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PFF 2017 review: The 4 best movies from this year’s Philadelphia Film Festival

Our own Sam Mauro reviews the four best films they saw at the 26th annual Philadelphia Film Festival earlier this month.

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WOLFE RELEASING

Princess Cyd

A Chicago-set neo-folktale of queerness, Princess Cyd marks itself with both lightness and assurance. The film feels novelistic in its structure, sprawl, and sense of rhythm. Yet, its levels of performance, allowing for different scenes to register as presentation. It’s the rare humanist film to not only have clear aesthetic choices, but also a sense of composition, a visual sophistication beyond well-intentioned empathy. The film’s editing is straight fire, moving at a clip that still allows individual moments to expound upon themselves. Jessie Pinnick is a revelation, with the maturity and wisdom of a hundred lives, sprawling outwards, into this fully realized, organic, true sense of Buffalo Grove’s humanism. Despite the title, this is a dual-helmed film. Though, in actuality, this is a work of so many lives, colliding at all levels of intimacy. Cone’s last work, Henry Gamble, showed how the rigidity of religion and so much of White American suburbia conflict with the fluidity and empathy humans crave. Princess Cyd is near utopian by comparison, without abandoning the hardships and trauma of existence. It is healing, empowered art. Despite its safe exterior, Cone’s near-radical rejiggering of the American indie feels like the amicable cousin to Nathan Silver or the less ostentatious Rick Alverson.

TIFF

Let the Corpses Tan

A total fetish object. Comparisons to Quentin Tarantino seem misguided; the latter interrogates loosely through dialogue and structure, repurposing grindhouse optics without shifting them. Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s cinema is composed almost entirely of inserts, an affront to the coy smarminess of Ben Wheatley’s horrendous, regressive Free Firewith the warm, hallucinogenic parade of demolished stimuli. Admittedly a mild step-down from the Eurocore purgatory of The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears, this moves beyond their last work’s metatext phantasmagoria, to all kink, a vicious bombardment that never lets its political aesthetic rest or wither. Gnarly and beautiful stuff, this is a brusque, magical alt-porn rush.

A24

Lady Bird

Greta Gerwig’s first solo directing outing (though debut is too fine a point—even if it was not for her co-directing with Joe Swanberg on 2007’s The Dish and the Spoon, Gerwig’s collaborations with Baumbach have long established her voice) is rich, if not as daring or complicated a work with which she’s been involved in the past. A fine, unexemplary high school film (Saoirse Ronan plays the age wonderfully, and its structure strikingly mirrors the rhythms of senior year). But further, this is a fantastic mother-daughter film, a great Sacramento film, a great film about 2002, interrogating its cultural touchpoints and influences further. It is perhaps too generic, less unbridled. Of all people, Gerwig should be one of the few permitted to adapt Sondheim, with as little music as possible. I would love for her to work with Diane Keaton.

MERRICK MORTON

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Not particularly enamored with In Bruges, and even more irked by Seven Psychopaths, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a wicked sort of trauma. Though, its sense of humor still feels both glib and down-trodden, and its sentimentality too easy (by structure, not by the magnificent details). It is a desperate, rough work of mourning, but confuses formula, pattern, and genre with almost willful disregard. Frances McDormand transforms the adjective of “stout” into a collection of torso movements and half-gestures; if hacks produce only posture when acting, McDormand seems so deep within her character, so receptive to the world, that her body’s movements feel like an afterthought, a total powerhouse of Midwestern grit. Though Three Billboards flirts with the Southern Gothic and the noir, its roots serve as a more authentic Greek tragedy than Yorgos Lanthimos would dare dream up.

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‘The Florida Project’ review: Sean Baker’s latest effort is humanist exploitation pop art realism

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Props to Sean Baker, at least, for shooting The Florida Project on film. With 2015’s bottle rocket screwball breakthrough Tangerine, the festival circuit labeled the film with the unfortunate informal tagline of “the iPhone movie,” though the dialogue eventually circled around to the meatier discourse on representation in cinema. A blitzkrieg Christmas comedy following two trans women of color on the Sunset Strip’s sex work industry, the film received equal parts praise and backlash for its spotlight on the L.A. nobody talks about.

Fast forward to this past May, when The Florida Project stormed the Cannes Film Festival. Though it failed to scoop up any awards, the film was showered with glowing reviews. Set around an Orlando motel filled with a collection of extremely poor outcasts, the film follows Mooney (newcomer Brooklynn Prince) and her friends on a wandering, tangential journey through a world never given its own iconography, its own recognition.

As a Tangerine agnostic, the marketing leading up to The Florida Project kept expectations in that same limbo. (As smart as it was to flip the script on the follow-up by making such a visually gorgeous work distinctly classical.) Alexis Zabe lights the film so perfectly, plaster walls and muted, damp climates, communicating the weather as truly normalized to the character’s interior expectations. This is some of the showiest work of the year, to be sure, but it is also some of the best.

Here’s the thing: this is social realism disguised as pop art, so why not just make it pop art? The imagery of the Magic Kingdom, the sense of place, is irrevocably tied to the capitalist institutions, yet the movie chooses to visually root its more somber moments in the palette of arthouse poverty porn. The most striking elements of Tangerine were the aimless, flourishing interludes, where the simple act of walking down the street was fully voyeuristic, and thus reclaimed and brought to life the kind of attention paid to the sex workers in real life, glaring L.A. sunset and all. The issue with combining the quotidian and gritty with such vibrancy is clearly meant to reflect the tone, but the aesthetic awareness of the surroundings proves, inversely, too cute for Baker’s central conceit. The kids have no idea what’s going on around them.

Willem Dafoe, as the motel’s manager, soars above the entire film. One of the most skilled and innately personable actors in Hollywood, Dafoe’s performances appear to be siblings, all akin to one another in their distinctively shared mannerisms and operations, yet so wildly disparate in their emotional range and dramatic function. Though Bobby is written essentially as the motel’s patron saint, Dafoe renders him parts civil servant, father figure, nuisance, hardened wise-ass, stage manager, and ringmaster.

The kids are adorable, acting out obnoxious, shrill, totally cute interludes, the non-actors led by the magnetic Brooklyn Prince. Baker’s main contradiction, that empathetic objectification, works best and most interestingly here. The innately compelling notion of observing children as they go about the world is so endearing, and Baker’s commitment to keeping the children as dynamic and egocentric as possible puts the film’s visual language to use with what many critics have called the “entertainment” of such a relentlessly bleak film. 

The film’s greatest disservice falls upon Mooney’s young mother Hailee (Bria Vinaite). There’s a fascinating interview from the festival circuit where Baker describes looking at Bria Vinaite’s Instagram, wanting to capture that “free-spirited” attitude onscreen. Baker sees her for an individual quality, a single trait which defines a character so fully it rings hollow, from a performer who shows such produce if, under different circumstances, were allowed to flourish and operate in a more varied range. Hailee serves as both a maternal and sororal figure for Mooney, and although the film is especially intelligent on her temporal space in the film – the effect her mother’s schedule, specifically, has on Mooney is the closest the film comes to structural sophistication – Baker has no real sense of their interactions; Unlike the spontaneity of the kid’s interactions, Hailee and Mooney’s feel railroaded, speaking not to shared experiences but rather the most overwritten and underdeveloped parts of the film’s skeleton. The mirroring between the two’s attitude only comes across as a function of the script’s paring down of Hailee to her impoverished standing, defined only in that context, even for herself.

For all the film’s focus on class, it has no interest in interrogating late capitalism, racism, or media, which, admittedly, caters to a very specific audience. Consider the people of color who inhabit the film, gesturally outside any sociopolitical climate. So much of the film looks like the greatest collection of Tumblr posts, VSCO filters, Instagram stories, any number of soon to be outdated forums for a quintessentially modern vision (and most of which are dominated by specific visions of whiteness). That this is guided by some vague, ill-defined sense of humanist cinema, a genre which itself was borne out of privilege, arrogance and a lack of context for various cinematic forms, where the film’s political concerns are broad and caricatured, its characters loose nothings, a window dressing against which actors struggle aided only by personality. Baker never comes close to capturing even the multi-faceted display of iconography on Vinaite’s Instagram feed, let alone a more intimate assemblage of portraiture.

The ending feels like the inevitable evolution – an aesthetically divergent, manipulative, moving, artistically dubious finale that feels like a pure fantasy on a visual and dramatic level. The desperation of the catharsis is perhaps not wise enough, thanks to the film’s guiding commitment to childish subjectivities, but it is worth noting that this near-satirical ending (or perhaps it feels as such just because it’s the only time the film’s thesis proves biting) does not conflate the children’s ignorance with resilience. The system will swallow these kids up whole, both Hailee and Mooney alike. Baker holds a generic but resonantly shrill documentation of a childhood oblivious to its own dire, poverty-stricken backdrop. The work’s fatalism is at least pointedly opposed to glib contrast, but The Florida Project fails to synthesize the two beyond a naive sort of exploitation and representational displacement.

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‘Woodshock’ review: The Mulleavy Sisters’ hallucinogenic debut is wonderful arthouse schlock

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Woodshock

There’s this unfortunate tendency among common film discourse to split A24 releases into two categories: the shattering essentials and the waste bin weird indulgent straight to video works. What’s worse is the fact that this is designated almost purely by amount of marketing. And while the sneaky brilliance of securing a wide release for something like Good Time shouldn’t go uncongratulated, there are so many wonderful titles brushed aside by the film community. Consider It Comes at Night and Free Fire, two of 2017’s worst films, from any distributor, getting so much attention, positive and negative, while the performative, totally delightful comedy of aging and equal-opportunity fidelity The Lovers went comparably unnoticed.

This is not meant as a dig towards A24’s marketing or acquisition strategies—they clearly know what they’re doing—but more of an encouragement to seek out the less-accoladed and pervasive titles from the distributor: The trashy glee of Remember, the powerhouse fantasy of capitalism in Mississippi Grindthe puzzlingly wonderful inclusion of Revenge of the Green Dragons and Barely Lethal, all sewn into the meta-narrative of A24’s newly forming history. A24 isn’t just a cool, popular distributor; they’re giving voice to a collection of valuable cinematic voices and giving them a mainstream platform.

This is all meant to couch the following statement: Woodshock is not a particularly good film, and it’s certainly about five times too long. You should absolutely still go see it. It’s visually dazzling, lush, and, for fleeting moments, so magically intricate, like so many debut works, an early, essential prototype of great films. Woodshock, a nightmarish cannonball weaved into a fatal hallucinogenic grown by Theresa (the indelible Kirsten Dunst) at a California marijuana dispensary, is a classic counter-culture drug film, the sort that gets put on a Criterion Eclipse collection. It just happens to have been made by princesses of high fashion in 2017, the Mulleavy sisters behind Rodarte.

Woodshock is wonderful arthouse schlock. I wish it went crazier, but I appreciate the overwhelming femininity. The touches of late Godard feel a bit trite, but charting the connection between this and Peter Strickland’s muddled synthesis of Eurocore in Duke of Burgundy, coupled under Kirsten Dunst’s metatext, this is essentially a respun Virgin Suicide with death instead of sex. Each frame is fabulously designed, overlaid images and soft focus and hazy Polaroid hues. The lurid absurdity of the plot is so totally bonkers that the frantic tragedy of the Mulleavy’s ultimate goal isn’t revealed until the narrative and character threads eventually grind to become trite and perfunctory.

The Mullevaey sister’s issues with race don’t cause as much conflict as they did during their infamous “chola girl” fashion show, but this vision of California is distinctly white and distinctly privileged. This is an odd, uniquely contemporary (and uniquely West Coast, and uniquely white, etc.) vision of the drug world. Dunst reportedly has a Rodarte wedding dress in the work, which tracks. Dunst’s filmography has been speckled with dreamy paranoia and the certain contradiction of privilege and ennui. Yet Woodshock is so tied to its script that Dunst’s performance fails to rise above a footnote.

In fact, the whole film seems to dissolve before the audience’s eyes, unwilling to let go of the film’s narrative even as its visual grammar and luscious compositions fragment and explode. Though its references are obvious and equally delightful, the film’s heftiest parallel might, in fact, be Terrence Davie’s recent Sunset Song. Though the latter is far more classically drawn, both works draw parallels between the permanence of land, the trials of feminine expression, and the transitory beauty of cinema. Woodshock is barely a film, overlong and often dull and even a bit daft; but it is a work of integrity, grace, and promise. The future is cool and beautiful and way more feminine. Get high and die.

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‘mother!’ review: Darren Aronofsky’s daring psychological horror tale isn’t for everyone

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Michelle Pfeiffer and Ed Harris are the rudest house guests in the world in Darren Aronofsky’s riveting, somewhat overblown psychological horror tale mother! (Paramount Pictures reminded me several times that the title needs to be spelled in all lowercase letters), a film in which the director ventures far beyond Black Swan territory and forces his unsuspecting audience into an unrelenting world filled with chaos, destruction, and some very obvious religious imagery.

“Baby?” It’s the first line we hear in Aronofsky’s wholly-unique cinematic experience, which is certainly not for everybody and will, at one point or another, get under your skin. Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) is a young, newly married wife who shares a beautiful, isolated Victorian home she is rebuilding with her much older husband, Him (Javier Bardem), a famous writer who, in order to shake a bad case of writer’s block, often wanders the house and its surrounding areas in search of inspiration for his next project while his wife quietly keeps to herself as she tries to decide which color of paint will look best on the charred living room wall.

Aside from learning that the home Mother is restoring has a literal, beating heart, that eventually begins oozing blood out of the floorboards, things seem relatively normal until Man (Harris), a doctor who suffers from uncontrollable fits of coughing due to a bad smoking habit, and Woman (Pfeiffer), his wife, show up at Mother and Him’s front door, disrupting their tranquil existence and wreaking havoc the moment they step into the home. What do they want? How did they get there? What are their true intentions? It’s hard to pinpoint when and where this rollercoaster ride of a film escapes from reality, but it does just that.

Pfeiffer delivers a dazzling, undeniably hilarious performance as Woman, who seems to enjoy making Mother uncomfortable by asking extremely invasive questions about her sex life and why she doesn’t have any children. “I know what it’s like when you’re just starting out and you think you have all the time in the world,” Woman says as she waltzes around Mother’s home with a glass of alcohol-infused lemonade in hand. “Have kids. Then you’ll be creating something together. This is all just…setting.” She was right.

Eventually, Mother becomes pregnant and Him is suddenly inspired to write, which leads to him completing and publishing his next poem, which moves his wife to tears after she reads it. After selling every single copy of the poem in a single day, Mother and Him decide to celebrate with a quiet dinner, which is soon interrupted by a group of eager fans looking to meet the writer. And then some more show up. A few more come after that. And then there are hundreds of them. You get the picture, right?

It’s in these moments when Matthew Libatique’s gorgeous, grainy 16mm photography is at its best, complete with fast camera swoops and intimate close-ups of Lawrence’s face as she delivers what is inarguably one of the most dedicated performances of her career, giving it her all as her character tries to escape what can only be described as an anxiety-ridden, violent nightmare that bears no limits, including one very gross, disturbing scene that is bound to send some moviegoers walking out of the theater. (Though, if you understand that mother! is a film working on an allegorical level, you’ll understand what exactly it is that the scene represents.)

Chaos soon erupts. The house, which was once quietly occupied by just two people, is now swept up in hundreds, if not thousands, of out of control strangers who seemingly appeared out of nowhere, including Herald (Kristen Wiig), Him’s enthusiastic publicist who can’t seem to get enough of Mother. War breaks out, fires begin to engulf the home, and Mother is suffering from terrible stomach pains, while Him is nowhere to be found in the midst of the ongoing insanity. You can interpret the events that follow however you want.

By the time the last frame of mother! vanishes from the screen and the end credits begin to roll, your mind will instantly be plagued with questions. Perhaps you were too caught up in the intensity or sheer savagery of Aronofsky’s daringly audacious story, which he says he wrote in just five days, to realize that mother! is a deeply personal, rather absurd tale about fame, relationships, and, more evidently, mother nature. Or, maybe, by that point, you just didn’t care.

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