. Such is life.