20.11.2023 Views

InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 4

Create successful ePaper yourself

Turn your PDF publications into a flip-book with our unique Google optimized e-Paper software.

FESTIVAL COVERAGE<br />

FESTIVAL COVERAGE:<br />

SUNDANCE 2023<br />

scelerisque fermentum dui faucibus in ornare quam viverra orci sagittis eu<br />

volutpat odio facilisis mauris sit amet massa vitae tortor condimentum lacinia quis<br />

vel eros donec ac odio tempor orci dapibus ultrices in iaculis nunc sed augue lacus<br />

viverra vitae congue eu consequat ac felis donec et odio pellentesque diam<br />

volutpat commodo sed egestas egestas fringilla phasellus faucibus scelerisque<br />

eleifend donec pretium vulputate sapien nec sagittis aliquam malesuada bibendum<br />

arcu vitae elementum curabitur vitae nunc sed velit dignissim sodales ut eu sem<br />

integer vitae justo eget magna fermentum iaculis eu non diam phasellus<br />

vestibulum lorem sed risus ultricies tristique nulla<br />

1


SUNDANCE 2023<br />

MAMACRUZ<br />

Patricia Ortega<br />

At its heart, Patricia Ortega’s MAMACRUZ radiates a tender and<br />

thoughtful warmth for its sympathetic main character, a woman<br />

whose womanhood has <strong>—</strong> after decades of religious devotion and<br />

institutionalization <strong>—</strong> retaken center stage in her life. The titular<br />

Cruz (Kiti Mánver), a seventy-something woman, wife, and<br />

mother, has made small-town routine her domicile. She traverses<br />

quaint, sun-baked streets on her way to and from church, where<br />

she helps out by sewing garments for its Virgin Mary statue; she<br />

cooks and cleans with unspoken familiarity for her frizzled-hair<br />

husband and cherubic granddaughter; and she video-calls her<br />

daughter, an aspiring dancer currently based in Vienna, from<br />

time to time. More tellingly, however, she’s established a gentle<br />

rhythm for her twilight years, one whose lack of geographical<br />

specificity (it’s Spain, but it’s also any suburban community<br />

within) encases a larger universal truth about women her age:<br />

they’ve lost that lovin’ feelin’, so formative to their physical and<br />

psychological growth decades prior.<br />

But Ortega’s follow-up to 2018’s Being Impossible isn’t the terribly<br />

tragic reception that most of its genre’s ilk are wont to host. Look<br />

no further than Gaspar Noé’s Vortex or Arturo Ripstein’s Devil<br />

Between the Legs for those; they’re by far not the worst films on<br />

old age’s ravages, and this should undermine the oft-held belief<br />

in a thematic indie shorthand of optimistic/acclaimed versus<br />

miserabilist/underwhelming. (Swap the terms for Cannes.)<br />

MAMACRUZ’s radiant tonal palette and unassuming performances<br />

suggest hope amidst normalcy, familiarity within stifled desire,<br />

and its crux revolves around how Cruz rediscovers her body and<br />

her passion against society’s will. When she first stumbles upon<br />

one of those ubiquitous porn ads while looking up Wikipedia <strong>—</strong><br />

has malware really gotten so bad in Spain? <strong>—</strong> her initial reaction<br />

is refusal and rejection; “turn it off,” she desperately flounders in<br />

the wee hours of dawn, frantically gesturing an apology to the<br />

Virgin propped on a drawer in her living room.<br />

It’s only after slight goading by the circumstances <strong>—</strong> namely, her<br />

husband continuing to give her the inexplicable silent (and<br />

sexless) treatment <strong>—</strong> plus the arguably teleological foundations<br />

of our carnal drives that Cruz embraces all the breathlessness<br />

and the heart-racing long dormant within. Attending a women’s<br />

sex therapy group in a clandestine capacity and discovering the<br />

now-voguish potentials of anal sex and Ben Wa balls, she opens<br />

up to a personal dimension hitherto denied her and compensated<br />

for, instead, by Mass and motherhood. Ortega’s scenario, on the<br />

whole, traffics in compassion and nuance, eschewing the risqué<br />

and risible sensationalism frequently realized by hardcore<br />

pornography and patriarchal stereotyping, respectively. That is,<br />

however, not to recuse MAMACRUZ from blanket criticism, which<br />

many a critic today is guilty of in their pursuit of ideological<br />

synonymy. All its sensitivities aside, Ortega’s film remains<br />

shuttered in by thematic exiguity and clumsiness. Its ideas are<br />

better off expounded in a short (given how Ortega quickly resorts<br />

to surrealism as a means of channeling psychological interiority),<br />

and its seeming provocations <strong>—</strong> by way of juxtaposing Cruz’s<br />

religious faith with her erotic stirrings <strong>—</strong> irk, not because of their<br />

tastelessness but due to the film’s thematic preoccupations<br />

explicitly rendered as thesis statement. To critique MAMACRUZ,<br />

then, is to acknowledge its selective nuances and subtleties<br />

while recognizing the limits of character studies whose<br />

predetermined scope restricts, more or less, their outsized<br />

ambitions. <strong>—</strong> MORRIS YANG<br />

GUSH<br />

Fox Maxy<br />

Expanding on the layered, accelerated style she has developed in<br />

her shorter films, Fox Maxy arrives at Sundance firing on all<br />

cylinders. Gush marks a clear progression in Maxy’s method,<br />

adopting an organizational logic more akin to music than any<br />

conventional narrative form. Maxy has stated that this is, in part,<br />

a film about mental health and healing, and while this may not be<br />

immediately apparent from moment to moment, the film’s<br />

cumulative effect is liberatory, precisely because it avoids the<br />

usual cinematic language of trauma and victimization. Where too<br />

2


FESTIVAL COVERAGE<br />

much film work ends up redoubling the violence it aims to<br />

condemn, Gush unfurls like a multi-faceted tapestry, showing<br />

that joy and pain, memory and future, hope and fear, are all<br />

inseparable and simultaneously present in the experiential stew<br />

of lived existence.<br />

Drawing on a vast array of source material, some original and<br />

some appropriated, Maxy pushes images and sounds beyond<br />

mere representation. These elements take on a physical aspect,<br />

jolting the viewer as one kind of texture clashes with another.<br />

Clean, rounded digital animations collide with grainy, pixelated<br />

cellphone recordings. A shot of a landscape or a bedroom is<br />

suddenly flattened by the appearance of a digital image or video<br />

effect (for instance, a group of animated spiders crawling across<br />

the surface of the screen), provoking a moment of cognitive<br />

shock. That is, we think we are watching one type of image, but<br />

Maxy’s additions and distortions shatter that perception,<br />

reminding us that nothing onscreen is “there.” Every element is<br />

purposeful, like a note in a composition, producing chords of<br />

harmony and of dissonance.<br />

Certain motifs recur in Gush, including clips of Naomi Campbell<br />

on The Tyra Banks Show describing how the modeling industry<br />

compromised her sense of self; documentation of a multimedia<br />

performance piece with live reading, lights, and projection; and<br />

numerous sequences of people in their cars, traveling,<br />

conversing, or just hanging out. But the overwhelming majority of<br />

Gush consists of Maxy’s subjects experiencing sustained<br />

moments of happiness. There’s dancing, joking around, people<br />

acting silly in front of the camera in complete comfort. To watch<br />

Gush is to hover on the periphery of a circle of absolute love and<br />

trust. We are invited for a little while to just honor this<br />

community, to bear witness to its vibrant, irrefutable existence.<br />

And while Maxy’s filmic language avoids the typical tricks and<br />

techniques for suturing the viewer into the world onscreen <strong>—</strong> this<br />

is not a film about flattering or seducing its spectator <strong>—</strong> it is also<br />

profoundly welcoming. Like its title, Gush is both exuberant and<br />

overwhelming, a rush of sounds and images that surges over us,<br />

at times even knocking us off our feet. But if we give ourselves<br />

over the current, we can float. <strong>—</strong> MICHAEL SICINSKI<br />

THE NIGHT LOGAN WOKE UP<br />

Xavier Dolan<br />

Xavier Dolan’s career started surrounded by so much praise, but<br />

it seems that after a certain point, everyone grew tired of him all<br />

at once. It’s Only the End of the World wasn’t meaningfully<br />

different from anything he’d made before, to my eyes, but the<br />

3


SUNDANCE 2023<br />

reviews were so much worse. It preceded <strong>—</strong> predicted, almost<br />

willed into existence <strong>—</strong> his true fall with The Death & Life of John<br />

F. Donovan, a total failure by all accounts. That film was recut so<br />

heavily that Jessica Chastain, who was announced as one of the<br />

leads, didn’t even show up in the final cut. Even then, Dolan<br />

couldn’t find any shape to give the film, and within all that<br />

footage he shot, there doesn’t seem to be much to find. Matthias<br />

& Maxime was naturally a retreat from disaster, as Dolan went<br />

back to his roots, presumably to rebuild from there, but it doesn’t<br />

seem like he’s interested in doing that now. In a recent interview,<br />

he said that he “[doesn’t] really want to do this job anymore,” and<br />

in his new five-episode series, The Night Logan Woke Up, you can<br />

tell.<br />

It’s a particularly mediocre example of a particularly mediocre<br />

form: prestige television. Each episode follows that structure:<br />

something vaguely exciting will happen at the beginning and the<br />

end <strong>—</strong> or at least the music tells us it’s supposed to be exciting <strong>—</strong><br />

and what’s in between is mostly stalling. If television’s extended<br />

length is supposed to give room to develop character more than<br />

the filmic medium would allow, then that’s seldom how all that<br />

time has effectively been used. Without much plot to plug the<br />

holes, Logan is explicitly character-based, the blatant<br />

time-wasting even more obvious. Following each member of the<br />

Larouche family, there is no sense that these threads go<br />

anywhere; even the anchor of the dying matriarch (Anne Dorval)<br />

doesn’t give much sense of connection and convergence, and<br />

everything is simply floating through the wind. Dolan seems to<br />

recognize this, and so gets the character he plays to define all<br />

the specific relationships in a classic therapy-as-exposition<br />

scene, which, as per usual, sacrifices character, drama, and<br />

tension for the sake of convenience.<br />

No one could accuse Dolan’s previous work of a lack of drive and<br />

energy, but considering that he’s credited as the writer, director,<br />

producer, and editor, Logan is shockingly anonymous. It’s stylish<br />

only to the extent that any hack television director could handle,<br />

and so the music by Hans Zimmer and David Fleming is needed<br />

to push the coverage into any kind of shape, which it does with a<br />

fitting apathy: each cue contains only the generic musical<br />

signifiers of whatever emotion it’s supposed to convey. All this<br />

could make Dolan’s biggest haters wish for one of his stylized,<br />

somewhat formally contrived setpieces set to slightly disjoint<br />

pop music, begging for a character to come and pull the screen<br />

into a different aspect ratio. Without the flare and youthful<br />

exuberance, all that’s left is the emptiness that was always at the<br />

core of his films.<br />

GUSH<br />

Fox Maxy<br />

4


FESTIVAL COVERAGE<br />

There’s almost a promise of some growth, some development on<br />

his ideas by casting Dorval as the Mother. Dolan’s relationship<br />

with his Mother has been the most defining obsession in his<br />

work, and Dorval has played that surrogate since his very first<br />

film, the semi-autobiographical I Killed My Mother. But now she’s<br />

dying, dead by the end of the first episode. Maybe time has worn<br />

on Dolan in more ways than just his fatigue; maybe there’s a<br />

newfound awareness that all their shouting has come to nothing.<br />

All those conflicts will never be resolved, especially with someone<br />

they’re so close and so entangled with; there’s only so much time<br />

left. But from the two episodes screened, this doesn’t seem to be<br />

the case, and it’s hardly even gestured towards, despite how<br />

obviously fertile that ground is. Even though he’s doing it in such<br />

a tired, lazy way, Dolan seems to be trying to wrap up his career<br />

as a whole, killing his mother once and for all. <strong>—</strong> ESMÉ HOLDEN<br />

OTHER PEOPLE’S CHILDREN<br />

Rebecca Zlotowski<br />

The stepmother is typically an outsider role in literature.<br />

Originally an adaptation of the novel our Ticket Is No Longer Valid,<br />

which centers on a man's infertility, Rebecca Zlotowski’s Venice<br />

competition debut Other People’s Children is a story that’s evolved<br />

to be a character study of a woman’s exclusion from traditional<br />

milestones of her own life because she hasn’t chosen to have<br />

biological children yet. Rachel (Virginie Efira) is constantly told<br />

that she’s running out of time. Her gynecologist (an infamous in<br />

niche circles cameo from documentarian Frederick Wiseman)<br />

tells her her “biological clocks ticking,” her sister (Yamée<br />

Couture) becomes pregnant, and her new partner Ali (Roschdy<br />

Zem) is hesitant to fully introduce her into his personal life,<br />

initially in the case of his four-year-old daughter Leila (Callie<br />

Ferreira Goncalves). Though the development of Rachel loving<br />

Leila as her own is the primary source of her internal doubts<br />

about her child-free life, the title doesn’t just refer to Leila.<br />

Rachel teaches middle school, and takes on a mentoring role<br />

with a struggling student (Victor Lefebvre), supporting him as if<br />

she would a son at times. Her life is complicated because she’s<br />

lived, and there is never any easy resolution.<br />

This story is told entirely without its louder moments. Music cues<br />

will rise or cut in earlier than expected, the whole scene will fade<br />

to black, or a conversation won’t be audible until it is in the<br />

aftermath of conflict. These strategies give the characters<br />

privacy, and lend more weight to the subtleties of performing<br />

reflection rather than action. Particularly, the use of Vivaldi’s<br />

Mandolin Concerto in C Major is a Kramer vs. Kramer nod,<br />

intentionally signaling memories of much more conflict-driven<br />

relationship stories. By choosing to frame her narrative in which<br />

multiple relationships, large and small, enter, change, and leave<br />

Rachel’s life through its emotional aftermath, Zlotowski bends<br />

what would otherwise be a simple falling-in-love and then<br />

out-of-love story into a character study of what happens when<br />

every desire is complicated by life itself. This narrative should be<br />

a melodrama, in an expected sense. The music would rise and<br />

fall with the tension; the characters would fight on camera, and<br />

Rachel would cry when it’s over. And yet, it’s not. With the leisure<br />

of a Sautet or Rohmer drama, the best character moments come<br />

in peaceful performance rather than outburst.<br />

Not only is Rachel centered in a narrative that would traditionally<br />

place her in a supporting role, none of her choices and concerns<br />

are left within a vacuum. Rachel discusses her past experiences<br />

with abortion with a partner, and how, though she wants children<br />

now, that wasn’t always a goal, and her own relationship with<br />

motherhood is marred by her mother’s death. This also comes up<br />

when Rachel, her sister, and father (Michel Zlotowski, not a<br />

stranger to making appearances in his daughter’s films) visit her<br />

5


SUNDANCE 2023<br />

mother’s grave, and they debate the role of Rachel’s unborn niece<br />

in Jewish law, and what constitutes life. These conversations<br />

questioning and affirming and remembering the idea of choice<br />

don’t pretend that it’s easy, only that it is a fact of Rachel’s life.<br />

She hasn’t made up her mind about what she wants from Ali, how<br />

she feels about Leila’s mother (Chiara Mastroianni), or whether<br />

she needs biological children to feel complete in her aspirations.<br />

She’s able to grow still and change and live without settling into<br />

her 40s in someone else’s life.<br />

unused lithium, years worth of unpaid property taxes means<br />

there’s a lien on the house, and Brandon is so broke he’s reduced<br />

to stealing Top Ramen from the convenience store around the<br />

corner. It all piles up such that when he’s robbed at gunpoint at<br />

the aforementioned market by a sexy female criminal in a<br />

sparkly balaclava, it’s both the latest in a long line of indignities<br />

as well as a brief distraction from the mundanities of his life.<br />

Much of Efira’s performance is left unsaid. Her character’s wistful<br />

selflessness comes through in the slip of a hand back into her<br />

pocket when picking Leila up from judo around her mother, and<br />

in her regret-tinged rejection of a kiss from a near suitor. Rather<br />

than playing Rachel’s worry through histrionic neurosis, she<br />

builds up a smiling mask of grace as she slowly opens herself to<br />

the possibility of her world. Though Sibyl and Benedetta displayed<br />

a dramatic prowess, this warm, layered turn from Virginie Efira<br />

may instead remind accustomed viewers of her work in<br />

Madeleine Collins, as a mother living a double life trying to keep<br />

up images. Her onscreen happy ending isn’t marriage, having a<br />

child, or an impulsive chase of an impossible dream <strong>—</strong> it’s putting<br />

herself first and not accepting what comes without condition.<br />

Though this is a somewhat personal story, and the real ending<br />

isn’t the same vague philosophy, the epilogue is a reprioritization<br />

of the character, and a truthful one at that.<strong>—</strong> SARAH WILLIAMS<br />

YOUNG. WILD. FREE.<br />

Thembi L. Banks<br />

When we first meet Algee Smith’s Brandon in Thembi L. Banks’<br />

feature-debut, Young. Wild. Free., external stressors already beset<br />

him. A high school senior living in South Central with his manic<br />

depressive single mother, Janice (Sanaa Lathan), and two young<br />

siblings whom he’s practically raising by himself, Brandon is fired<br />

in the film’s first scene from a McJob he desperately needs, after<br />

a physical altercation with a coworker. Janice can barely get out<br />

of bed to buy groceries, her baby daddy Lamont (Mike Epps) is a<br />

low-rent drug dealer who keeps coming by the house to steal her<br />

After an attention-grabbing introduction, we learn that the<br />

masked bandit is a schoolmate of Brandon’s, named Cassidy<br />

(Sierra Capri). Cassidy is in the mold of Melanie Griffith’s Lulu<br />

from Something Wild: a sexually liberated delinquent,<br />

unencumbered by typical teenage obligations <strong>—</strong> she mostly<br />

wanders the hallways of school but doesn’t appear to actually<br />

attend classes <strong>—</strong> who’s also inexplicably obsessed with Brandon.<br />

Popping up unannounced at Brandon’s house to return the wallet<br />

she took from him, stocking his fridge with food, and getting him<br />

to stay out all night so they can cruise the Hollywood hills in her<br />

convertible blasting 80’s pop, Cassidy is less a person than a<br />

collection of incongruous, movie dream-girl traits, the type of<br />

female character seemingly designed in a lab to draw uptight<br />

men out of their shells and give in to their rebellious streaks<br />

while possessing no pesky inner lives themselves. She<br />

encourages Brandon to work out his frustrations by wailing on<br />

her cherry-red BMW with a golf club, gets him to cut class so they<br />

can go watch a Lena Horne film at repertory theater, and, as far<br />

as Brandon’s financial troubles… she has a solution for that too.<br />

One spends a small eternity waiting for the film to acknowledge<br />

the lack of tonal consistency or how Cassidy (whose fashion<br />

sense falls somewhere between one of the kids<br />

6


FESTIVAL COVERAGE<br />

from Clueless and an exotic dancer) and her behavior clashes<br />

with the comparatively grounded drama of Brandon and his<br />

family. So, for a good long while, the film simply splits the<br />

difference between earnest realism (i.e., Brandon and Janice<br />

spend most of the time fighting over money, Lamont, and<br />

whether she’ll resume seeing her therapist) and fantastical,<br />

wish-fulfillment nonsense. While it makes for an inharmonious<br />

union, morbid curiosity at how Banks might land this plane<br />

sustains the film for longer than it should by all rights.<br />

To the film’s slight credit, there *is* ultimately a reason for<br />

Cassidy’s “extraness,” but getting into what that is falls squarely<br />

within spoiler territory. One can say, however, that it hinges on<br />

the hoariest of twists (presumably this is the actual reason<br />

Cassidy incessantly references film bro staples from the late ‘90s<br />

and early ‘00s) <strong>—</strong> the sort of narrative device that, even when<br />

done well, rarely plays fair with the audience and almost always<br />

feels like a betrayal of any goodwill the film might have<br />

engendered up to that point. The revelation has a crippling effect<br />

on the film, leaving several substantial plot threads dangling<br />

(including a murder that Brandon participates in as part of a<br />

breaking and entry gone awry) so it can engage in touchy-feely<br />

psychobabble while forcing the viewer to play back in their heads<br />

half a dozen scenes that, upon reflection, make absolutely no<br />

sense. Reconciling the two modes the film employs was always<br />

going to be a tall order, but the solution Young. Wild. Free. arrives<br />

at feels deeply cynical, radiating backwards and negatively<br />

coloring everything we’d seen up to that point. While providing an<br />

explanation for why nothing was passing the smell test (as well<br />

as clarifying some of the more curious visual motifs), it only<br />

confirms all the worst suspicions about the filmmaker. <strong>—</strong><br />

ANDREW DIGNAN<br />

IN MY MOTHER’S SKIN<br />

Kenneth Dagatan<br />

Trapped in their luxurious mansion, a previously well-to-do<br />

family in the Philippines suffers through the tail end of World War<br />

II, constantly being harassed by the Imperial Japanese Army<br />

. The patriarch, Aldo (Arnold Reyes), is rumored to have stolen<br />

gold bars from the Japanese, which has put Antonio (Ronnie<br />

Lazaro), a Filipino liaison to the kôgun, on their case. Although he<br />

denies having stolen anything, Aldo takes Antonio's thinly veiled<br />

threats to heart and decides to leave his family behind in hopes<br />

of contacting the approaching Americans. Left alone, his wife<br />

Ligaya (Beauty Gonzales), daughter Tala (Felicity Kyle Napuli), son<br />

Bayani (James Mavie Estrella), and their scheming live-in servant<br />

Amor (Angeli Bayani), are forced to fend for themselves, as the<br />

scarce rations put them on a steady diet of sweet potatoes for<br />

the next few weeks. When Ligaya suddenly falls ill, Tala and<br />

Bayani wander the surrounding forest, desperate to find help for<br />

their ailing mother. Chancing upon a dilapidated house, Tala<br />

comes across a fairy (Jasmine Curtis-Smith) who claims to<br />

possess a cure for the mother's failing health.<br />

“[This] callback to the<br />

grindhouse flicks of the ‘70s<br />

offers up the most respectful<br />

portrait of sex workers the<br />

big screen has seen in ages.<br />

Kenneth Dagatan's creepy body horror fairytale is a beguiling<br />

genre amalgam which combines folkloric terror, historical<br />

tragedy, and shades of J-horror. When the fairy's supposed<br />

miracle cure inevitably sets in motion a bizarre transformation,<br />

Ligaya's body contorts uncomfortably, and her voice crackles<br />

with blood-curdling menace, recalling Kayako's eerie death rattle<br />

in Ju-On: The Grudge. Obvious parallels to Guillermo del Toro's<br />

Pan's Labyrinth aside, In My Mother's Skin grafts its more<br />

fantastical elements onto something altogether more nasty, even<br />

as it looks at the world through the innocent, naïve eyes of<br />

14-year-old Tala. Mangled corpses and severed heads abound,<br />

punctuating <strong>—</strong> maybe "interrupting" is the more apt descriptor <strong>—</strong><br />

the film's deliberate pacing. There are kaleidoscopic shots of rich<br />

flora blossoming around the characters throughout the film's<br />

97-minute runtime, and their oneiric blurriness <strong>—</strong><br />

7


SUNDANCE 2023<br />

reminiscent of Carlos Reygadas' 2012 magical realist Post<br />

Tenebras Lux, as well as the works of Apichatpong Weerasethakul<br />

<strong>—</strong> counters the cold, sharp, gray interiors of the barren family<br />

manor.<br />

Dagatan navigates the tonal and aesthetic back-and-forth with<br />

supreme confidence, easily seesawing between nightmarish folk<br />

horror and unambiguous brutality. Opening with the grim<br />

drudgery of life during wartime, the fairy's arrival brings a sense<br />

of wonder and hope, at least at first. The fairy, golden-winged<br />

and gorgeous, glistens with magic and vague malevolence, the<br />

latter being completely invisible to the young protagonist. Once<br />

Tala invites the deceitful evil into her home, however, its true<br />

nature quickly becomes apparent, and the timid Ligaya's<br />

transformation into a terrifying ghoul heralds Tala's imminent<br />

loss of innocence as well. Interestingly, though, In My Mother's<br />

Skin not only reflects on the war-induced loss of humanity but<br />

also on folk religion's place in one of the most devoutly Catholic<br />

countries on earth. The family frequently prays in front of an<br />

altar upon which an effigy of the Virgin Mary stands. But as the<br />

grotesque curse grows stronger, sending Tala and her younger<br />

brother deeper into despair, their prayers fall on deaf ears: the<br />

gods of folklore reclaiming the land that was theirs before the<br />

Spanish converted the island nation to Christianity. "The<br />

Philippines is a very Catholic country," elaborates Dagatan in an<br />

interview with Filmmaker Magazine. "I really wanted to provide a<br />

contrast to that hope of Catholicism."<br />

Consequently, his film is loaded with subversive imagery, most<br />

notably reflected in the design of Curtis-Smith's fairy herself.<br />

Acting as an inversion of the saintly Mary, her translucent halo<br />

transforms the warm glow associated with the light of<br />

Christianity into a perverse omen of doom, the golden wings not<br />

so much sacral as insectine. Dagatan elevates the mischievous<br />

mythical creature into a symbol not only for the cannibalistic<br />

nature of war, but also for the inevitability of loss, forcing Tala to<br />

confront mortality as a cruel and unavoidable thing <strong>—</strong> the most<br />

essential and the most painful part of growing up. <strong>—</strong> FRED<br />

BARRETT<br />

8


FESTIVAL COVERAGE<br />

LAST THINGS<br />

Deborah Stratman<br />

Last Things <strong>—</strong> the latest from Chicago-based experimental artist<br />

Deborah Stratman <strong>—</strong> begins with a voiceover reading the<br />

introductory prose from Clarice Lispector’s swan song novella,<br />

The Hour of the Star. “All the world began with a yes,” it declares<br />

over the blank screen. “One molecule said yes to another<br />

molecule and life was born. But before prehistory there was the<br />

prehistory of the prehistory and there was the never and there<br />

was the yes.” Genesis begins as molecular affirmation; humanity<br />

arrives long after. Lispector’s words thus set the scene for<br />

Stratman’s dense, 50-minute philosophical-geological inquiry, a<br />

bold posthuman gesture that dethrones the human as linchpin of<br />

both history and evolution and asserts, instead, the primacy of<br />

the mineral kingdom.<br />

Rocks, as Last Things suggests, evolve. Citing Robert Hazen’s<br />

mineral evolution hypothesis <strong>—</strong> which suggests the process to be<br />

largely a byproduct of living organisms <strong>—</strong> the film situates itself<br />

within a thirteen-billion-year-old narrative of matter, its<br />

migrations, and its evolution. Though earth rocks have existed<br />

for eons, they store no recollection of their journey. They’re an<br />

archive without memory; they endure and will continue to endure<br />

after the Earth’s death. In her scattered and elusive essayistic<br />

style, Stratman examines the implications of mineral evolution<br />

on humanity and vice-versa.<br />

Though cryptic and eccentric, this is far from Stratman’s most<br />

impenetrable work. Much like her previous film, The Illinois<br />

Parables (2016), Last Things frequently reformulates itself, armed<br />

with an arsenal of approaches. The movie embodies a variety of<br />

perspectives, from outer space to microscope slides, as<br />

Stratman’s images <strong>—</strong> landscapes, crystal and rock formations,<br />

sketches, spelunking and laboratory footage, celestial satellite<br />

imagery, microscopic forms, etc. <strong>—</strong> collectively embody an<br />

otherworldly thrill. The soundtrack (including pieces by Brian Eno<br />

and Okkyung Lee) and sound design (by Stratman herself) are<br />

often glitchy, alien, and sublime. Stratman’s rendition of rocks, in<br />

addition, highlights the complexities of their history and<br />

evolutions. She imbues them with a vastness far beyond the<br />

dismissal often extended towards the inanimate. Images are<br />

often accompanied by voiceover interviews or passages from<br />

texts (always narrated by unseen figures); these narrated<br />

9


SUNDANCE 2023<br />

passages are eclectic. Scientific mineral theory enmeshes with<br />

speculative fiction <strong>—</strong> fact and fiction married <strong>—</strong> and there’s a<br />

slippery ambiguity at work in Last Things’ lack of citations (at<br />

least, until the end credits). The disparate sources which fuel the<br />

narration thus culminate into a singular and chaotic vision.<br />

of epochal change. Rakesh is poor, using his father’s old<br />

hand-me-down boat to fish along the shallow coastlines. Ganesh<br />

is an upwardly mobile, middle-class businessman, having studied<br />

abroad in Scotland and is now the owner of a large ship that<br />

requires a crew to venture into deep waters to make its catch.<br />

The extinction of humanity <strong>—</strong> an increasingly inevitable prospect<br />

<strong>—</strong> is at the meditative core of Last Things. Yet the film downplays<br />

this drama and de-emphasizes our cosmic importance. At one<br />

point, Stratman includes a shot of Casa do Penedo, the northern<br />

Portuguese landmark-home erected around four massive stone<br />

boulders. The domestic architecture builds off its pre-existing<br />

geological landscape. It’s a perfect culminating image; human<br />

constructions are at the mercy of mineral formations, and the<br />

eradication of our species and the decay of everything material<br />

we’ve produced is just a ripple in the history of our earthly<br />

co-matter. In refuting tendencies of anthropomorphic thought,<br />

the film becomes an empowering reminder of our own<br />

insignificance. Yet any hint of didacticism shrivels away in<br />

Stratman’s hands; instead, she embraces pleasure in the<br />

unknown and the sprawling ambiguity of the universe. <strong>—</strong> RYAN<br />

AKLER-BISHOP<br />

AGAINST THE TIDE<br />

Sarvnik Kaur<br />

Coincidentally or not, Sarvnik Kaur’s new documentary Against<br />

the Tide arrives just one year after Shaunak Sen’s acclaimed 2022<br />

doc All That Breathes. The two form a diptych of sorts <strong>—</strong> both are<br />

Sundance premieres, and each grapples with social and<br />

environmental issues in modern-day India as refracted through<br />

the relationship between two men, here life-long best friends<br />

Rakesh and Ganesh. Beginning with the birth of Rakesh’s son and<br />

ending with the birth of Ganesh's own child, Against the Tide<br />

compresses roughly a year of their respective lives into a<br />

90-minute narrative that charts the tumultuous ups and downs<br />

of their day-to-day existence. Both men are Koli fishermen, a<br />

traditional Indian caste which dates back to at least the 15th<br />

century, but whose way of life is now slowly eroding in the face<br />

Kaur gets a lot of mileage out of simply observing the two old<br />

friends at home and at work; Rakesh’s small, cramped shack,<br />

tattered clothes, and beaten-up boat stand in sharp contrast to<br />

Ganesh’s comparatively massive vessel, as well as his modern<br />

condo, stylish outfits, and sleek smartphone. But despite the<br />

outward trappings of success, Ganesh’s lifestyle comes at a cost,<br />

too. He’s massively in debt, borrowing money left and right to<br />

keep his crew on in the hopes that a big catch is coming soon.<br />

For his part, Rakesh can barely afford the doctor’s visits for his<br />

chronically ill baby, revealed in time to have a congenital heart<br />

defect. Both men are in dire straights, their plights exasperated<br />

by the increasingly small loads of fish each of their expeditions<br />

keep turning up. Climate change, an influx of Chinese boats,<br />

conflict with Pakistan, and good old-fashioned human<br />

malfeasance are all partly to blame; but whatever the cause, the<br />

men’s livelihoods are hanging by a thread.<br />

On paper, Against the Tide might sound like a simplistic portrait<br />

of have vs. have not, but Rakesh and Ganesh are compelling<br />

subjects in their own right, both well aware of their grim<br />

situations and open with their spouses and each other about<br />

their fears. Far from wallowing in self-pity, the men are lively and<br />

proactive, willing to ask tough questions of each other and push<br />

back when necessary. The film is most compelling whenever<br />

Kaur and cinematographer Ashok Meena allow scenes to play out<br />

10


FESTIVAL COVERAGE<br />

unadorned, simply observing events and allowing various details<br />

to accumulate.The actual fishing footage is breathtaking,<br />

occasionally flirting with the abstracted verisimilitude of Paravel<br />

and Castaing-Taylor’s Leviathan while still giving viewers a clear<br />

view of the labor involved, the nuts and bolts of fishing on both<br />

an industrial and an individual scale; men maneuvering these<br />

huge nets and the monumental effort it requires to haul them<br />

into and out of the water is a sight to behold. Scenes of Ganesh<br />

haggling in the harbor fish markets reveal how desperate<br />

everyone is, as buyers and sellers jockey for position and hope to<br />

chisel some kind of profit from one another. It’s a flurry of<br />

activity, a real glimpse into a part of the world most viewers will<br />

be unfamiliar with.<br />

A key subplot gradually emerges, as Ganesh questions whether or<br />

not to illegally use LED lights on his ship in an effort to net larger<br />

yields. Rakesh is adamantly opposed to the idea, noting that it is<br />

against the Koli tradition and leads to overfishing, leaving small<br />

operations like his own with nothing. Ganesh counters that they<br />

are both already catching nothing on a regular basis, while larger<br />

ships utilize LEDs one way or the other. It’s an ethical quandary<br />

played out as an intimate, interpersonal drama, and one that isn’t<br />

resolved in quite the way viewers might assume. It’s a worthy<br />

film, fast-paced and teeming with ideas, and if it’s not ultimately<br />

optimistic about the future, it still highlights the values of<br />

ceremonial tradition and communal activity. <strong>—</strong> DANIEL GORMAN<br />

JOYLAND<br />

Saim Sadiq<br />

As the first Pakistani film to premiere at Cannes, Saim Sadiq’s<br />

Joyland <strong>—</strong> which also won the Un Certain Regard selection’s Jury<br />

prize and the Queer Palm in 2022 <strong>—</strong> is a historic directorial debut.<br />

Set in Lahore, Pakistan, Joyland is a gentle and sobering look at<br />

repressed desires. However, while Joyland is groundbreaking for<br />

what it represents for Pakistani cinema, the film’s<br />

disproportionate focus on a cisgender man’s anxieties<br />

undermines its promising premise.<br />

In one of the very first scenes of Joyland, a woman’s water<br />

breaks. This is not Nucchi’s (Sarwat Gilani) first rodeo; she swiftly<br />

tells her other three daughters that they will be fed. She makes<br />

sure the spill on the floor is cleaned, before ordering her<br />

brother-in-law, Haider (Ali Junejo), to get his bike so they can go<br />

to the hospital. He is visibly flustered, and so she yells at him,<br />

once more, to get his bike. Only then does he listen. Throughout<br />

the commotion, Haider’s face is out of the camera’s line of sight,<br />

though Nucchi’s is in full view. With this, Sadiq makes it<br />

abundantly clear who runs the household. This opening scene is<br />

Joyland’s strongest moment, as it precisely delineates the<br />

patriarchal gender politics which govern families: Nucchi is more<br />

strong-willed than Haider, but is confined to her expected role as<br />

a mother of four. Her brilliance is unfairly hampered by a<br />

flustered man who doesn’t quite know what he wants in life.<br />

Joyland would have made for a searing indictment of patriarchal<br />

cruelty if it had sustained the masterful concision displayed in its<br />

opening scene. Instead, Haider’s insecurities over his masculinity<br />

<strong>—</strong> he is unemployed and his wife, Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq), is the<br />

sole breadwinner <strong>—</strong> is how audiences are made to view the<br />

women in his life, especially Mumtaz and Biba (Alina Khan), a<br />

trans dancer with whom Haider has an affair. When Haider lands<br />

a job as a backup dancer for Biba, Mumtaz is begrudgingly forced<br />

to give up her career as a make-up artist in order to take care of<br />

Haider’s father and Nucchi’s children. Just as she is pushed to<br />

the margins by her father-in-law, Sadiq’s script also diminishes<br />

Mumtaz’s role in the narrative in the latter half of the film <strong>—</strong> she<br />

is reduced to her palpable sadness over Haider’s lingering<br />

absences. By the final act, Mumtaz all but slowly disappears from<br />

the script altogether.<br />

Perhaps what is more concerning is Joyland’s treatment of Biba,<br />

whose character is largely defined (and curtailed) by her love<br />

affair with Haider and the transphobic violence that she<br />

experiences in Pakistan. Joyland has little to say about trans<br />

womanhood that isn’t filtered through what Haider, as well as<br />

other men, think of Biba. Her character serves as an allegorical<br />

tale for the failures of cis-ness; Haider’s affair with Biba is less<br />

11


SUNDANCE 2023<br />

about his affection for her than it is about lashing out at his<br />

insufficiency at performing what is expected of him as a man. In<br />

what is supposedly a touching scene, Haider tells Biba:<br />

“Sometimes… I feel like I have nothing that’s my own. Everything<br />

feels borrowed or stolen from someone else.” These two lines<br />

would have been stunning had they been articulated by people<br />

who are on the receiving end of gender oppression. Yet in<br />

Joyland, it is Biba who comforts Haider’s sorrow over having the<br />

freedom to leave the house while his wife bears the brunt of<br />

misogyny. While men like Haider do suffer the consequences of<br />

oppressive gender roles <strong>—</strong> and Sadiq does a brilliant job at<br />

highlighting the nuances of this <strong>—</strong> it is the systemic misogyny<br />

towards women like Biba, Nucchi, and Mumtaz which sustains the<br />

patriarchy.<br />

Part of the marvel of watching a film like Sean Baker’s Tangerine<br />

is seeing trans characters exist as who they are <strong>—</strong> neither<br />

Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) nor Alexandra (Mya Taylor) are<br />

used as metaphors for the precariousness of cis-gender norms<br />

or the ways in which cis-ness disappoints. In an ironically cruel<br />

fashion, it is Biba who barely has anything of her own in Sadiq’s<br />

film beyond her figurative duty to make Haider’s<br />

self-actualization meaningful. Even scenes of intimacy between<br />

Haider and Biba are heavy-handed in illustrating this; during their<br />

first kiss, the light in the room shines on Biba, while Haider is<br />

shrouded in darkness. In Joyland, Biba’s characterization only<br />

occurs when tenuously contrasted against Haider’s. As a result,<br />

Biba isn’t afforded the narrative heterogeneity that she rightfully<br />

deserves.<br />

One of the most euphoric scenes in Joyland occurs when Nucchi<br />

and Mumtaz take some time off to go to Joyland, the titular<br />

amusement park. It is a rare moment where the two women are<br />

free from the gendered expectations that suffocate their dreams<br />

and ambitions. Womanhood, for Nucchi and Mumtaz, is most<br />

tangible when they are together without their husbands. Their<br />

solidarity highlights the squandered potentiality of Sadiq’s script.<br />

One can’t help but wonder whether Biba’s character would be<br />

more fully realized had she been in community with other trans<br />

women or given a standalone arc <strong>—</strong> these wonderful scenes do<br />

happen, but they are few and far between <strong>—</strong> instead of being<br />

used to literalize a cisgender man’s journey towards<br />

enlightenment. <strong>—</strong> SHAR TAN<br />

12


FESTIVAL COVERAGE<br />

KIM’S VIDEO<br />

David Redmon, Ashley Sabin<br />

With streaming services yanking titles from availability and even<br />

disappearing completed work that may now never be shown, it<br />

might seem like the perfect time to eulogize physical media once<br />

again. We’ve had movies about obsessive collectors, we’ve had<br />

the story of the sole remaining Blockbuster video; now comes<br />

Kim’s Video, the cleverly titled tale of the legendarily huge catalog<br />

of the New York-based Kim’s Video chain.<br />

mountain of tapes and DVDs sat rotting in a crappy, locked<br />

basement. Redmon journeys to Salemi, where he finds not only<br />

this dismal sight, but encounters a shifty local politician, a<br />

possible mafioso, and even maybe a murder, before finally<br />

settling on a mostly tongue-in-cheek “heist,” referencing both<br />

Godard and the movie Argo, to liberate Kim’s collection and return<br />

it to the U.S. The performative nature of the whole thing is<br />

functionally pretty grating, and seeing what’s left of Kim’s Video<br />

wind up in the hands of a theater chain using it as a kitschy<br />

loss-leader to sell beer and T-shirts is disheartening at best.<br />

David Redmon and Ashley Sabin’s documentary bounces back<br />

and forth between Redmon’s obsessive love of cinema and his<br />

feelings of a psychic bond with the store’s 55,000-plus collection<br />

and tales of clerks-turned-filmmakers (Sean Price Williams and<br />

Alex Ross Perry turn up here) or celebrity late fees (the Coens<br />

supposedly owed 600 bucks). Redmon can’t go thirty seconds<br />

without name-checking a famous movie, at one point likening his<br />

compulsion to that of Kane with Rosebud. It’s meant to be cheeky<br />

and playful, but then it becomes assaultive and annoying, like<br />

being trapped in a conversation with someone who doesn’t care<br />

about your half of it.<br />

Eventually, the film gets to its heart: in 2008, owner Yongman<br />

Kim decided to close the business, and dutifully sought another<br />

home for the collection. Bizarrely, he settled on the Italian town<br />

of Salemi, which promised to keep the archive available to any<br />

Kim’s Video member, hold festivals, and even project titles in the<br />

town square, all in an effort to boost tourism. But as Karina<br />

Longworth discovered in 2012, that never happened. Instead, the<br />

What’s worse, Kim’s Video has nothing to say about the value of<br />

the physical media Redmon is so intent on rescuing, nor does it<br />

spend any time discussing all of the other collections around the<br />

country (and indeed, the world) that are doing major work<br />

keeping that art alive and accessible. It’s mostly just a nerd’s<br />

prank. It’s not enough to just love movies, it’s not enough that<br />

that love has formed so much of your identity; you’ve got to have<br />

something to say about that. <strong>—</strong> MATT LYNCH<br />

SQUARING THE CIRCLE<br />

Anton Corbijn<br />

For those who’ve ever lit a doobie and stared at Pink Floyd’s cover<br />

art with glazed eyes, wondering what it all means, man, rejoice:<br />

Anton Corbijn’s documentary Squaring the Circle: The Story of<br />

Hipgnosis will engulf classic rock fans and design junkies alike in<br />

a haze of cheerful nostalgia. Well, unless the album in question is<br />

1970’s Atom Heart Mother, which bears the inscrutable photograph<br />

of a cow. If you’re wondering, “What has a cow got to do with Pink<br />

Floyd?” you’re not alone. But at this point, the only creature who<br />

can answer that question is the long-dead heifer herself.<br />

Hipgnosis, the pioneering design firm led by photographers<br />

Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey “Po” Powell, came up in London’s<br />

Swinging ‘60s and soon became the go-to cover artists for the<br />

likes of Led Zeppelin, 10cc, Peter Gabriel, and many more. Their<br />

name was adopted from a piece of graffiti in their studio, a play<br />

13


SUNDANCE 2023<br />

on the word “hypnosis” that fused the modernity of “hip” with the<br />

ancient wisdom of the “gnostic.” This origin story neatly sums up<br />

their decades-long sensibility: punny and playful, stubbornly<br />

irreverent, and committed to the bit. Thorgerson, who died in<br />

2013, was widely recognized as someone who “couldn’t take yes<br />

for an answer”; Corbijn includes an entire montage of interview<br />

subjects reminiscing about what an asshole he was. But in<br />

Powell, he found a best friend and creative partner, someone<br />

who could execute his crazy ideas and manage the fragile<br />

rock-star relationships that kept their studio afloat. Their<br />

eventual estrangement in the early ‘80s, when the bright,<br />

artificial bleep-bloops of the MTV generation came to dominate<br />

airwaves, was as much a death knell for Hipgnosis as it was for<br />

the heavy, guitar-driven sound they celebrated and the surreal<br />

aesthetic they helped create.<br />

“Vinyl is the poor man’s art collection,” quips Noel Gallagher, who<br />

is definitely maybe unsure if he’s quoting himself and, in<br />

Thorgerson’s absence, serves as the documentary’s resident<br />

grouch. Yet the rock star excesses of the era <strong>—</strong> and a certain<br />

internationally recognized prism graphic <strong>—</strong> quickly elevated<br />

Hipgnosis from ratty art school kids to high-flying members of<br />

the entourage. Corbijn, himself a photographer and music video<br />

director for megabands like Depeche Mode and U2, clearly<br />

recognizes how much he and every other black coffee-drinking,<br />

cigarette-smoking, 35mm-shooting art director is indebted to<br />

the Hipgnosis legacy. The result is an affectionate documentary<br />

that’s roughly formatted as a Greatest Hits of their most iconic<br />

album covers. Actual human stuntman on fire? Easy. Escaped<br />

inflatable pig that closed air traffic? Obviously. Reclining sheep<br />

on a therapist’s couch in the Hawaiian surf? Child’s play. But the<br />

biggest I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-Photoshop moment came when<br />

Paul McCartney wanted an antique statue perched on a<br />

mountain, so Hipgnosis chartered a helicopter to the Swiss peaks<br />

to get the money shot. Of course, a pile of salt in the studio would<br />

have sufficed <strong>—</strong> but where’s the fun in that? <strong>—</strong> SELINA LEE<br />

14


FESTIVAL COVERAGE<br />

LA PECERA<br />

Glorimar Marrero Sánchez’<br />

La Pecera, Glorimar Marrero Sánchez’s feature debut, opens in<br />

mysterious fashion, offering little exposition and dropping<br />

viewers straight into a scene of Noelia (Isel Rodríguez) taking a<br />

bath. Eventually, her partner comes in to help clean a wound, the<br />

relic of a horrible battle with cancer, which seems to have<br />

returned though she is hiding this from her partner. This opening<br />

sequence acts as a nucleus to one of the film’s major themes <strong>—</strong> a<br />

contention with our own mortality. Noelia soons confirms that<br />

her cancer has indeed returned, and that the prognosis isn’t<br />

hopeful. Exhausted from the relentless treatment she’s already<br />

endured, she decides to leave her current home life and return to<br />

Vieques, an eastern island of Puerto Rico where she grew up.<br />

images butting up against distracting (and literal) shakiness of<br />

form. In general, the film lacks the stillness necessary to land<br />

with impact, surprising given the narrative; it only runs 90<br />

minutes long, but still feels frustratingly lacking in intent. It<br />

leaves some of the major plot points, especially in the final act,<br />

feeling rushed and landing with less impact than they ought to.<br />

It appears that Noelia seldom returns to her hometown; given the<br />

morsels of information doled out to viewers, which can<br />

sometimes abruptly interrupt the story, we find that Vieques is<br />

an island with a difficult history and a tumultuous relationship<br />

with the U.S. During the latter half of the 20 th century, America<br />

used the island for munitions testing, which involved pummeling<br />

the island with bombs and conducting military training<br />

operations. Permeating the entire film is the lingering trauma<br />

this horrifying practice has left with the island’s inhabitants;<br />

Noelia’s mother attempts to disarm and retrieve leftover bombs,<br />

while her friends conduct experiments on the water to test its<br />

toxicity. Unfortunately, this study of the legacy of colonialism and<br />

militarism is left underexplored, with its addition to the film often<br />

feeling more jarring than of genuine interest.<br />

Despite La Pecera’s first 20 minutes edging toward surrealism<br />

(or even a more spiritual realm), it largely remains strictly<br />

naturalistic, rarely delving into or indulging any sense of eeriness<br />

or mystery. It’s a texture that’s notable in both the performances,<br />

which are on the whole quite good, and the cinematography.<br />

Visually, the film boasts some arresting images <strong>—</strong> the murky<br />

hues of a sunset slowly fading on a desolate beach, a haunting<br />

reflection glimpsed in a mirror <strong>—</strong> but the handheld camerawork<br />

also too often lends a dissonance, the beauty of these static<br />

It’s perhaps best to view La Pecera as a treatise on taking control<br />

of one’s own life. Early in the film, Noelia’s partner continually<br />

tries to influence, to the point of almost controlling, her<br />

decisions. He soon becomes overbearing, which forces her to<br />

leave without him. And then there are the doctors, family, and<br />

friends who all attempt to exert some authority over Noelia’s<br />

actions despite her moves to defy them, repeatedly reminding<br />

them that she is not a child. It reflects the film’s most thoroughly<br />

fleshed out ideas, with the concept of self-determination being<br />

linked to the larger story of Vieques’ citizens attempting to<br />

regain control over their island from American influence.<br />

But given how primed the film’s various plot threads of both a<br />

damaged community and a woman confronting the stark reality<br />

of death feel for an complex dissection of identity, mortality, and<br />

trauma, Marrero Sánchez’ only musters disappointingly tepid<br />

ruminations on any of them. La Pecera remains a sufficiently<br />

solid debut on the strength of its interesting albeit sporadic<br />

considerations, instinct for compositions, and dedication to<br />

naturalistic minimalism, all of which suggest great potential for<br />

the director, but its shortcomings are tough to ignore this time<br />

out. <strong>—</strong> OLIVER PARKER<br />

15


KICKING THE CANON<br />

THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW<br />

MASSACRE<br />

Tobe Hooper<br />

When talking about the agonizingly slow death of his career, Orson Welles once claimed, "I began at the top and have been working my<br />

way down ever since.” Aside from debut feature Eggshells <strong>—</strong> an often forgotten experimental work about a hippie commune <strong>—</strong> this<br />

quote could also easily be applied to horror master Tobe Hooper, with his sophomore film, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, persisting as<br />

his most revered work almost fifty years after its release. Despite directing a variety of grimy and fascinating films, such as<br />

immediate follow-up Eaten Alive or the unfairly maligned and beautifully horrid late-period Toolbox Murders, Hooper was seldom able<br />

to recreate the surprise success found with Chain Saw, except for perhaps Poltergeist, which is a film most refuse to acknowledge<br />

Hooper even made. It seems strange that many of Hooper’s later films would not find any similar degree of success, although his<br />

obsession with strange, macabre tales persisted throughout his entire career. However, it’s easy to see why Chain Saw is regarded as<br />

his magnum opus.<br />

At the time of its release, there were few horror films that looked or felt like it. Up until the ‘60s, popular American and European<br />

horror was largely, although not entirely, defined by gothic tales, whether part of the Universal monster stable (Dracula, Frankenstein,<br />

etc.) or one of Roger Corman’s Poe works (House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum). Aside from singularities like Psycho or Night of<br />

the Living Dead, the genre frequently revolved around monsters, ghouls, or demonic entities, infrequently grounded in the horrors of<br />

reality, even when they were not as overwhelmingly harrowing as the ones made in the early 1970s. Hooper, along with other directors<br />

such as Wes Craven, helped bring a sense of verisimilitude and bleakness to the genre, shifting its focus toward the cruelty and<br />

16


KICKING THE CANON<br />

barbarity carried out by real human beings. No doubt this<br />

seismic shift was instigated not only by the dramatic changes in<br />

the sociopolitical arena at the time, but also by their ability to<br />

capture and air them on mainstream television. Hooper himself<br />

admitted that TV channels “showing brains spilled all over the<br />

road” as part of the Vietnam War coverage, alongside political<br />

corruption and more, contributed to the grim atmosphere felt<br />

throughout his film.<br />

This influence sees Hooper turn Chain Saw into something primal,<br />

although he never fixates on the film's more grotesque and<br />

violent elements for longer than necessary. As many others have<br />

pointed out, Chain Saw has very little actual bloodshed <strong>—</strong> Hooper<br />

himself was aiming to secure a PG rating from the MPAA, a fact<br />

which feels laughably implausible when viewing the final<br />

product. Leatherface’s entrance, for example, demonstrates how<br />

the film’s brutality is both entirely stripped back and punctures it<br />

at seemingly random intervals. Without hinting, he suddenly<br />

appears on screen before violently beating someone to death in<br />

quick succession. His hulking body and disturbing mask are<br />

enough to terrify, but there is hardly time to take it in; before<br />

long, he has disappeared out of frame. This lack of exposition on<br />

the Sawyer family's presence in the world is a testament to the<br />

film's power. Hooper explains nothing about this sadistic family,<br />

their motives, what exists in their past, or what will happen to<br />

them after the credits roll. He simply drops us into this already<br />

existing universe, with characters whose lives don’t start and end<br />

with the images onscreen.<br />

In her provocative essay “Against Interpretation,” Susan Sontag<br />

claimed that “by reducing the work of art to its content and then<br />

interpreting that, one tames the work of art.” Chain Saw needs no<br />

interpretation. Whatever can be said about the film’s politics or<br />

its deeply embedded meanings is sure to pale in comparison to<br />

the incredible power of its images, which see horror distilled into<br />

its purest form. Attempting to grapple with the film's meaning<br />

and deem it something that simply exists to serve a message <strong>—</strong><br />

which is, unfortunately, the case for many modern flicks <strong>—</strong><br />

detracts from its incredibly singular purpose <strong>—</strong> namely, to<br />

17


FILM REVIEWS<br />

INFINITY POOL<br />

Brandon Cronenberg<br />

Though still relatively early in his career, initial indications are<br />

that arterial spray and pulverized bones are to Brandon<br />

Cronenberg’s filmography what unnatural orifices are to his<br />

father’s. Cronenberg the junior’s most recent film, Possessor, was<br />

even released in an uncut version which restored assorted eye<br />

and teeth gougings in full to preserve the filmmaker’s unblinking<br />

approach to screen violence. It felt like a distraction then <strong>—</strong> a<br />

nihilistic stunt to pander to the midnight madness crowd <strong>—</strong> but<br />

it’s more purposeful and of a piece with the overall approach to<br />

conveying excess in his latest film, Infinity Pool. Equal parts<br />

dystopian sci-fi, treatise on the ultra-wealthy, and scurrilous<br />

black comedy, Cronenberg has devised a premise that takes<br />

unchecked privilege and the absence of legal guardrails and<br />

allows it to play out to its most Hobbesian end. While there’s no<br />

shortage of “eat the rich” takes in pop culture these days, you’d<br />

be hard pressed to find anything this pitiless or debauched over<br />

at The White Lotus.<br />

Set at a heavily-fortified luxury resort on the fictional island<br />

nation of Li Tolqa, we’re introduced to occasional novelist James<br />

(Alexander Skarsgård) and his wealthy wife Em (Cleopatra<br />

Coleman) mid-vacation. James once wrote a<br />

not-terribly-successful book and has spent the ensuing years<br />

adrift: living off Em’s largesse (a visible strain on their marriage<br />

that they joke their way through) and desperate for inspiration. At<br />

the resort, they make quick friends with Alban (Jalil Lespert) and<br />

his actress wife Gabi (Mia Goth), the latter making a strong<br />

impression on James by gushing over his book. The film<br />

establishes a swingers and squares dynamic with Alban and Gabi,<br />

oozing sexual freedom and self-confidence, attempting to draw<br />

James and Em out of their shells, coaxing them into joining them<br />

for a picnic far outside the grounds of the resort (frowned upon<br />

due to the supposedly inhospitable locals). The two couples<br />

lounge in the sun and drink heavily; Gabi’s infatuation with James<br />

is impossible to ignore even before she sneaks up behind him<br />

while he’s urinating and brings him to completion in explicit<br />

detail (the film was screened in its NC-17 form with sequences<br />

19


FILM REVIEWS<br />

like this all but assured to be trimmed from the R-rated version<br />

being released theatrically by Neon). As day turns to night and<br />

the foursome piles into their borrowed car, it falls to James,<br />

allegedly the most sober member of the group, to drive them<br />

home. Distracted and impaired, James fails to spot a local man<br />

crossing the road in the dark, plowing into him with the car and<br />

killing him. Scared off by Gabi and Alban from calling the police<br />

with warnings of kangaroo courts and jailhouse sexual assault,<br />

an ashen James and Em agree to leave the body where it lies and<br />

slink back to the safety of the resort, hopeful to put the whole<br />

evening behind them.<br />

“[This] callback to the<br />

grindhouse flicks of the ‘70s<br />

offers up the most respectful<br />

portrait of sex workers the<br />

big screen has seen in ages.<br />

As the setup for a thriller, it’s familiar terrain (almost identical to<br />

the opening of last year’s The Forgiven), but Cronenberg takes the<br />

premise to some decidedly unconventional places. Rousted at<br />

their hotel the next morning by the cops and dragged to a<br />

dungeon-like holding cell, James is grimly informed of the local<br />

law that demands he be executed for his crime (in a bit of<br />

“Lanthimosian” deadpan humor, we’re told the act must be<br />

committed by the eldest son of the deceased; in instances where<br />

there is no male child, the state will step in to dispense justice,<br />

but “fortunately” the dead man had a 13-year-old boy). However,<br />

due to a cozy relationship between the local government and the<br />

tourist industry (along with some sort of fantastical yet rapidly<br />

waived-away scientific process), they are able to clone James,<br />

memories and all, and allow his double to serve as scapegoat,<br />

albeit for a hefty fee. The introduction of clones sets certain<br />

thematic and plot expectations (i.e., the nature of the soul and<br />

the ethics of manufacturing a living being for the express<br />

purposes of slaughter), but these are things Cronenberg isn’t<br />

remotely concerned with. Rather, it’s merely an entrée to explore<br />

the all-encompassing sense of invulnerability felt by James (and,<br />

as we come to learn, other guests staying at the resort).<br />

Watching “himself” plead for mercy only to be repeatedly<br />

skewered by a giant knife wielded by a small boy, James feels<br />

liberated, in stark contrast to Em’s horror. For the right price,<br />

James and his creepy new friends can get away with literally<br />

anything, and the effect on them is intoxicating.<br />

There are, no doubt, real-world parallels being exaggerated here,<br />

but Cronenberg seems more interested in the moral implications<br />

of absolute immunity; a system that not only allows the<br />

privileged to behave with impunity, but implicitly condones it in<br />

order to sustain its economy. If murder or assault were treated<br />

like a speeding ticket, how might that distort one’s internal<br />

compass or feed into any already raging sense of entitlement? As<br />

the characters go further down the rabbit hole of sex, drugs, and<br />

unabated criminality, every evening ending with little more than<br />

a pricy slap on the wrist (as well as the morbid catharsis of<br />

watching their doubles be bled-out for their nightly amusement),<br />

the question becomes less will they ever make it home alive and<br />

more what kind of person will they even be when they get there?<br />

With its scatological obsessions, extreme sex and violence, and<br />

its depiction of a “ruling class” degrading others to get their<br />

rocks off, the film recalls no less an act of cinematic provocation<br />

than Pasolini’s Salò (lest one think this to be a reach, we even get<br />

a sequence where a nude Skarsgård is dog-walked on a leash).<br />

But the film envelopes its extremeness in shimmering surfaces,<br />

drone shots, cool lighting gels, and trippy freak-out sequences<br />

(during these scenes, viewers are likely to find themselves<br />

wondering what they're looking at and exactly how pornographic<br />

it might be). The film arouses and repulses in equal measure,<br />

leaving the viewer feeling as unclean and compromised as the<br />

characters. In this setting, the only unforgivable transgression is<br />

leaving the party early, with the film doing its own spin on “Hotel<br />

California.” It’s in this late stretch, after primarily treating her as<br />

a sexpot, that the film finally finds a suitable use for Goth. With<br />

her slightly alien features and up-for-anything enthusiasm, the<br />

actress makes for a memorable foil; her malevolence inextricable<br />

from her hedonistic impulses and taunting<br />

20


FILM REVIEWS<br />

playfulness (a gun-packing Gabi astride the hood of a slowly<br />

moving convertible, a giant bucket of fried chicken by her side,<br />

feels designed to inspire a million memes). Diminished returns is<br />

always the risk with maximalism, and Infinity Pool isn’t immune<br />

from bloat or repetition (one hates to put a number on how many<br />

orgies in a film are too many, but this would seem to sail past it),<br />

but it recovers nicely in its closing moments, amplifying its<br />

self-loathing by counterintuitively burying it under banalities.<br />

Some remain defined by their transgressions, while the truly<br />

monstrous shed them like a summer tan. <strong>—</strong> ANDREW DIGNAN<br />

machine in the darkness of night, and when things start to heal,<br />

he depicts a baby. It seems that the shot of labor was purely<br />

incidental, and that loosely connected abstraction continues its<br />

reign. This is equally clear in Dhont’s debut, Girl, which has<br />

nothing other than a few of these visual metaphors which it<br />

shuffles around into different orders for a hundred minutes.<br />

Close does have some dramatic drive, at least temporarily. The<br />

boys don’t really get time to drift apart because as soon as one<br />

girl asks, fairly neutrally, if they are a couple, Léo starts to turn<br />

his back on Rémi.<br />

DIRECTOR: Brandon Cronenberg; CAST: Alexander Skarsgård,<br />

Mia Goth, Cleopatra Coleman, Thomas Kretschmann;<br />

DISTRIBUTOR: NEON; IN THEATERS: January 27; RUNTIME:<br />

1 hr. 57 min.<br />

CLOSE<br />

Lukas Dhont<br />

Running through a field of brightly colored flowers might seem<br />

an awfully clichéd image of childhood innocence, but there is<br />

some hope that Lukas Dhont’s sophomore feature Close <strong>—</strong> about<br />

two young boys whose relationship is too intimate for themselves<br />

or anyone else to understand <strong>—</strong> will complicate this simple and<br />

idyllic image, because soon after this sequence we witness the<br />

labor that goes into this field. Dhont doesn’t allow it to only exist<br />

as an abstraction or metaphor; it’s, conversely, a place in the real<br />

world that needs work and effort to maintain. This complication<br />

is realized with a lightness of touch that extends to the lead<br />

performances, which allows the ambiguities between Léo (Eden<br />

Dambrine) and Rémi (Gustav De Waele) to clearly surface: that<br />

there is something more between these childhood friends is<br />

obvious, but what exactly that is is quite far from articulated,<br />

both for the audience and themselves.<br />

Their relationship doesn’t have to be worn down because Dhont<br />

imagines childhood innocence in an even thinner way than that<br />

first image suggests: it’s so fragile that even the lightest touch<br />

from the outside world can cause it to crumble instantly. It’s as if<br />

before the age of thirteen, they were hermetically sealed, not just<br />

from the world of adults, of relationships and sexuality <strong>—</strong> which<br />

would make some sense in this queer context, since those<br />

possibilities are often hidden away <strong>—</strong> but also from any social<br />

force at all, since such a small dose has yielded such dramatic<br />

effect. By the 30-minute mark, Léo and Rémi are glancing at<br />

each other from afar with looks of pain, anger, and longing for<br />

what might have been; they’ve reached the natural endpoint of<br />

their story, at least if it were as concerned with realism as the<br />

film’s visual style is desperate to suggest.<br />

But this is only a trick of the light. Dhont’s handheld camera and<br />

its shallow depth of field strain to convince of an immediacy and<br />

realism that belies the true banality of his vision: when the boys<br />

fall out, he shows the flowers being harvested by a loud, scary<br />

It seems that all Dhont has left to do is throw in a shocking twist,<br />

much like he did in Girl, the specifics of which don’t bear<br />

repeating other than to say it’s exactly the ending an ignorant cis<br />

man would give to his movie about a young trans woman; it<br />

21


FILM REVIEWS<br />

might have been even more offensive than it already is if it<br />

weren’t so deeply stupid. That ugliness isn’t as apparent in Close<br />

<strong>—</strong> it is a story much closer to Dhont’s own experiences, so he<br />

doesn’t have to stretch so far into callous presumption <strong>—</strong> but it’s<br />

still very much present. [SPOILER] As soon as Léo finds out that<br />

Rémi has committed suicide, it becomes clear that Dhont isn’t<br />

interested in it beyond the shock value it provides.<br />

Of course, there’s always some mystery around suicide and<br />

seldom some big reason to explain it away, but it’s not like the<br />

film is doing anything else instead of exploring it: all the more<br />

mysterious when it seems to be going out of its way to avoid it.<br />

Dhont almost lets the audience believe it was Léo’s fault, and<br />

maybe the director would argue that that aligns us with him, that<br />

he’d probably feel guilty no matter what, but if that’s the case,<br />

then it’s quite impossible not to notice that process; partly<br />

because it’s so clumsily done, but mostly because no sensible<br />

person would really believe that Léo was the sole cause. There<br />

might be something truthful in the way that Léo heals slowly and<br />

without revelation, but it pushes Rémi even further out of focus<br />

is death as only a means to an end. And that end is smuggling<br />

emotional weight into the second half’s banal scenes of Léo<br />

sadly wandering around as the most godawful musical<br />

melancholia <strong>—</strong> the kind typical of those cynically “emotional”<br />

adverts <strong>—</strong> blasts over the soundtrack, trying to engender emotion<br />

through brute force.<br />

Dhont wants to tell stories of inner turmoil, but he has no sense<br />

for, or interest in, interiority, and that’s part of why he latches<br />

onto the body in Girl. But if Close seems an improvement on Girl,<br />

it’s only because it’s better at hiding its insufficiencies without<br />

replacing its callousness and emptiness with anything because,<br />

well, Dhont has nothing to replace it with. How much of this could<br />

be attributed to malice and how much to stupidity doesn’t really<br />

matter, since it’s obvious that Dhont isn’t a filmmaker worth<br />

taking seriously. Based on the evidence he’s provided, only the<br />

most gullible could be convinced otherwise: anyone who would<br />

be moved by the final shot here, where Léo looks back before<br />

deciding to literally keep moving forward, has got the film they<br />

deserve. <strong>—</strong> ESMÉ HOLDEN<br />

DIRECTOR: Lukas Dhont; CAST: Eden Dambrine, Gustav De<br />

Waele, Émilie Dequenne, Léa Drucker; DISTRIBUTOR: A24;<br />

IN THEATERS: January 27; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 45 min.<br />

22


FILM REVIEWS<br />

GEOGRAPHIES OF SOLITUDE<br />

Jacquelyn Mills<br />

Sable Island is a thin crescent of land (twenty-six miles long and<br />

less than a mile wide) located southeast of Halifax, Nova Scotia.<br />

This sandbar planted at the lonely edge of the Atlantic<br />

continental shelf, burdened by histories of shipwrecks and ghost<br />

stories, is home to a quietly resilient ecosystem; horses roam<br />

wild, seals lounge in the sands, beetles scurry in the underbrush,<br />

and one naturalist Zoe Lucas keeps watch of it all as both guest<br />

and de facto caretaker. In Geographies of Solitude, Canadian<br />

documentarian Jacquelyn Mills delicately enters Lucas’ world.<br />

Shot on soft 16mm, the film aesthetic mirrors Lucas’s warmth,<br />

calm, and clear-eyed affection for the environment and her place<br />

within it. Meanwhile, experimental sections of the film allow the<br />

island to speak to us in a more direct way, and even Mills’<br />

matter-of-fact descriptions of these invigorating fragments read<br />

like poetry: “horse hair, bones, and sand, exposed in starlight,<br />

developed in seaweed,” she notes over a particularly intense<br />

segment. And so, Geographies of Solitude is an organic balancing<br />

act between the more conventional documentary forms (somber<br />

reflections at the mountain of plastic washing up on the island’s<br />

shore) and something weirder and wilder (ambient electronic<br />

compositions constructed out of snail song) altogether.<br />

More so than a narrative disruption, Mills’ experimental<br />

digressions are, in effect, an attempt to probe and reflect the<br />

push and pull at the heart of Lucas’ environmentalism. Moments<br />

like Lucas’ introduction into the film, walking with a lantern<br />

amidst a pitch black sky perforated with stars; at once wholly a<br />

part of the environment, just another gleaming light, and yet<br />

distinct, somehow apart from the natural fabric of the place and<br />

relegated to forever be an observer. The true solitude of the<br />

film's title reveals itself slowly, in the uncomfortable middle<br />

ground that we seem to occupy somewhere between Mills'<br />

gorgeous compositions: the rugged mosaic of horse skulls and<br />

the cloying primary colors of plastic detritus. These are the grim<br />

undercurrents (72% of collected bird corpses have stomachs<br />

filled with plastic, as Lucas explains) flowing beneath the tender<br />

and soft exterior of the film, whose presence in someway recalls<br />

the more confrontational approach of Lucien Castaing-Taylor<br />

and VérénaParavel’s Leviathan, an avant-garde rumination on the<br />

fusion of man, animal, and machine on an industrial fishing ship.<br />

A similar type of fusion takes place here, within the bounds of<br />

Lucas’ work, whose spreadsheets capture the scale of the<br />

island's ecosystem in startling detail, from horses (the living and<br />

the dead) down to ladybugs, spiders, and flowers, a taxonomy<br />

that, just one worksheet over, shifts towards a seemingly endless<br />

hoard of plastic washing up on shore ranging from balloons,<br />

shampoo bottles, and microbeads <strong>—</strong> brand names are listed out<br />

like genera. Much like the Frankensteinian visions of Leviathan,<br />

which imply the domination of industrial machinery not simply<br />

over land and sea, but over us as well, Geographies of Solitude<br />

shares a somber melancholy over the impending, irreversible<br />

damage we have wrought to our natural ecosystems. A strain of<br />

positivity nevertheless lingers throughout and expresses itself,<br />

however guarded, through Lucas’ emphatic passion for her work.<br />

In a rare fragment from the past, intercut into the film, we see<br />

her over thirty years ago giving a tour of the island to the<br />

legendary Jacques Cousteau. Lucas is immediately recognizable<br />

by her spirited enthusiasm, the perseverance of which, to this<br />

very day, attests to a resilience sourced deeper than any<br />

individual ambition. There now on Sable Island, with its howling<br />

gale, walking amongst the seals and horses, a backpack dappled<br />

in snow, is a woman who bears down her life’s work with the<br />

determination predicated on a more natural instinct: survival. <strong>—</strong><br />

IGOR FISHMAN<br />

DIRECTOR: Jacquelyn Mills; DISTRIBUTOR: Cinema Guild; IN<br />

THEATERS: January 27; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 53 min.<br />

23


FILM REVIEWS<br />

THE WANDERING EARTH II<br />

Jacquelyn Mills<br />

An unexpectedly maverick prequel/sequel hybrid to one of the<br />

biggest mainland Chinese blockbusters of this century, The<br />

Wandering Earth II ditches the more rigid genre framework of its<br />

predecessor (probably in part because it doesn’t have Liu Cixin’s<br />

short story source material to work with) and instead parcels out<br />

its apocalyptic sci-fi tropes over the course of a<br />

decades-spanning mosaic narrative concerned with capturing<br />

the minutiae of social change and scientific progress. To<br />

Western audiences, the vignette-like structure and various<br />

escalating crises will probably most resemble a more<br />

self-serious <strong>—</strong> and, of course, staunchly nationalistic <strong>—</strong> riff on<br />

gargantuanly-scaled Roland Emmerich disaster films like The Day<br />

After Tomorrow, 2012, and Moonfall. But there’s another, domestic<br />

influence here that’s worth considering.<br />

“[This] callback to the<br />

grindhouse flicks of the ‘70s<br />

offers up the most respectful<br />

portrait of sex workers the<br />

big screen has seen in ages.<br />

Toward the end of the last century in China, a new generation of<br />

filmmakers suddenly found themselves with more latitude to<br />

comment freely on the volatile events of their country’s recent<br />

history than was typically tolerated, and many responded with<br />

sweeping melodramas concerned less with sticking to<br />

screenplay convention than offering a survey of the times, albeit<br />

anchored to the personal experiences of a handful of characters<br />

who usually spanned several generational perspectives. This<br />

strain of Chinese cinema is sometimes referred to as the<br />

“historical passage film”’ and its early practitioners included<br />

fifth-generation luminaries Zhang Yimou (To Live), Tian<br />

Zhuangzhuang (The Blue Kite), and Chen Kaige (Farewell My<br />

Concubine). The trend never really went away, and in fact, has<br />

arguably become more mainstream: Feng Xiaogang’s 2010<br />

blockbuster Aftershock framed its “historical passage” around a<br />

disaster movie, and, even more notably, perhaps the most<br />

influential filmmaker in China since Zhang Yimou, Jia Zhangke<br />

created the precedent for a “historical passage” sci-fi film by<br />

setting the final act of 2015’s Mountains May Depart a then-distant<br />

20 years in the future.<br />

Now, Frant Gwo has made probably the first “historical passage”<br />

film focussed squarely on the future. The events of The<br />

Wandering Earth II take place a few decades before those of<br />

2019’s The Wandering Earth, and open on a period that’s only<br />

about 20 years from our present day. That era being so close<br />

makes the wild technological advancements (notably, a “space<br />

elevator” that can transport passengers from the surface of the<br />

earth all the way into the stratosphere) seem fanciful enough to<br />

consider this an “alternate” history. Nonetheless, as Gwo did in<br />

the original Wandering Earth, the specific challenges and moral<br />

and ethical questions grappled with by the characters are very<br />

much informed by those of our present reality, and by China’s<br />

cultural values of collective action in particular. Gwo’s<br />

attentiveness to the most thought-provoking implications of his<br />

sci-fi premise <strong>—</strong> which encompass a global government response<br />

to save Earth from various intergalactic threats and a<br />

burgeoning movement, labeled as “terrorism,” advocating instead<br />

for a mass migration to “digital life” <strong>—</strong> keep this film engaging<br />

and surprising even as it moves with a montage-like pace<br />

through skirmishes and political upheavals. And the one-time<br />

painter and graphic novelist not only knows how to build an<br />

immersive and carefully architected sci-fi world, but also craft<br />

some exceptional compositions <strong>—</strong> including one at the start of<br />

the film where a soldier’s reflection is cracked by the force of his<br />

own combat boot.<br />

24


FILM REVIEWS<br />

For about two of its three hours of running time, The Wandering<br />

Earth II plays as an incredibly audacious movie motivated<br />

foremost by a probing exploration of its core concepts and the<br />

effort to present itself as a visceral, pulpy experience, like the<br />

best longform sci-fi series rather than the various theatrical<br />

releases (Interstellar, Sunshine) that the first Wandering Earth<br />

took as obvious inspiration. Even at its best, though, one still has<br />

to contend with an avalanche of bad English-language dialogue,<br />

bad English-speaking actors imitating Russian accents, some<br />

typical racial insensitivity pertaining to China’s role in Africa, and<br />

the non-sentient, CCP-engineered biological lifeform that is<br />

48-year-old actor Wu Jing. Wu plays astronaut Liu Peiqiang, also<br />

one of the main protagonists of the first film, and because<br />

China’s most bankable action star is such a bafflingly<br />

uncharismatic blank slate, you won’t bat an eye at him playing a<br />

20-something rookie at the start of this film even though his<br />

character in the last would have to be well into his 50s (or 60s)<br />

for this timeline to make sense. He also splits lead duties here<br />

with the more cerebral Andy Lau’s Tu Hengyu, a computer<br />

scientist haunted by an accident that killed his daughter <strong>—</strong> and<br />

tempted by the technological means to preserve her memory.<br />

Unfortunately, the last hour of The Wandering Earth II largely<br />

retreats to a more standard narrative redux of the first,<br />

hunkering down in one constant moment in time as a large array<br />

of characters all band together to solve the (absurdly complex)<br />

present threat to the planet, which we know they’ll eventually<br />

manage because that leads us right into the events of the<br />

original Wandering Earth. This lengthy set-piece is fitfully<br />

exciting, and a post-credits stinger adds a fascinating new<br />

perspective on the series, but the conformity is nonetheless<br />

disappointing, and has the effect of sidelining the film’s most<br />

provocative ideas and conflicts in favor of a (very derivative)<br />

form of spectacle. The middle entry in what’s already been<br />

confirmed to be a trilogy should stoke anticipation for its finale,<br />

but by the end of The Wandering Earth II, the gambit of<br />

prequelizing leaves the series feeling somewhat<br />

exhausted <strong>—</strong> Gwo is a huge talent, but in order to <strong>—</strong> SAM C. MAC<br />

DIRECTOR: Frant Gwo; CAST: Andy Lau, Jing Wu, Xuejian Li, Yi<br />

Sha, Li Ning; DISTRIBUTOR: Well Go USA; IN THEATERS: January<br />

22; RUNTIME: 2 hr 53 min.<br />

SHOTGUN WEDDING<br />

Jason Moore<br />

The death of the mid-budget studio rom-com is a topic that has<br />

been commented on and analyzed ad nauseum by countless<br />

entertainment websites and social media users, all of whom<br />

decry the fate of one of the more financially lucrative film<br />

genres. The advent of streaming and evolving moviegoing habits<br />

(which Covid only accelerated and exacerbated) have certainly<br />

played a role, but if anything, it’s the likes of the Hallmark<br />

Channel that have robbed this particular brand of entertainment<br />

of its novelty. When basic cable networks are churning out<br />

literally hundreds of these types of films every year, is it at all<br />

necessary to spend $30 just to see so-called “Hollywood stars”<br />

reenact the exact same scenarios, especially when the art of<br />

filmmaking itself has entered one of its blandest phases in<br />

recent memory? Despite all of this, two of the biggest hits from<br />

2022, The Lost City and Ticket to Paradise, were indeed romantic<br />

comedies, proving that paying audiences for such fare still exist.<br />

Yet that still didn’t stop Lionsgate from dumping its latest<br />

romantic offering, Shotgun Wedding, online, as its planned<br />

theatrical release was quickly scrapped and the rights sold to<br />

streaming giant Amazon. In the ultimate irony, the film is best<br />

described as The Lost City meets Ticket to Paradise, leaving one<br />

to assume that the final product must be a total dumpster fire to<br />

elicit such an extreme response from its original studio.<br />

Truth be told, Shotgun Wedding is no better or worse than those<br />

aforementioned offerings, a predictable action-comedy/romance<br />

that affords attractive stars the opportunity to endlessly banter<br />

in exotic locations, doing their best to disguise the banality at its<br />

core. Yes, you’ve seen it all before, but it all goes down rather<br />

easily, thanks to solid<br />

25


FILM REVIEWS<br />

direction from Jason Moore (Pitch Perfect; Sisters), a few<br />

hilarious stray one-liners, and the luminous,<br />

holy-shit-how-is-this-woman-53 Jennifer Lopez at its center.<br />

She stars as Darcy Rivera, a former Peace Corps volunteer <strong>—</strong><br />

seriously, this film never even states her current job, a rather<br />

remarkable achievement for a genre where its every female<br />

protagonist is strictly defined by her career <strong>—</strong> who, as the film<br />

opens, is welcoming her loved ones to a small island in the<br />

Philippines for a budget-friendly destination wedding where she<br />

is set to marry former minor league baseball player and diehard<br />

romantic Tom (Josh Duhamel).<br />

Credit to writer Mark Hammer for cutting straight to the chase<br />

and kicking things off at the rehearsal dinner on the eve of the<br />

couple’s nuptials, as there is nary a second of dead time to be<br />

found, the film clocking in at a welcome 100 minutes. Darcy and<br />

Tom seem to have the perfect relationship, even as their parents<br />

<strong>—</strong> Robert (Cheech Marin) and Renata (Sonia Braga), and Carol<br />

(Jennifer Coolidge) and Larry (Steve Coulter), respectively <strong>—</strong><br />

annoy the ever living shit out of them. But cracks begin to appear<br />

in the façade with the arrival of Darcy’s former fiancée,<br />

the wealthy and hunky Sean (Lenny Kravitz), forcing the couple to<br />

reevaluate their entire relationship mere hours before the big<br />

event, as long-standing grievances and resentments are finally<br />

revealed. As fate would have it, this coincides with the arrival of<br />

literal pirates, who take the entire wedding party hostage just as<br />

Tom and Darcy scrap their entire future together. It is now up to<br />

the couple to put aside their differences and save their loved<br />

ones <strong>—</strong> that is, if they don’t kill each other first. (See, it’s funny,<br />

because their lives are literally in danger, but they hate each<br />

other now.)<br />

There are no surprises to be found in Shotgun Wedding, but there<br />

is also something rather freeing in knowing this upfront, allowing<br />

the viewer to luxuriate in the simple pleasures at hand. Lopez<br />

and Duhamel share a fair amount of chemistry <strong>—</strong> even when they<br />

are at one another’s throats <strong>—</strong> and they actually possess<br />

something in the way of comedic timing, which is more than can<br />

be said for other performers of films of this ilk. It’s unfortunate,<br />

then, that Lopez is forced into shrew mode for most of the film’s<br />

runtime, dampening her natural charms in the process, or that<br />

the overqualified supporting cast is given nothing to do but<br />

26


FILM REVIEWS<br />

literally stand fully-clothed in a pool while occasionally delivering<br />

some tired punchlines. Coolidge is underutilized to the point that<br />

it feels criminal, while Marin seems comatose. But God love the<br />

great cinematographer Peter Deming, who has worked with the<br />

likes of David Lynch and Wes Craven and actually delivers a<br />

streaming rom-com that looks like an honest-to-goodness film, a<br />

few moments of wonky greenscreen notwithstanding. It<br />

ultimately reinforces the fact that, while not exactly what one<br />

would describe as a great work of art, films like Shotgun Wedding<br />

deserve the theatrical experience, where strangers can come<br />

together and occasionally laugh for a couple of hours before<br />

tossing out a half-hearted, “That wasn’t too bad” as the credits<br />

roll. Sometimes, mediocrity is more than enough for a solid<br />

night’s entertainment, as Shotgun Wedding casually proves. <strong>—</strong><br />

STEVEN WARNER<br />

DIRECTOR: Jason Moore; CAST: Jennifer Lopez, Josh Duhamel,<br />

Jennifer Coolidge, Sonia Braga, Cheech Marin; DISTRIBUTOR:<br />

Amazon Prime Video; STREAMING: January 27; RUNTIME: 1 hr.<br />

40 min.<br />

embodies organizational and planning skills, Anto typifies the<br />

emotional peacemaker and is often the most anxious, and Laia <strong>—</strong><br />

a film director and possible self-insert <strong>—</strong> is a leader with the<br />

perception that she’s in control of the relationship.<br />

Acting as a refrain throughout the film, the women give musical<br />

asides, alluding to their individual loneliness, or perception of<br />

coupledom, depending on their immediate behavior within the<br />

triad dynamic. These half-sung words constitute the film’s theme,<br />

“one of three is not enough,” which plays over the end credits as<br />

well. There’s no prescriptive direction given to the health of the<br />

throuple dynamic: is Laia’s “alpha partner” status in what was<br />

initially a vee shaped relationship causing an imbalance of<br />

priorities and sense of competitiveness, or is it that once Anto<br />

and Marti spend enough time alone together, the relationship<br />

then becomes a balance of different romantic styles? Caudeli<br />

cleverly avoids a clear judgment, preferring to draw from<br />

personal experiences and the gray areas that come with them.<br />

The three-way domestic bliss isn’t idealized, and there’s no<br />

strong conflict or resolution. It simply exists as an environment.<br />

PETIT MAL<br />

Ruth Caudeli<br />

Spanish-language filmmaker Ruth Caudeli has developed a<br />

surprisingly consistent and quantifiable body of work in the past<br />

few years. Her films are relatively plotless, centering queer<br />

women in transitional periods of their relationships or outlooks<br />

on life, and they tend to draw from her life experiences as an<br />

independent filmmaker. Petit Mal hits all three. Laia (Ruth<br />

Caudeli), Anto (Ana María Otálora), and Marti (Silvia Varón) are a<br />

queer polyamorous throuple in Bogotá. They are artists, still<br />

learning to define how they all relate to one another when two<br />

are alone. Laia is the center of the relationship, as their company<br />

stems from her not choosing between two partners. When she<br />

leaves for a work trip, Anto and Marti have to solidify how they<br />

relate to each other outside the construct built by having a third<br />

partner around. The three women each represent a need in a<br />

healthy relationship, especially in polyamory; Marti (an editor)<br />

Petit Mal certainly displays its small-budget DIY roots, but<br />

although some clever visuals can elevate it, the switch between<br />

black and white and hazy, muted color feels gimmicky at best,<br />

and thematically incoherent as to when or why these changes<br />

occur. Sure, most of the color segments pop up when Laia<br />

physically returns to the relationship, but the other interludes of<br />

colored artistic creation aren't as definitive. Even if these are<br />

meant to symbolize her emotional presence as the artist of the<br />

relationship, this ignores the fact that Marti is a<br />

27


FILM REVIEWS<br />

screenwriter/editor herself, and is making her own documentary<br />

about a throuple. Petit Mal is filled with shallower personal<br />

gestures that increase the pseudo-documentary feel without<br />

giving too much away, and it comes with mixed results. There is<br />

a clever shot of two of the women wearing sheet masks, that<br />

when in black and white is lit to resemble the well-known Eyes<br />

Without a Face countenance. The imagery recalls the uncanny<br />

nature of obscured identity <strong>—</strong> a common feeling in the early<br />

stages of a relationship. Conversely, the “dinosaur kisses” recall a<br />

much lower-brow memory of a middle school relationship<br />

aphorism (“rawr” means “I love you” in dinosaur). All in all, the<br />

meandering artificial autofiction (and half-baked meta-film<br />

elements) frequently end up more tedious than enlightening,<br />

especially with how little Marti and Anto’s relationship progresses<br />

beyond what’s expected. These characters exist in a plotless<br />

mood piece, which is no sin of its own, but aside from their<br />

personality archetypes, there’s not much reality to them. We see<br />

their worries but less of their flaws; and no matter how truthful<br />

cinéma vérité can be here, it’s always shadowed by wordless<br />

peacekeeping. <strong>—</strong> SARAH WILLIAMS<br />

DIRECTOR: Ruth Caudeli; CAST: Silvia Varón, Ruth Caudeli, Ana<br />

María Otálora; DISTRIBUTOR: Dark Star Pictures; IN THEATERS:<br />

January 27; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 29 min.<br />

THE LAIR<br />

Neil Marshall<br />

In his canonical text Hollywood Genres, author and theorist<br />

Thomas Schatz proffers a still useful distinction, that being<br />

between “the film genre and the genre film.” In his words,<br />

“whereas the genre exists as a sort of tacit ‘contract’ between<br />

filmmakers and audience, the genre film is an actual event that<br />

honors such a contract. To discuss the Western genre is to<br />

address neither a single Western film nor even all Westerns, but<br />

rather that system of conventions which identifies Western films<br />

as such.” Like a less pretentious (and less talented) Tarantino,<br />

Neil Marshall has made a career out of mining the various<br />

“systems” that make up the action film, the sci-film, the horror<br />

film, and so on. Ideas are pilfered whole-cloth alongside certain<br />

key images, like a specific shot from Aliens or a font from John<br />

Carpenter.<br />

“[This] callback to the<br />

grindhouse flicks of the ‘70s<br />

offers up the most respectful<br />

portrait of sex workers the<br />

big screen has seen in ages.<br />

In other words, Marshall takes signifiers and divorces them from<br />

their original contexts, severing their indexical relationships and<br />

placing them into a void of spot-the-reference. It’s a game, and it<br />

can be fun, like in his Dog Soldiers or especially The Descent, the<br />

two films which made Marshall’s name as a key figure in modern<br />

horror filmmaking. But it’s been a couple of decades since those<br />

early successes; the resounding failure of his attempted Hellboy<br />

reboot in 2019 and brief sojourns in episodic TV both<br />

once-invigorating enthusiasms now diminished. Schatz suggests<br />

that “as we undergo the same type of experience we develop<br />

expectations which… tend to harden into rules.” Marshall’s genre<br />

playfulness has indeed now calcified into something static and<br />

stale, going through the motions with an air of exhaustion.<br />

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that The Lair could’ve<br />

been, even should’ve been, an easy layup. Clearly designed to<br />

harken back to his earliest films, The Lair is rigged almost<br />

entirely out of spare parts from Dog Soldiers and The Descent <strong>—</strong> a<br />

squad of ramshackle soldiers, an isolated location, cramped<br />

underground photography, ferocious creatures, and a tough<br />

female lead. It’s second-hand stuff, cheap-looking and poorly<br />

acted, all of which adds up to a film that ultimately functions as a<br />

rough draft of itself. The Lair is a dress rehearsal to work out the<br />

kinks, not a final product released to an unsuspecting public.<br />

That Marshall keeps it somewhat watchable is a testament to his<br />

lingering talent, as well as his still-sharp eye for bloody gags and<br />

delightfully disgusting special effects.<br />

28


FILM REVIEWS<br />

Here, Charlotte Kirk plays RAF pilot Kate Sinclair. While flying a<br />

mission over a barren Afghanistan landscape (actually shot<br />

somewhere in Hungary), she’s shot down and almost taken<br />

hostage by insurgents. Finding refuge in an abandoned Russian<br />

bunker, Sinclair discovers an underground laboratory and a<br />

series of tanks containing vaguely humanoid shapes. A prolonged<br />

shootout with insurgent forces ruptures one of the tanks,<br />

unleashing a goopy monster from within (clearly a man in a suit).<br />

Sinclair eventually escapes and is taken in by a squad of U.S.<br />

soldiers stationed at a nearby camp. They don’t believe her story<br />

about these super-strong, super-fast creatures until it’s too late.<br />

What follows is a pretty decent action set piece, as the creatures<br />

lay siege to the military base and a quickly diminishing number<br />

of soldiers attempt to fend them off. This is the kind of basic<br />

stuff that Marshall excels at <strong>—</strong> putting a few people in a cramped<br />

space and having them get picked off one by one. None of the<br />

soldier characters make a real impression, despite Marshall’s<br />

attempts at giving them each a cliched personality tic (he’s<br />

credited alongside Kirk with the screenplay).<br />

But the biggest issue is Kirk herself, who gives a painfully stilted<br />

performance. The film intends her to be a Sigourney<br />

Weaver/Ripley figure, but Kirk has almost no screen presence<br />

whatsoever, seemingly possessed of only one facial expression<br />

regardless of whatever situation is currently unfolding. She looks<br />

awkward on camera, her movements halting and forced. There’s<br />

simply no there there. (One wonders what Olga Kurylenko could’ve<br />

done with the role.) Still, there are a few merits here, and anyone<br />

looking for an undemanding creature feature with ample<br />

decapitations, torn limbs, squished heads, and even a detailed<br />

mutant autopsy will be rewarded. Fans of a certain kind of DTV<br />

genre film can consider this a halfhearted recommendation, but<br />

one still wishes for the day when a new Neil Marshall film won’t<br />

come saddled with so many caveats and special pleadings. <strong>—</strong><br />

DANIEL GORMAN<br />

DIRECTOR: Neil Marshall; CAST: Michelle Monaghan, Skeet Ulrich,<br />

Finlay Wojtak-Hissong; DISTRIBUTOR: RLJE Films/Shudder; IN<br />

THEATERS: January 27; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 48 min.<br />

29


FILM REVIEWS<br />

TO LESLIE<br />

Jacquelyn Mills<br />

It has been a mere two weeks since a bevy of the Hollywood elite,<br />

ranging from Cate Blanchett to Gwyneth Paltrow to Edward<br />

Norton, bombarded social media with praise for actress Andrea<br />

Riseborough’s performance in the little seen indie drama To<br />

Leslie. That this coincided with the submission date of the 2023<br />

Oscar nomination ballots seemed more than a tad suspicious, as<br />

did the various copy-and-paste tweets that literally repeated the<br />

same phrase over and over: “A small film with a giant heart.” Kate<br />

Winslet even hosted an online Q&A regarding the film, in which<br />

she claimed that Riseborough delivered “The greatest female<br />

performance ever,” a statement so hyperbolic that one is<br />

cynically left to ponder if it was written by Riseborough’s PR team<br />

on the back of a check. Armchair prognosticators guffawed, but<br />

it was Riseborough herself who had the last laugh, landing an<br />

Academy Award nomination this past Tuesday morning as<br />

attendees could be heard gasping out loud. Yes, she did it, and<br />

now various online publications and curious viewers are<br />

scurrying to finally check out a movie that opened in a handful of<br />

theaters last October and made less than $30,000 total.<br />

Anyone with even a passing knowledge of the Academy Awards<br />

knows that the nominations mean very little in the grand scheme<br />

of things, with worthy films and performances overlooked year<br />

after year in favor of whatever has captured the voters’ fancy<br />

and/or the cultural zeitgeist at that particular moment. Yet for a<br />

film like To Leslie, it means far more, as such publicity will likely<br />

fuel viewership that initially eluded it, a Cinderella story for the<br />

literal dozens upon dozens of no-budget indie flicks released<br />

every year that fall through the cracks like so much filmic dust.<br />

But one question remains: is Riseborough really that good? Far<br />

be it for this critic to call out Hollywood royalty like Winslet, but if<br />

30


FILM REVIEWS<br />

this is indeed the greatest female performance she has ever<br />

seen, one wonders just how many movies she has actually<br />

watched in her life, with the over/under seemingly around 11.5.<br />

“[This] callback to the<br />

grindhouse flicks of the ‘70s<br />

offers up the most respectful<br />

portrait of sex workers the<br />

big screen has seen in ages.<br />

To Leslie finds Riseborough playing the titular character, an<br />

alcoholic fuck-up and all-around bad mom who, as the movie<br />

opens, is being thrown out of her cheap motel room for failure to<br />

pay rent. Such roles are catnip for performers, as it allows them<br />

to access nearly every emotion on the spectrum, running the<br />

gamut from manic highs to depressive lows, usually within<br />

seconds of each other. There’s a reason why various thespians,<br />

from the likes of Meryl Streep to even Will Ferrell, have ventured<br />

down this actorly road, the type with “range” baked into its DNA.<br />

Riseborough has certainly proved her mettle over the years,<br />

delivering 110 percent in everything from little-seen passion<br />

projects (Nancy, Mandy) to big-budget genre fare (Oblivion, The<br />

Grudge) to <strong>—</strong> *gulp* <strong>—</strong> a feature film directed by Madonna (W.E.).<br />

And to her credit, that same level of commitment is on full<br />

display in To Leslie, with Riseborough taking what is essentially a<br />

stock character and infusing her with a recognizable humanity<br />

that seems wholly absent from the written page, a film as flat<br />

and safe as its lead protagonist is complex and thorny.<br />

But there are ultimately few surprises to be found here, a tale of<br />

personal redemption so rote that the biggest shock is that it<br />

wasn’t directed by Darren Aronofsky <strong>—</strong> instead, television<br />

director Michael Morris, who got his start directing episodes of<br />

the Sally Field-starring ABC drama Brothers & Sisters, takes the<br />

reins, which seems fairly apt given the melodrama that fuels the<br />

film. Still, Riseborough does manage to steady this ship whenever<br />

it feels in danger of tipping, refusing likability at every turn as<br />

her character ping-pongs from one caretaker to the next, finally<br />

realizing that the only person who can save her is…<br />

herself. Profound stuff. Oh, and there’s a kindly motel manager<br />

played by Marc Maron, delivering a turn so gentle and sweet <strong>—</strong> a<br />

balance to Riseborough, who he matches beat for beat <strong>—</strong> that it’s<br />

hard not to fall in love with him. (Where is his goddamn<br />

nomination, Academy?) Allison Janney also pops up as a former<br />

friend of Leslie’s, but is so atrocious in her limited screen time<br />

that she somehow makes Margo Martindale’s similar portrayal of<br />

enfant terrible white trash in Million Dollar Baby seem subdued in<br />

comparison.<br />

The one novel approach the script takes, courtesy of<br />

screenwriter Ryan Binaco, is that it immediately reunites Leslie<br />

with her abandoned son, the now-grown James (Owen Teague),<br />

and promptly boots him from the proceedings minutes later,<br />

forcing Leslie to get her shit together virtually entirely on her<br />

own, and sparing audiences from yet another tired retread of The<br />

Wrestler and everything else of its ilk. That’s not to say there isn’t<br />

more than a bit of wish fulfillment going on in To Leslie come<br />

film’s end, but honestly, anything even remotely innovative <strong>—</strong> no<br />

matter how small <strong>—</strong> is a welcome enough development in<br />

cinema’s current rinse-repeat landscape. To Leslie isn’t<br />

threatening to go down as some hidden masterpiece, and<br />

Riseborough’s performance is, ironically enough, the<br />

scenery-chewing kind for which Oscar nominations were<br />

invented, but as another entry in the ever-growing genre of<br />

misery porn cut through with a ray of hope, audiences could do a<br />

lot worse <strong>—</strong> as could have the Academy. <strong>—</strong> STEVEN WARNER<br />

DIRECTOR: Michael Morris; CAST: Andrea Riseborough, Allison<br />

Janney, Marc Maron, Stephen Root; DISTRIBUTOR: Momentum<br />

Pictures; IN THEATERS & STREAMING: October 7; RUNTIME: 1<br />

hr. 59 min.<br />

31


12<br />

Ryuichi Sakamoto<br />

Electronic music pioneer Ryuichi<br />

Sakamoto looks back on a long and<br />

illustrious career which spans six decades,<br />

a variety of collaborators and genres, and<br />

quite a few soundtracks <strong>—</strong> most notably,<br />

for Nagisa Ôshima's Merry Christmas, Mr.<br />

Lawrence and Bernardo Bertolucci's The<br />

Last Emperor. But having recently turned<br />

71, the Japanese musician, composer, and<br />

former member of the Yellow Magic<br />

Orchestra shared that he had been<br />

diagnosed with rectal cancer; his second<br />

cancer diagnosis. His first <strong>—</strong> throat cancer<br />

<strong>—</strong> came in 2014 and would lead Sakamoto<br />

to create the introspective, mournful<br />

async in 2017. The album glistened with<br />

profound sadness and moments of<br />

auditory decay, such as on the haunting<br />

"ZURE," a pensive electronic number which<br />

deteriorates continuously as it is<br />

consumed by nasty white noise. The throat<br />

cancer would eventually go into remission,<br />

but news of the rectal cancer soon<br />

followed. "From now on, I will be living<br />

alongside cancer," he said in a letter to<br />

fans. "But, I am hoping to make music for<br />

a little while longer."<br />

Now, forced to confront his mortality yet<br />

again, Sakamoto released 12, an LP which<br />

sees him doing away with the eclecticism<br />

that marked async a few years earlier,<br />

opting for sparse, melancholy minimalism.<br />

"20210310" <strong>—</strong> like all the songs, named for<br />

the date it was recorded <strong>—</strong> opens the<br />

album with gentle, spacey synths that<br />

oscillate between ominous lows and<br />

ecstatic highs, the piece's faint melody<br />

remaining firmly rooted in the abstract.<br />

The somber piano of follow-up "20211130"<br />

is interspersed by a cool zephyr of sine<br />

waves, its subtle hums filling out the<br />

space between the fragmented notes<br />

with misty fascination. There is nothing<br />

of the jolty piano tinkering or wild jazz<br />

freakouts heard on tracks like<br />

"Grasshoppers" or the Sun Ra and Albert<br />

Ayler-inspired "MWSIK Part 1." Instead,<br />

Sakamoto's reflective approach carries<br />

him into something vaguely sinister on<br />

the haunting "20220202," as well as the<br />

elegiac "20220207," his meditations<br />

regularly taking a turn for the gloomy.<br />

While the mostly instrumental async<br />

made room for vocal samples which<br />

frankly touched on mortality on<br />

"fullmoon" and "LIFE, LIFE," there are no<br />

such literalist comforts offered on 12. The<br />

otherworldly soundscapes of "20220214"<br />

ALBUM REVIEWS<br />

perhaps best exemplify Sakamoto's<br />

disinterest in concretizing his emotional<br />

state beyond what the impressionistic<br />

vignettes allow. Textures, tones, and<br />

timbres entwine, coalescing before<br />

melting away, ethereal whispers giving<br />

way to forlorn drones; it might just be the<br />

album's most powerful moment. The final<br />

twelve minutes offer some respite from<br />

the emotionally taxing near-hour that<br />

preceded them. Doing away with synths,<br />

"20220302 (sarabande)" introduces the<br />

album's piano-only coda with surprisingly<br />

playful nods to Bach, while the<br />

penultimate "20220404" radiates<br />

last-round melancholy, its classy barfly<br />

sorrows occasionally punctuated by<br />

unresolved chords.<br />

When hearing Sakamoto ponder his life<br />

and legacy, one can't help but be<br />

reminded of Blackstar, the final album of<br />

his fellow Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence<br />

cast member, David Bowie. But unlike<br />

Bowie's busy art-rock swan song,<br />

Sakamoto looks back with a more quiet<br />

sadness, content with letting his<br />

compositions linger in their sketch-like<br />

state. 12 feels like a sonic diary, affording<br />

an intimate look into an acclaimed<br />

artist's most vulnerable thoughts and<br />

feelings, and the sounds and melodies it<br />

reveals are breathtaking in their<br />

restrained, understated beauty. Here's<br />

hoping he gets to make music for a little<br />

while longer.<strong>—</strong> FRED BARRETT<br />

LABEL: Milan Records; RELEASE DATE:<br />

January 17<br />

32


ALBUM REVIEWS<br />

STAMP ON IT<br />

GOT the Beat<br />

“Who do you think you’re looking at?… You’d<br />

better shut your mouth and stand back,”<br />

began GOT the Beat’s debut single “Step<br />

Back” last January. The all-star<br />

supergroup consists of seven of the most<br />

talented vocalists and dancers to have<br />

passed through the halls of SM<br />

Entertainment in the last two decades <strong>—</strong><br />

soloist BoA, Taeyeon and Hyoyeon of Girls’<br />

Generation, Wendy and Seulgi of Red<br />

Velvet, and Winter and Karina of Aespa.<br />

Delivering on the musical promise of this<br />

K-pop fantasy league-worthy lineup was<br />

always going to be a tall order, but<br />

kitchen-sink singles by other SM acts do<br />

come to mind (ex. Red Velvet’s “RBB,”<br />

SHINee’s “U Need Me,” NCT’s<br />

“Superhuman,” aespa’s “Girls”), songs that<br />

are packed with so many different<br />

instrumental, melodic, and vocal ideas<br />

that they’re practically playgrounds for<br />

their performers and thrilling roller<br />

coasters for the audience. Surely a<br />

complex track like EXO’s “Tempo” would<br />

be the best way to mediate within a<br />

supergroup whose performers each have<br />

distinct and iconic styles to take into<br />

account. Instead, “Step Back” was a shrill,<br />

metallic track that sounded like a group<br />

of girls fighting in a warehouse while a<br />

few Gregorian monks try to hold them<br />

back while knocking away collapsing<br />

merchandise. It was polarizing, to say the<br />

least, but also enough of a hit in South<br />

Korea that GOT the Beat followed it up<br />

with a proper mini-album this year.<br />

33<br />

20


Stamp on It isn’t a good album, at least not<br />

consistently, but it is interesting to<br />

consider where it fits within the current<br />

landscape of K-pop.<br />

Title track “Stamp on It” follows the same<br />

formula as “Step Back,” but adds in a few<br />

more interesting musical ideas for better<br />

results. Both songs are built around a<br />

left-field vocal sample; both call on their<br />

performers to be aggressive; both, with<br />

their gritty yet knife-sharp instrumental<br />

layers, show off how co-producer Dem<br />

Jointz does texture better than anyone<br />

else in K-pop. Even their bridges have<br />

similar parts: the classic SM slowdown, the<br />

rap, the dance break. But the vocals,<br />

rather than losing all their personality to<br />

too-high belts and compression, have a<br />

little more space to breathe in “Stamp on<br />

It,” and the still-strong singing feels like<br />

it’s actually adding a new element because<br />

the production isn’t as abrasive. Writers<br />

Dem Jointz, Yoo Young Jin, and Tayla Park<br />

throw in a few fun quirks: why not add<br />

some random modulations? Why not drop<br />

four bars of meditative music in the<br />

middle of the bridge? Why not make the<br />

bridge six distinct sections? (SM<br />

slowdown, meditation, dance break, rap,<br />

return of the title refrain, and prechorus.)<br />

In other words, it offers the same<br />

foundation as “Step Back,” but is more<br />

playful and complex in execution. This<br />

time, when the dance break and rap hit,<br />

the grinding instrumental backing<br />

genuinely feels new, and the energy level<br />

skyrockets. And the song still has places<br />

left to go after that.<br />

Just as there’s a fine line between<br />

excellent and tragic in GOT the Beat’s title<br />

tracks depending on execution, the<br />

mini-album also bounces between<br />

fantastic and awful B-sides. The chilling<br />

metallic percussion, rubbery synths, and<br />

cold staccato vocals of “Rose” are a more<br />

vivid version of the “Step Back”<br />

soundscape (it’s another home run from<br />

the SAAY, DEEZ, and Yunsu writing team.)<br />

But immediately before it is “Goddess<br />

Level,” which is practically falling apart<br />

around its limp, farty brass riff. “Alter<br />

Ego” is the most conventional,<br />

melody-driven pop song on the project,<br />

and it’s a fun breather amidst the<br />

intensity, but immediately after it comes<br />

“Outlaw,” which smashes a couple loud,<br />

crude noises together and calls it a<br />

chorus, to even worse effect than “Step<br />

Back.” Surprisingly chill final track “Mala”<br />

lands in the middle: it’s a decent, vibey<br />

take on the hyperpop percussion stabs<br />

that punctuate the album (this time<br />

chased with flute and light vocals), but it<br />

does sound like the second-best B-side<br />

on an Itzy album.<br />

There are admittedly some moments of<br />

greatness on Stamp on It, but it lacks a<br />

consistent point of view. The entire<br />

selling point of the group is its members,<br />

yet their music is more about the<br />

production than the singers. But if GOT<br />

the Beat is meant to be most interesting<br />

for the new aggressive, edgy pop sound<br />

they bring to the table, this album does a<br />

poor job defining or justifying it. K-pop is<br />

flooded with girl groups doing a huge<br />

ALBUM REVIEWS<br />

variety of interesting concepts right now:<br />

the girl crush market (i.e. Blackpink-style<br />

cooler-than-you electronic songs) has<br />

been one of its most saturated corners<br />

for years, and, in a post-NewJeans world,<br />

there’s also currently a huge musical shift<br />

away from excess and toward simplicity.<br />

If the music is inconsistent in polish and<br />

style, and it’s off-trend, and only a<br />

handful of tracks actually make any kind<br />

of strong statement… what is its<br />

purpose? There are very few moments<br />

on this mini that will make the listener<br />

stop and think, “Wow, I can’t believe these<br />

women are all singing together!”<br />

compared to moments of “Hmm, why<br />

does it sound like that?” (Just look at how<br />

many times this review felt compelled to<br />

mention individual vocal or performance<br />

moments. Or don’t; it was zero.) For a<br />

project in heavy dialogue with SM<br />

Entertainment’s legacy, Stamp on It<br />

doesn’t seem to care much about the<br />

musical background of its performers,<br />

but it also doesn’t present a clear vision<br />

of the future. It’s a fascinating album, but<br />

largely for unintended reasons; wipe the<br />

dust off in two years and see how much<br />

has changed in the landscape<br />

surrounding it. <strong>—</strong> KAYLA BEARDSLEE<br />

LABEL: Frant Gwo; RELEASE DATE: ddd<br />

34

Hooray! Your file is uploaded and ready to be published.

Saved successfully!

Ooh no, something went wrong!