Movie Pick of the Week

 

An Elephant Sitting Still

Director: Hu Bo

Year of release: 2019

Running time: 3 hours 54 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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An Elephant Sitting Still is one of the bleakest films about emotional and physical isolation ever made, trafficking in what could be considered arthouse miserablism. However, the first and only film by director Hu Bo (he committed suicide before the film’s premiere) is also a clear-eyed look at the lack of economic infrastructure in northeast China which layers its nihilism under a melancholic heart. Lasting nearly four hours and following a few major characters as they navigate through crumbling cityscapes over the course of a single day, the film slowly builds power through a sense of hopeless anger at being unable to escape one’s personal hell.

At first glance, one suspects Bo is following in the footsteps of his mentor, Béla Tarr, with a gliding camera following his characters in and out of rooms, up staircases, and over large expanses without a single cut. Though aesthetically similar to the films of Tarr, An Elephant Sitting Still is more in tune with the rage of youth (Bo was only 29 when he took his own life) and therefore, has a different energy. The film’s massive running time also might be the kind of self-indulgence inherited from master to pupil, but the length here is an honest attempt to interlock the narrative with the growing complication of the character’s inner lives.

There’s young schoolboy Wei Bu (Peng Yuchang) dealing with bullies and an abusive father, an older man named Wang Jin (Liu Congxi) being forced out of his daughter’s apartment and into a nursing home, local gang kingpin Yu Cheng (Zhang Yu), who may have his sights set on Wei Bu, and a female student (Wang Yu Wen) having an affair with her teacher. Bo weaves these narrative threads together, but not in a contrived Babel-esque way, since the film isn’t about the interconnectivity of humanity, but the ways in which we deflect our failings unto others. Many scenes are staged with characters pointing fingers, shifting the blame, and exonerating themselves.

In a sense, the geographical space; with its fading coal mines and murky vistas, is a microcosm for an entire population trying to claw their way out of a deep-seated depression. The mundanity of these lives; toiling in obscurity, hoping for greener pastures but knowing such things are a mirage, is central to this extraordinary political epic from a talented filmmaker gone too soon.


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.

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.

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.

 

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.



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.







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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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.  

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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.

     

 

 

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.

Movie Pick of the Week

 

By the Time It Gets Dark

Director: Anocha Suwichakornpong

Year of release: 2017

Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes

 

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In terms of conjuring states of transcendentalism mixed with shape-shifting narratives, Thailand is the nexus for a new kind of emerging cinema. Apichatpong Weerasethakul, whose Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and Cemetery of Splendour were both works of mystical minimalism, seems to have ushered in this wave of Thai moviemaking, and in only her second feature, Anocha Suwichakornpong masterfully channels this tradition. Using the 1976 military massacre of student protesters in Bangkok as its framework, By the Time It Gets Dark emerges as a powerful meta-deconstruction on the art of filmmaking and how memories can be distorted.

The film begins as a semi-straightforward story of a filmmaker, Ann (Visra Vichit-Vadakan), interviewing a now middle-aged former protester Taew (Rassami Paoluengton) at a vacation hotel in order to formulate her eventual screenplay. Protest footage of the past is intercut with this thread, as well as scenes involving an actor, Peter (Arak Amornsupasiri), dealing with the ups and downs of celebrity. If all of this sounds Charlie Kaufman-esque, there's also the sight of Ann, growing disillusioned at her inability to retain her historical roots, giving direct to camera addresses about childhood telekinesis and stumbling into a forest filled with hallucinogenic mushrooms. There's also a waitress who recurs as different characters; leading things into fragmented, digressive passages which leave one feeling lost but strangely transfixed.

Movie-within-movies have been a cinematic staple for decades; a way for artists to deal with their own artistic hubris and comment on the act of creation/destruction. Clearly, Suwichakornpong identifies with Ann, the increasingly disappointed director, in that her picture seems to be wrestling with the impossibility of making a truthful historical film. By the Time It Gets Dark is gorgeously shot by cinematographer Ming Kai Leung, full of symmetrical compositions framed through reflective glass, mirrors, and shifting screens. It has the pace of a free-associative dream where a horrific event (that 1976 massacre) hovers over every frame, even as the film itself seems cautious of claiming that art can provide context or comfort. In this way, Suwichakornpong literally upends her own artistic process (complete with a late glitchy, celluloid disillusion), revealing that mystery, not clarity, is the ultimate end point.

Movie Pick of the Week

 

Kuso

Director: Flying Lotus

Year of release: 2017

Running time: 1 hour 26 minutes

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How many conceivable bodily fluids can ooze, emanate, discharge, puss, and explode from the human (or non-human) body? Kuso, the Dadaist-inspired vision of drugged-out madness from musician/producer Flying Lotus (a.k.a. Steve Ellison), gives an answer to that question while also creating new ones. 

As a testament to the power of provoking the audience, this experiment works as a half-lucid mishmash of mixed media where Ellison and his creative team seemed to have spent most of their time bong-ripped while trying to outdo themselves in the shock value department. Make no mistake, this film (if it even is one) is beyond repulsive; a very sick joke which uses every gross-out gag in the book--deranged sex, shitting, farting, ejaculation, feces smearing, maggot-eating, blistering boils, Tim Heidecker emerging from a toilet--for a very specific aim. Whereas shock horror efforts like The Human Centipede wallow in depravity for its own sake, Ellison's obsessions are more absurdist and playful. Structured as four loosely connected vignettes concerning zombie-fied California residents surviving a catastrophic earthquake, Kuso is less concerned with narrative than with unspooling a low brow version of Pasolini's Salo as directed by Adult Swim alumni.

The Adult Swim angle here is apt (and not only because Heidecker of Tim and Eric's Awesome Show Great Job! shows up), but also because of the overall visual aesthetic, which combines paper collage-like interludes, stilted line deliveries, awkward freeze frames, VHS-level video quality, and gnarly practical effects. The results are a trigger warning movie that could only exist in our disposable Internet culture--disgusting, off-putting, undisciplined, at times very funny--like scrolling through hours of web junk only to find more lines to cross and further buttons to push. As free-association sophomoric splatter art, Kuso is definitely up to something. Hell, it may even inspire a very niche (and twisted) audience to follow Ellison down the rabbit hole of George Clinton's infested anus and then back again. Either way, this scatalogical 93-minute vision of post-apocalyptic nonsense is something.

Music Pick of the Week

 

Guerilla Toss

GT Ultra

Year of release: 2017


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

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

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