Movie Pick of the Week

Birds of Passage

Director: Cristina Gallego, Ciro Guerra

Year of release: 2019

Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Spread out over five chapters, Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra’s Birds of Passage has the outline of familiarity; displaying elements of narcotrafficking, feuding families, and inevitable bloodshed, but there’s also a cultural element which makes the film utterly singular. The collision of western and native cultures was perhaps the overriding theme of Guerro and Jacques Toulemonde Vidal’s Embrace of the Serpent, and that’s true here too, though clueless Americans are mostly kept on the fringes this time. Instead, the film shows an almost hypnotic fascination with ritual; so much so that the storyline involving the marriage of Rapayet (José Acosta), from the Wayuu tribe to the teenaged Zaida (Natalia Reyes) initially seems secondary.

The main thrust of the meandering narrative seems to be the dishonoring of tradition and how wealth can corrupt from the inside out. As Rapayet gets mixed up in the weed and arms trade, entangling himself in dangerous deals with his uncle Aníbal (Juan Bautista Martínez) while Zaida’s disapproving mother and village matriarch Úrsula (Carmina Martinez) stands by, we witness an entire culture’s way of life falling apart.

Ego, greed, and senseless violence have always been at the heart of family-linked mob stories, and Birds of Passage is like an ethnographic version of The Godfather truncated down and told in an elliptical fashion. However, there’s no glamorizing of criminality here, even as the particulars of the tribe’s rituals are handled with care. Gallego and Ciro Guerra instead present encroaching modernity as an inevitability that the Wayuu must adapt to, no matter the consequences. No one is innocent. No one is without blame. Everyone has blood on their hands. Tradition and familial pride are simply not enough to subdue the allure of fast cash.

Birds of Passage shows us the insidious nature of drug cartels and the corrupting power of wealth, but its more primarily about humanity’s urge toward self-destruction. The overarching message seems to be that when all the dust settles, no matter what tribe or community one belongs to, we only have ourselves to blame.



Music Pick of the Week

Mega Bog

Dolphine

Year of release: 2019

by Jericho Cerrona

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Multi-instrumentalist Erin Birgy has been crafting art-pop for nearly a decade now, and her latest release under the Mega Bog moniker, Dolphine, is perhaps the clearest distillation of her talents thus far. The album takes some of its inspiration from the late science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin, and there’s certainly an otherworldly atmosphere at play here. At moments, the sounds conjured bring to mind the pastoral folk of Toni Mitchell, the quirky arrangements of Cate Le Bon, the electronic sweep of Stereolab, and the psych-jazz experiments of Sun Ra. Of course, Birgy is very much doing her own thing, and the greatest triumph of Dolphine is its refusal to fall into easy genre categorizations.

From song to song, the unique mood almost resists standard song structure, while never deviating too far from a sense of melody. The smooth jazz folk of opener “For the Old World” is soothing at first, but then disconcerting woodwinds, scattering percussion, and eerie vocals crop up creating a sense of tension. Elsewhere, on “Diary of a Rose”, the lead guitar line instantly recalls Radiohead, while the song itself stops and starts, going from blaring jangle-pop to gentle strumming and whispered lines and then back again. “Truth in the Wind” is ethereal and jaunty, but one can feel a deep sadness just behind the witty metaphors. The death of animals and loved ones is a recurring central theme throughout, and no matter how colorful the compositions, Birgy is able to funnel darker emotions through her art.

That her art doesn’t fit neatly into an emotional catharsis or defining trait that we, as the listener, can easily identify, makes the record all the more transporting. The swirling horns, electronic flourishes, strange vocal noises, and Birgy’s stream of consciousness lyrics gives off the impression of an apocalyptic dream on “Shadows Break”, while the charming duet with recently deceased Georgia musician Ash Rickli “Spit in the Eye of the Fire King” brings the New-Agey pastoral vibes back once again. That’s the thing about Dolphine; it’s a record which gives you the full spectrum without every explicitly telling you what part of the spectrum you are actually listening to.

Music Pick of the Week

 

Cate Le Bon

Reward

Year of release: 2019

by Jericho Cerrona

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Welsh musician Cate Le Bon is nothing if not prolific. In between her last LP, 2016’s Crab Day, she collaborated with White Fence’s Tim Presley under the DRINKS moniker and performed production on Deerhunter’s latest release Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? Even with this in mind, her latest album, Reward, is nothing short of a revelation. While Crab Day centered around quirky arrangements, off-kilter guitar riffs, and recurring loops, Reward sees Le Bon pushing herself into more introspective territory; with most of the songs structured around piano, airy guitar, and beguiling vocals. Of course, that doesn’t mean Le Bon has sacrificed any of her idiosyncrasy. On the contrary; the added elements of sax, synths, and restrained percussion means these compositions feel even more organic.

Throughout the album, there’s a tension between absurdity and melancholy. Songs like orchestral opener “Miami” and soft rock ballad “Daylight Matters” are beautiful, but also intensely sad. The weirdo pop quirk factor gets turned up on “Magnificent Gestures”, which sounds like an alien funk song, and the Berlin era Bowie-esque “Mother’s Mothers Magazines”, which hems closer to the avant-pop repetition of her DRINKS output, but with more dynamic instrumentation. However, the greatest triumph of Reward is how Le Bon allows space within these layered compositions. Nothing seems too cluttered or over-produced. Every note, guitar lick, piano motif, and vocal refrain feels perfectly suited. Every song works to bring a larger context into view.

Many reclusive artists choose to shelter themselves from society, locking themselves in isolation in order to record something which speaks to feelings of loneliness, and the process of bringing Reward to life follows this narrative. Rather than simply sequestering herself in a cabin for a few weeks, though, Le Bon spent a year living in the Cumbrian mountains while making homemade furniture and writing music when inspiration struck. Unrequited love, emotional failure, and the need for personal reinvention are key themes here, but at no point does Le Bon give into ennui. When she sings Love is beautiful to me, love is you on closer “Meet the Man'“, for example, you believe her completely, and thats no small accomplishment.

Movie Pick of the Week

 

Booksmart

Director: Olivia Wilde

Year of release: 2019

Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Superficial readings of Olivia Wilde’s film debut Booksmart will label it the “female version of Superbad”, seeing as it how it focuses on two high school best friends who experience one wild night before graduation, but the similarities mostly end there. Truthfully, Booksmart is closer in spirit and tone to TV’s Broad City; a show about female friendship balancing grossness and sweetness in equal measure. What really sets Wilde’s impressive film apart from something like Superbad, however, is its undeniable affection for every person onscreen. While Greg Mottola’s R-rated 2007 movie felt smug and misogynistic, Booksmart uses gross-out comedy tropes while never becoming mean-spirited. This is a funny, heartwarming, and very cunning movie which uses the high school movie tropes of the 1980s, updates them for the Gen Z crowd, and then subverts expectations.

The film follows best friends Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), both of whom are intense practitioners of A+ grades in hopes of getting into elite colleges. To say they don’t party is an understatement; as their idea of a bonafide rager is late night study sessions at the local library. Molly is the feisty class president, Amy is the more shy feminist with a crush on a skater girl, and their school principal is played by the dopey Jason Sudeikis, who nearly gets harassed by Molly into arranging a budget meeting with the juniors on the final day of class. Joined at the hip for the past 4 years, Molly and Amy realize that nearly every other student, even the long-haired stoner Theo (Eduardo Franco) are getting into Yale or Columbia. This realization sets off a series of events where the girls decide to spend the last night before graduating attending an epic party.

Booksmart features the requisite drunken debauchery, wacky hijinks, and R-rated grossness that we’ve come to expect from the genre, but because it features two characters we care about (Feldstein and Dever both deliver star-making performances here), the film always feels empathetic to its core. Meanwhile, Wilde’s direction is confident and ambitious, although she does take some chances that don’t quite pay off, such as a claymation drug-tripping sequence which feels like a separate Vimeo short film and an over-reliance on non-diegetic pop songs. Still, these flaws aren’t enough to detract from the fact that this is a female-centered story which is allowed to be vulgar without sacrificing its warm heart. In an ideal world, Booksmart would be the game-changing hit the vastly inferior Superbad was, if only to show that one can be really into both Ken Burns documentaries and beer pong.

Music Pick of the Week

Matmos

Plastic Anniversary

Year of release: 2019

by Jericho Cerrona

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Multi-instrumentalists Drew Daniel and M.C. Schmidt have been making forward thinking electronic music as Matmos for 25 years now, and to celebrate, they’ve created an entire album incorporating the sound of plastic objects. Like with their last record, Ultimate Care II, which used washing machine samples as the basis for songs, Daniel and Schmidt take things which would normally be thrown into the recycling bin and transform them into wonderfully weird, percussive electronic soundscapes.

Matmos have always been on the cutting edge production-wise (not to mention the fringes), so the foray into squaks, squibbles, boings, and clicking-clacks is not really that surprising. However, what they’ve been able to conjure simply through manipulating, condensing, and warping these everyday objects is dazzling and at times, accessible. Songs like opener “Breaking Bread”, humorously made up of broken vinyl records by '70s rock band Bread and “Silicone Gel Implant”, which begins with a bouncy groove before descending into what sounds like analog tape decks being mashed together, are so densely packed with sonic detours that it’s almost brain-breaking. But for every up-tempo plastic-pop banger, like the horn-inflected title track and drum-heavy "Fanfare for Polythene Waste Containers", of which Deerhoof’s Greg Saunier makes an appearance, there are darker excursions. For instance, “Thermoplastic Riot Shield” comes off like a metal factory being invaded by space aliens, while album closer “Plastisphere” conjures images of an ocean covered in consumer waste where the twisted sounds of bubble wrap and plastic cans becomes a hellish cacophony.

Even after 25 years, Matmos continue to push forward and create singular work. What might at first seem like a gimmick transforms into something Daniel and Schmidt have been doing their entire careers; taking elements of the ordinary and massaging them into something extraordinary, and most importantly, musically inventive. At the very least, it will make you look at toilet brushes and silicone breast implants in a whole new light.

 

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.

Music Pick of the Week

 

Pom Poko

Birthday

Year of release: 2019

by Jericho Cerrona

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

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

Music Pick of the Week

 

Sneaks

Highway Hypnosis

Year of release: 2019

by Jericho Cerrona

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

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

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

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

Movie Pick of the Week

 

Piercing

Director: Nicolas Pesce 

Year of release: 2019

Running time: 1 hour 22 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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

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

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

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

Movie Pick of the Week

 

Tyrel

Director: Sebastián Silva

Year of release: 2018

Running time: 1 hour 26 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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

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

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

Music Pick of the Week

 

Earl Sweatshirt

Some Rap Songs

Year of release: 2018

by Jericho Cerrona

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

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

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

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

Movie Pick of the Week

 

Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc

Director: Bruno Dumont

Year of release: 2018

Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes

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

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

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

 

Music Pick of the Week

 

Julia Holter

Aviary

Year of release: 2018

by Jericho Cerrona

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

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

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

Movie Pick of the Week

 

Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?

Director: Travis Wilkerson

Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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

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

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



Music Pick of the Week

 

Gentleman Surfer

Hard Pass

Year of release: 2018

by Jericho Cerrona

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

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

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

Movie Pick of the Week

 

Love after Love

Director: Russell Harbaugh

Running time: 1 hour 31 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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

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

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







Music Pick of the Week

 

Armand Hammer

Paraffin

Year of release: 2018

by Jericho Cerrona

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

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

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

Movie Pick of the Week

 

Crime + Punishment

Director: Stephen Maing

Year of release: 2018

Running time: 1 hour 53 minutes

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

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

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

 

 

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Music Pick of the Week

 

Imperial Triumphant

Vile Luxury

Year of release: 2018

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

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

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