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InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 19

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IN REVIEW ONLINE<br />

FEATURES<br />

BODIES OF DISSENT <strong>—</strong> 1<br />

A Conversation with Adirley<br />

Queirós and Joana Pimenta<br />

WHITE HOUSE<br />

PLUMBERS <strong>—</strong> 5<br />

KICKING THE CANON<br />

THE VIRGIN SUICIDES <strong>—</strong> 7<br />

FILM REVIEWS<br />

BLACKBERRY <strong>—</strong> 9<br />

HYPNOTIC <strong>—</strong> 11<br />

THE STARLING GIRL <strong>—</strong> 12<br />

INSIDE THE RED<br />

BRICK WALL <strong>—</strong> 13<br />

THE MOTHER <strong>—</strong> 13<br />

FOOL’S PARADISE <strong>—</strong> 15<br />

STILL: A MICHAEL J.<br />

FOX MOVIE <strong>—</strong> 16<br />

L’IMMENSITA <strong>—</strong> 16<br />

LOVE AGAIN <strong>—</strong> 18<br />

TAKING BACK<br />

THE LEGISLATURE <strong>—</strong> <strong>19</strong><br />

MONICA <strong>—</strong> <strong>19</strong><br />

CRATER <strong>—</strong> 20<br />

GIVING BIRTH<br />

TO A BUTTERFLY <strong>—</strong> 21<br />

ALBUM REVIEWS<br />

Conway the Machine <strong>—</strong> 22<br />

Seventeen <strong>—</strong> 23<br />

May 12, 2023<br />

<strong>Volume</strong> 1, <strong>Issue</strong> <strong>19</strong>


BODIES OF DISSENT<br />

A Conversation with Adirley Queirós and Joana Pimenta<br />

Adirley Queirós and Joana Pimenta come from very different artistic backgrounds, but that fact wouldn’t be obvious based on their<br />

two collaborations to date, Once Upon a Time in Brasilia (as director and cinematographer, respectively) and now Dry Ground Burning<br />

(sharing directing duties). What brings their particular creative visions together is the shared goal of finding new ways to approach<br />

nonfiction filmmaking, ones that bypass the historical hierarchies and power relations that have permeated this field since its<br />

conception.<br />

In Dry Ground Burning, genre signifiers from Western and cyberpunk canons are recontextualized through the real-life experiences of<br />

the inhabitants of the Sol Nascente favela on the outskirts of Brasilia. The intersections between political urgency and fabulism are<br />

carried by the inherent power of the bodies on screen, their story of folk resistance constructed by way of the intrinsic relationship<br />

between hard labor, leisure, and dissent.<br />

Queirós and Pimenta talked to us about how reality molds fiction, the process of portraying a dissident aesthetic, and their own way<br />

of establishing a dialogue with contemporary Brazil’s socio-political tension.<br />

1


Previously, you worked as director and cinematographer on<br />

Once Upon a Time in Brasilia (2017). How did that artistic<br />

relationship evolve toward the point of co-directing Dry<br />

Ground Burning?<br />

Joana Pimenta: Since Once Upon a Time in Brasilia, we felt<br />

immediate artistic symbiosis in how we understood a film’s<br />

relationship with the cinematic space. Despite coming from two<br />

very different backgrounds, our ways of approaching filmmaking<br />

were quite close. I’m a Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab alumni,<br />

so I have a very particular way of approaching non-fiction; I like<br />

to find the unfamiliar in the familiar through my way of framing<br />

things, and how what’s beyond the lens relates to it. Adirley, on<br />

his part, his whole work is built around creating an ethnography<br />

of fiction, as he says. We have a shared obsession with the idea<br />

of what’s behind a non-fiction film, the urgency that guides it and<br />

gives it life. We seek to embody form as a political entity in our<br />

filmmaking.<br />

Once you settled on the film’s conceptual basis, how was the<br />

creative process alongside the Sol Nascente community?<br />

How much did things change once you started working with<br />

them?<br />

Adirley Queirós: I’ve known this community my whole life, so it<br />

was a matter of deciding on what to focus on, and we went the<br />

way of the population’s relationship with oil and gasoline since it<br />

was a political, hot-button topic when we started filming in 2016.<br />

Soon enough, the country suffered a coup d’etat against current<br />

president Dilma Rousseff, and it was all based on this scandal<br />

around a giant oil company. Everyone became interested in how<br />

oil is allocated through these corporate entities, so we asked<br />

ourselves: what could happen if a poor community took matters<br />

into its own hands?<br />

Everything in Brazil is heavily centralized, there’s even an old<br />

phrase that goes “Oil is ours,” as a national badge of honor.<br />

Politics start with our own grammar, as you see. We wanted to<br />

put that on its head. We went out around Sol Nascente and<br />

literally asked people on the street what they thought <strong>—</strong> for us,<br />

that’s when the film starts. By searching for our characters,<br />

since we use non-professional actors, we need to explore the<br />

city. Literally, look in every corner until we find those figures<br />

whom we want to be at the heart of the film. But we also needed<br />

to be clear to people about our process, since to us that’s an<br />

inherently political act, to appear in a film.<br />

Andreia Viera, for example, was already in Once Upon a Time in<br />

Brasilia, while we struggled a lot to find our central Chitarra until<br />

Joana Darc Furtado appeared. Lea Alves, whose character is<br />

Chitarra’s sister, actually became part of the film once we’d<br />

already started. Just like in the film, she was finishing her prison<br />

sentence, and once she arrives, all of our pre-constructed fiction<br />

begins to crumble. Real life imposes itself, and ironically, also<br />

mirrors precisely what we wanted to portray but couldn’t create.<br />

Lea herself is a character straight out of a Western, and she<br />

came into the film and brought that aura with her. That’s not<br />

something we had a say on.<br />

JP: As Adirley mentions, our way of approaching filmmaking<br />

tends to be very open. Up until the editing process, we’re making<br />

important structural decisions. So it’s a living process. A<br />

character can literally arrive and change our whole plans, and to<br />

us, that’s part of filmmaking.<br />

One of the ways that Sol Nascente comes to life is through<br />

its aural atmosphere. At what point in the process did the<br />

location’s sonic characterization come into place, and how<br />

did it evolve to the point of what we hear in the film?<br />

JP: In a way, that comes to us organically, as our filming process<br />

is really immersive. We rent a house in a community for almost a<br />

year, and we start simply existing there. We become accustomed<br />

to the daily rituals that happen, and that includes the location’s<br />

sonic personality. For us, it's important that it sounds like a living<br />

environment, and that it goes both [ways]. We cherish the<br />

sounds of the city, but also the sounds that the film brings into<br />

the city. Once we reach the sound editing process, we basically<br />

search for every sound we’ve recorded and decide which feels<br />

more representative to us. Not necessarily what’s the most<br />

accurate, but what feels like an aural depiction of that place.<br />

Additionally, as you’ve probably noticed, there’s our whole<br />

relationship with music, which to us is essential. Muleka 100<br />

Calcinha, the group that created the film’s soundtrack, worked<br />

really close to us throughout the whole process, and then there’s<br />

7 2


the final song by Faroeste. He’s a storyteller to us, and he was<br />

actually the music we listened to while we took filming breaks,<br />

so it became part of our reality in Sol Nascente, and it eventually<br />

made its way into the film’s climax.<br />

AQ: We constantly thought about sound, we asked ourselves<br />

“how can we use these soundscapes to create a rhythm in the<br />

film?”, as if they were elements of a musical composition. And<br />

the compositions we chose had to be a reflection of the setting.<br />

Faroeste is a gangsta rap artist from the ‘90s, very popular<br />

amongst marginalized communities, and we also feature a lot of<br />

Funk (Brazilian funk), which is music that’s really hard to contain<br />

in a film, it’s music that overpowers everything once it starts<br />

playing. But to us, it was very important to have [those artists],<br />

because they portray a time and place.<br />

There’s also a very different kind of music that plays in one<br />

of the film’s most appalling moments, during Bolsonaro’s<br />

rally. It’s almost like a military march that his followers are<br />

singing, which is almost at the opposite spectrum,<br />

rhythmically, and aesthetically, of the rambunctious Funk<br />

that the protagonists dance to. How was the process of<br />

placing that nearly observational sequence within the film’s<br />

structure?<br />

JP: We went to record at a Bolsonaro rally just after he won, but<br />

we had to do that undercover. Bolsonaro’s people were really<br />

reluctant to engage with the press, and Adirley, with his hair and<br />

beard, looks very Lulista (supporter of Lula). So me and Chico<br />

[Francisco Craesmeyer, the sound guy], cosplayed as German<br />

Press since we’re both blonde and have blue eyes. It worked, to<br />

our surprise.<br />

To us, it was very important to engage and be shoulder to<br />

shoulder with “the enemy,” to see them eye-to-eye and create a<br />

portrait of how they react and act. Because they aren’t these<br />

distant and abstract figures. 70% of Brasilia voted twice for<br />

Bolsonaro, and that includes butcher men, friends of ours, and all<br />

kinds of working-class people. We needed to avoid the smugness<br />

of filming from a progressive perspective, and simply depict with<br />

honesty. After all, that night in 2016 Brasil was about to suffer<br />

important changes, and we felt indebted to register that process.<br />

Those, on screen, were the bodies of those about<br />

to come back to power… because they’d been in power for an<br />

important part of the 20th Century. It was about understanding<br />

who we were going to be dealing with on a more macro level.<br />

AQ: Since the film’s conception, we were clear about telling a<br />

story of a part of Brazil outside of traditional structures. A<br />

peripheral Brazil. The whole arc about creating an alternative<br />

political party and the oil redistribution was a way of<br />

representing how these worlds adjacent to Brasilia battle against<br />

their hold on them. That tension is at the heart of the film. Our<br />

protagonists are black women from the working class, and here,<br />

in that single-take shot of Bolsonaro’s followers, we get a<br />

glimpse of their counterparts. Not only of them as iconography,<br />

but how they act and how they represent themselves. They’re<br />

shouting and singing to the camera. They’re looking straight at it<br />

and wishing death to Lula. To this day, I still believe that the right<br />

understands way more about the power of representation than<br />

any progressive <strong>—</strong> they seize that power and exploit it to their<br />

advantage.<br />

You mention the aesthetic power of representation, and the<br />

film is notable for how it depicts labor in an almost bodily<br />

fashion. There seems to be a palpable resistance happening<br />

within each frame. How did you approach depicting these<br />

bodies on screen, with all their political implications?<br />

AQ: We approach cinema as work. To us, it’s collective labor. It’s<br />

never above what it depicts or represents, thus it’s also related<br />

to oppression. Labor and oppression go hand-in-hand, as they’re<br />

built on subjecting bodies to their own framework.<br />

I think peripheral communities in Brazil can be understood<br />

through two layers: Work and religion. And a group that used to<br />

be neglected by Brazilian society were the motoboys<br />

(clandestine labor built around delivering several types of items),<br />

since they were seen as a kind of lumpenproletariat. The lowest<br />

of the lowest. That’s why in the film we portray them as the<br />

vanguard. And that relates to the hard work done by the women<br />

at the oil refinery. To us, work, and how bodies are exerted on it,<br />

is an integral part of dramaturgy. We tried to establish links<br />

between hard labor, and that’s why Chitarra organizes a kind of<br />

motorized union. In Brazil, everyone thinks of peripheral<br />

communities as abstract and incongruous things. But we wanted<br />

73


to imagine them organizing, and working together towards change. So we had to also be a part of that. That’s why we lived there for<br />

18 months and showed them that between our work and theirs, there was no hierarchy. We wanted to express that, yes, their labor is<br />

an integral part of who they are in Sol Nascente. But they can also be their own storytellers.<br />

The film’s structure does feel like a fable, or a folktale in a way. Naturally, many people are drawn to the Cyberpunk and<br />

Western referents in your previous films, but they feel less like aesthetic imports, and more like recontextualizations. How do<br />

you relate to these fictional iconographies? Is there a conscious effort to subvert them?<br />

JP: The first thing we did when approaching Sol<br />

Nascente was to reassure them that a film could be<br />

set there. When we arrived, everyone thought we<br />

were going to do a porno shoot, since that’s their only<br />

referent of people wanting to film there. So we had to<br />

work with them and establish a mutual understanding<br />

of what a film there could and should be like. That<br />

meant incorporating a lot of signifiers from films<br />

shown on TV since Sol Nascente doesn’t have a<br />

cinema. Most of the films they identified were old<br />

Hollywood films, genre films, and that included<br />

Westerns. That became our shared language. We<br />

started there and then the film developed through a<br />

life of its own. As we mentioned earlier, the<br />

protagonists' own lives came into the film and<br />

changed our ideas about it. The barriers of fiction and<br />

nonfiction and of genre can’t be above your subjects.<br />

At least not in how we approach filmmaking.<br />

AQ: Our goal is what Joana mentioned. That this<br />

community and these characters can believe that<br />

what they’re doing can be cinema. Once they believe<br />

that, they understand how to use those images they<br />

have with them, those popular and shared images,<br />

and create through them. That’s the concept we<br />

mentioned at the beginning: An ethnography of<br />

fiction. Their real-life memories become an integral<br />

part of the collective filmmaking process. The basis<br />

of our aesthetic of resistance comes from opposing,<br />

condescending positions. The bodies we frame can’t<br />

be compartmentalized. They’re violent, and their<br />

violence is what guides the film. After all, we aren’t all<br />

working together to create a political performance.<br />

We’re creating politics. <strong>—</strong> INTERVIEW CONDUCTED BY<br />

ALONSO AGUILAR<br />

7 4


WHITE HOUSE PLUMBERS<br />

When VEEP aired on HBO eleven years ago, it seemed easy to call it a vicious political satire. The show was at its best when it<br />

delighted in mocking the narcissism and incorrigible despicability of American politicians, and it had an impeccable knack for crude,<br />

comedic dialogue that’s rare in most TV nowadays. Compared to idealistic political dramas like West Wing or Madam Secretary, VEEP<br />

stood out because it portrayed Washington as a bottomless pit of buffoonery, and because it refused to offer its characters the grace<br />

of redemption. Created by VEEP writers Alex Gregory and Peter Huyck and directed by David Mandel <strong>—</strong> the showrunner for VEEP, after<br />

Armando Iannucci’s departure <strong>—</strong> White House Plumbers replicates the tragicomic tone of VEEP with some success, right down to<br />

Justin Theroux’s thick, glaringly fake-looking mustache. Narratively, the latest limited series by HBO is another media re-enactment<br />

of the Watergate scandal, a political event so belief-defying that it simply needs to be retold over and again so that the American<br />

public is properly reminded that it did, indeed, happen. (There was another prestige series on the scandal, called Gaslit, that aired just<br />

last year.)<br />

Despite its centering around an overcovered topic, White House Plumbers manages to capture the absurdity of the Nixon<br />

administration in a novel way; unlike other narratives written about this scandal, Gregory and Huyck’s script is more concerned with<br />

the agents of espionage and the process of the break-in than the repercussions that came afterward. Through its farcical<br />

dramatization, the new series gets one thing right about Watergate: this heist simply wasn’t the stuff of Ocean’s Eleven, and neither<br />

were the people who were placed in charge of it. White House Plumbers wants to make sure we know that G. Gordon Liddy and Howard<br />

Hunt had proper practice leading up to the actual scandal <strong>—</strong> like stealing Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatric file, which is depicted in the<br />

series <strong>—</strong> and still, they fucked up by getting caught.<br />

White House Plumbers is told from the viewpoints of these<br />

two key political players and partners <strong>—</strong> Theroux<br />

taking on the role of Liddy alongside Woody<br />

Harrelson as Hunt. The former’s<br />

impression of Liddy renders the<br />

man almost preposterous and<br />

profoundly trapped within<br />

his own selfimportance,<br />

which<br />

perfectly aligns<br />

with the<br />

show’s<br />

message<br />

5


of the cruel<br />

mediocrity of the<br />

American<br />

government. Indeed,<br />

it’s not at all hard to<br />

see how Theroux’s<br />

version of Liddy<br />

could easily reflect<br />

any number of<br />

politicians in our<br />

present <strong>—</strong> and yes,<br />

that even includes<br />

the part where Liddy<br />

puts on Hitler’s<br />

speeches as<br />

background dinner<br />

music. (It’s rumored<br />

that the real Liddy burst into the Nazi anthem when he entered<br />

prison.) This level of archness works thanks to Theroux’s<br />

pitch-perfect performance, a turn that showcases his versatility<br />

across genres <strong>—</strong> his previous appearance in an HBO project was<br />

The Leftovers, which was about as somber and bleak as prestige<br />

TV gets.<br />

As the partner who is embarrassed by Liddy’s ludicrous antics,<br />

Harrelson’s impression of Hunt is slightly more grounded, and<br />

while this works to level out the show’s satiric bite, it can also<br />

sometimes feel mismatched with the film’s intended tenor. It’s<br />

unclear what Gregory and Hyuck intend with this fictional<br />

portrayal of Hunt, who is arguably the most well-rounded<br />

character in White House Plumbers; he has a wife, many children,<br />

and his own family drama concerning the woes of fatherhood.<br />

Hunt’s wife, Dorothy (Lena Headey), is exasperated whenever he<br />

leaves the parenting duties to her, and it’s obvious she is the<br />

more competent of the two (she’s also a former intelligence<br />

operative). During these scenes, it’s almost as if White House<br />

Plumbers aspires to be a family drama and deliver social<br />

commentary on unequal gender roles. But the depth of that<br />

subplot is sacrificed in favor of the avowed political farce to<br />

which the series whole-heartedly commits. It’s also worth<br />

questioning if the commentary on gender roles is necessary or<br />

shrewd given the context of Dorothy Hunt’s possible involvement<br />

which the series whole-heartedly commits. It’s also worth<br />

questioning if the commentary on gender roles is necessary or<br />

shrewd given the context of Dorothy Hunt’s possible involvement<br />

in the cover-up of the Watergate scandal. The use of Lena<br />

Headey’s talents feels especially wasted here: she gives a terrific<br />

performance as a woman who’s had enough of her sexist and<br />

incompetent husband, but her role at the same time remains<br />

largely unwritten.<br />

Nevertheless, for a scandal that has already been documented in<br />

every format imaginable, White House Plumbers excels in keeping<br />

suspense up in anticipation of the inevitable failure of Liddy and<br />

Hunt’s operation. This is made possible through the series’ astute<br />

parody of the heist genre: the audience is taken through the<br />

duo’s attempts to garner support for the ridiculous idea, their<br />

planning of the break-in, and the endless failures, as well as the<br />

consequent exposure. The contrast between dutifully following<br />

the heist genre’s predictable beats and the jarring satire that<br />

underpins all of Liddy’s and Hunt’s actions, makes the sheer<br />

incompetence of the entire scandal all the more pronounced and<br />

foolish in retrospect. It’s as such that White House Plumbers<br />

wonderfully nails the strange mix of tragicomedy and farce that<br />

defined the Nixon administration <strong>—</strong> the entire presidency was<br />

brought down, as Nixon has said, by “a comedy of errors.” There’s<br />

certainly a debate to be had about our need for more Watergate<br />

media after so many go-rounds, but this particular return to the<br />

well thankfully works like a charm. <strong>—</strong> SHAR TAN<br />

7 6


KICKING THE CANON<br />

THE VIRGIN SUICIDES<br />

Sofia Coppola<br />

Tucked deep in the uncanny valley of Grosse Pointe, Michigan, is a street of towering, decaying Dutch Elm trees. Probe deeper, and<br />

beneath the tarmac lies a network of sewer tunnels from which a teenage peeping tom can spy a 13-year-old girl bleeding out in her<br />

bathtub. A fun house reflection of his native <strong>19</strong>70s Detroit, Jeffrey Eugenides’ debut novel The Virgin Suicides chronicles an<br />

amorphous set of adolescent boys who pine over the mysterious, alluring, and forever unknowable Lisbon girls: Cecilia (Hanna Hall),<br />

whose self-defenestration is the harbinger of a coming plague, and her sisters Lux (Kirsten Dunst), Bonnie (Chelse Swain), Mary (A.J.<br />

Cook), and Therese (Leslie Hayman).<br />

7 16


KICKING THE CANON<br />

Sofia Coppola’s <strong>19</strong>99 adaptation is startlingly faithful to the<br />

source material, while imbuing its appalling subject matter with<br />

a delicate, knowing tenderness that casts as many shadows as it<br />

illuminates. As an avatar of doomed, fragile femininity, the film<br />

would make a fine double feature with Peter Weir’s equally<br />

dreamy <strong>19</strong>75 feature Picnic at Hanging Rock; even the costumes<br />

(gauzy white dresses) and cinematography (scorching sunlight<br />

filtered through leafy trees) are similar. Not much happens in<br />

either, but Coppola understands, instinctively <strong>—</strong> and to<br />

devastating effect <strong>—</strong> that so very little happens in girlhood to<br />

begin with. It’s a waiting game: for your body to start changing<br />

and then, almost immediately, for it to stop. For creeps to leave<br />

you alone. For things to make sense, or at least get easier. Both<br />

films allow their girls to be swallowed whole by symbolism, either<br />

lost in a monstrous, maze-like rock structure or within the<br />

cloistered rooms of their childhood home.<br />

And neither film answers any questions about what happened or<br />

why. In Coppola’s retelling, the Lisbon sisters are positioned<br />

somewhere between angels and saints, existing as much in the<br />

boys’ imagination as they do on earth. They are firmly not of this<br />

world and therefore owe nothing to anyone, even their parents:<br />

they’re excruciatingly free from ordinary obligations or<br />

expectations. In this light, the meager artifacts that the boys<br />

have painstakingly preserved since the girls’ demise <strong>—</strong> diaries,<br />

photos, even medical records <strong>—</strong> take on the weight of priceless<br />

relics, entries in a collective hagiography rather than snippets of<br />

individual biographies.<br />

The Lisbon parents, as played by an anxiety-ridden Kathleen<br />

Turner and a passive, oblivious James Wood, seem both<br />

perplexed by the existence of their five beautiful daughters and<br />

almost fearful of their responsibility toward them. But it would be<br />

unfair to pin the suicides solely on their overbearing parenting,<br />

just as it would be unfair to label the boys as nothing more than<br />

lecherous cretins. That’s because, if the boys are obsessed, the<br />

girls are fatally, existentially repressed, not just by their eventual<br />

house arrest or their grief at Cecilia’s death, but by the very fact<br />

of life and all that it entails. Whether it’s innocent animals going<br />

extinct, their faithful Dutch Elms getting chopped down, or “my<br />

sister, the mean one, pulling my hair,” they intuit on an almost<br />

cellular level that life doesn’t have to <strong>—</strong> isn’t supposed to <strong>—</strong> be<br />

this way. It won’t be for much longer.<br />

When the novel was published, critics made much of Eugenides’<br />

decision to use the unusual first person plural, which implicitly<br />

includes readers in the “we” of the narration. This collective<br />

voice elevates his story from standard teen angst to Greek<br />

tragedy, as the jostling voices meld into an ever-present (but not<br />

all-knowing) chorus. Coppola preserves this device through<br />

voiceover, letting audiences join the boys’ sweet, pathetic, and<br />

ultimately futile attempts to make sense of tragedy. Even in the<br />

film’s now, decades after the suicides, these middle-aged men<br />

still gather to discuss unanswerable questions and sift through<br />

their memories and the ephemera that the sisters left behind.<br />

The Virgin Suicides tells a highly specific story, rooted firmly in a<br />

time and place: is there anything more poignant, and analog,<br />

than playing your crush records over a landline phone? Yet it’s<br />

told almost in the style of a parable or fable, with the narration<br />

taking on the gravitas of oral tradition. In painstakingly<br />

preserving the memory of the sisters, they’re also archiving their<br />

own stunted childhoods. The Lisbon sisters used the boys as an<br />

escape hatch into another life, but for the boys, the sisters were<br />

life: “the still point of the turning world.” While undeniably a story<br />

of mass suicide, Coppola also probes, with utmost delicacy and<br />

sensitivity, the aftermath that such trauma inflicts on those left<br />

behind. Just ask Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett), the charismatic<br />

school heartthrob turned recovering addict who took Lux to<br />

homecoming, had sex with her on the football field, and left her<br />

there <strong>—</strong> not to physically come to harm, but to experience<br />

something worse. The unequivocal death of both their<br />

childhoods, perhaps. <strong>—</strong> SELINA LEE<br />

8


FILM REVIEWS<br />

BLACKBERRY<br />

Matthew Johnson<br />

Inescapable during the ‘90s and ‘00s yet rendered near instantly<br />

obsolete by the iPhone and its assorted imitators, the BlackBerry<br />

smartphone feels less like a cautionary tale and more an<br />

example of business Darwinism in practice. The first<br />

commercially available mobile device to incorporate email and a<br />

cell phone, prominently featuring a static keyboard and a tactile<br />

clicking sound as uniquely identifiable as the roar of a<br />

Harley-Davidson, the BlackBerry was a business status symbol<br />

for the dawn of the new millennium. Limited initially by network<br />

bandwidth to only a few 100,000 users, the device anticipated a<br />

world where people obsessively glanced at their phones in public,<br />

but was targeted at the sort of executive and aspiring finance<br />

bros and gals who defined themselves by their necessity to be<br />

accessible at all times while the hoi polloi were still dialing up on<br />

AOL. And then, simply with the expressions “touchscreen” and<br />

“App Store” entering the public’s consciousness, the phone and<br />

the company that created it were all but swept into the dustbin<br />

of time without so much as an ironic reclamation.<br />

Matt Johnson’s BlackBerry charts the meteoric rise and fall of the<br />

phone <strong>—</strong> from its inauspicious inception in the mid-’90s to its<br />

impotent whimper of a death rattle during the tail end of the<br />

second Bush administration <strong>—</strong> with a workmanlike modesty that<br />

reflects its proudly Canadian origins (the company’s collapse is<br />

even indirectly tied into a failed attempt at purchasing a<br />

professional hockey team). Taking inspiration <strong>—</strong> structurally, if<br />

not formally <strong>—</strong> from The Social Network, the film begins as the<br />

story of two longtime friends who stumble onto a<br />

world-changing invention, only to later be driven apart by outside<br />

influences and the cutthroat nature of business. Mike Lazaridis<br />

(Jay Baruchel) and Doug Fregin (Johnson, doing double duty in<br />

front of as well as behind the camera) are introduced<br />

stammering their way through a failed pitch with a commercial<br />

fabrication company, being barely humored by shark-like<br />

executive Jim Balsillie (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Glenn<br />

Howerton, his head shaved down into a severe chrome<br />

dome-and-sides look). It’s <strong>19</strong>96, and simply saying you want to<br />

put email onto a phone is almost too forward-thinking to register<br />

with the average person, so Mike and Doug are dismissed back to<br />

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their strip-mall workshop at Research in Motion; toiling away on<br />

an overleveraged government contract to manufacture modems<br />

in between playing first-person shooter games over LAN and<br />

company-wide movie nights. But after being fired for<br />

undercutting his colleagues, Jim turns his attention back to<br />

Research in Motion as a potential liferaft, strong-arming his way<br />

into a co-CEO role made possible by mortgaging his house to<br />

keep the company’s lights on.<br />

Bristling at the inefficiencies and overriding the Pee Wee’s<br />

Playhouse-like nature of the business he just bought his way into,<br />

Jim begins setting meetings with potential buyers for a product<br />

that doesn’t even exist in prototype form yet, berating Mike into<br />

willing one into existence. It’s the classic conflict of principled<br />

engineering butting up against a “move fast and break things”<br />

corporate ethos, with Jim steamrolling Mike into falling in line<br />

while Doug (whose role within RiM is reduced by the film down to<br />

“Chief Fun Officer”) is increasingly sidelined. However, it doesn’t<br />

take long for cell phone carriers to recognize the upside in Mike’s<br />

vision, and faster than you can say “crackberry,” the phone has<br />

overtaken the market, with RiM relocating to a cavernous<br />

industrial space in Waterloo, Ontario. While Mike doggedly<br />

refuses to cut corners and clings to his geeky origins as long as<br />

possible <strong>—</strong> he celebrates the implementation of end-to-end<br />

encryption by texting the same message Alexander Graham Bell<br />

first spoke to Watson over the phone <strong>—</strong> Jim’s ceaseless ambition<br />

finds the company scaling faster than the nascent cellular<br />

network will support. That requires some legally dubious<br />

methods to hire away top talent from Google and Motorola to<br />

solve the problem, all while staving off a hostile takeover by<br />

PalmPilot.<br />

BlackBerry arrives at an interesting moment in pop culture,<br />

sandwiched between films that valorize the people who brought<br />

us Air Jordans and Flamin’ Hot Cheetos as, apparently, this is just<br />

what movies for grown-ups are now. To its credit, nobody’s likely<br />

to mistake this film for an elaborate corporate marketing<br />

campaign disguised as cinema. Despite running afoul of the SEC<br />

and pushing Doug out of the business <strong>—</strong> the straw that seemingly<br />

broke the camel’s back is the company’s new, hard-nosed COO,<br />

played by the great Canadian character actor Michael Ironside,<br />

permanently canceling movie night <strong>—</strong> BlackBerry's collapse can<br />

be attributed as much as anything to being caught flat-footed in<br />

the face of an industry-wide disruptor. By now, it’s 2007, and<br />

Mike, rocking a Keith Morrison-like silver hair helmet, obstinately<br />

clings to the keypad design and crows over cosmetic<br />

improvements like a built-in trackpad while, back in Cupertino,<br />

Apple was about to release a $600 phone that everyone and their<br />

mother would soon be clamoring over. The film makes the case<br />

that BlackBerry simply refused to innovate until it was too late,<br />

entombing itself in amber sometime in the early 2000s and<br />

assuming the industry would remain loyal because they made<br />

“the best phones on earth.” At a time when a fun night at the<br />

movies is increasingly spent applauding billionaires for their<br />

business acumen, there’s considerable space for schadenfreude<br />

in watching a bunch of suits implode a massive<br />

telecommunications company because they’ve convinced<br />

themselves that what the public really wanted was a cheaply<br />

constructed phone with a touchscreen that retains the<br />

click-clack sound of a keyboard when you tap it.<br />

Still, it all runs the risk of being a bit dry, particularly if one<br />

harbors little nostalgia for the era or antiquated technology.<br />

Johnson favors a jittery, handheld style, capturing moments of<br />

inspiration on the fly; it's all designed to appear loose and almost<br />

accidental in nature <strong>—</strong> the eureka moment when Balsillie<br />

stumbles upon the distinctly fruity name of their new company is<br />

a particularly effective example of the plant and payoff <strong>—</strong> while<br />

tracking the passage of time by setting the film against a series<br />

of killer alt-rock needle drops. But really, the film’s not-so-secret<br />

weapon is Howerton. Retaining the pinched rage and arrogance<br />

of his Always Sunny character, Dennis Reynolds, Howerton’s Jim<br />

Balsillie serves as both the grown-up in the room and the<br />

impetuous toddler, throwing temper tantrums and smashing<br />

phones, all while coasting along on a slipstream of bullshit.<br />

BlackBerry is ultimately about the battle for Mike’s soul, caught<br />

between the success afforded by Jim’s lack of scruples and<br />

Doug’s connection to more humble origins, built around quality<br />

craftsmanship and shared values. All of which makes Johnson’s<br />

decision to portray Fregin as an off-brand Judah<br />

Friendlander-type <strong>—</strong> the kind of person who shows up to work for<br />

a decade with a headband tying back his mullet, wearing cut-off<br />

shorts, his mouth perpetually hanging derpily agape <strong>—</strong> so<br />

confounding. The character’s role within the narrative is<br />

inherently tragic (the Eduardo Saverin to Lazaridis’ Mark<br />

Zuckerberg, if you will), yet Johnson plays him like the sort of<br />

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office dipshit who never seems to be doing any actual work, his<br />

presence within the company feeling almost ceremonial. Just<br />

because nobody wants to hear you prattle on about video games<br />

and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles while they’re trying to do their<br />

job doesn’t make it the fall of paradise. <strong>—</strong> ANDREW DIGNAN<br />

DIRECTOR: Matt Johnson; CAST: Glenn Howerton, Jay Baruchel,<br />

Martin Donovan; DISTRIBUTOR: IFC Films; IN THEATERS: May 12;<br />

RUNTIME: 1 hr. 59 min.<br />

HYPNOTIC<br />

Robert Rodriguez<br />

What if you mixed Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure with a little bit of<br />

Inception and topped it off with a dash of Firestarter? Sounds<br />

pretty good, right? But, oops, you then decide to let Robert<br />

Rodriguez direct. Now, what you instead get is a dead-on-arrival<br />

sci-fi clunker in the vein of something like the dire Nic Cage<br />

movie Next, or some other forgotten piece of genre detritus.<br />

Regrettably, that’s where Hypnotic’s meager legacy is headed.<br />

The film opens with Austin Police Detective Daniel Rourke (Ben<br />

Affleck) describing to his shrink, once again, the trauma of his<br />

daughter’s sudden disappearance from a playground, which in<br />

turn led <strong>—</strong> of course <strong>—</strong> to the dissolution of his marriage. Soon<br />

enough, he and his partner receive a tip about a bank robbery<br />

that ends up being his gateway into a vast conspiracy involving<br />

powerful psychics and his own haunted past.<br />

What follows that setup is a massively dull procedural that, in<br />

execution, sounds like it was written by roughly a 12-year-old,<br />

peppered with cliched shady government organizations bearing<br />

names like “The Division” and “Project Domino,” and littered with<br />

clumsy exposition and one limp attempt at a plot twist after<br />

another in lieu of any actual investigating or suspense-building.<br />

The film’s narrative beats look something like this: Daniel goes<br />

somewhere, meets someone, and they give a long speech about<br />

the plot; then he goes somewhere else, where a third person tells<br />

him what’s really happening, and so on and so on.<br />

What’s worse is that all this eventually leads to some realitybending<br />

shenanigans, but <strong>—</strong> without giving too much away <strong>—</strong> the<br />

incredibly over-explained final third basically renders the entire<br />

thing moot and leaves no tangible foothold for the story; if<br />

anything could be happening at any time, what exactly are we<br />

supposed to care about? And to make matters worse,<br />

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Affleck looks visibly bored during all of it; it’s almost like if you<br />

squint hard, you can see him morosely shaking his head as he<br />

describes the experience to Matt Damon on the set of Air.<br />

Rodriguez long ago squandered much of his early promise as a<br />

scrappy director of low-budget genre films, mostly due to his<br />

insistence on factory-tooling everything in what continues to<br />

look like his backyard, this despite having a studio complex in<br />

Austin, Texas (where much of this was filmed). Yet, there’s not an<br />

ounce of style or virtuosity here. Flat, handheld compositions<br />

give way to televisual close-ups, all with a muted color palette<br />

perfectly suited to smooth out buffering on whichever streaming<br />

service you might end up watching this. Hypnotic is ultimately an<br />

entirely perfunctory exercise, seemingly crafted solely because<br />

Rodriguez could get it financed and sold, and absent even an iota<br />

of inspiration. It’s one thing to be silly, but you can’t be soulless,<br />

too. <strong>—</strong> MATT LYNCH<br />

DIRECTOR: Robert Rodriguez; CAST: Ben Affleck, Alice Braga, JD<br />

Pardo; DISTRIBUTOR: Lionsgate; IN THEATERS: May 12;<br />

RUNTIME: 1 hr. 32 min.<br />

THE STARLING GIRL<br />

Laurel Parmet<br />

Writer-director Laurel Parmet’s The Starling Girl opens with<br />

17-year-old Jem Starling (Eliza Scanlen) dancing with her<br />

church’s worship troupe. It’s clear that dancing brings Jem<br />

happiness and a modicum of freedom amidst the surveilling eyes<br />

of churchgoers. Immediately after, she is publicly shamed by an<br />

older woman for wearing a bra that’s visible under her shirt. In<br />

tears, Jem rushes out of the church, and that’s when she meets<br />

28-year-old Owen Taylor (Lewis Pullman), the head pastor’s eldest<br />

son, smoking a cigarette. He asks her not to tell. The warped and<br />

twisted power dynamic between Owen and Jem that follows in<br />

Parmet’s debut feature is laid bare in this opening scene <strong>—</strong> she’s<br />

not allowed to tell, and her shame must be buried beneath layers<br />

of clothes in spite of the relentless Kentucky sun. He’s laid back,<br />

smoking a cigarette in public, free from the fear of punishment.<br />

Religious hypocrisy and a teenage girl’s burgeoning sexuality do<br />

not mix well together. Owen knows this, and initiates an<br />

extramarital affair with Jem, who craves his validation for<br />

desires that she is prohibited from exploring.<br />

At home, Jem is the eldest daughter in a large family who is<br />

constantly tasked with household chores and caretaker duties to<br />

her younger siblings. Her father, Paul (Jimmi Simpson), is an<br />

alcoholic. One time, Jem opens the wrong bedroom door and<br />

finds him wasted and half-naked. Another time, he hits her in a<br />

drunken outburst. Her mother, Heidi (Wrenn Schmidt), asks Jem<br />

not to tell, out of fear that his “Satanic” temptations would bring<br />

shame to the family. She insists that Paul is fine, and so wilfully<br />

deludes herself into believing that Jem is fine with her father’s<br />

illness too. It’s at home that Jem learns that the body and all its<br />

desires <strong>—</strong> especially her own <strong>—</strong> is a place of guilt, lust, and sin. As<br />

her sense of self is torn apart, it’s unsurprising that she sees her<br />

illicit affair with Owen as a way to rebel against her<br />

fundamentalist upbringing. After all, Owen is everything that Jem<br />

hasn’t been allowed to be: he’s traveled overseas and, more<br />

importantly, has a much more fluid relationship with God, one<br />

where biblical rules can be broken with impunity.<br />

By carefully illuminating the fraught relationships that Jem<br />

shares with her parents and her religion, Parmet allows the<br />

audience to see why and how Owen’s treatment of Jem is<br />

predatory and manipulative <strong>—</strong> even as Jem wholeheartedly<br />

believes that she’s reclaiming her sexual agency. In The Starling<br />

Girl, the sun’s glare is always rendered excessively harsh and<br />

almost nauseating to behold; this choice imbues Owen and Jem’s<br />

encounters with a sickly discomfort that mirrors the latter’s<br />

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inner turmoil and vulnerability. When they have sex for the first<br />

time, the camera focuses on Jem’s hurt and anguish, and denies<br />

the audience the gratification of witnessing Owen’s perverse<br />

pleasure. Through a consistent emphasis on Jem’s point of view<br />

<strong>—</strong> her fears, conflicted desires, and deep-rooted Christian guilt,<br />

The Starling Girl criticizes the orthodox environment that<br />

carelessly allows sexual abuse to flourish, and the evangelical<br />

community’s close-mindedness, hypocrisy, and indoctrination are<br />

subsequently placed on trial. In lesser hands, a premise involving<br />

a younger girl and a married man might have been utilized for<br />

titillating spectacle. Parmet’s film, however, is awash with<br />

empathy for teenage girls whose senses of self have been<br />

destroyed by religious puritanism.<br />

Scanlen has received critical acclaim for playing deviously<br />

complex and rebellious women in works like Sharp Objects and<br />

Babyteeth, and her performance in The Starling Girl arrives as<br />

both nuanced and momentous. She precisely capures Jem’s<br />

naïveté and youthful innocence, but also delicately reveals how<br />

this naïveté is gradually worn down by sexual abuse and familial<br />

neglect. Alongside Scanlen is Schmidt’s towering turn as Heidi, a<br />

religiously compliant woman whose self-righteous denial about<br />

her husband’s indiscretions is only barely intact. Heidi’s own guilt<br />

over failing to be a picture-perfect wife manifests in her cruelty<br />

toward Jem, especially when she kicks Jem out after confessing<br />

to the affair. Religious trauma spans generations, and Parmet<br />

paints a deeply and justifiably pessimistic look at a cloistered<br />

and insular community that would rather girls like Jem be sent to<br />

conversion camp in order to protect the abusive men in their<br />

ranks.<br />

While Parmet’s coming-of-age narrative is predictably<br />

structured, with the exposure of Owen and Jem’s illicit<br />

relationship perfectly timed toward the film’s end, it nonetheless<br />

boasts searing moments of tenderness that add surprising depth<br />

to a common subgenre. In particular, the loving scenes between<br />

Jem and Paul, while rare, give the audience a glimpse into a freer<br />

world where men can be true fathers to their daughters. While<br />

intoxicated, Paul tells Jem about his worldly life before devoting<br />

himself to God: he was a country singer who played in a band,<br />

and his continued love for music, an expression of unbridled<br />

individuality, resembles Jem’s love for dance. Later on, in a<br />

moment of sadness, Paul offers Jem the one thing she hasn’t<br />

received before from the adults in her life <strong>—</strong> a heartfelt apology<br />

for mistreating her. It’s here that The Starling Girl offers what<br />

religion has failed to give its tortured believers: grace. <strong>—</strong> SHAR<br />

TAN<br />

DIRECTOR: Laurel Parmet; CAST: Eliza Scanlen, Lewis Pullman,<br />

Jimmi Simpson; DISTRIBUTOR: Bleecker Street; IN THEATERS:<br />

May 12; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 56 min.<br />

THE MOTHER<br />

Niki Caro<br />

Just in time for Mother’s Day comes The Mother, a heartwarming<br />

tale of familial love courtesy of Netflix that opens with our titular<br />

heroine (Jennifer Lopez) getting brutally stabbed in her big<br />

pregnant belly <strong>—</strong> no worries, mom and baby are just fine. Yet<br />

those expecting a tasty slice of maternal sleaze a la Zack<br />

Parker’s Proxy or Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury’s Inside<br />

INSIDE THE RED BRICK WALL<br />

Hong Kong Documentary Filmmakers<br />

“The Hong Kong Filmmakers who shot and assembled Inside the Red Brick Wall have captured this pivotal political moment with<br />

remarkable clarity, rendering it not just legible but actively engrossing. The amount of footage captured by this team, not to<br />

mention its general professional quality, puts it out ahead of most of the Hong Kong protest documentaries that have circulated<br />

2021 festivals, and marks Inside the Red Brick Wall as one of the more essential texts on the matter <strong>—</strong> universal in its depiction of<br />

the grave stakes taken on by those who organize against state.” <strong>—</strong> M.G. MAILLOUX [Published as part of <strong>InRO</strong>’s CineCina Film Festival<br />

2021 coverage.]<br />

DIRECTOR: Hong Kong Documentary Filmmakers; CAST: <strong>—</strong>; DISTRIBUTOR: Ovid; STREAMING: May 1; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 25 min.<br />

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trafficking, her conscience could no longer be silenced,<br />

because… cognitive dissonance. The FBI ultimately demands that<br />

The Mother put her newborn daughter up for adoption if she<br />

wants to be a part of the witness protection program <strong>—</strong> hell of a<br />

caveat!<br />

But this mom is all about self-sacrifice in the name of safety for<br />

her child, so she hightails it to the Alaskan wilderness while the<br />

baby gets the suburban upbringing she deserves. In a stunning<br />

plot twist, however, Hector discovers the daughter’s identity and<br />

whereabouts <strong>—</strong> it takes him 12 years, but still <strong>—</strong> and so The<br />

Mother is called back into action, leaving a reprehensible amount<br />

of collateral damage in her wake. But wait, weren't there two bad<br />

guys? The Mother desperately tries to avoid the repetition baked<br />

into its plot by having The Mother whisk daughter Zoe (Lucy Paez)<br />

away to Alaska after a second attempted kidnapping so that she<br />

can teach her how to shoot stuff and be a badass survivalist,<br />

hopefully before the aforementioned Adrian can track down their<br />

whereabouts.<br />

would be wise to look elsewhere, as The Mother is simply the<br />

umpteenth gloss on Taken, in which a highly adept individual with<br />

a specific set of skills must shoot their way through dozens of<br />

bad guys in order to rescue their kidnapped offspring.<br />

The Mother <strong>—</strong> yes, she has no name, because this movie<br />

understands that all mothers are truly one mother, their<br />

struggles and triumphs binding them together while stripping<br />

them of individuality; yes, it’s insulting <strong>—</strong> is ex-military and a<br />

former Special Ops agent turned rogue who, as the film opens, is<br />

seeking FBI protection after ratting out the violent men with<br />

whom she did business. You see, The Mother isn’t a bad person.<br />

Sure, she brokered illegal arms deals between two of the most<br />

ruthless and dangerous men on the planet <strong>—</strong> Hector (Gael Garcia<br />

Bernal) and Adrian (Joseph Fiennes), respectively <strong>—</strong> who then<br />

profited off their sale that presumably resulted in the death of<br />

thousands of innocent men, women, and children. But when she<br />

discovered that these men were also involved in human<br />

A film with a plot this hoary needs to excel in the action<br />

department if it wants to command any sort of attention, and<br />

unfortunately, director Niki Caro is simply not up to the task. A<br />

filmmaker whose resume includes a wildly overrated debut<br />

(Whale Rider) along with awards also-rans (North Country, The<br />

Zookeeper’s Wife) and big-budget studio fare (2020’s dud<br />

live-action Mulan remake), Caro’s visual style is as bland and<br />

generic as the plot of The Mother itself, with all of the various<br />

chase scenes and shoot-outs lacking finesse in both staging and<br />

cutting. She certainly isn’t helped by Lopez, who isn’t necessarily<br />

bad here, but is notably so stuck in glum-mode that it cancels<br />

out the star’s natural charisma. Bernal and his character,<br />

meanwhile, are in another movie altogether, with his voracious<br />

scenery-chewing matching a villain who, minus brief flashbacks,<br />

shares only one scene with Lopez, and the majority of his<br />

dialogue within it involves the various ways she “makes his dick<br />

hard” and how he can’t wait to “split her open” with it <strong>—</strong> Mother’s<br />

Day appointment-viewing if ever it existed. At least this leads to<br />

Lopez delivering a catchphrase that is sure to take on “I’ll be<br />

back!” levels of popularity, when she solemnly intones, “We didn’t<br />

have a safe word” as bullets begin to fly through the air.<br />

Kinksters, take heed, as there is little else of value on offer in The<br />

Mother, which fails to meet even its mind-numbingly low<br />

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ambitions. Moms everywhere <strong>—</strong> the late Joan Crawford included<br />

<strong>—</strong> deserve better than this half-assed drudgery. <strong>—</strong> STEVEN<br />

WARNER<br />

DIRECTOR: Niki Caro; CAST: Jennifer Lopez, Joseph Fiennes,<br />

Gael García Bernal; DISTRIBUTOR: Netflix; STREAMING: May 12;<br />

RUNTIME: 1 hr. 56 min.<br />

FOOL’S PARADISE<br />

Charlie Day<br />

A scattershot commentary on the film industry from<br />

writer-director-star Charlie Day (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia),<br />

the kindest thing one can say about Fool’s Paradise is that it’s too<br />

toothless to actually offend anyone, though that doesn’t exactly<br />

reflect well on its claims on being a satire. Aimed exclusively at<br />

the sort of person who uses the term “Hollyweird” unironically,<br />

the film follows a mute-by-choice naif (Day) who, through<br />

remarkable happenstance and the absurdity of the movie<br />

business, is instantly elevated to superstardom, only to be<br />

chewed up and spit out just as quickly. For his first time in the<br />

director’s chair, Day has surrounded himself with an impressive<br />

ensemble of actors, most of whom pop up for only a handful of<br />

scenes, all embodying the assorted sycophants, flunkies,<br />

phonies, and blowhards that your conservative uncle’s Facebook<br />

posts are convinced populate the industry. No archetype is too<br />

lazy or zinger from a Jay Leno monologue too moldy for this film.<br />

There’s plucking low-hanging fruit, and then there’s scooping<br />

apples out of a ditch after the cart has crashed on the side of the<br />

road. And then there’s Fool’s Paradise.<br />

Introduced at a mental hospital, where we learn that he has the<br />

“mind of a five-year-old or, say, a labrador retriever,” Day’s<br />

unnamed patient possesses an affable disposition and the ability<br />

to be easily led, which the film seems to argue makes him<br />

perfectly suited for a career in acting. After being bounced for<br />

lacking insurance, dropped onto a bus, and driven downtown, the<br />

character finds himself selling bags of oranges next to a<br />

thoroughfare when he’s spotted by Ray Liotta’s film producer <strong>—</strong><br />

this is already the second posthumous film from Liotta released<br />

this year after this past winter’s Cocaine Bear <strong>—</strong> who finds<br />

himself in something of a bind. Overseeing a troubled production<br />

about the life of Billy the Kid, he’s saddled with a difficult leading<br />

man (also played by Day) who drinks all day and refuses to leave<br />

his trailer. When his doppelganger presents himself out of the<br />

blue, the producer throws him into his car and drives to set with<br />

the intention of having him serve as a stand-in for the day<br />

(Liotta’s tendency to bellow for his assistant to bring him a “Latte,<br />

pronto!” also inadvertently leads to the still unnamed man to<br />

assume the expression as his nom de guerre). But after the film’s<br />

actual leading man accidentally hangs himself in either a method<br />

acting exercise gone awry or possibly (probably) an autoerotic<br />

asphyxiation mishap, the production turns its eyes to “Latte,”<br />

who may not be able to speak but as a warm body and dead<br />

ringer are nonetheless good enough.<br />

With his self-involved co-stars (Adrien Brody and Kate<br />

Beckinsale) mistaking his dogged silence and tendency to stare<br />

directly into the camera during takes for an exciting new acting<br />

technique, and the Hollywood machine of agents, business<br />

managers, personal stylists, and a parasitic publicist (Ken Jeong,<br />

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playing the same note of needy desperation for nearly 100<br />

minutes) spinning up around him, Latte is soon on the rocketship<br />

to fame and fortune. Based solely on the buzz of his Billy the Kid<br />

performance, Latte lands a comic book hero role (Mosquito Man…<br />

or maybe it’s Mosquito Boy, nobody can quite remember) and<br />

finds himself in a celebrity marriage with Beckinsale’s Angelina<br />

Jolie-esque movie star and inexplicably embroiled in assorted<br />

scandals, all while his team continues to bleed him dry. It’s not<br />

long before the money’s gone, the phone’s stopped ringing, and<br />

Latte is bound for the gutter once again; although, in this town,<br />

you’re never very far from your next reinvention or comeback.<br />

Long in development <strong>—</strong> the film first went into production back in<br />

late 2018, and later went through reshoots during Covid<strong>—</strong> Fool’s<br />

Paradise superficially resembles Hal Ashby’s Being There, with<br />

everyone who encounters Day’s simpleton projecting depth and<br />

ambition onto Latte’s pliability and sweet-natured mugging. It’s a<br />

comparison the film invites itself during a late stretch where<br />

Latte is even floated as a political candidate and is buttonholed<br />

by an intimidating industrialist <strong>—</strong> John Malkovich, playing one of<br />

the Koch brothers in all but name <strong>—</strong> who gives a monologue that<br />

could best be described as General Ripper’s “Precious Bodily<br />

Fluids” speech from Dr. Stangelove, if the subtext were text. The<br />

scene even ends with a cutaway to an oil derrick spewing crude,<br />

lest anyone somehow miss the point. But that’s really the entire<br />

film in essence: there aren’t jokes so much as sketch comedy<br />

prompts about soft targets. Actors are reckless buffoons, starlets<br />

are free with their bodies and flaky, cocaine makes you act like a<br />

goofball, directors feign depth but are actually dull materialists,<br />

spiritual gurus are con artists, and on it goes.<br />

In truth, Fool’s Paradise doesn’t have anything provocative or<br />

counterintuitive to say about movies, politics, or celebrity; it's<br />

simply content that everyone will pick up on the references and<br />

that nobody’s feelings get hurt. Day, whose longtime comedic<br />

persona is almost wholly defined by his screechy irritability, is<br />

giving an entirely physical performance here, shuffling along<br />

downtown Los Angeles in a pork pie hat as if he were the Little<br />

Tramp <strong>—</strong> one of the few things working in the film’s favor is its<br />

effective use of off-the-beaten-path locations <strong>—</strong> and emoting<br />

through his eyes and forehead. But there’s no Chaplin-esque<br />

pathos to be wrought from material this facile, nor are there any<br />

inspired, Keaton-like pratfalls to be found in Day’s direction. The<br />

STILL: A MICHAEL J. FOX MOVIE<br />

Davis Guggenheim<br />

“It is to Guggenheim’s credit, then, that Still doesn’t feel like<br />

some insignificant puff piece or a vanity project. As Fox’s<br />

condition has worsened with each passing year, the actor is<br />

quite upfront about the fact that he agreed to tell his story at<br />

this particular moment because he’s not sure if he will be able<br />

to physically do so in the near future, a sobering introduction<br />

to the exploits that follow.” <strong>—</strong> STEVEN WARNER [Published as<br />

part of <strong>InRO</strong>’s Sundance 2023 coverage.]<br />

DIRECTOR: Davis Guggenheim; CAST: Michael J. Fox;<br />

DISTRIBUTOR: Apple TV+; STREAMING: May 12; RUNTIME: 1 hr.<br />

35 min.<br />

gag always works its way back around to these people and this<br />

business being fundamentally unserious and unreliable, and that<br />

the only one with his feet on the ground is a mental patient. It’s<br />

nice that Day was able to pull in so many of his famous friends to<br />

lend a hand to his first feature, but one wishes that he’d worked<br />

through his disdain for his profession the way most wealthy<br />

people do: by going to therapy. It certainly would have been<br />

cheaper. Probably funnier, too. <strong>—</strong> ANDREW DIGNAN<br />

DIRECTOR: Charlie Day; CAST: Charlie Day, Ken Jeong, Adrien<br />

Brody, Jason Bateman; DISTRIBUTOR: Lionsgate/Roadside<br />

Attractions; IN THEATERS: May 12; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 37 min.<br />

L’IMMENSITA<br />

Emanuele Crialese<br />

A wonderfully realized portrait of the alienation experienced by<br />

both a mother and her child, Italian filmmaker Emanuele<br />

Crialese’s brilliantly colorful and touching L’Immensita revels in<br />

the weight that all of the smallest things in the world can hold.<br />

The film marvels at both their fineness and immensity, and is<br />

anchored by a great performance from Penélope Cruz as Clara <strong>—</strong><br />

mother to three children, including Andrew (newcomer Luana<br />

Giuliani), whose gender nonconformity has become a strained<br />

point in the family as he outgrows his innocently acquired<br />

boyhood. From the pains of a broken marriage to the smallest<br />

performative gesture in the choice of clothes worn for a<br />

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FILM REVIEWS<br />

Christmas card, every facet of this family’s lives affects the kids<br />

as they grow up, and particularly as they grow more aware of<br />

what is happening at home.<br />

Billed more broadly as a familial melodrama, the central<br />

mother-child relationship between Clara and Andrew is<br />

ultimately L’Immensita’s centering force. Clara’s other, younger<br />

children are best articulated through scenes with Andrew, which<br />

highlight the delicate balance of childhood and all of its<br />

pre-adult anxieties. One child eats too much, while the other<br />

refuses to eat. And while Andrew finds himself only in a freedom<br />

that comes beyond shelter, his mother finds shelter only by<br />

regressing to childlike innocence. Cruz particularly shines as<br />

Clara, a parent who endeavors to grow closer to her children and<br />

to share in the safety they find in their youth as a means of<br />

escape from the abuses of her husband.<br />

Andrew’s story, drawn from Crialese’s own coming of age and set<br />

in <strong>19</strong>70s Rome, depicts how unstable identity can be in that<br />

liminal space found at the end of childhood. It’s not for lack of<br />

assuredness, but from an increased scrutiny from outsiders, and<br />

one’s growing awareness of it. Andrew’s first love with a girl in a<br />

worker’s colony allows him the dignity to exist as himself,<br />

marking his escape into an adolescence often denied him: he<br />

experiences the first inklings of growing up, of building<br />

connections, of negotiating relationships. This chapter is<br />

especially symbolic, as it represents a turning point <strong>—</strong> at life’s<br />

beginning, no less <strong>—</strong> in how he can be seen. Andrew’s relationship<br />

to gender and his burgeoning sexuality are born tangibly; having<br />

passed socially for years due to the androgyny afforded by<br />

childhood, he joins his peers <strong>—</strong> in one pointed fantasy sequence,<br />

they all cast off their color-coded uniform robes (white for girls,<br />

black for boys) and refuse the weight of their customs.<br />

Elsewhere, the film’s ‘70s Italian pop music alternates between<br />

unbelievable corniness and unabashed sincerity: on which side<br />

of that line these musical numbers fall can be found in how they<br />

are diegetically incorporated. Clara dancing with her children<br />

around the breakfast table at best offers sweet cheesiness, but<br />

at worst it can create a dissonance relative to the weight of the<br />

surrounding drama. Later sequences, however, including two<br />

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FILM REVIEWS<br />

where Andrew hears a song on the TV and enters a<br />

black-and-white dreamscape where he and his<br />

mother perform on the same stage, reflect more<br />

fidelity to the heart of Andrew’s narrative. The better<br />

of these two latter needle drops is Adriano Celentano’s<br />

“Prisencolinensinainciusol” (the infamous song made<br />

to sound like English via incomprehensible gibberish),<br />

deployed to reflect an exploration of barriers in our<br />

communication.<br />

Family is a difficult thing; even our closest kin do not<br />

see us <strong>—</strong> understand us <strong>—</strong> within the specific vacuum<br />

we once inhabited as children. Further yet, Andrew’s<br />

journey is not a coming-out story in the modern,<br />

identity-politics-driven sense, nor does it speak the<br />

same language of transness that someone like he<br />

would no doubt be labeled with today. But what’s<br />

notable here is that he never asserts that he is<br />

becoming a boy, but instead simply chooses to exist,<br />

allowing himself to disappear into the lightness of a<br />

world before such labels and language. It’s an utterly<br />

essential reflection of his journey, and in this course, he finds<br />

hope that, someday, his family’s immense expectations for him<br />

might also disappear. <strong>—</strong> SARAH WILLIAMS<br />

DIRECTOR: Emanuele Crialese; CAST: Penélope Cruz, Vincenzo<br />

Amato, Luana Giuliani; DISTRIBUTOR: Music Box Films; IN<br />

THEATERS: May 12; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 37 min.<br />

LOVE AGAIN<br />

James C. Strouse<br />

Love Again sounds like a title where novelty goes to die, and the<br />

resulting film certainly does nothing to deviate from such<br />

lowered expectations, even with the appearance of beloved<br />

French-Canadian songstress Céline Dion, making her feature film<br />

debut. It’s rather ironic that star Priyanka Chopra Jonas finally<br />

gets her shot at a leading role in a big Hollywood studio project<br />

just as her brand-new television series, Citadel, courtesy of the<br />

Russo brothers, debuts on Amazon Prime; ironic because Love<br />

Again would feel much more at home on any number of basic<br />

cable channels or streaming platforms, whereas Citadel looks<br />

and feels cinematic in every respect. With Love Again, writer-<br />

director James C. Strouse slavishly adheres to the romantic<br />

comedy template <strong>—</strong> and all the tropes and cliches inherent<br />

therein <strong>—</strong> while phoning in a visual style best described as, “...”<br />

Those looking for evidence need merely take a gander at the<br />

couple’s climactic reunion, where Strouse steadfastly refuses to<br />

include both actors in the same shot, forcing them to recite<br />

heartfelt apologies and declarations of love into a void of<br />

nothingness, which incites more unintentional laughs than<br />

swooning. Then again, levity is a rare thing in Love Again, a movie<br />

that bills itself as a comedy but features fewer jokes than Shoah.<br />

Chopra Jonas stars as Mira Ray, a famous children’s storybook<br />

author and illustrator who, as the film opens, is enjoying some<br />

cutesy and heartfelt shenanigans at a local coffee shop with her<br />

boyfriend, John (Arinze Kene). Cue the screeching tires and<br />

Wilhelm scream, as John is immediately run over and killed in<br />

front of Mira <strong>—</strong> you know, the stuff all good rom-coms are made<br />

of. (“It was a drunk driver… in broad daylight,” she dramatically<br />

states later in the film.) The movie then abruptly cuts ahead two<br />

years, as Mira is finally ready to move out of her parents’ house<br />

in the suburbs and back into her apartment in New York, which<br />

she shares with her sister, Suzy (Sofia Barclay) <strong>—</strong> not quite a<br />

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FILM REVIEWS<br />

TAKING BACK THE LEGISLATURE<br />

Hong Kong Documentary Filmmakers<br />

“Much less so than Inside the Red Brick Wall, but still to a<br />

pronounced degree, Taking back the Legislature principally<br />

records an erratic act of sheer despair, the dubious<br />

righteousness of which must be measured equally alongside<br />

its obvious and disastrous foolishness… As much as the film<br />

aims to pay tribute to a movement, its ambitions and its<br />

victims, it can’t be ignored that it also serves as testament to<br />

fragmented despair, lack of vision, and thoroughgoing failure.<br />

It is, if nothing else, and whether intentional or not, a sobering<br />

portrait of Hong Kong.” <strong>—</strong> MATT MCCRACKEN [Published as part<br />

of <strong>InRO</strong>’s CineCina Film Festival 2021 coverage.]<br />

DIRECTOR: Hong Kong Documentary Filmmakers; CAST: <strong>—</strong>;<br />

DISTRIBUTOR: Ovid; STREAMING: May 1; RUNTIME: 44 min.<br />

lateral move, but not much beyond it either. Meanwhile, a music<br />

critic by the name of Rob Burns (Sam Heughan) is nursing his<br />

own broken heart and doing a whole lot of whining before his<br />

new work cell phone lights up with severely depressing messages<br />

from Mira. Turns out that Rob’s phone has the same number as<br />

John’s old one, and Mira is texting that number as a form of<br />

fucked-up therapy as she attempts to get back out into the<br />

dating world. (Minus some pesky details and the yuletide veneer,<br />

Hallmark already did this in 2021 with The Christmas Promise.)<br />

Rob can’t help but be mesmerized by these messages, which<br />

include such deep thoughts as, “I miss your smell,” and soon Rob<br />

is head over heels in love with a woman he has never met. He<br />

goes on to stalk her <strong>—</strong> but in the name of romance, you must<br />

understand <strong>—</strong> and wouldn’t you know it, they meet and instantly<br />

fall hard for one another. But will Rob ultimately tell Mira the truth<br />

about how he knows her?<br />

Love Again’s plot is on autopilot for the majority of its running<br />

time, save for the sudden appearance of Queen Céline (playing<br />

herself), on whom Rob must write an in-depth story to coincide<br />

with her upcoming tour. Dion’s acting here is… well, it’s<br />

something that will be dissected by both cinephiles and<br />

historians for decades, if not centuries. She is first introduced at<br />

a press conference and could be best described as <strong>—</strong> to use the<br />

parlance of the social media age <strong>—</strong>“serving cunt.” It’s a fairly<br />

exaggerated introduction to her character here, and based on<br />

the film, it seems that Dion has two modes when it comes to<br />

acting: raging diva and teary-eyed storyteller. In both instances,<br />

she regrettably presents more like an alien from another planet<br />

who is desperately trying to mimic human behavior and failing<br />

miserably, emotional and psychological understanding of<br />

humanity apparently out of her grasp. She then tells a lot of<br />

stories about her deceased husband, René Angélil, which is as<br />

fun to watch on screen as that sounds. On the plus side, she at<br />

least she still proves a more compelling character than Mira, who<br />

is something like a wet blanket crossed with a fungal infection.<br />

Love Again paints itself into a corner from its opening scene<br />

because it’s the only one in which Mira and John share any<br />

screen time. We have no idea what the degree of their love is<br />

save for what Mira tells us, but frankly, she also seems like an<br />

unreliable narrator. Strouse doesn’t even have the decency to tell<br />

us how long they have been dating prior to the accident. Two<br />

weeks? Two months? Twenty years? Mira finds an engagement<br />

ring in his possessions and bemoans the fact that he never had<br />

the opportunity to give it to her, but viewers are given no details<br />

beyond this. Better to spend time on a scene where Chopra<br />

Jonas goes out on a date with her real-life husband, Nick Jonas,<br />

who plays an exaggerated(?) version of himself, the joke being,<br />

“Hey, she hates this douchebag, but that’s her husband!” Clever,<br />

clever stuff. Meanwhile, the two leads share little in the way of<br />

chemistry, while the film’s costume designer seems to have some<br />

sort of personal vendetta against Chopra Jonas, putting the<br />

former Miss World in the most ill-fitting and unflattering clothes<br />

imaginable and denying Love Again even the superficial pleasures<br />

of basic rom-com chicness. The heart may go on, but the brain is<br />

long dead. <strong>—</strong> STEVEN WARNER<br />

DIRECTOR: James C. Strouse; CAST: Priyanka Chopra Jonas,<br />

Sam Heughan, Céline Dion, Russell Tovey; DISTRIBUTOR: Sony<br />

Pictures; IN THEATERS: May 5; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 44 min.<br />

MONICA<br />

Andrea Pallaoro<br />

It’s a film like Monica that offers you space to question the<br />

legitimacy of our major film festivals’ competition branches, a<br />

<strong>19</strong>


FILM REVIEWS<br />

film where only industrial interrelations <strong>—</strong> shoulders rubbed so<br />

hard they’re chafing <strong>—</strong> could make a case for its positioning atop<br />

our most prestigious and visible lineups. Andrea Pallaoro’s<br />

follow-up to 2017’s well-received Hannah is a staggering<br />

conundrum, so superficial that it’s difficult to discern whether it’s<br />

simply misguided or incisively parodic. Where Hannah utilized its<br />

precise and often claustrophobic compositions to construct an<br />

intense sense of isolation, its protagonist (Charlotte Rampling)<br />

lacking agency and consequently straddling a miserable balance<br />

between spectacle and meditation, Monica is what occurs when<br />

that balance falls so belligerently to one side, revealing spectacle<br />

run amok. Each frame is so carefully and incessantly curatorial<br />

as to collapse back onto itself; operating in a closed circuit, the<br />

film becomes an echo chamber of its own ideas. Never does<br />

Pallaoro manage to breach his immaculate construct, something<br />

all art should at least strive to accomplish. Instead, an absence<br />

of cognition demonstrates, ultimately, the alarming behaviorism<br />

of arthouse wallpaper as rendered by AI.<br />

Monica observes the return of its titular protagonist, played<br />

carelessly (and thus almost irreconcilable with the film’s empty<br />

formalism) by Trace Lysette, to her home and sickly mother<br />

(Patricia Clarkson), the latter of whom fails to recognize her own<br />

child post-gender transition. An elliptical, non-specific, broad<br />

process of reconvention thus unfurls, and in between, we glean a<br />

semblance of Monica’s livelihood and personal trials, if only in the<br />

film’s perpetual periphery. These ellipses flash past us despite<br />

the film’s portentous and stylized visuals; engaging in her virtual<br />

sex work, under lights dimmed red and sensuous, Monica barely<br />

comes into frame (her torso and head conspicuously absent),<br />

just her waist and below <strong>—</strong> she’s on all fours. The alienating<br />

effect is obvious, and its conservative aestheticism only made<br />

more trite with a sudden outburst of loud moaning, followed by<br />

Monica running to meet her despairing mother, enveloped by<br />

shadow and glistening under the moonlight as they silently<br />

regard one another. The images are beautiful, indexical, and<br />

homogenous to a degree that they become silly. Each character<br />

and each dynamic are similarly defined by identical gazes<br />

molding anonymity and monotony, reminiscent of those annually<br />

forgotten projects by the Canadian Film Centre’s indie dramas<br />

shown only on the streaming service Crave: a woman returns,<br />

seeks rejuvenation, finds conflict, retreats, reckons, and returns<br />

once again. Only in Monica, there’s nothing filling the gaps.<br />

Pallardo’s film has such stringent narrative goals, yet proceeds<br />

nowhere and with nothing. Its vague and enervating plot purports<br />

to signify profundity, but only accomplishes the desultory. It’s a<br />

film that moves with a deliberate heaviness that comes off only<br />

as abrasive and frustratingly remote. The great irony of Monica,<br />

then, is that its perverse vacuity <strong>—</strong> in many ways, an<br />

outrageously precise impersonation of something like Michel<br />

Franco’s fables of negation <strong>—</strong> functions best, and quite<br />

unintentionally, as caricature of the arthouse aesthetic to which<br />

it aspires. <strong>—</strong> ZACHARY GOLDKIND<br />

DIRECTOR: Andrea Pallaoro; CAST: Trace Lysette, Patricia<br />

Clarkson, Emily Browning, Adriana Barraza; DISTRIBUTOR: IFC<br />

Films; IN THEATERS: May 12; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 53 min.<br />

CRATER<br />

Kyle Patrick Alvarez<br />

Since its launch in November 20<strong>19</strong> <strong>—</strong> fortuitous timing for a<br />

streaming service to enter the public sphere <strong>—</strong> Disney+ has<br />

padded its subscriber base with the promise of endless live<br />

action/CGI remakes of beloved animated properties (Lady and the<br />

Tramp, Mulan, Pinnochio, and Peter Pan & Wendy, so far) and<br />

franchise extensions (new Home Alone, Hocus Pocus, Enchanted,<br />

and Night at the Museum films have all landed within the last 18<br />

months). Less visible to your average movie-goer is the<br />

platform’s essential resurrection of its Disney Channel Original<br />

Movie days. While the sub-brand never technically went away <strong>—</strong><br />

and indeed, the Descendants and Zombies franchises have<br />

proven immensely popular in the tween market in recent years <strong>—</strong><br />

we’re still a long way away from the DCOM heyday millennials will<br />

remember so well, driven by nostalgic classics of middle school<br />

cheese like Halloweentown, Brink!, and Johnny Tsunami. Disney+<br />

has married its need for content with this history of minor-key,<br />

kid-facing TV movies, and thus has buffered its premiere<br />

tentpole productions with the likes of Better Nate Than Ever,<br />

Sneakerella, and Chang Can Dunk, the titles of which basically<br />

broadcast both their meager ambitions and the demo they’re<br />

chasing.<br />

The latest such film to enter the fray of overfunded but joyless<br />

Disney scraps is Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s Crater. As such kid flicks<br />

so often go, most of the film’s attention is paid to establishing its<br />

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FILM REVIEWS<br />

plucky gang of juvenile types: there’s the group’s de facto leader,<br />

Dylan (Billy Barratt); his best friend, Caleb (Isaiah Russell-Bailey);<br />

the milksop nerd, Borney (Orson Hong); the tragically ill friend,<br />

Marcus (Thomas Boyce); and the no-nonsense girl brought into<br />

their circle, Addison (Mckenna Grace). The quintet all live on a<br />

lunar mining colony <strong>—</strong> Addison recently arrived from Earth; the<br />

others born and raised <strong>—</strong> and what little narrative impetus the<br />

film offers concerns Caleb’s imminent relocation to another<br />

planet following the death of his father. You see, there are<br />

mysterious circumstances at play, and Caleb promised his father<br />

<strong>—</strong> played by Kid Cudi, whose choices in acting projects seem to<br />

employ the same logic as the kid who tries to be in as many<br />

random yearbook photos as possible <strong>—</strong> that in the event of his<br />

death, he would visit the titular cavity so that he might discover…<br />

something. As a bon voyage to Caleb, the group decides to spin<br />

this all into a mission of sorts, at which point Crater delivers<br />

some slow running on the moon’s surface, a joke about none of<br />

the celestial-born boys knowing what baseball is, a lot of generic<br />

space danger, and, most bafflingly, just a hint of anti-corporate,<br />

pro-worker sentiment (indentured servitude, somehow, plays an<br />

essential role in the film’s plot).<br />

It’s all inoffensive enough, and young kids flicking through the<br />

Disney+ catalog will likely be mildly entertained by this decidedly<br />

wholesome trifle featuring performers who are actually around<br />

their age, but for anyone past puberty, there’s simply nothing to<br />

hang on to here. The world as rendered is profoundly narrow in<br />

scope, as if adapted from a 10-page children’s picture book, and<br />

the project feels entirely enervated, lacking the vitality and<br />

eccentricity that energized those lightweight, turn-of-themillennium<br />

Disney projects that premiered on living room TVs on<br />

Friday nights. During that time, Disney maintained a cottage<br />

industry of campy kids cinema, delivering films that were<br />

undeniably kitschy but also rich in personality, quotable, and<br />

unabashed in their commitment to wacky dorkdom. Films like<br />

Zenon <strong>—</strong> an easy superficial comp for Crater <strong>—</strong> have even<br />

developed something of a cult following with a certain sphere of<br />

mid-millennials, which is what can happen when you joyfully<br />

embrace the corn <strong>—</strong> and when you deliver an original song with<br />

the chorus: “Zoom zoom zoom, make my heart go boom boom / My<br />

super nova girl.” Crater never lands with any force because both<br />

its conception and execution aspires to so little, but the bigger<br />

sin is that it doesn't even give itself a chance to be playful or<br />

goofily memorable, choosing instead to end on a note of<br />

unearned bittersweetness. On a technical level, it may be a more<br />

elevated product than those DCOM novelties of yesteryear, but it’s<br />

also a far less engaged one, fatally so. Crater ultimately does very<br />

little to disprove the notion that the glut of streaming content<br />

has created a black hole where art <strong>—</strong> or at least Andy “Brink”<br />

Brinkster and Zenon Kar <strong>—</strong> once existed. <strong>—</strong> LUKE GORHAM<br />

DIRECTOR: Kyle Patrick Alvarez; CAST: Isaiah Russell-Bailey,<br />

Mckenna Grace, Billy Barratt; DISTRIBUTOR: Disney+;<br />

STREAMING: May 12; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 45 min.<br />

GIVING BIRTH TO A BUTTERFLY<br />

Theodore Schaefer<br />

“What does it mean to exist in the world? Do the black<br />

shadows of an object cast by sunlight truly represent the<br />

object in question? Is there not beauty to be found in that<br />

desolation? Or have we only convinced ourselves of such a<br />

fallacy? Schaefer and co-writer Patrick Lawler have a lot on<br />

their minds in a way that recalls a pompous college freshman<br />

discovering the works of the great poets and philosophers for<br />

the first time, desperate to share their ‘enlightenment’ with<br />

anyone who will listen.” <strong>—</strong> STEVEN WARNER [Published as part<br />

of <strong>InRO</strong>’s Fantasia Fest 2021 coverage.]<br />

DIRECTOR: Theodore Schaefer; CAST: Gus Birney, Annie<br />

Parisse, Paul Sparks; DISTRIBUTOR: Cinedigm; STREAMING:<br />

May 16; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 16 min.<br />

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WON’T HE DO IT<br />

Conway the Machine<br />

While only a year out from the Big Ghost<br />

Ltd. collab tape What Has Been Blessed<br />

Cannot Be Cursed, Conway the Machine<br />

seems anxious to get back to it, a<br />

sentiment expressed throughout the press<br />

run for latest album Won’t He Do It, and felt<br />

across its 14 tracks. It's hard to imagine<br />

anyone missing the (former) Griselda star<br />

all that much, given that he and<br />

similarly-minded label associates<br />

Westside Gunn, Benny the Butcher, and<br />

Mach-Hommy have otherwise kept to a<br />

rather prolific output since they initially<br />

banded together back in 2014. Moving<br />

atsuch a furious pace allowed the crew to<br />

brute force their way onto bigger stages<br />

and kept them in the general cultural<br />

conversation where they were positioned<br />

as an antidote to the post-Drake rap scene<br />

and its perceived softness, a<br />

characterization they leveraged into a<br />

deal with Shady Records and various<br />

collaborations with gangsta rap’s old<br />

guard. Having already sped through<br />

several career phases in the last few<br />

years alone <strong>—</strong> arguably the most<br />

contemporary thing about the whole<br />

Griselda project <strong>—</strong> Conway and co. now<br />

find themselves at an inevitable point of<br />

divergence, having left Shady behind and<br />

begun the process of more strictly<br />

differentiating between the members’<br />

individual skill sets.<br />

For Conway, this has meant striking out<br />

on his own and masterminding his own<br />

label, Drumwork Music Group, under<br />

which he’s released Won’t He Do It. Though<br />

internal Griselda frictions have<br />

apparently been overstated (seemingly<br />

confirmed by the Benny and Westside<br />

Gunn features here), it still makes sethat<br />

Conway would be ready to define himself<br />

outside that umbrella, and indeed, Won’t<br />

He Do It plays as the proclamation of a<br />

new era in which the now 41-year-old<br />

rapper is both boss and MC. More<br />

interesting in the former sense, Won’t He<br />

Do It is most appealing as a showcase for<br />

the new talent that comprises<br />

Drumwork’s initial lineup, with Conway<br />

making room for his mentees to dish out<br />

elaborate verses that occasionally<br />

upstage his own (7xvethegenius and Jae<br />

Skeese are particularly dazzling on their<br />

respective tracks). Otherwise, Won’t He Do<br />

It suffers from the same quality as the<br />

rest of Conway’s discography for the most<br />

part: technically accomplished and<br />

convincingly hard, but stuck on the same<br />

ideas, constantly at odds with<br />

unspecified straw rappers whose work is<br />

diminishing the form. It's still just as hard<br />

to see Conway’s music as a convincing<br />

alternative to the croony, pop-rap he’s<br />

surely alluding to as it's ever been, his<br />

challenging (largely spare electric guitar<br />

riffs decorated with the stray snare or<br />

jittery keys, broken up by some<br />

Donda-esque production flourishes here<br />

and there) but more about technical<br />

showmanship than anything else. At this<br />

point, it's clear that Conway (and Gunn,<br />

and Benny…) can churn out a whole lot of<br />

music that certainly isn’t bad, and in fact,<br />

rises to the level of accomplished, but it<br />

has yet to feel like he’s ever managed to<br />

outdo himself. One is left to wonder if<br />

there’s anything beyond this plateau his<br />

music continues to sit atop. <strong>—</strong> M.G.<br />

MAILLOUX<br />

LABEL: Drumwork Music Group;<br />

RELEASE DATE: May 5<br />

22


ALBUM REVIEWS<br />

FML<br />

Seventeen<br />

Last year, <strong>InRO</strong> reviewed K-pop boy group<br />

Seventeen’s Face the Sun, their fourth<br />

full-length album and one of the best<br />

projects of their career. Face the Sun<br />

commemorated Seventeen’s seventh<br />

anniversary with music that alternately<br />

looked back to classic SVT sounds and<br />

successfully tried out new styles, all tied<br />

up in themes of learning to accept one’s<br />

flaws, trust in resiliency, and a vow to<br />

climb even higher. Seventeen had already<br />

been one of the most successful currently<br />

active K-pop groups for years, but Face<br />

the Sun exploded their popularity even<br />

further.<br />

New mini album FML arrives, then, with<br />

intense hype: it’s their first full-fledged<br />

group comeback in almost a year. The EP’s<br />

already set K-pop sales records, moving<br />

four million units in the first<br />

beat selection generally week, and lead<br />

single “Super” telegraphs a similar feeling<br />

of unbeatable power <strong>—</strong> a bold ode to the<br />

group’s teamwork, with one of their<br />

hardest choreos ever and a huge music<br />

video set with more backup dancers than<br />

anyone could know what to do with. So the<br />

comeback has the numbers, the hype, and<br />

Seventeen’s history of putting out excellent<br />

and distinctive self-produced music to<br />

back it up. Unfortunately, “Super” frankly<br />

sounds like ass.<br />

Too many K-pop boy groups right now are<br />

obsessed with coming off as really cool. In<br />

comparison to today’s wonderfully diverse<br />

girl group market, most of the relevant boy<br />

groups of the past few years have, at one<br />

point or another, defaulted to doing tiring<br />

choreos over sweeping, shouty electronic<br />

or hip-hop beats and expecting the<br />

audience to be impressed like they<br />

haven’t seen it dozens of times before.<br />

There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with<br />

this sound; there’s just so much of it at<br />

the moment, and diminishing returns<br />

kick in very quickly when everyone is<br />

trying to be the loudest person in the<br />

room. These kinds of songs need<br />

something more to stand out: an uplifting<br />

emotional core, a gleefully weird and<br />

distended arrangement, or a precise<br />

understanding of sound design and<br />

empty space. Most attempts end up as<br />

generic, “no feeling, just noise” efforts<br />

from groups that might be better suited<br />

to a completely different style, but lack<br />

fresh creative direction.<br />

Seventeen is one of the K-pop groups<br />

that has best avoided the trap of<br />

confusing “cool” for “good.” (A boy band,<br />

after all, is an inherently unserious<br />

construct.) Their songs are unafraid to be<br />

happy, goofy, pretty, or even cheesy,<br />

often focusing on the beauty of small<br />

moments rather than the impossibly<br />

grand, and their music is largely vocaland<br />

melody-forward, emphasizing the<br />

diversity in their members’ voices<br />

instead of relying only on the production<br />

to carry them. The group’s most recent<br />

subunit release <strong>—</strong> trio Booseoksoon’s<br />

“Fighting,” from February <strong>—</strong> is a gloriously<br />

corny, yet genuinely uplifting, track that<br />

reminded us that this K-pop shit is<br />

supposed to be fun.<br />

Only a year ago, on “Hot,” Seventeen sang,<br />

“No need to imitate” <strong>—</strong> and yet the lasting<br />

impression left by FML’s lead single is<br />

exactly that: an uninspired, unflattering,<br />

and depressingly derivative imitation of<br />

multiple other groups. There are more<br />

BTS, Ateez, and Stray Kids in “Super” than<br />

there is Seventeen, which is bizarre for a<br />

group that writes their own music and<br />

has always been led by strength of<br />

character. Maybe there’s a little promise<br />

in the pulsing rush of the pre-chorus, but<br />

every single molecule of air gets sucked<br />

out of the song when the chorus of<br />

“Super” hits, first the awkward plucked<br />

anti-drop using the Korean traditional<br />

instrument of the kayageum and then the<br />

sudden surge into the pushy <strong>—</strong> and<br />

resoundingly boring <strong>—</strong> Shouty Bits. The<br />

production has been hydraulic-pressed<br />

into a generic mass of sound, but the<br />

vocal performances lack any nuance to<br />

make up for it, with only one or two<br />

melodies that go anywhere interesting.<br />

In truth, “Hot” already pushed the limits of<br />

what sounded like Seventeen versus what<br />

just sounded like 4th-generation boy<br />

group posturing, but that song found its<br />

footing by still being dynamic and a little<br />

playful. The chorus of “Super” may end<br />

with theoretically sentimental shouts of “I<br />

love my team, I love my crew,” but nothing<br />

about it sounds welcoming, just<br />

confusingly aggressive. And when Woozi<br />

shouts “Ping, and out comes fire” and the<br />

outro devolves into a Blackpink-style<br />

mess of near-tuneless chants, it honestly<br />

feels embarrassing for everyone involved.<br />

Seventeen’s music has never felt emptier,<br />

nor the group less deserving of their<br />

“biggest act in K-pop” title than on<br />

“Super.”<br />

Although this baffling misfire of a lead<br />

single draws most of the attention<br />

(including this review’s), there are other<br />

23


ALBUM REVIEWS<br />

timbres curling intently around the<br />

production to express… probably a little<br />

too much suggestion of thirst for a song<br />

that might be dedicated to fans? But the<br />

atmosphere is striking and gets the very<br />

best out of their voices, and there’s<br />

something about the way Hoshi and<br />

Minghao slide into the chorus that sticks<br />

with you long after the song ends.<br />

tracks on FML. “F*ck My Life” (with<br />

canonical asterisk) was promoted as a<br />

second single, though it’s not clear why; it<br />

may not be as sonically offensive as<br />

“Super,” but it’s just as devoid of any<br />

distinct style. Seventeen sing about losing<br />

their way and needing to fight for their life<br />

over a bland, shuffling, midtempo beat<br />

that has all the conviction of the “before”<br />

section of a medication commercial <strong>—</strong><br />

technically on point thematically, but<br />

neither toned-down and hopeless enough<br />

to evoke strong emotions nor dynamic<br />

enough to be enjoyable on musical merit<br />

alone. Hip-hop subunit track “Fire” is a<br />

standard, cringy K-pop attempt at rap and<br />

needs no further discussion.<br />

The songs that are good on FML, blessedly,<br />

are really good <strong>—</strong> the back half of the EP<br />

especially plays to the group’s signature<br />

vocal and melodic strengths. “Dust” is<br />

sentimental, synthy, and an excellent<br />

entry in the “music happy, lyrics sad”<br />

genre <strong>—</strong> so a classic Seventeen song.<br />

Each of the five vocal unit members<br />

move from featherlight falsettos to<br />

tender lower register to sudden high-note<br />

leaps, as they confess they can’t forget<br />

about the person they loved. The melody<br />

climbs and falls and<br />

gallops forward as if it’ll finally reach a<br />

place of forgetting, but in the end, their<br />

honesty only engraves the memories<br />

deeper (“No matter how much I throw<br />

away the memories… They return back like<br />

dust”).<br />

Performance unit song “I Don’t<br />

Understand But I Love You” is genuinely<br />

exciting and fresh, most comparable to<br />

the same unit’s otherworldly 2017 track,<br />

“Lilili Yabbay.” “Understand” is a hazy rock<br />

song whose vocals crackle with as much<br />

energy as the languid guitar riff, the<br />

members’ alternately deep and light<br />

Finally, the mini closes with full-group<br />

track “April Shower,” as if to wash away<br />

the memories of the dire first half with a<br />

soft, dancey, and optimistic song that is<br />

quintessentially Seventeen. The narrative<br />

is similar to “F*ck My Life” in its themes<br />

of fighting through struggles and showers<br />

by holding onto the promise of renewal,<br />

but this time the synthy production is<br />

crisp and layered, and the topline feels<br />

much more alive. “When the April shower<br />

of late spring falls down / Put the umbrella<br />

away and walk in the rain,” goes the<br />

chorus. That image in isolation could<br />

come off as cliche, but the cascade of<br />

vocal and instrumental melodies that sell<br />

it leave no room to doubt the group’s<br />

conviction, and their sincere<br />

performances pair witha spinning,<br />

weightless drop to evoke the gently<br />

transformative power of spring rain. This<br />

song gets all the ideas of nuance,<br />

balance, and catharsis right (which<br />

“Super” got entirely wrong) in a way that<br />

only Seventeen can. “Flow down more<br />

right now,” they sing to the cleansing rain<br />

<strong>—</strong> let’s hope that, in their next era, they<br />

more fully embrace what’s always made<br />

their music so special.<strong>—</strong> KAYLA<br />

BEARDSLEE<br />

LABEL: Pledis Entertainment; RELEASE<br />

DATE: April 24<br />

24


Photo Credits:<br />

Cover - Music Box Films; Page 1 - Courtesy of Adirley Queirós; Page 4 - Courtesy of Joana<br />

Pimenta; Page 5, 6 - HBO; Page 7 - Paramount Classics; Page 8 - American Zoetrope-Allstar;<br />

Page 9 - IFC Films; Page 11 - Hypnotic film Holding LLC; Page 12 - Bleecker Street; Page 14 - Ana<br />

Carballosa/Netflix; Page 15 - Courtesy of Roadside Attractions; Page 17 - Music Box Films; Page 18<br />

- Liam Daniel/CTMG; Page 21 - Disney; Page 22 - Drumworks Music Group; Page 24 - Pledis; Back<br />

Cover - IFC Films

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