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. 

   

 

Music Pick of the Week

Empath

Liberating Guilt and Fear

Year of release: 2018

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Sometimes, brevity can be liberating. Take Philadelphia noisemakers Empath's latest four-track cassette Liberating Guilt and Fear; part jagged post-punk, part experimental noise, with a side of deranged bird noises. Similar to now defunct art-rock four-piece Ponytail with the kind noodling usually reserved for drug trips, it's 16 minutes of lo-fi racket led by singer/guitarist Catherine Elicson, drummer Garrett Koloski, keyboardist Emily Shanahan, and Randall Coon on synths. As a unit, Empath pull out some sugary hooks, shout-along choruses, and bright keyboard melodies from the thick haze of shronking instrumentation.

Then there's those bird chirps, which inform at least two of the four tracks here. The 9-minute headscratcher, "III", for example, uses those tweeting noises as a backdrop for wind chimes, rolling drum fills, tape hiss, and detuned guitar; leading one to believe that Empath are going for much trippier sonic territory than their noise-punk roots suggest. Of course, hearing Elicson's manic yelped/shouted vocals on the blistering "No Attachment" could also simply mean that the band will be blowing out sweaty basement punk shows for the foreseeable future. Either way, the cathartically brief Liberating Guilt and Fear is an essential listen for anyone with an affinity for jagged punk and Ornithology.            

Movie Pick of the Week

 

November

Director: Rainer Sarnet

Year of release: 2018

Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes

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A 19th century Estonian love story both baffling and intimately familiar, writer-director Rainer Sarnet's November is a mixture of pleasure and pain, violence and romanticism, surreality and grotesque comedy. Greedy peasants, toothless hags, wide-eyed lovers, and anthropomorphic creatures made of what looks like gardening tools is the order of the day here, and that's just the start of Sarnet's unique vision.

Structured around a fable-like narrative that at times remains willfully obtuse, November is best experienced like an ancient spell; unfolding mysteriously, bathed in fog, teeming with distorted black metal guitar riffs, and saturated in gorgeous black-and-white cinematography. The film's main plot centers on a young peasant girl, Liina (Rea Lest), who silently longs for the affections of local boy Hans (Jörgen Liik). When one day Hans stumbles upon the aristocratic daughter (Jette Loona Hermanis) of the local Baron, he falls instantly in love. What follows is nowhere near conventional, even though the unrequited love story at the film's center remains the least compelling aspect.

Based on a novel by Andrus Kivirähk, November is probably impossible to fully decipher without a healthy knowledge of Estonian folklore. Still, like the films of Béla Tarr and the late Aleksei German, Sarnet uses metaphoric/folkloric language and tethers it to surreal imagery which speaks on a primal level. A woman, bathed in moonlight, sleepwalks atop her mansion roof. Another woman strips all her clothes off, wanders into the woods, and begins howling. A wolf rolls around, scratching itself in the snow. The young Hans builds his kratt-- the creature contraptions which bargain for the human soul--out of a snowman. And so on it goes, with each strange sight, surprising sound (including flatulence), and pagan/Christian motif lingering long into the inky darkness of the night; like the menacing twang of an electric guitar.

Music Pick of the Week

 

U.S. Girls

In a Poem Unlimited

Year of release: 2018

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Over the past decade, Meg Remy (aka U.S. Girls) has been busy making outsider indie-pop music with a defiantly female perspective. Traditionally lumped into the lo-fi genre, Remy's sonic inspirations range from Suicide to Tori Amos, while her lyrics tend to focus on the inner lives of women. 2015's Half-Free, for example, was a twisted, avant-pop memoir of cheating lovers, undesirable men, and ladies struggling for liberation. With In a Poem Unlimited, Remy has teamed up with instrumental collective the Cosmic Range and longtime collaborators Maxmilian Turnbull and Louis Percival for a more fully realized sound. The results are like a proto-feminist twist on 70's club music, using pastiche as a way of shedding light on the everyday nightmares (and triumphs) of living as a modern woman.

The uptempo grooves, funky basslines, and lounge synths are superficially distracting, lulling the listener into a head-nodding rhythm before pulling out the rug with tales of abuse, mental/physical burnout, anger, and injustice. The noirish "Velvet 4 Sale", lays on the psychedelic guitar and reverb-heavy bongos as Remy purrs You’ve been sleeping with one eye open because he always could come back, ya know? And you’ve been walking these streets unguarded waiting for any man to explode. It's the kind of declaration that may sound at odds with the tune's dub-friendly vibe, but therein lies the magic trick. Meanwhile, the disco kitsch of "Mad as Hell" is just as self-effacing; a glowing hall of auditory mirrors that circles around a #MeToo rallying cry. Remy may be pissed off, but her music is coated in pop glaze, urging us too look deeper and listen more carefully.

With shades of Marc Bolan, ABBA, and 70's surf/psych, U.S. Girls now have a sound which feels expansive and freed from the lo-fi basement. In a Poem Unlimited is 37 minutes of patriarchy-shattering pop which nonetheless lives and breathes on the assumption that male abuses of power will continue. It's an album filled with pain, rage, and helplessness as each female character depicted makes excuses, hides, or fights back. There are no half-measures. Conformity is not an option. Remy plays the sensuous muse and righteous protester throughout In a Poem Unlimited, and we are left simultaneously reeling and moving our hips.  

Movie Pick of the Week

 

The Death of Stalin

Director: Armando Iannucci

Year of release: 2018

Running time: 1 hour 46 minutes

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Satirizing political corruption and the three-ring circus that is democracy seems so germane as to be nearly irrelevant these days. Writer-director Armando Iannucci, of In the Loop and HBO's Veep fame, certainly knows his way around vulgar political farce, but is there really room for laughing at totalitarian ideology, buffoonish monsters in power, and the massacring of innocent Russian citizens?

Innaucci's latest film. The Death of Stalin, makes good on its title, with dictator Joseph Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) suddenly kicking the bucket, leaving his cabinet of bumbling advisers; including Communist leader in waiting Georgy Malenkov (Jeffery Tambor), counsel members Nikita Kruschchev (Steve Buscemi) and Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Beale) scrambling to gain control. Though less snappy than In The Loop and not quite as razor-sharp as Veep, The Death of Stalin reminds us how history's monstrous rulers were beyond inept, stumbling their way into positions of power in a manner verging on pure absurdity. The crimes perpetuated during Stallinist Russia circa 1953 are not minimized here, but are conduits for us to see the proximity between savagery and ineptitude. In a way, the film is mostly funny because it reveals clownishness as the main impetus for political control.

Using a game cast speaking in American and cockney accents rattling off ping-pong dialogue, The Death of Stalin is not stretching the facts too much here--the cabinet member's wrestling for power plays fairly realistically--while indulging in a few broad sight gags and over the top performances. Jason Isaacs as Soviet Red Army officer Zhukov and Stalin's spoiled children, Vasily (Rupert Friend) and Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) are cartoonishly portrayed, while Michael Palin finds subtle humor and pathos as Minister Vyacheslav Molotov, whose own wife has already been arrested via Stalin's massive witch hunt while he remains true to the party line. Buscemi and Beale deliver the film's sharpest performances; partly because they never go for obvious comedic affectations, playing Kruschchev and Beria as pawns in a deadly system who nonetheless jostle for supremacy with a mixture of sarcasm and dead-eyed resolve. Extended sequences involving kneeling in urine, a Radio Moscow concert performance forced to repeat, and a shuffling of places in line during Stalin's humorously pompous funeral are highlights, and the rapid-fire dialogue has so many barbs per minute that the film will surely improve on subsequent viewings.

The idea of blind trust in authority is at the heart of The Death of Stalin. Both it's comedic mojo and tragic undercurrents stem from the queasy marriage of ideology and morality, with policy changing on a whim due to the shifting political landscape. The outbursts of violence and wide scale death lists issued by Stalin's brutal regime often tamp down the laughs as the film moves toward its bleak climax, but there's a method to Innanuci's madcap madness. Whether it be Stalin, Putin, or our own incompetent leader, there's a lacerating point being made here about submission to power; and that's something that can only be laughed at for so long.

     

 

 

Music Pick of the Week

 

Clawing

Spectral Estate

Year of release: 2018

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Alabama-based spoke word artist/conjurer of nightmares Matt Finney doesn't do half-measures. His contributions to the realm of apocalyptic doom-gaze (if that's even a thing) has given us some of the decade's most transcendent music; particularly his work with Ukranian composer Oleg Shpudeiko (aka Heinali). For starters, try listening to 2011's crushingly brilliant Conjoined; which interspersed sweeping arrangements with Finney’s mournful lyrics. Then there was his collaboration with ambient Dutch musician Mories, who partnered up in 2014 for EP Creation Myths and then later with Love Songs and Christian Country Home; the later of which was the apex of analog synth soundscapes and despairing wordplay.

Now we have Finney's latest project, Clawing, which teams him up with Austin Gaines (of industrial noise-punk-metal band calques) and electronic musician Jeff Mcleod. The result of their powers is Spectral Estate; an ear-scraping, tectonic plate-shifting blend of noise, doom, and yes, bleak prose. Finney's lyrical preoccupations are like visual tapestries of human misery; snapshots of grotesquery, filth, piss, and regret, but in true David Lynch fashion, such visions are beautiful (and often darkly humorous) because they exist in the real world.

Epic opener "Mythology" is a good example of this template, with Finney whispering the lines Woke up twenty years too late/next to the wrong person/and addictions/and doors that wouldn't open over metallic rumbling, jangly guitar arpeggios, and what sounds like rustling wind. The song eventually devolves into a mechanized pool of sensory feedback loops swallowing everything alive. It's also 11-minutes long.

The remaining five tracks are just as cacophonous; from noise-pedal distortion ("Gourds"),  a prolonged 2001-esque plunge into wormholes ("A Clearing"), industrial helicopter blades ("Coma"), intergalactic static ("Plastic Glowing Stars") and horn-rattling sleeplessness ("Home"). All the while, Gaines and Mcleod's immersive production blares, fades, crunches and burns like battery acid. Every once in a while, Finney shows up, drops a few lines, and then slithers away into the inky blackness. Is Spectral Estate the sound of our nightmares, or are we even asleep? This unnerving, insomnia-inducing soundtrack certainly won't provide any answers, but only new mysteries to keep us up at night.

Movie Pick of the Week

 

Loveless

Director: Andrey Zvyagintsev

Year of release: 2018

Running time: 2 hours 7 minutes

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Andrey Zvyagintsev's elegantly downbeat Loveless is a drama about emotional disconnection, charting the story of a 12-year-old boy, Alexey (Matvey Novikov), who goes missing not long after his parents, Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rosin), fight bitterly about who will have custody. What follows is a dissection of self-entitled people existing inside an emotional and psychological vacuum; mirroring the hollow spiritual state of modern day Russia.

Like his previous film, Leviathan, Zvyagintsev uses silence and symmetrical imagery in order compliment his interest in familial disintegration. Zhenya and Boris are truly unfit parents, and their newfound relationships--Boris with a younger pregnant woman who represents very little challenge, Zhenya with an older wealthy businessman--begin to crack under the pressure as the search for their missing child intensifies. Though Loveless often feels like a mystery procedural, with Alexey's absence haunting nearly every frame, what exactly happened to the child is not chiefly Zvyaginsev's concern. Instead, the loss of humanism; strongly inferred by the chaos erupting throughout Ukraine circa 2012, is used as a counterpoint to the bitter vanity of the parents.

Loveless is acutely aware of the emotional vacancy that comes from slowly desensitizing an entire population, using an apocalyptic tale of a failed marriage to express the absence of genuine love in a harshly unforgiving society. The innocent child who wanders aimlessly through the tangled woods needs love in order to survive, and Zvyaginesv seems to be arguing that his parents are incapable of this since Russia is incapable of providing a construct for such love. However, even that reading makes Loveless sound like a reductive allegory. This is a film which maintains a consistent aura of enigmatic power; leading us slowly, though gradually, towards a bleak kind of poetry, and maybe even hope.

Movie Pick of the Week

 

Mary and the Witch's Flower

Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi

Year of release: 2018

Running time: 1 hour 42 minutes

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

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

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

Music Pick of the Week

 

Shopping

The Official Body

Year of release: 2018

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Movie Pick of the Week

 

Mudbound

Director: Dee Rees

Year of release: 2017

Running time: 2 hours 14 minutes

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

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

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

Music Pick of the Week

 

John Maus

Screen Memories

Year of release: 2017

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

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

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

 

Music Pick of the Week

 

Midnight Sister

Saturn Over Sunset

Year of release: 2017

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Glancing at the cover art for Los Angeles duo Midnight Sister's debut album, Saturn Over Sunset, one expects something sultry, sexy, and perhaps even danceable. While such descriptions aren't necessarily unfounded, there's more going on here than mere baroque-pop nostalgia. Comprised of filmmaker turned vocalist Juliana Giraffe and multi-instrumentalist Ari Balouzian, the duo certainly have their fingers on the pulse of retro revivalism, but this is a surprisingly nimble and weird record combining lounge, psychedelia, disco-adjacent kitsch, and lush instrumental flourishes. The results are warped enough to throw off listeners hoping for a simple art pop excursion, and yet catchy enough to warrant significant head-bobbing. 

Throughout, one is struck by the cinematic quality of the tunes, from the wobbly mood-based keyboards on opener "Canary", to the Hitchcockian violin stabs of "The Crow." There's also a heavy dose of the dreamy pop of U.K. band Broadcast, especially in regards to Giraffe's breathy vocals, as well as the Technicolor baroque instrumentation of Stereolab and Andy Warhol meets The Velvet Underground & Nico hipness of 60's/early 70's art pop. However, Midnight Sister aren't simply appropriating a bygone Los Angeles sound, but are holding up a mirror to the illusionary facade of the Sunset strip. On "Blue Cigar", Giraffe purrs Every place I go/ Ya trancin' in my zone/ Every time I try/ I'm dancin' to a T. Rex song over a funky groove and sultry saxophone, while a smattering of strings, piano, and woodwinds give "Showgirl" a real discordant energy. The duo take such strange detours and jarring interludes that the album comes off both alluring and unsettling. 

Sunrise Over Saturn is a pop noir soundtrack for dreamers wrapped in the light/dark dichotomy of living in L.A. Since the shiny exterior of Tinseltown harboring insidious nightmares is nothing new, and since artists have been mining this territory in multiple mediums for decades, its tempting to write off Midnight Sister as fashion music, but there's legitimate ambition here. This is a haunting, strangely moving album; one that uses the mythological geographical space of the San Fernando Valley as a jumping off point for a sonic experience where artifice becomes reality.    

 

 

Movie Pick of the Week

 

The Untamed

Director: Amat Escalante

Year of release: 2017

Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes

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Spanish filmmaker Amat Escalante's The Untamed is a movie about lust, libido, and the tenuous line between pleasure and pain. It's also, incidentally, a movie about just how far some people are willing to go in pursuit of phallus-tentacled copulation. A fascinating, ambiguous genre mashup that crosses social-realist melodrama with bizarre alien invasion thriller, The Untamed could be considered a slinky, sexy time if not for the mood of portentous dread buzzing throughout. Basically, this isn't your average phallic tentacle romance.

The story centers around bored housewife Alejandra (Ruth Ramos), her homophobic husband Angel (Jesús Meza), Alejandra's openly gay brother, Fabian (Eden Villavicencio), and a mysterious drifter named Veronica (Simone Bucio), who pops up occasionally to disrupt the narrative. Escalante unfurls a seemingly straight forward love triangle of sorts, which is interrupted by the arrival of an alien creature (which looks like a multi-tentacled demonic worm crossed with a fleshy spider) hidden deep inside a remote cabin in the woods. Aesthetically, Escalante favors slow zooms, long-held closeups of the faces of the non-professional cast, and methodical camera movements. Like his previous film; the deeply harrowing drug cartel drama, Heli, The Untamed is a work of rigorous minimalism which builds an atmosphere of queasy dread. Laced with a discordant score and elliptical narrative structure, the film at times feels like a mix of Jonathan Glazer's Under The Skin and Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker, but its greatest strength lies in its refusal to make the alien creature into a binary metaphor.

Though there are a lot of issues at play here--sexual dissatisfaction, repression, homophobia, addiction, misogyny--The Untamed never simplifies things into a tidy allegory. Instead, as different characters encounter the alien, the creature takes on different meanings. For some, it fills a sexual void. For others, it overtakes their base impulses and violently destroys them. Therefore, the film could be about pure desire; sexual or otherwise, commenting on the risks some are willing to take in order to break free from the soul-crushing monotony of daily life. Or it could simply be a melodrama about desperate lovers and the penis-shaped giver of pleasure that comes between them. Either way, The Untamed is an audacious trip into elusive button-pushing; calling into question our primal desires and the lengths we will go in order to feel something, even if that something involves slimy, calamari-adjacent kink.