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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.

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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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‘Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool’ review: Annette Bening shines in this flawed Gloria Grahame biopic

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Annette Bening and Jamie Bell

Annette Bening is captivating in the role of former Hollywood starlet Gloria Grahame in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, which follows the Oscar-winning actress in her later years as she develops a relationship with Peter Turner (Jamie Bell), an aspiring actor from England who falls head over heels for the fading star the moment he lays his eyes on her in the North London guesthouse where they are both lodging.

Based on the memoir of the same name by Turner, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, which first premiered at the Telluride Film Festival last year, is as stunning as it is romantic, though, beyond the wonderful performances by Bening and Bell, whose chemistry sparks the moment they begin to interact with each other, there isn’t much here that we haven’t seen before—the film just feels too basic and too generic.

Perhaps its Matt Greenhalgh’s script or Paul McGuigan’s direction, but there’s something about Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool that causes the first hour or so of the film to feel unbearably boring, making it difficult to feel invested or even care about its rather predictable story that ends with inevitable tragedy. It feels as if the actors are doing most of the work in this film, and they do the best they can with what they have available.

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That being said, the film is still magnificent from a visual standpoint. Ula Pontikos’ magical cinematography, which utilizes lighting and color so effectively, is wonderful to soak in, while editor Nick Emerson flawlessly takes us back and forth between flashbacks and the present with such efficiency. And, oddly enough, despite the unauthentic look of the rear-projection used to transport Bening and Bell to cities such as New York City and Malibu, it makes Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool feel like one of the old Hollywood movies the real Grahame would’ve starred in back in the day.

By the time the film is over and the end title track, “You Shouldn’t Look At Me That Way,” written and performed by the great Elvis Costello, begins to play, you’ll probably wish that Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool had more to offer than just powerhouse performances and nice filmmaking techniques rather than a typical, by-the-books premise; especially one about someone as interesting and eccentric as Grahame.

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‘Call Me by Your Name’ review: Luca Guadagnino’s intoxicating gay love story is one for the ages

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Call Me by Your Name

From the moment the opening credits appear in Luca Guadagnino’s intoxicating new film Call Me by Your Name (scored to the sweet, melodious sounds of “Hallelujah Junction – 1st Movement” by John Adams), you know you’re in for a very special treat; a treat that will leave you thinking about the film you’ve just watched for hours upon end, like it did for me. It’s lush, erotic, riveting and, above all, simply delightful.

Based on the acclaimed first novel by André Aciman, and adapted for the screen by James Ivory (who cameos in the film, alongside producer Peter Spears), Call Me by Your Name transports its viewer to a sun-soaked Northern Italy in 1983 and follows Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet), an awkward, horny, not-so-average 17-year-old who enjoys transcribing music, reading books, swimming at the local river, and going out at night, as he describes to Oliver (Armie Hammer) in one scene. The latter is a chiseled, charming 24-year-old American graduate student staying at Elio’s parent’s (Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar) gorgeous 17th-century villa as the annual summer intern tasked with helping Mr. Perlman, a professor specializing in Greco-Roman culture.

Elio appears dumbstruck by Oliver’s charisma early on in the film, invoking feelings of fascination, or perhaps even obsession, drawing him closer to the tall, sophisticated blond man that just seemingly waltzed into his own tiny little lazy world, surrounded by the walls of his parent’s villa. However, soon enough, we realize Elio isn’t the only one plagued with these feelings—Oliver feels just the same—and they share an amorous kiss on the side of a dirt road, surrounded by towering green grass and no one but themselves.

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“No, no, no. I know myself,” Oliver says after pushing Elio away when he comes in for a second kiss. “We’ve been good. We haven’t done anything to be ashamed of and that’s a good thing. I want to be good, OK?” Though, Elio doesn’t take this too seriously, as he places his hand on Oliver’s crotch, grabs it a few times, and asks him, “Am I offending you?” It’s a cutesy, playful moment, and is really just the beginning Guadagnino’s masterful tale of first love.

Oh, how wonderful it is to watch Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s (who also shot Guadagnino’s upcoming Suspiria remake) stunning 35mm cinematography as he captures a summer that will change the lives of Elio and Oliver forever; riding bike rides around the town square, indulging in luscious breakfasts under the sun, engaging in secret meetings on the villa’s balcony, smoking cigarettes while discussing European history, and, yes, for those of you who’ve read the book, making love to peaches. It’s a relaxing, peaceful, spellbinding film with no real antagonist other than time and Oliver’s impending departure.

Chalamet, a young, new, fresh face in the world of Hollywood, who also appears in this year’s Lady Bird and Hostiles, delivers what is undoubtedly the best performance of the year in Call Me by Your Name as Elio, while Hammer, perhaps best known for his work in The Social Network and The Man from U.N.C.L.E., proves just how much range he truly has an actor in the role of Oliver; the two are an impressive dynamic duo, and it’s hard to even imagine anyone else playing as their characters. And, just when you’ve thought Stuhlbarg’s wise Mr. Perlman has stolen the show with a riveting, heartfelt speech to his son during the final act of the film, Chalamet swoops in with a silent, delicate close-up under the end-credits that will, undeniably, give you chills, if not tears.

Call Me by Your Name is a modern gay love story for the ages.

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‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ review: Rian Johnson delivers a riveting intergalactic spectacle

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The Last Jedi Mark Hamill

Star Wars: The Last Jedi begins just like any other installment in George Lucas’ long-running intergalactic franchise: A static blue text that reads “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” followed by that rousing, iconic theme song composed by John Williams and a brief, yet informative opening crawl, teasing the adventures to come over the course of the next 150 minutes (making it the longest Star Wars movie to date).

But look a little closer and you’ll see that The Last Jedi is as unique and special as the diverse cast of characters it showcases, and writer-director Rian Johnson looks to take this series to a whole new level with the latest chapter in the seemingly never-ending Skywalker-saga that finds not one, but two central characters grappling with the Light and Dark sides of the Force.

As we see in that unforgettable The Force Awakens finale (the best part of a rather lackluster film), Rey (Daisy Ridley) has traveled to the gorgeous, Porg-infested island of Ahch-To to deliver Luke Skywalker’s (Mark Hamill) long-lost blue-bladed lightsaber and to convince him to join the Resistance in order to help defeat the First Order. However, a weary, worn-out-looking Luke doesn’t seem to have much interest in doing so, telling Rey that “it’s time for the Jedi to end” once and for all.

Meanwhile, the First Order, led by General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), hot on the tail of the Resistance, is ready to strike again in retaliation for the destruction of its Starkiller Base. With General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) calling the shots, the Rebel army must act quick, as both time and fuel are running out fast. However, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), takes matters into his own hands and enlists the help of Finn (John Boyega) and Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) to help carry out his rather dangerous plan of infiltrating the First Order’s fleet and disabling their tracking system.

Though the pacing could certainly be a bit tighter at times, Johnson does a more than impressive job of balancing multiple storylines in The Last Jedi (three, to be exact), and they all eventually come full circle by the time the credits start to roll and the age-old mysteries of the Force and shocking revelations of the past have finally been unlocked. Chances are, though, fans will be too lost in this riveting, visual feast of a film to even notice (or care about) something such as minor pacing issues or out of place humor.

Much like he did in The Force Awakens, the scar-faced Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) practically steals the show and reveals a much different side to his character than we’ve previously seen. “Forget the Jedi! Forget the Sith! Forget the First Order!” he exclaims at one point in the film, revealing his desire to start an entirely new order. But it’s whether or not he can convince Rey to join him that will keep audiences on the edge of their seat for the duration of the film.

A dazzling, gorgeously put-together sci-fi action extravaganza, The Last Jedi was obviously handled with much love and care by Johnson in both his writing and direction and that certainly translates on screen. The multiple storylines are exciting, while the characters, both the newcomers and the veterans, are simply wonderful to watch develop over the course of the film.

It’s no wonder why Walt Disney and Lucasfilm decided to give Johnson an entirely new Star Wars trilogy to create; the franchise is in exceptionally good hands as indicated by The Last Jedi.

AROUND THE WEB

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