The Sonic Vault

 

Introducing The Sonic Vault; in which your tireless critic dives into the past for records which have in some way defined his music obsessions. The album up for discussion is Los Angeles-based duo Sparks' 1974 bizarro pop masterpiece, Kimono My House.


Sparks

Kimono My House

Year of release: 1974

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Sparks are one of the greatest bands you've probably never heard of. Formed in 1968 by brothers Ron and Russell Mael, the group eventually attracted a critical following and adoration from the likes of Paul McCartney and Morrissey, but have more or less been relegated to cult curios. Their music is an unhinged mixture of show tune excess, proto-punk, glam bombast, and bubblegum pop, and has all the earmarks of influential genius. Though they would eventually transform into a new wave/synth-pop group in the late 1970s while collaborating with Giorgio Moroder, the duo's first few records were singular in their cross-mutation of genres.

The band's third album, Kimono My House, is often cited as their crowning jewel, and for good reason. Opener "This Town Ain't Big Enough For Both of Us" is a declarative statement; beginning with melodic electric piano, Russell's insanely high-pitched falsetto, and ricocheting gunfire before descending into rolling drum fills, squealing guitars, and glittery art-punk dynamics. While the parallels to Queen are obvious, its important to note that Sparks actually formed before Freddie Mercury and company, and that Kimono My House is a much weirder beast than anything Queen would release in their time. A more accurate description might be T. Rex punching up Frank Zappa during an Andrew Lyod Webber concert, and that's a compliment.


"Kimono My House is an album which absolutely rewards multiple listens; overflowing with creative wordplay, delirious glam-dance rhythms, and Roxy Music-esque electronica..." 


For all the intense musicianship on display, Kimono My House is a joyous romp; using lyrical puns, pop culture references, and sexual innuendos in order to capture a sense of lunacy. Rather than lean into concept album noodling, Sparks wrote concise pop songs which also managed to feel off-kilter and surreal. Among the more standard glam rockers like "Amateur Hour" and "Here in Heaven", there's the Latin-flavored experimentation of "Hasta Mañana, Monsieurand the slinky Broadway-like tune "Talent Is an Asset", which is a song about Albert Eistein's genius told from the perspective of his parents. 

Kimono My House is an album which absolutely rewards multiple listens; overflowing with creative wordplay, delirious glam-dance rhythms, and Roxy Music-esque electronica. Adrian Fisher's nimble guitar work and bassist Martin Gordon's bouncy grooves foreground Russell's highly theatrical vocals and Ron's inventive keyboard playing. Meanwhile, certain experimental forays; like the use of a mellotron and sped-up vocal tricks on dazzling album closer, "Equator", only add to the sense that Sparks were creating their own rules. Though the band would change their sound radically with each release (miraculously, they are still making music today), this crucial period perhaps best exemplifies their anarchic spirit--Russell the curly mop of hair striding along at full pomp, Ron scowling with his Hitler moustache and 1930s wardrobe--giving credence to the idea that Kimono My House deserves to be dug out of the sonic vault and reappraised.

American Animals

 

Cast: Evan Peters, Ann Dowd, Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner, Udo Kier, Jared Abrahamson

Director: Bart Layton

Running time: 2 hours

by Jericho Cerrona

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The true story at the heart of Bart Layton's American Animals should have been relegated to a fading news headline, as this fiction/nonfiction hybrid centered around the stealing of rare books from a Kentucky college’s library gives us four white young men smugly attempting to atone for their sins. Structured like a heist thriller using actors portraying the criminals in question with cutaways to the actual people who committed those crimes, American Animals isn't interested in the murky line between fact and fiction. Nor does it investigate the mythologizing of the lonely American male. Instead, Layton's main aim here seems to be a low-rent Rififi homage, and on that level, the film is a failure. Beyond that, it's existence feels utterly pointless.

The basic premise is this: bored college friends Spencer (Barry Keoghan) and Warren (Evan Peters) hatch a scheme to heist some rare books; including Audubon’s The Birds of America and Darwin’s On the Origin of Species from the Transylvania University library. These are aimless dopes who hope to conjure some transcendent life experience, because smoking pot and ditching class just isn't cutting it anymore. They watch heist movies like The Killing and Reservoir Dogs, build mock dioramas and meticulous blueprints of the library, and get drunk on the possibilities of pulling off something so audacious. Upon realizing that they'll need more firepower, they bring in two friends, Chas and Eric (Blake Jenner and Jared Abrahamson) to round out their crew. All the while, Layton cuts to interviews with the real-life perpetrators and other family members. Sometimes, the actors interact with their non-fiction counterparts during the "fictionalized" parts of the story. Sometimes, the various people involved have different recollections about how everything went down.

The stylistic gimmicks employed throughout American Animals only highlight the film's disingenuousness. If this is a story about deluded privilege or the instability of memory, then Layton refuses to coalesce these themes satisfactorily. If the sight of the real Spencer, Warren, Chas, and Eric staring into the camera at the recollection of traumatizing a helpless librarian during the botched robbery is supposed to be cathartic, then the film edges towards exploitation. If the music video-like montages set to blaring pop tunes are purposefully evoking the empty promise of the Tarantino generation, then maybe American Animals is onto something? The scene where the petty criminals mistreat the female librarian (played by Anne Dowd) and then cut directly to the real-life men looking remorseful, however, roundly disproves this notion. 

American Animals offers up a possible path of redemption for stupid young men who one time did a stupid thing. If these were people of color who pulled the same crime, there certainly wouldn't have been a movie made glorifying their bumbling ineptitude, and they'd probably still be in prison. It's a sad irony which American Animals seems completely unaware of, too enamored with its faux-heist signifiers and Eroll Morris-lite pretensions to grapple with yet another story humanizing bored white criminals.

 

 

BlacKkKlansman

 

Cast: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace, Jasper Paakkonen, Corey Hawkins, Ryan Eggold, Michael Joseph Buscemi, Paul Walter Hauser, Ashlie Atkinson

Director: Spike Lee

Running time: 2 hours 8 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Contrary to rumor, Spike Lee's latest political jab at American complacency, BlacKkKlansman, is not a return to form. In fact, an argument could be made that his last two films, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus and Chi-Raq, were both extraordinary works from a filmmaker at the top of his game. However, it's been quite awhile since Lee has crafted something which connects with a wider audience, and in that sense, BlacKkKlansman could put him back in the cultural zeitgeist. 

Based on “some fo’ real fo’ real shit,” as announced during the opening credits, Lee's film is an adaptation of African-American police officer Ron Stallworth's 2014 book Black Klansman, and details how Stallworth infiltrated the Klu Klux Klan during the 1970s as an undercover agent. Lee is working in a far more audience friendly mode here than in some of his most incendiary works; fashioning Stallworth's story as a police procedural drama. The results, despite the tough subject matter, are surprisingly light-footed. Even the film's opening featuring Alec Baldwin spewing hate speech backdropped by a screen projecting racist propaganda, exudes laughter at such fumbling ignorance, even as the rhetoric remains depressingly familiar.

At first glance, BlacKkKlansman is a droll caper where Colorado Springs' first black cop Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) teams up with white Jewish officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) in order to slip into the good graces of the local KKK chapter. Though Lee plays much of this absurd true story as comedy, the parallels being drawn to present-day America are bracingly serious. The Black Power movement is shown most powerfully in a scene involving Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) giving a stirring speech to a group of student protestors, and then later when elderly activist Mr. Turner (Harry Belafonte) recounts the story of a horrific lynching. These sequences are marking a clear link to the Black Lives Matter movement, which is counterbalanced by the sight of the KKK dutifully going about their bigoted business, foreshadowing the alt-right. Lee also is making statements about the way blacks have been perceived through popular culture, critiquing blaxploitation films of the era and clips from Gone with the Wind and D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation to hammer home his points. In this way, BlacKkKlansman can be read as a companion piece to his great 2000 satire Bamboozled, which also took aim at racist entertainment throughout America's history.

For all of its topical power and subversive humor, BlacKkKlansman ultimately lacks the cathartic release of Do the Right Thing, and it doesn't quite have the satirical boldness of Bamboozled or Chi-Raq. But perhaps Lee's attempt at courting the widest possible audience is shrewd, since America's ability to heal racial wounds since he first broke on the scene in the late 1980s has become even less likely. For all the buffoonish laughs at the KKK's expense (including a game Topher Grace as the polite face of racism, David Duke), BlacKkKlansman is also making the case that the danger was real then, now, and for the foreseeable future. When outspoken activist and girlfriend Patrice (Laura Harrier) asks Ron whether he's down for the liberation of black people, one can sense Lee turning the question back on the audience. When the KKK hold an induction ceremony inside a church and screen The Birth of a Nation for a salivating crowd of bigots, Lee uses parallel editing to show black protestors listening in rapt attention to yet another appalling lynching narrative. When Ture addresses the crowd by claiming "You must define beauty for black people, and that’s black power”, Lee focuses on closeups of various audience members, their features lit starkly against a black backdrop, their faces floating like beautiful portraits. It's a startling effect, and one that highlights the film's interest in media representations of race.

Even if BlacKkKlansman climaxes with Ron and Flip taking David Duke down a few notches, this happy ending is drenched in irony. Budget cuts, destroying evidence, and steering public consciousness away from the Klan meant that this ideology could fester. In a controversial move (this is a Spike Lee joint, after all), the film ends with footage from last year's Charlottesville riots, and the subsequent death of Heather Heyer. The gut-punch is brutally clear. Yes, racism still exists, and yes, radicalized racists are to blame for such attacks, but Lee is also pointing a finger at apathetic liberal America. In essence, BlackKkKlansman ends with the same message as Lee's 1988 musical-drama School Daze where activist Vaughn “Dap” Dunlap (Laurence Fishburne) screams at the top of his lungs, "Wake up!" The question is, will we, as a country, actually listen? 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blindspotting

 

Cast: Daveed Diggs, Rafael Casal, Janina Gavankar, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Ethan Embry, Tisha Campbell-Martin, Wayne Knight

Director: Carlos López Estrada

Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Carlos López Estrada's Blindspotting is a well-meaning PSA masquerading as a movie; tracking a lifelong friendship between buddies Collin (Daveed Diggs) and Miles (Rafael Casal) in gentrified Oakland. The two friends are portrayed as guys who would probably have nothing to do with each other had they not grown up in close proximity, and their passive-aggressive banter is often loose and funny; displaying an authentic shorthand. However, this central dynamic is about the only thing that clicks here, aside from a few stylistic flourishes recalling the early work of Spike Lee. Otherwise, Estrada's film is clumsy and didactic; attempting to combine drama, comedy, and hip-hop into something which wants to make serious sociopolitical points, but ends up playing like an angry rant without a pulpit.

The problem here isn't intent, but execution. Clearly, the filmmakers have their hearts in the right place, and there's obvious merit in examining the rise of gentrification, police violence, and white privilege; particularly in the melting pot of Oakland. But there's something misguided about a movie which tries to wrap its arms around a wide range of topics without ever bothering to locate the humanity at the core of these issues. Collin is a convicted felon on the last few days of parole; and the idea that, as a black man, he'll never be able to change the prejudices greeting him in the outside world, is a provocative hook to hang your film on. Additionally, Miles is a white Hispanic guy with a knack for violent mood swings, which is a powder keg formula for dealing with unacknowledged privilege and macho posturing, but Blindspotting mostly treats these threads as comedic fodder. It's only near the end, during a heated argument in an alleyway after Miles flips out at a party, that the consequences of their friendship is even remotely dealt with, and by that point it feels like a writer's ploy for emotional manipulation.

When the film is being light on its feet, there are moments which bring to mind the heightened satire of something like Spike Lee's School Daze. A rapid-fire sequence where Miles uses his motormouth to try and sell used curling irons to a black salon hits the appropriate absurdist laugh ratio, for example, and there's a dream sequence which utilizes Collin's aspiring rapping skills to surreal effect. However, the other instances where Collin launches into his spoken word monologues feel laughably out of place since they effectively kill whatever sense of verisimilitude Estrada may have been going for. Likewise, the punching down gags aimed at gentrified hipsters feel dated at this point, as jokes about green smoothies, goat cheese, and tall bikes have been going on for well over a decade now.

Worse, though, are the botched attempts at making serious statements; like a scene involving a child picking up a gun, which feels manufactured despite its real-world parallels, and especially Collin's encounter with the cop (Ethan Embry) he saw shoot an unarmed black man earlier in the film. Instead of a complex and unnerving resolution, we get Collin rap-splaining his emotions as the tortured officer looks on with tears streaming down his face. If it wasn't so earnestly pitched, you might accuse the film of self-parody, as Collin explains to not only the cop, but also to the audience, just what the term "blindspotting" actually means.

Blindspotting will likely be praised for its ambition, but this is ultimately a shapeless film crammed with too many ideas and not enough access points. Diggs and Casal do their best to sell us on this tumultuous friendship, but Estrada shows a lack of confidence in the audience by placing speechifying above nuance. Spike Lee can often get away with this kind of thing, but unfortunately, Blindspotting is closer to the confused tonal machinations of She Hate Me than the buzzing topical anger of Do the Right Thing.

 

   

 

    

 

Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot

 

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Jonah Hill, Rooney Mara, Jack Black, Beth Ditto, Udo Kier, Kim Gordon, Carrie Brownstein

Director: Gus Van Sant

Running time: 1 hour 53 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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The self-help biopic has its upsides; namely, the need to emphasize the hard road to recovery when it comes to addiction. However, the downsides are obvious; the anti-climatic life story, the major epiphany which frames the subject's change of heart, the life lessons laid out in monologues set to a generically uplifting score. Gus Van Sant's Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, a dramatization of the life of quadriplegic cartoonist John Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix), contains both the standard clichés of the addict biopic as well as sympathy towards its flawed characters. It's a film unusually interested in the methodology of recovery and the need for self-love; using a splintered narrative in order to cover as many bases of Callahan's life as possible. The results are uneven yet moving.

From the outset, it's clear Callahan is an alcoholic, and by shifting around in time, Van Sant is able to explore the various means by which he eventually starts seeing this truth within himself. Interspersed with scenes of Callahan drinking alone or trying to hide his illness from others are moments of him addressing a lecture hall from his wheelchair-bound position. Eventually, we learn that a booze-drenched night joy riding with new buddy, Dexter (Jack Black, perfection in basically two scenes) climaxes with a horrific car crash into a telephone poll at high speed. While Dexter walks away with only a few scratches, Callahan is crippled for life below the chest. One would assume such a devastating turn of events would curb his drinking, but in many ways, this only deepens the dependency. It's only after his inability to reach a bottle of vodka on top of his fridge that he decides to reach out to Alcoholics Anonymous, specifically a group leader named Donnie (Jonah Hill, cast against type).

True to form, Van Sant seems more interested in group dynamics than overarching themes, and the scenes set inside A.A. are overflowing with humane observations and eccentric types. What the film lacks in narrative momentum it more than makes up for in observational humor and pathos; including Beth Ditto as an outspoken redneck and Kim Gordon bickering with Udo Kier like an old married couple. Hill provides a loose, bohemian vibe as the concerned father/guru of the group (which he affectionately calls "piglets"), and the scenes between him and Phoenix in which they casually chat about recovery are some of the film's sharpest. Less successful are Van Sant's decisions to include animated versions of Callahan's cartoons into the proceedings as he begins developing his artistic voice, and Danny Elfman's jaunty score is also a problem; crassly laid over nearly every scene in order to boost the story's inherent sentimentality.

Callahan eventually develops a relationship with a physical therapist, Anna (a doe-eyed Rooney Mara), but the film is less about her impact on his recovery process than in revealing the need for self-reflection and more importantly, self-forgiveness. In the end, Phoenix's coiled physicality gives way to a surprisingly unshowy performance; this is someone whose life has been destroyed by addiction, and the actor registers Callahan as so lost inside his own self-loathing that not even extreme physical impairment can alter his lifestyle choices. Even a sequence in which he sees a vision of his mother who long ago abandoned him plays sympathetically because of Phoenix's sincere commitment to the moment.

For his part, Van Sant hop-scotches all over the place--sometimes confusingly, sometimes cleverly--but the film's mosaic-like editing scheme feels emotionally true to the story of a man caught in a state of circular denial. Sometimes, all we have is a communal space in which to defend ourselves or lay our fears bare, and for all its flaws, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot understands that sober platitudes come with a heavy cost.

 

  

Zama

 

Cast: Daniel Giménez Cacho, Lola Dueñas, Matheus Nachtergaele, Juan Minujín, Nahuel Cano

Director: Lucrecia Martel

Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho), is a man waiting. Waiting as a functionary for Spanish royalty. Waiting to file incident reports. Waiting for a letter to be written requesting his transfer out of Asunción, Paraguay and back into the cosmopolitan environment he calls home. Waiting, as he does in the opening scene, staring out across an open body of water donning a powdered wig, fancy hat, and sheathed sword. If this is seemingly a man of great importance, Lucrecia Martel’s Zama implies otherwise. Never before has the horrifying face of colonialism been this sadly deadpan. Diego may be waiting for the tide to turn (i.e. safe passage out of the wild and back into modern Spanish society), but the inherent racism of his business in Paraguay will not simply vanish. For all its dense ideas about slavery and violence, Zama often plays like a droll comedy in which the waiting man must continue waiting as bureaucratic red tape piles up.

Like in her previous films La Ciénaga and The Headless Woman, Martel uses class distinctions in order to draw out oblique thematic connections. Her camera is steady, often unmoving. The compositions are unfussy, yet the details packed into every frame are many. The tone isn't inherently comical; but her characters, especially Diego, are pompously deluded. The narrative is slipstream, fragmenting scenes and stretching out our understanding of time. 

Diego's desire for transfer and the way he continues holding his head high after being ridiculed, passed over, and threatened with physical violence is part of the film's darkly comedic eccentricity. Cacho is absolutely wonderful in the role; fully inhabiting the vanity of someone uprooting another culture's way of life while layering in shades of regret, world-weariness, and social ineptitude. You might even feel bad for the guy if he didn't represent such monstrosity. Martel brilliantly displays the effects of colonialism by featuring slaves and natives going about their business in the background of shots where aristocrats perform pencil-pushing duties. In a way, they are just as unimportant to these colonizers as the horses, ostriches, birds, and in one bravura sequence; a giant Llama, which straddle into view. 

As Diego's chances of escaping the hell he brought upon himself becomes even less likely, Zama takes on the atmosphere of dazed nightmare. During the film's final hallucinatory stretch, one is reminded of Radu Jude's Aferim!, João Pedro Rodrigues’s The Ornithologist, and to some extent, Ciro Guerra's Embrace of the Serpent. Diego's stature, once proud and upright, becomes slumped. His white wig and clean-shaven appearance disappear, replaced with a gnarled beard and thinning hair. Martel frames Diego against the vastness of rock formations and trees, making him appear small and insignificant. As he ventures deep into native land with a pack of roving soldiers, the elements of this other world overtakes his senses. The group's apparent mission, to kill a revolutionary named Vicuña Porto opposed to Spanish rule, starts feeling like a fool's errand. Is Porto already dead, or is one of Diego's fellow travelers (a scene stealing Matheus Nachtergaele) actually the revolutionary incognito? The film never makes this clear, but one thing is certain; power and dominance are empty posturing.

Zama is a major film from a major filmmaker. If, for the majority of its running time, Martel conjures a Kafka-esque vision of comic snubs and insults, then the ending feels strangely redemptive. Diego may still be waiting during the final scenes, but he has all but given up hope of returning home. He is a man waiting, sure. But waiting for what? Death, possibly. Or perhaps, lying peacefully inside a boat facing the sky, passage deeper into a geographical space he never once bothered to acknowledge beyond occupation.

Mission: Impossible- Fallout

 

Cast: Tom Cruise, Rebecca Ferguson, Henry Cavill, Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames, Sean Harris, Angela Bassett, Alec Baldwin

Director: Christopher McQuarrie

Running time: 2 hours 27 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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As a series of "how did they do that" set-pieces intricately constructed to match star Tom Cruise's unflappable hubris, Mission: Impossible- Fallout is a rousing success. As something which connects these intricately constructed set-pieces to a cohesive plot, relatable characters, or anything that would have us care about what's transpiring, however, the film all but hopes you'll be so god-smacked it won't matter. And yes, the Cruise think pieces about a billion dollar movie star risking life and limb for mass entertainment being an extension of his massive ego is accurate, and yet, such meta exercises are besides the point. What everyone really wants to know is whether this sixth installment in an improbably long running franchise delivers the goods in the action department. The answer to this question is yes, which will undoubtably be enough for diehard fans. Still, the film's style of maximalist spectacle threatens to topple under the weight of it's "holy shit" factor; relegated to stretches of boring plot mechanics simply there to set up the next massive action sequence. 

Just like writer-director Christopher McQuarrie's previous effort, Mission Impossible: Rouge Nation, this new one is built around our knowledge that secret agent Ethan Hunt will do anything to save the day. The insane stunts, practical effects, and daredevil action (of which Cruise throws himself into with aplomb like an aging Jackie Chan), are meant to wow us into a state of slack-jawed awe. Whether or not the exhausting 147 minute running time, plot mechanics concerning metallic plutonium spheres, and terrorist villains with names like John Lark and Solomon Lane have any traction is debatable. What cannot be debated, however, is that Mission: Impossible-Fallout is all about how awesome Tom Cruise is.

If Rouge Nation was a less inventive action picture than Brad Bird's fourth installment Mission: Impossible- Ghost Protocol, it did benefit from dialing Cruise's manic intensity back a few notches and introducing the series' first legitimately great character, Ilsa Faust, played by the physically nimble and charismatic Rebecca Ferguson. There was also the franchise's best pure action sequence; a prolonged motorcycle chase involving Faust, Hunt, and a bevy of stunt riders whizzing around cliffsides at maximum speed. Returning director McQuarrie tries to outdo himself here with a motorcycle race where Cruise zips towards oncoming traffic in Paris, but it lacks the tension of Rogue Nation's set-piece and looks dated in comparison with similar chase scenes from older movies; such as William Friedkin's To Live and Die in LA.

The preposterous plot involves Hunt and his team, Benji (Simon Pegg) and Luther (Ving Rhames) trying to keep the plutonium from terrorists bent on nuclear war. Ilsa Faust is back, switching allegiances at will, as is IMF boss Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin), whose mostly on hand to babble exposition. New additions include CIA director Erica Sloan (Angela Bassett) and brute agent August Walker (Henry Cavill), the later of which teams up with Hunt to retrieve the plutonium while acting like a dick. There's also a shadowy figure named The White Widow (Vanessa Kirby), a wealthy philanthropist secretly working with illegal arms dealers, and Sean Harris returns as the villainous Solomon Lane, whom Hunt captured during the finale of Rouge Nation. Of course, the plot doesn't matter, and no one is going to these movies for narrative cohesion, but Fallout is almost unbearably convoluted; full of double/triple/quadruple crosses and silly character decisions that stop the film dead in its tracks. Luckily, McQuarrie keeps things moving at a stealthy pace; with a brutal bathroom fight involving Hunt, Walker, and martial arts-chopping baddie (Liang Yang) and a nifty foot chase where Cruise does his patented open-palmed sprinting across rooftops emerging as highlights. 

Mission: Impossible-Fallout is a slick action film benefiting from practical effects and the sight of Cruise defying the aging process. The finale is undeniably spectacular; an IMAX ready helicopter chase intercut with a race against the clock bomb detonation. McQuarrie shoots everything cleanly and with finesse, but unlike George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road, there's very little in the way of giddy kineticism here. Instead, the film is an expertly made object lesson in action filmmaking which never allows a sense of tonal dissonance to interrupt its blunt force. Meanwhile, the characters are constantly giving us plot information, but telling us very little about who they are or what they feel, lest their secret identities be revealed. Even Faust, the most interesting personality of the series, is relegated to a few nifty action beats and then, finally, a kind of creepy awestruck reverence for Hunt. In the end, everyone is a cheerleader for Hunt's “I’ll figure it out” mantra, which is both the familiar comfort of the MI franchise and its weakest attribute. This is a guy whose closest comrades end up bowing at his messianic feet, and Cruise, flashing that goofy grin in between painful grimaces, wouldn't have it any other way.

 

 

Unfriended: Dark Web

 

Cast: Colin Woodell, Stephanie Nogueras, Andrew Lees, Connor Del Rio, Rebecca Rittenhouse, Betty Gabriel, Savira Windyani

Director: Stephen Susco

Running time: 1 hour 28 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Levan Gabriadze’s 2015 horror film Unfriended was, in many ways, a harbinger of things to come; distilling our screen-based obsessions into the realm of horror not dissimilar from scrolling through Twitter on a daily basis. There were supernatural elements and ludicrous kills, but Unfriended remains one of the most effective horror movies of the past decade because it cleverly used the digital framing device as a catalyst for scares. Stephen Susco's Unfriended: Dark Web utilizes the same computer-screen gimmick via Skype group chat, but gives us new characters and a very different tonal perspective. Since the majority of us watch content on our laptops nowadays, Unfriended: Dark Web takes our familiarity with toggling windows, running programs, and text chat messaging and then uses it against us. The film is by turns ludicrous, creepy, sensationalized, ripped-from-the-headlines topical, silly, and stomach-churning. Even as it spirals into complete nonsense by the end (with the actual tech becoming increasingly dodgy), Unfriended: Dark Web emerges as a legitimately vicious piece of work executed with genuine flair.

The plot concerns Matias (Colin Woodell), a laptop thief working on an app based around changing typed text messages into videos of American Sign Language so that he can better communicate with his deaf girlfriend, Amaya (Stephanie Nogueras). During a group Skype call with his friends on "game night", Matias discovers a cache of horrific videos; most of them of the snuff film variety stored on the stolen laptop. The clips are shown briefly; with snippets of vile actions against young women depicted in grainy video quality. This makes the sense of mounting dread more palpable because Susco refuses to show us the totality of these horrifying sights, mirroring the way the characters also cannot take more than a few seconds at a time. As the shadowy owner of the computer begins making demands to have his property returned, a vast cyber network of wealthy sickos is unveiled operating through the dark web. Cryptocurrency, private chat rooms resembling an 8-bit Wolfenstein knock-off, and Greek underworld pseudonyms are trotted out; along with nonsensical plot twists and predictably dumb actions from the group of friends scrambling to make sense of the mayhem.

All of this, of course, is visually represented via moving windows and shifting screens, and while the technique isn't as novel as it was in the original Unfriended, Susco still manages a few nifty ways to engender claustrophobic tension out of the gimmick. It isn't a spoiler to say characters die in cruel and unusual ways here, but unlike the first film, Unfriended: Dark Web takes no pleasure in their demise. Beyond their overall bad decision-making and in one case, a rather aggravating political conspiracy dope, these are decent people trapped in a violently misanthropic situation. This is what ultimately makes Unfriended: Dark Web such an effectively nasty horror film; it gives us no way out, no means of escape, and no self-righteous pleasure in the sadistic deaths of millennials just hoping to hear that Macbook startup sound one last time. 

 

 

Leave No Trace

 

Cast: Ben Foster, Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, Jeff Kober, Dale Dickey

Director: Debra Granik

Running time: 1 hour 49 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Rarely has a film about people living on the fringes of American society (with all the political signifiers that entails) been so unconcerned with politics. Or, to put things another way, rarely has a film which speaks to the debate about America's apathy towards its veterans actually deemphasized ideology in order to push empathy. Debra Granik's spare, deeply felt Leave No Trace is one such rarity; a film so attune to the interiority of the characters and the rapturous beauty of its natural environments that it becomes almost unbearably moving. It's a simplistic narrative, but never cheap. The characters can be cryptic, but never impenetrable. Granik's aesthetic is gracefully removed, but never clinical. It's a parable about the falseness of the American dream, but it never feels like a sermon. 

Will (Ben Foster) and his teenage daughter, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) are living inside a Forest Park in Portland, Oregon, and have seemingly perfected the art of survival. They search the woods for mushrooms. They cover their tracks. A pinch of salt is sprinkled atop their hardboiled eggs. At night, they read books by headlamp while shooing away wild animals. By day they hunt, forage, and build fires. At one point, they leave their secluded camp and venture into town to buy supplies. Apparently, even fringe dwellers need candy bars once in a while.

During the film's opening stretch, Granik communicates so much without resorting to speeches or expository information. When Will checks into a hospital in order to get his military-approved meds, we get just enough shading to understand he suffers from PTSD-adjacent traumas. When Tom asks her father about buying those aforementioned candy bars, the playful look of recognition between them suggests a history of closeness dominated by survival. Will is a good father; strong-willed, loving, incredibly proud of his daughter, but also mentally unstable due to his PTSD-related issues. This isn't used as a crutch, but as a complication. His self-absorption stems from his inability to envision a world where he 's forced to interact with other human beings other than his daughter. On the other hand, Tom is an intelligent and self-possessed young woman engaged with her surroundings to the point where a brief stint outside the Park inside a country home opens her up to the possibilities of the outside world. 

Will is far too damaged to ever be part of normative society, but Tom is young enough to make the transition, and part of what makes Leave No Trace so compelling is the way Granik charts how father and daughter slowly drift apart. Foster gives a haunted performance as a man who loves his daughter but cannot let go of his own trauma, and in a way, he selflessly gives the film over to newcomer McKenzie, who delivers one of the more unaffected performances in recent memory. Over the course of the film, Tom gradually chooses to walk a different path than the only one she's known her entire life, and McKenzie registers moments of confusion, playfulness, fear, joy, and heartbreak effortlessly. Granik juxtaposes these naturalistic performances with shots of insects, trees, and natural landscapes; giving time and space to the transcendental pull of the wild. Likewise, when Will and Tom find themselves nearly freezing to death out in the forest at one point, Granik wisely allows nature to appear cruelly unconcerned with their fate.

Leave No Trace is a special film, with a climax puncturing the heart. In the end, life is full of complicated choices that may separate you from the ones you love. In order for Tom to grow, she must enter this next stage of maturation. Will, too, must make some difficult choices that will perhaps render him completely severed from human contact. Granik never gives her characters the easy way out, and yet her film's conclusion feels earned. Unlike a lot of pictures dealing with unconventional families (see the cartoonish Captain Fantastic), Leave No Trace respects its audience; understanding that empathy extends to all living things, whether they choose to exist as part of a community or apart from it.

 

 

 

Sorry to Bother You

 

Cast: Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Steven Yeun, Armie Hammer, Danny Glover, Jermaine Fowler, Omari Hardwick, Terry Crews, Kate Berlant, Michael X. Sommers, Danny Glover

Director: Boots Riley

Running time: 1 hour 45 min

by Jericho Cerrona

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Cassius Green, the lead character in indie rapper/activist Boots Riley's feature debut, Sorry to Bother You, is the kind of guy stuck working menial jobs while living out of his uncle's garage and engaging in long-winded discussions with his artist girlfriend about the meaningless of existence. It's the type of character we've grown accustom to in the movies; i.e. the underachiever who tumbles into a position of power with the added curse of "selling out". However, as played by nimble actor Lakeith Stanfield (of TV's Atlanta and Jordan Peele's Get Out), there's a laconic earnest here which somewhat offsets the lack of a compelling arc. Honestly, Riley isn't considered with character growth, narrative momentum, or thematic cohesion. Even the name Cassius Green is a pun; exemplified by Stanfield paying 40 cents for gas during one early scene. In short, Sorry to Bother You is a satire on capitalism, code switching, modern media, and the line between art and protest; starting out as a broad takedown of how corporations exploit minorities before devolving into absurdist sci-fi farce. There's anger, humor, and boldness here, but Riley's inability (or unwillingness) to differentiate his compulsive ideas from the flimsier ones eventually means the film loses sight of its satiric targets. In the end, the writer-director isn't so much purposefully taking aim as he is spraying concepts all over the place like ridiculously long security codes.

Taking place in an alternate-reality version of Oakland, Sorry to Bother You initially feels like a ramshackle hangout movie in which Cassius and his artist/protestor girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) are up against systems built to subdue them. Once our central hero gets a job at a telemarketing firm called RegalView, however, the film switches into the realm of satire not dissimilar from Mike Judge's Office Space, except with the added notion of racial code switching. By "sticking to the script" and heeding the advice of fellow black telemarketer, Langston (Danny Glover), Cassius adopts his "white voice" (provided by comedian David Cross), and finds himself becoming a near overnight success. With rent overdue, and his uncle (Terry Crews) threatening to toss him out of the garage and into the mean streets of Oakland, he begins an upwards ladder climb from measly drone to "power caller"; a hallowed term invoking a major promotion. Of course, Cassius is unaware that he's actually selling unsuspecting clients a voluntary forced-labor system called Worry Free Living; glimpsed sporadically throughout the film via intentionally cheesy TV advertisements and billboards.  

Drawing influences from Spike Lee, Michel Gondry, Adult Swim, and Robert Downey Sr's hilarious 1969 satire Putney Swope, Sorry to Bother You reflects the unhinged craziness of living in America as a person of color. Some of the film's best jokes ride that line between uncomfortable recognition and outrageousness; such as a moment where Cassius is asked to rap for a crowd of white people inside the mansion of Worry Free's coke-snorting CEO, Steve Lift (Armie Hammer). The scene at first plays like a riff on safe spaces invented by whites in order to feel "woke", but as Cassius begins shouting the n-word repeatedly, Riley focuses on the crowd's enthusiasm for being given the opportunity to utter the most racist term in the English language. In other words, a perfect encapsulation of Trump's America. 

As Cassius moves to a higher floor in the company's building, snags a fancy apartment, and eventually gets an offer straight from the CEO himself, one can sense Riley's grip on the satirical force of his screenplay loosening. Though the swerve into dystopic sci-fi is a brash move, the sense of topical anger dissipates around this point; giving way to repetitive gags and a sloppily executed finale which attempts to merge pointed social critique with body horror weirdness. It's one thing to admire a filmmaker swinging for the fences, and another to feel the heart sink when it becomes clear there are no rules to Riley's alternate-version of reality. 

Had the film been able to tighten its satirical crosshairs and make Cassius into more than simply a ideological pawn, then it may have transcended the third act slide into B-movie silliness. Making us laugh at the painful truth behind all the absurdity while also engaging us emotionally with the characters would have been ace, but Riley instead chooses to coast on strangeness as a means to an end. What the film seems to miss is how the real key to changing hearts and minds is found within impassioned human beings; people willing to fight against political, social, and psychological realities. Unfortunately, Sorry to Bother You, despite its tonal audaciousness and wry observations, is too preoccupied with quirky art installation versions of the way we live now to concern itself with the messiness of genuine revolution.

 

 

 

 

Death Grips

 

The Year of the Snitch

8

Junk folder punk

by Jericho Cerrona

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Death Grips are still here. Death Grips have put out at least one album per year since their inception. Death Grips are post-fan service. Death Grips are noided. Death Grips are, umm, online.

Perhaps the most shocking thing about the Sacramento, Ca hip-hop/noise/industrial trio's sixth studio album, Year of the Snitch, is that it exists at all. For who could have conceived of a universe in which a group which released 2011's mixtape Ex-Military in 2011 and seminal The Money Store a year later, would still be using the Internet as their troll-heavy marketing tool? Of course, real Death Grips fans (and they are an army lurking on Reddit forums) would suggest that there's more going on here than Shrek memes and surprise self-leaked albums. 

Honestly, if Death Grips managed to crash and burn in spectacular fashion--see their post Money Store fuck off to major label Epic Records--then it's reasonable to assume they would have disappeared inside the Internet void by now. Instead, they've managed to release a string of albums in wildly different modes while still maintaining their distinctive sound. Part of the band's mojo stems from their use of public and private abstraction. On the one hand, their music remains excitingly inscrutable, while on the other, you aren't going to see frontman MC Ride dropping revealing Instagram posts. In a way, Death Grips have used the Internet to both bolster their mystique as well as troll their fanbase/critics. 

If 2016's Bottomless Pit was a sonic summation of the band's M.O. (rap, grime, electro, noise, rock, among other things) inching them back towards the accessibility of game-changer The Money Store, then Year of the Snitch is something else entirely. While still maintaining their signature sound, rapper MC Ride, drummer Zach Hill, and producer Andy Morin take a leap into genre-bending absurdism this time out. Sure, the album is still noisy as fuck; but also weirder, looser, and more unusual than anything they've attempted yet. Featuring turntablist DJ Swamp and Tool bassist Justin Chancellor (though the latter's contributions, much like Bjork on Side 1 of The Powers that B, remain tough to accurately pin down), Year of the Snitch is all over the map; fusing electronica, hip-hop, prog, psychedelia, Krautrock, metal, and even 90's techno into one unholy stew.

Revelations come right away with opener "Death Grips is online", which blares like a 1995 Netscape rave before descending into seesawing synths and Ride's shrieks. The muddy soundscapes continue with "Flies", where lyrics about suicide merge with lo-fi beats and some of Ride's most understated (and melancholy) rapping. "Black Paint" scrapes off some of that Jenny Death-adjacent rock instrumentation; with ascending guitar riffs, abrasive shouting, rolling drum fills, and turntable scratches that eventually crescendo in a fit of squealing keyboards. It's easily the heaviest song on the album (aside from the appropriately titled "Shitshow"), and one likely to get old school fans primed to explode. Allusions to the Mansion family comes during bizarre electro mashup "Linda's In Custody", Hill gets to show off his off-timing drumming with "The Horn Section", a throwback to his early days jamming in instrumental outfit Hella, and then there's "Streaky", which is either a trap rap in-joke or an attempt at the kind of Soundcloud banger Death Grips usually seek to invert. Either way, it's ridiculously catchy; farcical and hip swaying in equal measure.

Leaning hard into the experimental side of things is no huge surprise given Death Grips' uncompromising nature, but much of Year of the Snitch is baffling in all the best ways possible; resisting easy readings, coherent themes, or even musical consistency. By the time Shrek director Andrew Adamson shows up intoning I’m in the studio with Death Grips. They have a dilemma, but they’ll win their dilemma on Dilemma, one half expects the entire project to collapse under the weight of its own inward-looking absurdism. However, and this has been abundantly clear over the years; Death Grips are potent songwriters. No matter how off-kilter things get--the vaporwave toss off "Little Richard" and jazz trip "The Fear" come to mind--there's no denying the band are operating at the height of their powers.

During the final track, "Disappointed", Death Grips pretty much call out their fanbase for reading too much into the band's mythos. We could all learn a lesson from this. Stop analyzing. Stop obsessing. The Internet is a gross, hostile place. Death Grips fans are biased. In other words (or in the words of Ride), Talk less, show less, snatch yours trap doors. Amen.

Let the Sunshine In

 

Cast: Juliette Binoche, Xavier Beauvois, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Alex Descas, Philippe Katerine, Josiane Balasko, Laurent Grévill, Bruno Podalydès, Paul Blain, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Gérard Depardieu

Director: Claire Denis

Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes

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On the surface, Let the Sunshine In is a major left turn for provocateur Claire Denis, a filmmaker whose work is littered with nihilistic characters. Films like the erotic horror drama Trouble Every Day and seedy noir Bastards pair her minimalistic style with naturalistic performances and a dread-inducing mood. By contrast, Let the Sunshine In is a compact 95 minute slice-of-life about a fragile woman looking for love. Of course, since the woman in question is played by regular Denis collaborator Juliette Binoche, and because the film refuses to indulge in bland romcom conventions, there's an undercurrent of melancholy lining up with the director's previous work. The search for a partner--with all the inconsolable pain of feeling superlative emotions and then losing them--is at the heart of the film, which moves from hope to sadness in a way complimenting Denis' ongoing fascination with how love can corrode from the inside out.

Binoche stars as Isabelle, a divorced mother/business woman who seems drawn to men with low moral standards and self-delusion. The film's opening moments are telling; an awkward sex scene between her and Vincent (Xavier Beauvois) a rich married banker, which plays like two androids mechanically performing their duties. When Vincent asks her if she came faster with former lovers, she slaps him and rolls over dejectedly. And yet, Isabelle continues seeing him; captured masterfully in a series of fluid camera movements where the couple chat inside a bar, even as Vincent condescendingly berates a young male bartender. During their meeting, it's clear this guy is a pretentious asshole, but the way Binoche registers layers of regret and shame is a masterstroke of acting. In fact, Binoche is so good here in a very demanding role that Isabelle's mental health is often a reasonable point of debate. Is she simply deluded by the fantastical idea of true love, or is her quest for fulfillment more of a toxic necessity; something she must pursue no matter what the consequences? Neither Denis nor Binchoe make Isabelle's often frustrating behavior clear; leading to a film aching with a truthful kind of despair. Unlike most movie characters, Isabelle is a complicated person with ideas and urges which don't always follow a logical path.

As Isabelle falls in with a variety of lovers, including a vain actor (Nicolas Duvauchelle) and an uneducated foreigner she meets on a business trip (Paul Blain), Denis tightens the screws to reveal a possible terrifying truth; that some people just might be unloveable. This is not the kind of messaging we are accustomed to in our romantic dramas, and yet Binoche's performance is so rich--registering moments of vulnerability, anger, flirtation, sexual ecstasy, and gut-wrenching heartbreak--that we still empathize with this woman on her path of self-destruction. By the time Gerard Depardieu shows up as a psychic charting Isabelle's future love life, we are inclined to chuckle at the absurdity of it all, and yet even in these scenes, Denis nails the deep-seated agony of loneliness. 

Part of the brilliance of Let the Sunshine In is the way it plays with our sympathies for static character arcs and irrational decision-making. One may be inclined to shake Isabelle by the neck  and tell her to wake up, but herein lies the point. This is a woman so desperately addicted to the idea (or feeling) of love that she will always force the issue. It's like attempting to curb a drug addict off their habit by simply explaining to them how their fix isn't going to make them happy in the long run. Isabelle will always choose to fall in love, too afraid she will lose the feeling with the possibility of being alone, and too oblivious to the damage she's causing to herself. In this way, Denis not only inverts the romcom, but sneakily lays bare the inherent falseness at the genre's core. 

 

 

 

 

 

Music Pick of the Week

 

Kamasi Washington

Heaven and Earth

Year of release: 2018

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

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

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

Movie Pick of the Week

 

Tehran Taboo

Director: Ali Soozandeh

Year of release: 2018

Running time: 1 hour 36 minutes

 

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

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

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

 

  

 

 

Won't You Be My Neighbor?

 

Cast: Fred Rogers, Joanne Rogers, François Clemmons, Yo-Yo Ma, David Newall, Joe Negri

Director: Morgan Neville

Running time: 1 hour 33 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Perhaps the most discouraging thing about Morgan Neville's documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor?, is just how much society has disregarded Fred Rogers' message of love, peace, and human decency. If there was ever a time in which his landmark PBS children's show Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, was needed to combat the deluge of human greed, cruelty, bigotry, and Trump-era delusion, then this is it. There's even an opening scene here depicting a puppet named King Friday XIII of the land of Make-Believe announcing his plans to build a wall in order to quell the rising fears of change within his kingdom. Neville understands the obvious modern-day irony, but the real heart of his film is Rogers' moral radicalism exemplified by his extraordinary gift in communicating with children.

Using archival footage and interviews with those who worked alongside Rogers, Won't You Be My Neighbor? encompasses a three decade-plus career in a streamlined, though meticulously crafted, manner. Neville uses plenty of footage from the PBS show throughout the years, but the real surprise is the archival material where Rogers sits alone at a piano discussing getting on the wavelength of children in order to engender positive self-image. There's something almost saintly about a man so polite and kind-hearted that one may fear Neville has a few shocking bombshells in store, but the demons here are mostly of the workaholic variety. For example, one of Rogers' sons at one point describes the hardship of having the "second coming of Christ as a father", and there's also Rogers' near autistic tendency of keeping his weight exactly at 143 pounds; a number, by the way, translating numerologically to "I love you."

Rogers' views on child psychology extended not only to the way his show was engineered-- lo-fi sets, ragged-looking puppets, simple props, slow pacing--but also to his belief that we should never talk down to children. Tellingly,  Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood delved into topics like divorce, depression, death, and even the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, in a way which never sugarcoated the truth, but treated children with respect. Confronting the horrors of real life was integral in Rogers' ideal version of childhood, even as its simple pleasures were also to be cherished. Still, for all of his progressivism, there were elements plaguing his career; like the way he handled François Clemmons, who played Officer Clemmons on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, whom he asked to not come out publicly as gay for fear of losing funding. It wasn't until many years later during a private encounter that the two men reached a mutual understanding, and Clemmons' tearful response to eventually seeing Rogers as a father figure will cause even the most cynical audience member to wipe away a tear or two.

Won't You Be My Neighbor? is less concerned with peeking behind the curtain into the private life of a famous figure and more about appreciating it's subject's methodology. Neville understands that Rogers' message of love, understanding, and speaking honestly to children wasn't a passing fad. One only needs to look to his iconic 1969 senate testimony to secure the $15 million to keep public television from going extinct to recognize that for Rogers, this was more than simply his life's work. It was providing children all over the world the one thing that's sorely lacking in adults; hope. Even if Neville's film often feels emotionally manipulative, it's the kind of manipulation we could use more of these days, convincing us that for the brief span of 93 minutes, every human life has worth.

 

 

 

SOPHIE

 

OIL OF EVERY PEARL'S UN-INSIDES

9

Plastic. Elastic. Pop.

by Jericho Cerrona

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At its very basic level, pop music seeks to give the listener a comforting feeling; incorporating current sounds into an accessible package by using medium to short song lengths, verse-chorus structures, and catchy hooks. However, this is a fairly reductive description since there's real craftsmanship in making an exemplary pop tune. While many artists simply copy and paste a formula, the very notion that pop music is at the center of the culture means experimentation is essential in redefining the rules.  Los Angeles-based Scottish producer/singer/songwriter Sophie Xeon (aka SOPHIE), who has spent the last few years working with everyone from Madonna, Charli XCX, and Vince Staples, understands the contours of pop music very well. In fact, with her debut album OIL OF EVERY PEARL'S UN-INSIDES, the former recluse opens up both lyrically and musically; using the foundations of pop and then warping it to her own ends. The results are thrilling, disorienting, pleasurable, and brilliant.

Utilizing elements of bubblegum pop, R & B, EDM, drone, ambient, industrial, and noise, SOPHIE's take on pop music is both transgressive and subversive. Thematically, the album revolves around gender identity and feeling loved inside your own skin. Sonically, it takes accessible song structures and chews them up inside a latex-crunching pop machine. Opening track "It's Okay To Cry" is a bit of a curveball right away based on what's to follow; with twinkly piano, warm synths, and clean vocals setting the stage. Clearly, SOPHIE wants the listener to open up and trust her intentions. There's a wounded vulnerability here; a soaring invitation to allow one's anxieties, fears, and pain to be enveloped within the auditory journey. It's a surprising opening salvo, and one that SOPHIE will build upon, often in unpredictable fashion, for the remainder of the album.

For a record about self-empowerment and reclaiming one's identity, OIL OF EVERY PEARL'S UN-INSIDES often unfurls like a schizophrenic war of contrasts--pairing jarring kick drums, abrasive noises, and vocals which sound buried inside a digital processor with tender balladry, gorgeous synth-scapes, and genuine emotion. "Ponyboy" is a filthy BDSM-inspired dance track full of herky jerky rhythms, humorously affected vocals, and a driving metallic beat. "Faceshopping" takes the deliciously simple line My shop is the face I front/ My face is the real shop front and makes a discordant banger out of it; all squealing keyboard, clanking percussion, and propulsive basslines. Some of the more melancholy tracks, like the absolutely beautiful synth-arpeggio backed "Is it Cold in the Water?" and the warped R & B ballad "Infatuation", showcase SOPHIE's smart incorporation of pop styles with mind-bending production. Truthfully, nothing out right now sounds quite like OIL OF EVERY PEARL'S UN-INSIDES. Even when we get an infectious dance-pop tune like "Immaterial", which inverts Madonna's "Material Girl" into a giddy Chiptune blast, there's a strange detour such as instrumental "Pretending", which rumbles along like a lost Brian Eno B-side. 

Obfuscation is a central theme in SOPHIE's work (both in terms of creating a public persona and the actual ways in which the songs flirt with pop accessibility), and this contrast is at the heart of identity never finding a fixed station. Though she covers consumerism, obsession, sexuality, and body mutilation, SOPHIE never pigeonholes herself here (tellingly, there are no lyrics specifically mentioning the words queer or trans), instead allowing the music itself to speak volumes. For example, when guest singer Cecil Believe sings I don’t even have to explain/just leave me alone now/I can’t be held down on "Immaterial", there's a direct link to the feminine/masculine dichotomy trans people live with every day. SOPHIE, like everyone else, simply wants to love and be loved. To exist. To be.

By the time closer "Whole New World/Pretend World" comes rumbling along at just over 9 minutes, SOPHIE has engendered so much good will that the glitchy, atonal weirdness she conjures as her exit strategy feels more than simply cathartic; it's the journey of pop music writ large. The highs and lows. The comfortable pleasure oozing into squelching waveforms. Bombast as sentimentality. The Disneyfication of pop star branding reverse-engineered. A whole new world, as it were. If the future does indeed reside in our ability to transform, then SOPHIE is making the case that being yourself (in whatever gendered or non-gendered form that takes) is the true aim of pop music.  

 

   

  

Symbiotic Recommends: 10 Albums

 
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Flasher

Constant Image

Artist info here


Jean Grae/Quelle Chris

Everything's Fine

Artist info here

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Palberta

Roach Goin' Down

Artist info here


Karen Meat

You're an Ugly Person

Artist info here

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Rafiq Bhatia

Breaking English

Artist info here

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serpentwithfeet

Soil

Artist info here


It Only Gets Worse

Fireplace Road

Artist info here

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Maeth

Whaling Village

Artist info here


Iguana Death Cult

Femme Fatale

Artist info here

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Hereditary

 

Cast: Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Ann Dowd

Director: Ari Aster

Running time: 2 hours 7 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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WARNING! This review contains King Paimon-adjacent spoilers


Writer-director Ari Aster's feature debut, Hereditary, is a film about a family disintegrating, the inexorable weight grief has on the mind and body, and how curses can be tracked through the genetic line, appearing as signs of possible mental illness. At least, that's what its makers would have you believe. Actually, Hereditary mainly concerns a doomed family succumbing to a royal demon as part of hell's bureaucratic hierarchy. The picture's first half is the kind of intriguing/ponderous dirge passing for arthouse horror these days--i.e. long takes, discordant music cues, occasional frightening imagery, and fraught family squabbles--before descending into giddy madness during the final 30 minutes. Though many will find the last act disconnected from all that came before, the film's gear shift into Rosemary's Baby/ The Wicker Man territory is actually its strongest asset, almost as if Aster finally decided to wake up make his manic horror movie. It may have been too little, too late.

Truthfully, Hereditary is going for a more visceral kind of horror for the majority of its running time. Things begin with the death of the family matriarch, to which diorama artist Annie Graham (Toni Collette) confesses at the funeral at just how complicated their mother-daughter relationship was. Her husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne) sulks around dealing with things internally and trying to keep the peace. Their son, Peter (Alex Wolff) is your typical pothead high school student--emotionally fragile, disaffected, pining for the cute girl in class-- while mentally challenged younger sister, Charlie (Milly Shapiro) mostly lurks around acting creepy and clucking her tongue. The film's opening image-- a shot which moves slowly around Annie's studio before pushing in on a bedroom diorama housing Steve and Peter, is instructive-- this is a family trapped inside their own insular world of pain.

The impetus for structuring a horror film around the terrifying reality than you may not be safe within your own family unit is a fine idea. In fact, many recent attempts within the horror genre have used similar narrative strategies, such as Robert Egger's The Witch and Trey Edward Shults' It Comes at Night. However, Aster's aesthetic tics often undermine his attempts at observing the frayed wounds of a dysfunctional family. Favoring long takes, slow camera pans, and symmetrical mise-en-scène (complete with saxophonist Colin Stenson's disorienting score), the film has a showy formalism which works in fits and starts, particularly with single images. However, Aster too often falls prey to self-indulgence; padding out scenes in order to elicit supposed tension. The results are often frustrating; as if the film is spinning its wheels by using the blanket of "atmosphere" in place of narrative momentum.

The film's best early moments involve the actors digging into the unstable psychology of their characters. A dinner table scene where Annie explodes in a fit of hysterical rage after months of buried emotion is an example where Aster's filmic patience pays dividends. Collette, whose performance is pitched somewhere between ridiculous and breathtaking, absolutely nails the moment; showing how Annie's pent-up anger stems from not only from grief, but also the disdain she has for her own children. It's an ugly scene, but a truthful one.

Less successful are the moments where Peter's bong-ripped teenager stares off blankly and begrudgingly takes his sister to a house party where he hopes to get closer to his school crush. Of course, this all leads to the film's most shocking moment involving an allergic reaction and a speeding rush to the hospital. As if the tone of impending doom wasn't already suffocating enough, this event shifts the family's emotional/psychological state into complete free-fall. It's an effective twist; one landing with a certain amount of sickening dread because Aster remains locked in on Peter's dazed expression. Still, the director just can't help himself, eventually cutting to a horrific image that is both unnecessary and exploitative. He wants the audience to be shocked and disturbed, but it mostly feels like Lars von Trier-level provocation.

Once Anne Dowd shows up as a fellow grief support group patron offering Annie a shoulder and an ear, Hereditary begins showing its cards. Sequences involving séances, supernatural malevolence, and creepy naked old folks standing in dark corners of the room begin pilling on as the tone lurches toward silliness. Honestly, this turn into literal evocation of classics like The Exorcist, The Shining, and especially Rosemary's Baby, takes the film from a self-serious drag into the realm of near shlock, which is where things should have been operating all along.

As occultic shenanigans unspool (complete with a goofy page-turning moment where Annie discovers her mother was some kind of cult queen in an old book in the attic), Hereditary reaches a level of maximum lunacy. This is a good thing because, as much as Aster tries to convince us to take all of this seriously, the film's climax reveals the themes of mental illness and familial trauma to be something of a red herring. Turns out this family was doomed from the start; controlled by a high ranking demon named King Paimon, who was simply looking for a hunky male host body. Therefore, the heightened climax; complete with Stenson's swelling saxophones as Peter is crowned demon king, reveals two things: one, cult members are really into nudity, and two, beheadings are somehow necessary within Hell's inner workings. All hail King Paimon, indeed.    

Movie Pick of the Week

 

Summer 1993

Director: Carla Simón

Year of release: 2018

Running time: 1 hour 36 minutes

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

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

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

 

Music Pick of the Week

 

DRINKS

Hippo Lite

Year of release: 2018

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

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

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

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