Dunkirk

 

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

Director: Christopher Nolan

Running time: 1 hour 46 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


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

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

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

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

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

 

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

 

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

Director: Luc Besson

Running time: 2 hour 17 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


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

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

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

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

   

 

 

 

Harmonium

 

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

Director: Kôji Fukada

Running time: 1 hour 58 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


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

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

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

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

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

Okja

 

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

Director: Bong Joon-ho

Running time: 1 hour 58 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


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

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

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

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

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

Music Pick of the Week

 

Guerilla Toss

GT Ultra

Year of release: 2017


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

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

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

 

Movie Pick of the Week

 

Slack Bay

Director: Bruno Dumont

Year of release: 2017

Running time: 2 hours 2 minutes


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

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

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

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

 

The Beguiled

 

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

Director: Sofia Coppola

Running time: 1 hour 33 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Baby Driver

 

Cast: Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Lily James, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Eiza González, Jon Bernthal

Director: Edgar Wright

Running time: 1 hour 53 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


Baby Driver, the latest zippy entertainment from writer-director Edgar Wright, is not really a movie in the traditional sense. If cinema isn't primarily meant to conjure the artifice of moviemaking, then no one has bothered to pass that note along to Wright, who unspools a pastiche of affected genre tropes, archetypal characters, and music video montages which speaks to the very act of filmmaking as a highly constructed stunt. Of course, audiences should be smart enough to know that movies are pure fantasy, anyhow. The unapologetic thrill of going to the movies is often knowing that strings are being pulled, and seeing the puppet master at work has it's undeniable pleasures. This is something Wright has cannily exploited before in films like the sublime zombie deconstruction Shaun of the Dead or Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, which embraced and ridiculed video game/comic book geek culture. With Baby Driver, Wright seems hyper-aware of how arch his stylized cinematic playground is, but allows his characters to remain clueless, trapping them inside a cornball narrative which limits their range of expression. The results are a series of tightly edited, rapid-fire sequences cut to a carefully curated set of songs with lame character beats sandwiched in between. Wright has always expressed a kind of teenage fanboy enthusiasm for older movies. In this case, he's riffing on Walter Hill's The Driver, Michael Mann's Heat, and to some extent, classic Hollywood musicals, but his overly mannered style does very little to subvert what he's shamelessly rehashing. Unlike Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and even Scott Pilgrim, Baby Driver uses quirk not as a satirical jab, but rather, simply as quirk.

When we first meet Baby (Ansel Elgort), he's tapping the steering wheel and singing along to the sounds of "Bellbottoms" by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion while waiting for his fellow criminals to finish the robbery. Edited to the cadence and rhythms of the tune, Wright unleashes a rollicking car chase; full of swerving vehicles, roadway pileups, hand-brake turns, and squealing rings of tire smoke. Despite the fact that we've seen a million car chases before, Wright handles the geography and sense of pacing like a well-oiled technician. There's something thrillingly exacting about his aesthetic, which works well when things are in a constant state of motion. Whenever characters need to slow down and trade sideways barbs or actually entertain a conversation, however, Wright's failings as a writer prove nearly insurmountable. 

In terms of plot, Baby Driver rounds up the usual clichés and action crime thriller chess pieces. The question remains; is Wright clever or willing enough to knock them down? There's a no-nonsense crime boss (Kevin Spacey, the king of smirk), a Bonnie and Clyde-style couple named Buddy and Darling (Jon Hamm and Eiza González, respectively) and the stereotypical psychopath, Bats (Jamie Foxx), all on hand for "one last job." Baby suffers from tinnitus, or "a hum in the drum," as Doc puts it, which explains his fixation with blasting his music collection via iPod, but more than anything, it plays as a clunky gimmick for Wright to cram his personal mixtape soundtrack into the film. Though there's a glimmer of a tragic past involving Baby's deceased parents, his decision to become a hired driver for criminals is never explained, nor is his embarrassing habit of prancing around Atlanta in broad daylight like a millennial John Travolta. Also, Baby is supposed to be a cool guy with cool taste in music, but that part, like his bland love affair with a bland waitress (Lily James) remains highly unconvincing.

As the hits keep coming; The Damned, Queen, Golden Earring, Barry White, the Commodores, James Brown, among many more get major iPod play, it's clear Wright is trying to amp up our auditory and visual senses to the point where nothing else matters. Perhaps Baby Driver can work simply on style alone; a sugar rush of genres (love story, heist thriller, modern musical, car chase action extravaganza) all held together by a music playlist. However, at nearly two hours, Wright gravely miscalculates how far he can take his arch music video aesthetic while never giving us a story, much less any characters, we can connect with. Elgort is supposed to be a brooding quiet type with a heart, but he communicates very little non-verbally that would lead us to believe he's anything other than an archetypal prop. James, meanwhile, cuts a sunny disposition as the doting waitress, but her role is so underwritten to the point of being offensive. If Wright is trying to pay homage to 1950's apple pie melodrama, he should have allowed a sense of knowing weirdness to creep in, ala Twin Peaks, instead of playing the fairy tale corniness at face value. Hamm and Foxx seem to be enjoying themselves as diabolical baddies, but again, Wright sets up these chess pieces and just lets them sit there. In the end, we are left looking at a board where no one dares make a bold or controversial move. Only Spacey seems to be in on the joke, if there even is one, but that may simply stem from the fact that we half expect him to turn to the camera and deliver exposition on proper Post Office robbery etiquette.

Had Wright used pastiche as a way of commenting on arrested development (all the men here, aside from Baby, are basically overgrown children), or tweaked his considerable visual talents in service of something which didn't feel so manufactured, Baby Driver might have gained some of the loving satire of Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, or At World's End. In those pictures, Wright felt understandably at home. Coming to America seems like an odd fit for someone who has always utilized milieu as a jumping off point for skewering social dynamics. Baby Driver has none of the personality, humor, or open-heartedness of Wright's best work. It's simply an amalgamation of all of his tics, quirks, and aesthetic choices without any understanding of why we should care about the people he's chosen to place at the center of the story, no matter how fast Baby drives that car.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Bad Batch

 

Cast: Suki Waterhouse, Jason Momoa, Jayda Fink, Keanu Reeves, Giovanni Ribisi, Jim Carrey

Director: Ana Lily Amirpour

Running time: 2 hours

by Jericho Cerrona


Writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour is the real deal; a formally audacious stylist whose images capture a sensual, art-punk knowingness. Her debut feature, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, was rapturously received by critics, and for good reason. Though it flaunted its undeniable influences (spaghetti westerns, 50s teen coming-of-age movies, 80s-era Jim Jarmusch, Francis Ford Coppola's Rumble Fish, atmospheric horror, among others), it still felt very much like the work of a distinctive artist. Ultimately, what held that picture back from greatness was a sort of winking hipness keeping any emotional or psychological resonance at bay. Of course, this was clearly by design, and the strength of Amirpour's aesthetic--gorgeous black-and-white cinematography, slow motion montage set to pop songs, a clear fondness for classic cinema-- more than made up for her weaknesses as a writer.

For her sophomore effort, Amirpour doubles down on the 1980s-inflected post-punk kitsch in a concerted effort at cult movie status and nearly achieves it, if only the strain wasn't so obvious. There's a glibness to The Bad Batch which undermines what could have been a macabre satire about U.S. border control politics or even an emotionally charged survival tale about one woman's fight to dismantle a post- apocalyptic caste system. When we first meet Arlen (Suki Waterhouse), a drifter sent off into the Texas desert after being disowned by the United States as a "bad batch", she chomps down on a leftover sandwich before being captured by cannibals, who cut off one of her arms and legs. During the film's first 20 minutes, Amirpour relies primarily on widescreen visual compositions of the vast desert landscapes and intricate sound design in order to immerse the audience into her dystopian world. This plays to her strengths, since The Bad Batch is, if anything, a testament to cinema's power at creating a sense of place and atmosphere. When Ace of Base’s “All That She Wants” plays in the background during the scene where Arlen's limbs are hacked off, Amirpour synthesizes violence with pop-culture irony, edging the tone into Quentin Tarantino territory.

Unlike Tarantino, however, who understands how to write dialogue to match his visual aesthetic, Amirpour seems entirely uninterested in actual characterization. Of course, there's a clear satirical bent at play here; from the muscle-bound weight lifters, skateboard punks, and Burning Man EDM club kids wandering about, but the film's inability to fill out more than simply the corners of this milieu speaks to Amirpour's shakiness as a narrative storyteller. As Arlen escapes from the cannibals and wanders back and forth between their outpost and a community called "Comfort", overseen by a New Age guru named The Dream (Keanu Reeves), The Bad Batch becomes a take on how even the undesirable dregs of society feel the need to separate into groups with their own ideals and rituals. There's a bad-ass cannibal named Miami Man (Jason Momoa) who plays hunter-hunted games with Arlen throughout, an unrecognizable Jim Carrey pushing a shopping cart as a bedraggled mute homeless man, and a half-dressed Giovanni Ribisi scampering around as a mentally unstable misfit, but no one here truly makes an impact because the film isn't concerned with the ways human beings actually interact with these environments. Instead, Amirpour has instructed her actors to adopt weird accents and stilted line deliveries, perhaps as a nod to cult movie preparedness.

Arlen's journey as an outsider who longs for revenge against the ones who took away her appendages is surprisingly muted here, with Waterhouse unconvincingly playing the stoic heroine as she crawls around the Texas wasteland. Had she been given an emotional or psychologically resonant reaction to her situation, the tug-of-war with Momoa's misunderstood cannibal could have lingered. Sadly, despite Amirpour's admirable visual imagination, The Bad Batch unwisely transforms from a dystopian nightmare about the have and have-nots into a quasi-romance between a girl living on the wrong side of the tracks and the man who tried to eat her.

 

 

The Criterion Corner


Walker

Director: Alex Cox

Year of release: 1987

Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes

Welcome to THE CRITERION CORNER, a recurring segment in which a film in The Criterion Collection, known for standardizing the letterbox format for widescreen movies and extra bonus features, is highlighted. The picture up for discussion this time is Alex Cox's 1987 misunderstood absurdist satire Walker.


British filmmaker Alex Cox's anarchic satire about William Walker (Ed Harris), a man who led the first American invasion of Nicaragua, feels more prescient today than it probably did upon it's 1987 release. Because our current political climate is so divisive, it's tempting to read Walker through a modernist lens, but let's not forget Cox made the picture right in the middle of the illegal U.S.-sponsored war against Nicaragua. This is all to say that history is stubbornly cyclical, something Cox is keenly aware of as he gleefully skewers American expansion and colonialism throughout. There's no need to apply topicality here because, sadly, not much has changed.

From the outset, it's clear the film is going for a freewheeling comic quality while simultaneously getting at how power and international politics mix to form Westernized ignorance of other cultures. For example, an opening 19th-century battle sequence in Sonora, Mexico where soldiers and peasants are blown to bits by gunfire and cannon blasts is both unflinchingly violent as well as ridiculously farcical, complete with a rousing salsa soundtrack from Joe Strummer.  As Walker strides through the streets with optimistic swagger immune to the carnage and misery all around him, the stage is set for an atypical, and often uproariously hilarious, take on the biopic.

With his 1984 punk classic Repo Man, Cox responded to the capitalistic mindset of the 1980s by satirizing American slacker culture, whereas here, he essentially gives us an inverse of that film's theme of anti-conformity. Walker is a dark, blistering take down of the antihero model set in a world populated by a charismatic leader whose soul is an empty void swallowing up everyone and everything in its path. Played by Ed Harris in a towering, heightened performance, Walker is an anomaly who exists to spew anti-slavery and pro-democracy rhetoric as a mask for overpowering a foreign country. Claiming to work for God and hiding behind Christian sanctimony, he emerges as a figure of duplicitous evil which perfectly encapsulates American arrogance.

During widescreen battle scenes which Cox stages with a sense of breathtaking scope, Walker continues to march onward (even as his most "trusted" soldiers die at his side), giving the fiery destruction happening all around him a carnivalesque absurdity. Harris doubles down on the tics and mannerisms here; giving the central character a twitchy intensity which speaks to the frightening power of unchecked hubris. What emerges is a film which rips open the festering wound of American history and lets the entrails flow down into rivers of gushing blood. It's a piece of work that could be seen only as farce, if the truth wasn't so bewildering to begin with.

Cox understands, more than perhaps an American filmmaker, that historical revisionism speaks to larger truths that are much to painful to reckon with. The film's litany of anachronisms--automatic rifles, helicopters, vehicles, etc--aren't merely there as a way of poking fun at conventions, but are instead a way for Cox to wrestle with the ways in which we distort history to fit into our preconceived ideals. For all it's zany lunacy, Walker is a film that is deadly serious about it's political convictions; making it a powerful and welcome addition to The Criterion Collection

 

 

The Ornithologist

 

Cast: Paul Hamy, Xelo Cagiao, João Pedro Rodriguess, Han Wen, Chan Suan

Director: João Pedro Rodrigues

Running time: 1 hour 57 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


Director João Pedro Rodrigues's fifth feature The Ornithologist blends Christian doctrine with pagan ritual, spiritual serenity with playful blasphemy, and dream logic with earthy naturalism. It's a film about the beauty and danger of Portugal's lush landscapes and how the past and present merge together to form a tale of self-discovery. In this case, the figure entertaining self-discovery is Fernando (Paul Hamy), an ornithologist traversing the wilderness of northern Portugal in search of rare birds. Patiently watching these specimens through binoculars and relaying his discoveries via tape recorder, Fernando is essentially a stand-in for 13th-century Saint Anthony of Padua; a cleric whose journey toward divinity Rodrigues twists to fit into a modernist queer framework. The results are unique, baffling, surreal, and yet completely cohesive; a major work from a filmmaker using meandering narrative episodes as a means of cinematic poetry, both visual and intellectual.

The film's early scenes suggest a contemplative travelogue trapped somewhere out of time, even as Fernando constantly tries to get service on his cell phone in order to connect to an apparent lover back home. Meanwhile, the languid pacing and evocative p.o.v. shots from hawks, owls, and other birds initially makes The Ornithologist come across like a beautifully photographed snapshot of nature invaded by a curious outsider. Once Fernando's kayak capsizes, however, things take a strange turn as his body is discovered by two Chinese Catholic travelers, Fei (Han Wen) and Lin (Chan Suan). Stripping him down to his underwear and tying him to a tree, the women plan on an eventful day of bondage and castration, but Fernando manages to escape; fleeing during the night and eventually meeting a deaf-mute Spanish shepherd named Jesus (Xelo Cagiao). If the shepherd's name isn't obvious enough, it's clear Fernando is merging into Saint Anthony as he makes love to the teenager on the river's edge in a sly queer reimagining of Anthony's famous encounter with the infant "Son of God". Interestingly, the herdsman will later be resurrected with a gash in his torso, which Fernando erotically probes with his index finger in one of the film's more audacious sequences.    

The Ornithologist may be singularly odd, but it is by no means inaccessible. The narrative follows a fairly straightforward arc and Fernando's transmigration of the soul is rendered with startling clarity. However, expectations are continually upended, especially when Fernando encounters Mirandese-speaking fertility cult members wearing masks and topless huntresses on horseback, which recalls Wonder Woman's Themyscira-born women warriors. During these stretches, one marvels at the way Rodrigues taps into an existential absurdity which never feels contrived just for the sake of sensationalism. The fact that Fernando begins the film as a rational man of science, undergoes an identity swap which breaks from intellect and gives way to sensual primal urges, is instructive to grasping the filmmaker's subversive aims, especially considering he casts himself as the Saint Anthony figure. Therefore, the film doesn't seem to be a condemnation of religion, but rather, a celebration of how spiritual concerns allows us to see ourselves differently, perhaps even in a divine light. The metaphysical is natural. Eroticism is harsh, if necessary. Companionship is essential. The Ornithologist preaches to a flock hungry for mysteries rather than answers; giving us all a reason to shake the dust off our feet and preach the gospel of João Pedro Rodrigues.

 

 

 

Symbiotic Recommends: 10 Albums

 

Boys Age

A Sacred Day After Everything Has Gone

artist info here


Christian Fitness

Slap Bass Hunks

artist info here


Man Forever

Play What They Want

artist info here


Chaz Bundick Meets The Mattson 2

Star Stuff

artist info here


Benjamin Booker

Witness

artist info here


Royal Trux

Platinum Tips + Ice Cream

artist info here


Brandon Seabrook

Die Trommel Fatale

artist info here


(Sandy) Alex G

Rocket

artist info here


Gold Dime

Nerves

artist info here


Jay Som

Everybody Works

artist info here

Movie Pick of the Week

 

Mimosas

Director: Oliver Laxe

Year of release: 2017

Running time: 1 hour 36 minutes


Across a mountainous Moroccan landscape, nomads are transporting the deceased body of a sheikh to his apparent resting place. These travelers, both weary from the journey and apprehensive about traversing the dangerous terrain in order to reach the eventual city, are framed by director Oliver Laxe and cinematographer Mauro Herce like tiny insects dwarfed by the enormity of their setting. By extension, Mimosas is a film in which the seemingly simple narrative is dwarfed by slipstream story threads that come and go at random; creating a hypnotic experience which actively resists classification.

The basic plot involves Ahmed (Ahmed Hammoud) and Saïd (Saïd Aagli), two nomads tasked with carrying the sheikh's remains, who are later joined by Shakib (Shakib Ben Omar), a strange wanderer who first appears in disconnected scenes at an automobile junkyard where he rants to onlookers about God, creation, and the Devil's propensity for meddling in the affair's of men. As the three characters become intertwined, Laxe subverts expectations by turning Mimosas into an episodic pilgrimage where the ultimate destination remains unclear and more importantly, arbitrary. As days stretch on, time becomes elusive; with the film taking on the feeling of a languidly-paced dream where each member fights inner and outer demons, wrestling with cultural myths as well as issues of faith and devotion. Throughout, Laxe allows the bewilderingly gorgeous landscapes to take center stage while the humans remain in the foreground; rendered insignificant by the perilous beauty and callous indifference of nature.

Mimosas may indeed be about something--male ego, delusion, the vanity of primarily spiritual pursuits--but the way it's disparate pieces are sewn together like a half-finished tapestry will likely confound most. Mileage will vary on whether or not such cryptic narrative swerves are worth praising or dismissing, but there's little question that the film casts an otherworldly, haunting spell. In a way, Mimosas feels purposefully impassable, not unlike the treacherous path Shakib keeps insisting they can find a way through, if only their mules could fly. 

Music Pick of the Week

 

Slowdive

Slowdive

Year of release: 2017


The early 1990's were a banner year for the shoegaze genre. My Bloody Valentine released the classic Loveless in 1991, while Ride's seminal Nowhere burst onto the scene just a year prior. Just For A Day, the debut from English rockers Slowdive, also came out in 1991, but whereas My Bloody Valentine specialized in lo-fi crescendos and Ride laid down up-tempo jangle, Slowdive mostly focused on the more ambient textures inherent in the newly formed genre. Now that shoegaze has seen a revival over the past decade, and in some senses ran its course with dozens of wannabe indie bands cranking out variations of the sound, the forefathers of the scene are back to show the kids how it's done. With My Bloody Valentine already mounting a fairly successful, if derivative, comeback and Ride recently dropping their first new material in over 20 years, Slowdive's latest might completely fly under the radar. This would be a shame, since their self-titled effort is a graceful return to form.

While outwardly familiar in sound--reverb-heavy instrumentation, hushed boy/girl vocals, steady basslines, shimmering guitar chords--Slowdive nonetheless make minor tweaks to their aesthetic placing them firmly in the modern age. For example, "Star Roving" is quite possibly the loudest and most aggressive song the band has written to date, and yet, it still hums poetically atop glistening guitar arpeggios and gorgeous dueling harmonies courtesy of singer-guitarists Neil Halstead and Rachel Goswell. Meanwhile, "Go Get It" has a swirling, almost jazzy structure; with Halstead's vocals taking on a synth-pop-esque monotone similar to that of Tame Impala's Kevin Parker. However, Slowdive never give into the kind of jaunty hooks which inform so many of the newer shoegaze acts; instead, they expand their sonic palette outward and inward simultaneously.

Slowdive is a vastly rewarding listen; full of cascading dream-like soundscapes containing haunting melodies. 22 years since their last release, Pygmalion, the band have retained their mastery over a distinctive sound they helped popularize by wrestling the genre back to its roots while still making room for what lies ahead.

 

It Comes at Night

 

Cast: Joel Edgerton, Christopher Abbott, Carmen Ejogo, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Riley Keough, Griffin Robert Faulkner

Director: Trey Edward Shults

Running time: 1 hour 37 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


If writer-director Trey Edward Shults's debut feature, Krisha, plunged into the headspace of a psychologically damaged middle-aged woman during a family gathering; then his followup It Comes at Night views a disintegrating family unit from the perspective of 17-year-old Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) trying to adapt to his claustrophobic living environment inside a remote cabin in the woods. It's primarily through this vantage point that we come to grasp the family's dire situation, even as Shults purposefully withholds information regarding the broader scope of what appears to be some type of biological outbreak.

Set in an apocalyptic near future, It Comes at Night opens with a mercy killing of an old man (David Pendleton), covered in lesions and sores, who is carried out into the woods by Travis's father, Paul (Joel Edgerton). We come to learn that the man is in fact the family patriarch and father of Paul's wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo). How he came to be ill is never explained, but Paul assures his family, as Shults does the audience, that this killing was necessary in order to stop the spread of the mysterious disease. Eventually, a stranger named Will (Christopher Abbott) breaks into the boarded-up family home hoping to find supplies for his wife, Kim (Riley Keough) and young child, Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner). After a thorough interrogation, Paul decides to accompany Will to retrieve his family and thus combine resources, since Will has livestock and Paul a safe place to live and plenty of water. Working with cinematographer Drew Daniels, Shults initially conjures a sense of disquieting dread simply through the use of slowly gliding camera movements and natural interior lighting. The off-kilter sound design is equally effective; with distant dog barks, squeaking floorboards, and a menacing score by Brian McOmber all informing the uneasy feeling that something is just outside that heavily secured red door at the end of the hallway.

Like It Follows and The Witch, It Comes at Night fits snugly into the A24-approved realm of art-house horror; minimalistic genre exercises which attempt to subvert common tropes primarily through mood, atmosphere, and a rigorous visual aesthetic. The best thing that can be said about Shults's film is that he wisely tones down the stylistic tics and show-offy camera movements which informed Krisha; a film which, despite a galvanizing central performance, felt arch and phony. Though the writer-director is very skilled at knowing where to place his camera and how to use silence in order to generate tension, his gifts as a writer and story-teller are almost entirely absent. For here is a film in which obvious craftsmanship cannot paper over a simplistic narrative where archetypal characters don't so much withhold exposition as behave in faux-naturalistic ways which tells us nothing about who they are or what they want, aside from the obvious. What at first seemed novel about the film; the lack of backstory, the determined minimalism, the apolitical milieu, the resistance to offering up explanations about the state of the world, soon becomes a frustrating weakness since it's clear Shultz is simply making another one of those relentlessly bleak "metaphor horror" movies where everything hinges on a centralized theme rather than actually digging into what frightens us.

The fear of death, which no one can escape, is at the heart of It Comes at Night, which announces itself as a horror vehicle, but other than a few evocatively photographed nightmare sequences in which Travis wanders about, Shults seems generally uninterested in the visceral thrills of the genre. Instead, he's attempting to fashion a meditation on grief, paranoia, and letting go of the ones you love wrapped in a flimsy gauze of pop horror iconography. Sadly, he also strands a very talented cast who deserve more fully realized characters. Though Edgerton is very good at projecting a stoic resilience, he's essentially playing the over-protective father will do whatever it takes to protect his family, and cannot transcend Shult's weak writing, which involves a lot of him saying things like "family is all that matters." Meanwhile, Ejogo has a maternal warmth and strength as a performer, but she's sadly given very little to do other than look overly concerned and whisper mumbled lines to her emotionally traumatized son. And so on it goes, with Abbot playing the mysterious stranger whom the family may not be able to trust, and Keough relegated mostly to being the object of Travis's teenage affections. In fact, Harrison Jr. gives by far the best performance in the film; mainly because Shults seems genuinely interested in Travis's psychological fragility, but also because the actor brings glimmers of an inner life that the rest of the character's sorely lack.

In fashioning yet another post-apocalyptic narrative about a close knit unit of survivors whose world is thrown into disarray when strangers appear, It Comes at Night is much too familiar plot-wise to truly surprise and far too ponderous in its construction to be thrilling. What one is left with, after all the artful tracking shots and lamp-lit compositions, is little more than moody ambiguity at the expense of depth and yes, the kind of gonzo electricity that only a potent horror film can provide.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

War Machine

 

Cast: Brad Pitt, Anthony Michael Hall, Scoot McNairy, Anthony Hayes, John Magaro, Topher Grace, Daniel Betts, Aymen Hamdouchi, RJ Cyler, Alan Ruck, Meg Tilly, Nicholas Jones, Will Poulter, Lakeith Stanfield, Reggie Brown, Griffin Dunne, Ben Kingsley

Director: David Michôd

Running time: 2 hours

by Jericho Cerrona


Writer-director David Michôd tries his hand at political satire with War Machine, an adaptation of late journalist Michael Hastings' book The Operators, which chronicled the notorious fall of General Stanley McChrystal, a U.S. commander and leader of NATO forces in Afghanistan. Hastings had roasted McChrystal prior to publishing the book in a vicious 2010 Rolling Stone article which painted him as an egotistical, dim-witted madman who used the war as a business model for greedy politicians. Michôd's film, which stars Brad Pitt as the McChrystal stand-in General Glenn McMahon, strives to be Robert Altman's M.A.S.H. or even David O. Russell's Three Kings, but falls closer to something like the 1981 military comedy Stripes in its scatological humor at the expense of meaningful insights. 

However, despite a wobbly tone and yet another broad performance from Pitt in the Burn After Reading/Inglorious Basterds mode, War Machine is graced with stellar supporting turns and a smirking deconstruction of phony male military posturing. The film's first half is a bit of a slog, though, using apathetic voice-over narration as a string of secondary characters are introduced, given one or two personality traits, and just as quickly discarded. Only a testosterone-fueled Anthony Michael Hall as McMahon's right hand man and Topher Grace as a smug P.R. drone make any significant impact, although the film's best performance actually belongs to Meg Tilly, who brings more nuance to her few scenes as the General's wife than the film surrounding her deserves. 

Squinting, curling his lip, and affecting a gravely voice which sounds like Elmer Fudd choking on tobacco, Pitt leans into caricature as a leader who truly believes that the war can be won through good old fashioned American democracy. That such democracy involves invading other nations and then killing innocent civilians and destroying their neighborhoods, is easily written off by McMahon and his cronies because such tactics have been bedrocks of American war-making for decades. If Michôd fails to truly nail the tone of nihilistic absurdity (for one thing, the film is much too soft on McMahon by making him into something of a loveable idiot), then he largely succeeds at extrapolating a more sobering truth; that larger-than-life figures like McMahon are simply disposable pawns in a powerful system that's rotten from the inside out.

Perhaps one of the reasons a satire like War Machine doesn't seem quite as biting in 2017 is that we are now living in an era where abject military dysfunction is the least of our worries. An ego-driven yet well-meaning blowhard like McMahon now seems, despite his irrevocable lapses in judgment and morality, like a relic from a simpler time. For example, when the General goes for his daily 7 am jog (visualized by Pitt in one of the film's funnier gags as a robotic shuffle), there's something almost endearing about a man so fixated on his absurd routines. This ultimately does the film a disservice, however, since there's nothing charming about the horrors of counterinsurgency. Michôd attempts to balance out his obvious affection toward his central buffoon by giving us a young marine (Lakeith Stanfield) who opposes his country's practices and a cameo from Tilda Swinton as a strident news reporter trotting out the picture's themes with an extended monologue, but such elements feel tacked on in order to provide a broader context that the film isn't really that interested in examining.

If Michôd's previous directorial efforts, 2010's crime drama Animal Kingdom and 2014's dystopian Western/survival thriller The Rover hinted at a filmmaker toying with genre conventions, then War Machine feels oddly didactic for someone so invested in maintaining a specific mood. Here, the tone is wonky; lurching from Catch-22-esque satire to on-the-ground combat realism, with Michôd struggling to convince us of just what type of story he wises to tell. McMahon is a macho caricature, as many military types are, and the war in Afghanistan was a complete disaster, as most wars tend to be. Pitt's square-jaw, squinty eyes, and ridiculous jogging motion approximates this, but to what end? When one of the General's snide higher-ups turns to him and says, “You’re not here to win, you’re here to clean up the mess,” we almost sympathize with a man who hopes to lead a squadron who have long abandoned him, and that in itself, is a problem that War Machine is too distracted making it's obvious points about the futility of the military industrial complex to truly comprehend.

The Criterion Corner


In a Lonely Place

Director: Nicholas Ray

Year of release: 1950

Running time: 1 hour 34 minutes

Welcome to THE CRITERION CORNER, a recurring segment in which a film in The Criterion Collection, known for standardizing the letterbox format for widescreen movies and extra bonus features, is highlighted. The picture up for discussion this time is Nicholas Ray's 1950 noir masterpiece In A Lonely Place.


Although Humphrey Bogart would go on to win the Oscar for 1951's The African Queen, his work as washed up screenwriter Dixon Steele in Nicholas Ray's brilliant noir chamber drama In A Lonely Place remains his best and most complex performance. While outwardly a mystery thriller concerning the murder of a young hat-check girl who was last seen alive leaving Dixon's apartment, the film is more fundamentally concerned with irrational male delusion. By placing Bogart in the role of a depressive writer who gets more than his share of attention from women, Ray cannily turns the epitome of cool on its head; revealing the emotionless detachment of someone harboring a general disdain for humanity. 

Of course, there's a love interest introduced in the form of Dixon’s new neighbor, Laurel (Gloria Grahame), who is both drawn to and increasingly wary of her lover's apparent disinterest in the death of an innocent young girl. As the cops continue to investigate and suspect Dixon, Laurel herself begins to feel trapped in the embrace of a possible sociopath, which Ray wisely captures by setting the majority of the film inside cramped spaces. Meanwhile, Bogart keeps up the veneer of the damaged romantic by playing on the persona he'd perfected for years up until that point, but then investing that same attitude with erratic bursts of violence and remorseless apathy. In one bravura scene, Dixon narrates a possible scenario to his detective friend where the murdered girl was strangled by the driver of a moving vehicle, and the way Bogart amps up the near orgasmic hysteria is both disturbing and intensely compelling. 

There's this idea of 50's American cinema as being imbued with a sunny, family-friendly disposition as a direct response to the heinous evils perpetuated during World War II. Though made at the very beginning of the decade, In A Lonely Place is surprisingly bleak for it's time, with the entire narrative framework--of whether or not Dixon actually committed the murder--being treated as little more than a footnote to the film's real objective. This objective, by the way, is the inversion of the lone male hero, which Ray himself idealized in films like Rebel Without A Cause and On Dangerous Ground into a sad, defeated loser. Dixon's abject despair; his inability to be a decent human being in a godless world, turns the romanticized anti-hero into the existential coward. When he rehearses a line of dialogue with Laurel while driving in his car; “I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me", Dixon's sentiments of love conquering all has an ironic absurdity. In A Lonely Place, too, understands the absurdity of living with hope when human empathy no longer matters.

 

 

 

 

 

Wonder Woman

 

Cast: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright, Danny Huston, David Thewlis, Connie Nielsen, Elena Anaya, Lucy Davis, Saïd Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremmer, Eugene Brave Rock

Director: Patty Jenkins

Running time: 2 hours 21 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


As a corrective to the grim self-seriousness of the DC film franchise up until this point as well as a concerted effort to invert the pin-up girl eroticism of the character's original design, Patty Jenkins's Wonder Woman is a spirited success. As a fully satisfying superhero origin story willing to break free from genre constrictions and blaze a new path, however, the film is on less firm ground. This is to be expected, given that auteurship existing alongside a business model for selling more toys and expanding an already over-saturated formula is a losing battle. Even the most aesthetically bold superhero entries, such as Marvel's Doctor Strange, fall prey to overly complicated mythology, underdeveloped supporting characters, predictably cardboard villains, and a need to extend a certain visual house style. What makes Wonder Woman so exciting, beyond simply being a more coherent movie than anything DC studios has put out thus far, is the inherent thrill of witnessing the first superhero effort directed by a woman featuring a symbol of female-empowerment writ large on the big screen. This shouldn't be such a novelty, but sadly, Hollywood has so forcefully engineered the system to all but guarantee marginalization when it comes to these multi-million dollar franchises that when something like Wonder Woman comes along, it feels like a miracle. However, if the film proves to be a financial success, this trend will likely change. Nothing says diversity and gender equality like padding the pocket books of white male studio executives.

While this may sound reductive and cynical, the good news is that Jenkins and her team have reenvisioned Amazonian warrior Diana with a sense of liberated modernity while still retaining the old-fashioned pageantry of the character. Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot swaggers through every scene as the titular heroine with a mixture of intensity, emotional openness, and most surprisingly, wide-eyed innocence. In fact, Gadot is so good here that the shortcomings of Allan Heinberg's script (lack of character depth, uninspired side characters, more than one lame villain, a muddled smash and punch CGI finale) fail to derail what essentially is yet another superhero origin story.

The story kicks off with Xena Warrior Princess-esque visions of Themyscira; a mythical island inhabited only by female Amazonians who train (often on horseback) with flailing swords and zipping arrows. Diana grows up idealizing these fierce women, maturing into a rather formidable foe herself, with the help of her aunt, Antiope (Robin Wright in House of Cards mode wearing a metallic headdress). One day, a World War I American counter-intelligence spy named Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) suddenly appears out of the clear blue sky and crashes into the ocean. Since Diana has never seen a man before, she's both puzzled and drawn to Steve, leading to some gently awkward scenes of banter between the two after she saves him from drowning. Eventually, Steve tells her about the horrific nature of war and the German's secret plans for using a deadly chemical weapon. From there, Wonder Woman transforms into a screwball fish-out-of-water comedy as Diana and Steve jot off to London in order to deliver intelligence information to Britain's top officials. Sequences where Diana tries out a variety of "proper" outfits or simply engages in extended arguments with Steve are unexpectedly light-hearted and funny, with Jenkins allowing these moments to play out casually. One shudders to think what a director like hack-a-scene Zach Snyder would have done with such material.

Once the plot introduces a plaster-faced scientist known as Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya) and Danny Huston's cartoonishly evil German officer, Wonder Woman loses some of its early goodwill; devolving into a series of chaotic action sequences which ultimately ends in a lumbering final battle between Diana and a fiery floating bad guy. Still, some of the action beats here are given an intriguing tweak just through the sheer force of a woman's directorial perspective. For example, Wonder Woman walking stridently across a deadly German outpost while artillery fire ricochets and whirls around her is a towering feminist vision for the ages. Jenkins also favors scenes where the men (both enemies and comrades) gawk in awe at Diana's otherworldly abilities. This sense of emasculation; even when it comes to a fully qualified solider like Pine's sweet-natured Steve Trevor, is keenly felt throughout; imbuing even some of the more by-the-numbers fight scenes with an emotional weight simply because of this female slant.

If Diana had been a more fully developed character rather than simply a signifier of kick-ass empowerment, then Wonder Woman may have exceeded the limitations of the superhero genre it's trapped in. Gadot nearly convinces us that we are watching someone with an interior life, but there's only so much the talented actor can do to transcend the inherent artificiality of the character she's portraying. The original conception of Wonder Woman, created by psychologist William Moulton Marston, has always been caught between cheesy bondage iconography and feminine strength. Despite the film's flaws, Jenkins and Gadot have very smartly melded the older corny costuming with a more prescient emotional dimension wrought by a powerful woman overcome by both the evils of humanity as well as their ability for compassion. In that sense, Wonder Woman gives agency to the female superhero rather than subjugating her as the object, with her ultimate decision to not give up on "the world of men" radiating grace that "male-kind" truly does not deserve.  

 

 

 

A Quiet Passion

 

Cast: Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Duncan Duff, Keith Carradine, Jodhi May

Director: Terence Davies

Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


Part of the issue with many biopics is their over-reliance on framing events in retrospect and then applying a modern prism for which to view historical figures. This is understandable and in some senses inevitable given that filmmaking, by design, encourages editorialization. However, in the case of 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. Therefore, the sense of historical specificity and extraordinary interpretation of Dickinson as an elusive presence given to both flights of fancy and crippling melancholy, makes A Quiet Passion that rare biopic which transcends the genre entirely.

Davies's picture could actually be viewed as a companion piece to last year's Whit Stillman-directed Jane Austin adaptation Love and Friendship, in that it's obsession with the cadence of language acts as a catalyst for getting at deeper human emotions. Whereas Stillman's film mostly played as a detached farce of social norms, Davies uses rapid-fire dialogue and heightened monologues as a means of exploring the ways in which morality, decorum, and ego can warp one's sense of self. As presented here, Emily is a proto-feminist continuously getting caught up in matters of the heart, soul, and practicality; often parsed out in arguments with her sister, Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle), obstinate aunt (Annette Badland), and stern father (Keith Carradine). There's also the alluring figure of her friend Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey), a liberated woman spewing crackerjack quips to whom Emily is innately drawn. Like Vryling, Emily is self-possessed to the point of creating quite a stir among her small sphere of influence in Amherst, Massachusetts. Unlike her comrade, though, Emily uses her strident rules of everyday conversation as a way of imbuing her poetry with genuine feeling rather than simply as a witty deflection.

Emily's poetry, meanwhile, is all over A Quiet Passion, but not in a manner which treats it like a means of process or idealized reflection. Instead, Davies layers the prose through voice over narration and only occasionally shows her jotting down stanzas, as if to merely reveal that she preferred writing during the middle of the night and was notoriously self-conscious about the way the work was received. While superficially following a standard biopic formula, Davies never feels like he's simply going through a checklist of events. Instead, the film has a haunting quality; coming across like a chamber drama where all the characters are trapped inside circular arguments beginning with a specific point of contention before swerving into an abstract debate that, despite the rhythmic nature of the dialogue, maintains an aura of human brokenness. This beating heart can largely be attributed to Nixon's transformative performance; a real high-wire act which modulates between wry humor, defiant rage, deep sadness, and finally, physical and mental deterioration.

A Quiet Passion shows a complicated artist in all her humanness. Rather than elevating his subject to the status of social justice heroine or god-like poet, Davies gets at the essential element of why art is important and consequently, why someone like Emily Dickinson was such a major figure worthy of adoration. The film does this without devolving into worshipful sentimentality or exploiting Emily's internal misery. It simply shows someone desperate to connect, be loved, and understand her role in a society which seemingly disdained the fact that she existed, supreme gifts and all, in the first place.        

 

Music Pick of the Week


Juana Molina

Halo

Year of release: 2017

 


Juana Molina's seventh album, Halo, is defined by mood over melody. That's not to say the Argentine singer-songwriter, whose been making electronic-tinged folk music since the mid-1990s, doesn't know how to write a catchy hook. To the contrary, on albums like 2004's Tres Cosas and especially 2008's Un Dia, Molina crafted some of the most sublimely skeletal pop music this side of the globe. However, her interest in ambient song structures, digital loops, and drone-inflected atmosphere has always been a defining element of her sound rather than a supplement. Molina's whispered mantras (sung in Spanish) are placed alongside instrumental loops, airy synthesizers, and fractured percussion with brilliant restraint throughout Halo, which just may be her most cogent work to date.

This idea of mood over traditional song structure isn't Molina's way of resisting the familiarity of pop music, but rather, of deepening the layers of her songwriting to the point where one feels as if they are meeting her on her own terms. Often, she simply loops her voice in a series of rhythmic sequences where actual lyrics are rendered unnecessary, such as on “In the Lassa,” “A00 B01,” and “Andó”, which formulate a trifecta of gorgeous ambiance. Meanwhile, Halo's album cover--of eyes encased in some kind of drooping plaster mold against a black backdrop--is indicative of the mysterious pull of the music. On a song like "Cosoco", for example, Molina uses acoustic finger-plucked guitar, warbly keyboards, skittering drums, and her hushed vocals in order to lull us into a trance-like state. This sense of finding tranquility through the melding of organic sounds with modern technology is so seamlessly integrated throughout that it's a miracle the album doesn't completely wash away. Instead, there's a propulsive quality to Halo that, despite it's minimalist framework, gives Molina's off-kilter tunes a lingering impact.