Movie Pick of the Week

 

Braid

Director: Mitzi Peirone

Year of release: 2019

Running time: 1 hour 22 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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

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

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

Music Pick of the Week

 

Pom Poko

Birthday

Year of release: 2019

by Jericho Cerrona

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

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

Music Pick of the Week

 

Sneaks

Highway Hypnosis

Year of release: 2019

by Jericho Cerrona

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

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

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

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

Movie Pick of the Week

 

Piercing

Director: Nicolas Pesce 

Year of release: 2019

Running time: 1 hour 22 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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

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

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

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

Movie Pick of the Week

 

Tyrel

Director: Sebastián Silva

Year of release: 2018

Running time: 1 hour 26 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Films about racism are often painted in broad strokes (yes, this is still important to highlight), but rare is the more nuanced representations of racial discord, and Sebastián Silva’s Tyrel expertly zeroes in on the alienation people of color have to navigate on a daily basis. Rather than the cartoonish stereotypes of redneck bigotry we often see in the movies, the young men depicted here mostly fashion themselves as progressives; adding further complication to an already fraught scenario.

The scenario in question is an all-male weekend in the Catskills where Johnny (Christopher Abbott), brings his friend, Tyler (Jason Mitchell) to the hangout session where the group has been meeting for years and building up a sense of macho camaraderie. The group, which includes birthday boy, Pete (Caleb Landry Jones), and late arrival Alan (Michael Cera), whose presence pivots the weekend into a spiral of passive-aggressiveness, are almost too aware of how Tyler sticks out, since he’s the only African American present. Their constant calling attention to the racial conflict by either going too far or hiding behind woke platitudes, creates a sense of unease which escalates as the men get progressively inebriated over the weekend.

Tyrel is surprising because it doesn’t go the places where we expect. Silva toys with audience expectations by using roving hand-held camerawork which becomes looser and more shambolic as the film proceeds. Meanwhile, the presence of Jones creates an obvious mirror to Jordan Peele’s Get Out, but the connection is mostly superficial. Whereas that film was tackling the rotten history of American racism head on as a blunt object, Silva is more interested in possibilities of hope despite our differences. However, none of this would be conveyed as successfully without Mitchell, whose empathetic performance draws on his natural charisma to create a fully believable arc. Tyrel might be the odd man out, but Mitchell makes his discomfort truly universal.

Music Pick of the Week

 

Earl Sweatshirt

Some Rap Songs

Year of release: 2018

by Jericho Cerrona

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Earl Sweatshirt (aka Thebe Kgositsile) sounds like a man twice his age on long-awaited third album, Some Rap Songs. There was always a deeply introspective side to the heralded rapper who became famous at age 16 as a member of Odd Future, but his evolution from pop culture phenomenon to someone nearly vanishing into obscurity has its footing in real pain. Dealing with depression, vaulted expectations, and the death of his father earlier this year creates a paradigm for which to view Some Rap Songs, which is the most fully realized work of his career thus far.

The notion of pain and loneliness as a real geographical space is at the forefront of the record, which favors atmosphere over song structure, lo-fi beats over polished instrumentals, and deadpan rhymes over spit-fire bars. Now 24, Earl feels much more at home with himself as well as detached from his station in life. Using chopped up samples, jazzy interludes, warped audio clips, and tape hiss, Some Rap Songs creates a disorienting sonic landscape on which Earl projects feelings of loneliness and isolation.

On songs like “Nowhere2Go”, he contemplates depression in regards to impending death over stuttering loops and wonky samples. On “Azur”, Earl gives it up for the way his mother filled the void left by a distant father'; My cushion was a bosom on bad days/It’s not a black woman I can’t thank. His mother shows up again on “Playing Possum”, sampled from a keynote speech intertwined with his dad reciting a poem, and it’s simultaneously uplifting and caustic.

Thematically, the shadow of his parents (especially his late father) looms large over Some Rap Songs, while the left-field production is going for a very Madlib vibe. It’s a combination that works like gangbusters; with distinct lyrical rhymes and experimental soundscapes encompassing 15 tracks, none of which stretch beyond two minutes. Rap as therapy has rarely sounded this revelatory.

Movie Pick of the Week

 

Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc

Director: Bruno Dumont

Year of release: 2018

Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes

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

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

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

 

Music Pick of the Week

 

Julia Holter

Aviary

Year of release: 2018

by Jericho Cerrona

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

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

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

Movie Pick of the Week

 

Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?

Director: Travis Wilkerson

Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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

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

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



Music Pick of the Week

 

Gentleman Surfer

Hard Pass

Year of release: 2018

by Jericho Cerrona

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

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

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

Movie Pick of the Week

 

Love after Love

Director: Russell Harbaugh

Running time: 1 hour 31 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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

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

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







Music Pick of the Week

 

Armand Hammer

Paraffin

Year of release: 2018

by Jericho Cerrona

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

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

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

Movie Pick of the Week

 

Crime + Punishment

Director: Stephen Maing

Year of release: 2018

Running time: 1 hour 53 minutes

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There is no shortage of films tackling systematic racism in the United States, but Stephen Maing's carefully observed Crime + Punishment is the rare document which uses the specific in order to encompass the general. By following a group of cops known as the NYPD 12; whistleblowers who exposed unlawful arrests and summons quotas within the NYPD in 2016, Maing's film gets at personal stories as well as the larger ramifications of victimizing minority communities.

One of the whistleblowers, NYPD officer Edwin Raymond, is a black man with long dreadlocks and a stoic gaze. He refers to NYC as "Ferguson on steroids", and calls out the NYPD's tactic of "color blind racism" targeting people of color as diametrically opposed to the liberalism the department supposedly stands for. Officer Raymond is intelligent and fully capable of doing his job, but like many other minorities on the force, he's discriminated against in a variety of ways. Using hidden cameras, mics, and irrefutable evidence showing how the police earmark minority communities in order to inflate arrest number quotas, Maing and the 12 officers begin building a steady case. By coming forward, the officers are retaliated against. They get put on night watch. Lose partners. Receive inaccurate reviews. All the while, Commissioner William Bratton, a white man, refuses to acknowledge this pervasive corruption.  

For all its detailed meticulousness, Crime + Punishment also engenders empathy. Along with officer Raymond, P.I. Manny Gomes emerges as a hard-headed warrior pounding the pavement for justice, which includes his fight for 17-year-old Pedro Hernandez, who is stuck in jail on a bogus attempted murder charge levied without any substantial evidence. Hernandez's infuriating plight for freedom is the natural outcome of the systematic police corruption the NYPD 12 are confronting. This is a crucial point, and Maing knows it. His film is filled with a kind of slowly escalating rage, his camera locked onto the disillusioned faces of the oppressed. If Crime + Punishment teaches us anything, it's that an ideological overhaul of an entire system is nearly impossible. However, the bravery of a few voices speaking loudly from within may create a ripple effect wherein human lives, not numbers, are seen as ultimate job security. 

 

 

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Music Pick of the Week

 

Imperial Triumphant

Vile Luxury

Year of release: 2018

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New York metal band Imperial Triumphant are not here to wet your appetite for basic blast beats, standard riffs, or generic shrieks. They will be labeled, somewhat reductively, as "technical death metal". They will be likened to bands like Portal, Krallice, and Gorguts. They will be greeted with both bafflement and unwarranted mythos by the fact that they wear Eyes Wide Shut-esque masks. But in reality, their latest album Vile Luxury, resists nearly every attempt at classification. Above all, it is the sound of New York City's underbelly shitting blood, puss, and mutated rats. It's wild stuff; combining off the wall time signatures, avant-jazz instrumentation, baroque art rock, and of course, nefarious-sounding growls.  

Opener "Swarming Opulence" begins with an array of symphonic horn arrangements, almost coming off like a Terence Blanchard score from a Spike Lee joint. Ear-splitting riffs, blast beat drumming, and demonic vocals eventually kick in, but the song continues evolving like a free-jazz metal freakout. By the time a chanting mantra erupts behind detuned horns and grinding power chords, one will be hard pressed to pinpoint just what Imperial Triumphant are on about, and that's a good thing. Other tracks, like the David Lynchian "Chernobyl Blues" and the punk/blues dirge "Luxury in Death", showcase the band's unbelievable dexterity in keeping listeners off balance. 

Vile Luxury is the sonic equivalent of being kicked into a puddle of grime as a subway roars past carrying human waste. And yet, there's beauty and introspection here too. As intense and challenging as the band's technical version of death metal often is, there are passages here which hint at melody and clarity. It's this kind of juxtaposition; the exhausting clang and clatter of various instruments being shoved together into a NYC sewer, with the occasional sounds of ambient texture and classical instrumentation, that makes Vile Luxury such a head-spinning listen. Is this a "thinking man's metal" album? Maybe. Is it relentless and grimy? Yes. Does it have anything to say about the crass commercialism and urban decay of the Big Apple? Hell if anyone knows, but one thing is certain; Imperial Triumphant are conjuring the kind of chaos that will cause ringing ears, excessive migraines, and stupid-drunk smiles.

Music Pick of the Week

 

Kamasi Washington

Heaven and Earth

Year of release: 2018

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

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

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

Movie Pick of the Week

 

Tehran Taboo

Director: Ali Soozandeh

Year of release: 2018

Running time: 1 hour 36 minutes

 

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

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

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

 

  

 

 

Movie Pick of the Week

 

Summer 1993

Director: Carla Simón

Year of release: 2018

Running time: 1 hour 36 minutes

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

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

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

 

Music Pick of the Week

 

DRINKS

Hippo Lite

Year of release: 2018

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

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

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

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

Movie Pick of the Week

 

The Nothing Factory

Director: Pedro Pinho

Year of release: 2018

Running time: 2 hours 57 minutes

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

Music Pick of the Week

 

Sleep

The Sciences

Year of release: 2018

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

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

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