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From ‘First Reformed’ to ‘Sorry to Bother You’: A midway state of affairs on cinema in 2018

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First Reformed Gotham Awards
A24

“Maybe it won’t be OK.”

The world is hell right now. My life is hell right now. So talking about art, let alone participating in such an insular and silly in-fighting realm as film journalism, can feel futile, let alone irrelevant. But out of ritual, or obsession, or survival, we continue to do it anyway. By some weird sort of coincidence of thought, a collision of confirmation bias and larger anthropological forces invisible without hindsight, 2018’s cinematic output thus far has echoed these fears and frustrations. This is either a gift or an overgeneralized lens through which to view contemporary art. Likely, it’s both.

Paul Schrader’s First Reformed is perhaps the most direct and obvious film to tackle this sort of fiery personal apocalypse; Ethan Hawke’s grieving pastor in Upstate New York reckoning with eco-radical terrorism. It’s a fittingly preachy, obsessively Catholic baby boomer descent into the almost mythic purgatory of the very real, very mundane world—a tribute to Bresson’s coarse neo-realism and a necessary referendum on Taxi Driver’s existential bullshit. Hawke gives his first performance to appear distinctly un-theatrical, blending in with the ashes at a toxic waste dump. It is an old man’s film, the sum of its influences, and an aggressively uncomplacent staring contest with global deterioration and communal apathy.

The only other film to match that fury would be Sorry to Bother You, Boots Riley’s authentic, imperfect surrealist deep-dive into racial tensions under late capitalism. Yet, for all its political voracity and infectious wit, I wish the film had been equally as ambitious in its comedic stylings. There should be more memes, more Vines, more Twitter. Despite being miles above pretty much every comedy in recent years, and carrying an undeniably distinctive visual vernacular, the humor feels discordantly grouchy. It is urgent, radical, and exhilarating, but it lacks a certain vitality.

If it feels odd to draw comparisons between such an anti-establishment battle cry and a movie borne from Pepsi commercials, so be it. The excellent Uncle Drew is unapologetically branded content and also a personal, golden-age romp, pragmatic and dumb and oddly affecting. The two films each welcome the audience into their world with ease and clarity of vision. Listen, late capitalism and eccentric, goofy passion projects are weird but fun—just like basketball.

Further radical visions of blackness come to life in essay films like Khalik Allah’s revolutionary, jaw-dropping Black Mother, or the black queer nightclubs of Leilah Weinraub’s Shakedown, to the sprawling and ever-elusive rhythms and livelihood of Donald Glover’s Atlanta. Even Zama, Lucretia Martel’s grimly funny, shell-shocked revisionist epic deconstruction of colonialist literature offers something totally separate from the traditional historical visions that so often dominate the multiplex.

Yet the most exciting work I’ve come across this year is Josephine Decker’s Madeline’s Madeline, her first bonafide masterpiece. Comparisons to Rivette are easy to view shallowly (potentially obtuse, kinetic, theatrically self-consumers), but this goes deeper; Decker is genuinely the first of his descendants, so to speak, to carry on a double-barreled head-trip into aesthetics and dramatics equally. This is as much about performance as it is cinema’s bastard child status as a medium as it is about the state of indie cinema, a first wave of Generation Z, and, above all, a grand bildungsroman. I have genuinely never seen anything like what Helena Howard does here, willing to hone in with a specificity not even granted to the best sociologists on her identity. Through all the film’s engaging with Greek Tragedy (including Caroline Shaw’s mystically composed score), the battles of authorship, exploitation, maternity, and madness, there is a sensitivity and openness, an unmistakable modernity. Madeline’s Madeline is remarkable not just for the facts of what it does, but for how it teaches you to view its slipperiness, how its vibrancy manifest temporally, how it takes those most sensual and concrete pleasures and pushes them towards a work that argues for itself through an intense love and belief into and coming from every single person involved. I’ve rarely seen something so confident and smart and multifaceted and essential out of American cinema.

Paddington 2 and Black Panther are two excellent, classically-minded slices of entertainment, both conservative in their soothing reaffirmations of the troubling and fucked systems of government and societal standards, while still providing deeply progressive, optimistic, and rigorously anti-oppressive sentiment. On top of all that, a portion of Black Panther is set in Oakland, and Paddington 2 has a finale that recalls silent Lubitsch, and those two facts are absolute magic.  

If the aforementioned films are given more leeway in their politik because they so delightfully fulfill their role as pop escapism, the horror genre cannot be afforded that same luxury. Horror is so built on distortions, on the beyond-natural, that it’s rare that a work can be built on that. Something like Hereditary offers a level of disconnect with the real world—as if it exists in old horror movie posters, and no sense of terror, of dread, of inescapable trauma. The First Purge derives all its catharsis from distressingly omnipresent concerns over fascism, liberal passivity, divergence within progressive groups. It’s a “black body genre” film, almost radically militant and still cynically exploitative and messy.

My other sociopolitical horror film of choice from the year came out of nowhere. The wonderfully electric stupidity coursing through Gaspar Noe’s Cannes barnburner Climax comes as one of the more unexpected treats of the year’s festival circuit. Dizzying and dull in equal measure, Noe’s pansexual nightmare treatise on the dissolution of France’s multicultural dream is just smart enough to be both authentically avant-garde and authentically exploitative, an exhausting and trippy dance party that has no right being anywhere near as good as it is. Get woke, fuckers, or the blood will flood the cold wintry streets and blockade the raves inside.

An apocalyptic doom is even echoed in the worst film I’ve seen this year, let alone this decade. Avengers: Infinity War is excruciating, demoralizing, nihilistic, senseless, completely without stakes, basic competence, or a semblance of humanity. I cannot recall the last time I left the theater fuming. The first half of a supposed cumulation of the mostly bland Marvel Cinematic Universe, rarely has a picture been produced with so little internal logic, or a comic book project carried such flagrant disregard for the saga on which it is built. There is not one moment, not one plot point or character arc, not one gesture or shot, with any close to grace or mere functionality. It goes from unpleasant, to baffling, to infuriating, to deflatingly numb, with a climax without gravity or consequence. It is a film that conditions the viewer to feel nothing when presenting the ostensible end of the world. I have rarely seen a crueler picture.

Hong Sang-Soo is experiencing something of a renaissance in the public eye—or as much the prolific Korean writer-director has ever seen in the Western art world. Following the scandalous affair with Kim Min-Hee and last year’s scraggly and ravaging travel opus On the Beach at Night Alone, sandwiched between Grass and Claire’s Camera (both of which are wonderful if minor), The Day After is a film of swirling perspective and internal purgatory. With only a tinny, haunting motif to offer relief on the wonderfully dynamic black and white photography, Hong offers a post-Rohmerian melodrama that avoids self-deprecation and hagiography. Though its conceits are perhaps less explicitly fantastical than, say, the bifurcated dishonesty of Right Now Wrong Then, the slippery timeline creeps through, as characters shift in and out of focus, and parallels within relationships multiply and fracture, infidelity shifting from a classic moral conundrum to a sobering frisson between internal and public perception.

On the other end of the spectrum lies Lars von Trier’s bombastic The House That Jack Built. A cinematic exorcism and gloriously self-indulgent and at least a good bit phony discourse on art as personal violence, the film is meticulously constructed and a total scorcher. Perhaps von Trier is too giddily self-loathing to allow for anything beyond an ego trip, or so unwilling to change—in his art or persona—that this interrogation of von Trier’s filmic grammar plays shallow and tedious. This is to say nothing of the fact that von Trier’s miserabilism, corny humor, and proto-externalist philosophy plays better on a dramatic level than an abstract argument, his body-genre-cum-melodrama power trip. Whatever, though, I still loved it. I found its anguish deeply resonant even more for its irony, its structure continuously evolving and almost meditative, if it weren’t for the amorphous and galvanizing rhythms, a total re-sensitization watch and a fitting eulogy/celebration of the toxic tradition in whose footsteps von Trier has walked, and the shit he’s carried smeared on his shoes.

The male gaze in power, violence, sex, and trauma receives a blow to an already fractured skull with Lynne Ramsay’s razor-thin You Were Never Really Here, an increasingly abstracted deep dive into the dissolution of a culture’s seedy underbelly. Nothing here is empty or fetishistic. Ramsay’s anger fuels a worldview that doesn’t provide moral scolds as much as an inditement of our failure to reckon with pain as a cyclical tragedy. The impressionistic editing hacks the narrative down to only the essential pieces as if you’re witnessing the wake of a film-cum-hurricane. The physicality and abstraction here align nicely with the hyperviolence, creating an experience something close to dissociation. Just to hear “Angel Baby” from Rosie & the Originals cut out with the security cameras, one realizes that You Were Never Really Here is the first of Ramsay’s films to fully encapsulate her full artistic manifesto. Joaquin Phoenix’s central hero, his walk, his torso, his body willing towards sleep. The refusal of present tense and the collateral damage of genre trappings. This is a film that collapses in on itself from practically the first frame.

For all this, the best film I’ve seen is Leave No TraceDebra Granik’s return to cinema after eight years is quietly a perfect movie. Not a moment loses its touch with humanity, even as it becomes a. The ghosts of Kelly Reichardt and Monte Hellman populate the sparse cross-section between the natural world, childhood development, and class-consciousness as Granik’s gentle warm subjective document on the details of parental relationships tessellates outwards into nothing less than a monumental eulogy to how girls learn the world through men, and so much more. Leave No Trace provides neither respite nor release. It is simple here, and now, in a world of a billion little windows with not enough binoculars. We sure as hell don’t need nice right now, or contentment, but a moment of transitory serenity and strength doesn’t hurt.

2018 (alphabetical):

ATLANTA

THE DAY AFTER

FIRST REFORMED

THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT

LEAVE NO TRACE

MADELINE’S MADELINE

YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE

ZAMA

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Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron strike up a hilarious romance in the first ‘Long Shot’ trailer

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Long Shot
LIONSGATE

Ahead of the film’s world premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival next month, Lionsgate has released the first trailer for Long Shot, the eagerly awaited romantic comedy starring Charlize Theron and Seth Rogen from The Night Before and 50/50 director Jonathan Levine.

Long Shot follows Fred Flarsky (Rogen), an unemployed journalist who reunites with his first crush (and former babysitter) Charlotte Field (Theron), one of the most influential women in the world. As she begins eyeing a run for the Presidency, she hires Fred as her speechwriter, making him a fish out of water on her elite team.

However, despite Fred’s unpreparedness for her glamorous lifestyle in the limelight, sparks begin to fly as their unmistakable chemistry leads to a round-the-world romance and a serious of unexpected (and somewhat dangerous) incidents.

In addition to the dynamic duo that is Rogen and Theron, Long Shot‘s incredible ensemble cast also includes the likes of O’Shea Jackson Jr., Alexander Skarsgård, Andy Serkis, Ravi Patel, Randall Park, and June Diane Raphael.

Long Shot will have its world premiere at South by Southwest on March 9 before opening in theaters nationwide on May 3.

You can check out the newly released trailer for the film below.

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As the awards season race nears an end, Spike Lee begins to plot his next directorial effort

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Spike Lee
GETTY IMAGES

As Spike Lee’s Oscar campaign for BlacKkKlansman begins to near an end, the legendary director is already beginning to put the pieces together for his highly anticipated next project, which is in talks to be distributed by Netflix.

Per Variety, Lee has tapped Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman to join the ensemble of Da 5 Bloods, a drama which follows five Vietnam veterans who return to the jungle to find their lost innocence.

Delroy Lindo and Jean Reno are also said to be in negotiations to star.

Lee, in addition to scripting the film along with Kevin Willmott, based on an original screenplay by Danny Bilson and Paul DeMeo, is also producing along with Beatriz Levin, Lloyd Levin, and Jon Kilik.

Sources tell Variety that production on Da 5 Bloods could begin as soon as next month after Lee is done campaigning for BlacKkKlansman in the ongoing awards season race.

BlacKkKlansman, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last May, marked a return to form for Lee, earning the iconic filmmaker multiple Oscar nominations last month, including best picture and best director.

2018 was also a big year for Boseman, who starred in Marvel’s billion-dollar-grossing superhero pic Black Panther, another strong contender in the Oscar race, with nominations for best picture and visual effects.

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Academy reveals the four Oscar categories that will be presented during commerical breaks

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Oscars
CHRISTOPHER POLK/GETTY IMAGES

After announcing last year that select categories will be presented during commercial breaks when the 91st Oscars air on ABC later this month, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences revealed today the four categories that will be affected by this unfortunate break with tradition.

In an effort to keep the length of the Oscars telecast to three hours, the Academy says that cinematography, film editing, makeup and hairstyling, and live action short will be presented during commercial breaks, edited, and aired later in the broadcast.

“Viewing patterns for the Academy Awards are changing quickly in our current multi-media world, and our show must also evolve to successfully continue promoting motion pictures to a worldwide audience,” Academy president John Bailey wrote in a letter to members. “This has been our core mission since we were established 91 years ago—and it is the same today.”

He added, “The executive committees of six branches generously opted-in to have their awards presented in this slightly edited timeframe for this year’s show, and we selected four. In future years, four to six different categories may be selected for rotation.”

Sources tell The Hollywood Reporter that an example of what this new format will look like was shown to a number of different branches of the Academy and the reaction, surprisingly enough, seemed to be relatively positive despite initial concerns.

“It is said to have included most of the presentation, minus the winner’s walk to the stage,” writes THR. “The goal, they were told, was also to include the spirit of each winner’s acceptance speech, although the speeches could be edited if they turn into a long list of thank-yous.”

Some members who were shown the demo said that it “provided a respectful acknowledgment of the affected category.”

Final voting for the Oscars will begin on Tuesday, February 12, with the ceremony itself airing live from the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles on Sunday, February 24 on ABC.

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