Electric Performances Propel “A Star is Born” to Rarefied Heights

In film or on stage, performance is a strange thing.  Sometimes, the audience values showmanship and wants to see the raw talent of a performer laid bare under the lights.  Sometimes, we crave realism – some indefinable feeling that the thing we are seeing on screen is genuine and true, their soul laid bare instead.  To achieve one of these is rare, the stuff of chilled spines and tears. What then when an actor pulls off both, simultaneously? And, what when both leads of a film do so?  Well, that’s A Star is Born.  That’s magic.

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“Sorry to Bother You” – Boots Riley’s Brilliant Fever Dream

Boots Riley is the truth. His directorial debut, Sorry to Bother You, is one of the most bizarre cultural commentaries you will ever see. The targets of Riley’s critiques vary, from broad concepts like race relations and corporate greed, to more specific ideas like viral fame and code-switching. But the setup is simple: Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) is a black man in Oakland struggling to make his rent – which he owes to his very generous uncle. He’s hired for a telemarketing job, but fails to find success until he listens to a seasoned veteran: use your white voice. Armed with the pleasant, non-threatening voice of a milquetoast white man (David Cross), Cash quickly climbs the corporate ladder – and stumbles into the weirdest things along the way.

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The Exceptional Horror of “Hereditary”

Ari Aster’s Hereditary opens simply: the white letters of Ellen Graham’s obituary blazing on a inky background. The matriarch is survived by her daughter Annie, an artist who creates miniature dioramas of her everyday life. We see one of her miniatures now: a cut-out model of her home in the forest. As we zoom in, we focus on a bedroom belonging to her teenage son Peter. Slowly, the miniature room fills the screen until the facsimile becomes reality and Peter’s father walks in to wake him for his grandmother’s funeral. From this point forward the line between reality and fantasy, between the actual and the imagined, will remain blurred.

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Structural Perfection in “Avengers: Infinity War”

In Avengers: Infinity War, Joe and Anthony Russo accomplish many small miracles on the way towards crafting one of the most interesting films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Though previous iterations of the Flagship Get-Together Movie have buckled under the weight of too many characters with too much to do (Avengers: Age of Ultron and Captain America: Civil War, especially), Infinity War deftly isolates characters into distinct groups, thereby localizing their stories, goals, and actions. Furthermore, though practically every film in the MCU brandishes a makeshift villain, Infinity War finally gives us Thanos, a three-dimensional and fascinating villain with a cabal of sadistic and distinct generals. The action set pieces are all up to the same high standard that we have come to expect from the MCU, and the new interactions between old characters add some nice spice to the film. Avengers: Infinity War shouldn’t work; it should be too big, too busy, and too safe, bursting for the seems with one too many formulaic superhero movie tropes. Instead, it is the perfect distillation of what the MCU should be: fun heroes, terrifying villains, and high stakes.

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Hot Docs 2018: The Cleaners

Cinema Axis

In The Cleaners, Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck launch an expose on a peculiar underbelly of social media. With a conspiratorial opening that casts whistleblowers in the total anonymity of darkness, we learn about the Content Moderators. These are men and women working for subcontractors hired by Facebook to click through photos, videos, and other content to decide whether or not a piece of content is appropriate for the site.

These mediators are expected to view 25,000 pieces of content per day and decide whether they should delete, allow, or report the content. They have strict guidelines, but that doesn’t protect them from seeing terrorist beheadings, child pornography, suicide videos, and all manner of terrible things.

This thankless job comes with an even darker side to it: the guidelines that these Content Moderators are using can function as censorship just as easily as they can function as protection. It’s…

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Hot Docs 2018: Mr Fish: Cartooning from the Deep End

Cinema Axis

Pablo Bryant begins his documentary with two clear defenses of free speech. This first is a title card that overtly warns the spectator that this is a free speech area, and the second is a story related to the camera by the subject of the film: cartoonist Mr. Fish. The story he tells involves himself, as a child, writing obscenities on paper airplanes and fantasizing about fighting the system when it was discovered that he was the author. Of course, he just got reprimanded by his mom.

Mr. Fish is a fascinating subject for a documentary. He’s an iconoclastic offender without care or remorse for where he points his cross hairs. His aim is deadly, and his artistic skill deft. He offends the Right and the Left indiscriminately, and almost seems proud of the fact that his notoriety makes earning a consistent paycheck a real difficulty.

Mr. Fish: Cartooning from…

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Hot Docs 2018: Golden Dawn Girls

Cinema Axis

In Golden Dawn Girls, director Håvard Bustnes offers up a no-nonsense approach to a growing phenomenon: the rise of nationalist politics. Bustnes’s focus is on the Greek party “The Golden Dawn”, which has grown to the third largest party in parliament over the past decade. When some of the most influential men in the party are imprisoned awaiting trial in response to their violence acts, the women behind the party – the “Golden Dawn Girls” – become the face of an ultra right-wing party that uses violence, intimidation, and acerbic rhetoric as its main forces for change.

Bustnes goes for a cinéma vérité presentation, mixing interviews with key members of The Golden Dawn with scenes where his camera is merely a fly-on-the-wall. His main subject is Ourania, daughter of the founder of The Golden Dawn and husband to one of its highest-ranking and most violence-prone members. He offers voice-over…

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Hot Docs 2018: 306 Hollywood

Cinema Axis

What does a person leave behind when they die? In 306 Hollywood, filmmakers answer that question in many different ways, all focused on their recently deceased grandmother Annette Ontell. The film is centered around home video footage and interviews with Grandma Annette over a ten-year period from the time she was 83. Coupled with re-enactments of audio recordings and a few flights of fancy, this documentary is a tender look at family, history, and legacy.

The film was created by Elan and Jonathan Bogarín, two of Annette’s grandkids. Elan got the bright idea to interview her grandma during film school, and the interviews provide most of the meat of the film. There’s a strong eye towards imagery, and Elan and Jonathan do a great job of mixing up their techniques, aspect ratios, and the overall appearance of the film.

At times it seems a bit much, like during a…

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Hot Docs 2018: Laila at the Bridge

Cinema Axis

The horrors of addiction and drug dependence have categorically ravaged Afghanistan following the invasion by the United States army. Now, a bag of heroin costs $2, less than a meal. As a result, the country is flooded with addicts. Enter Laila, a former child bride who has dealt with addiction in her family before. She is determined to provide assistance for the addicts, to give them hope and a way back to a fulfilling life. Her main haunt is underneath a bridge where heroin users congregate in her home town of Kabul.

Laila at the Bridge details this woman’s attempts to make her community a better place through a narcotics anonymous program. Co-directed by Gulistan and Elizabeth Mirzaei, this is a raw, uncompromising film that doesn’t shy away from some absolutely brutal imagery. We see toddlers without parents and people with vacant eyes who have lost half of their lives…

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Hot Docs 2018: What Walaa Wants

Cinema Axis

In the West Bank refugee camp of Balata, a young Palestinian girl named Walaa dreams about joining the local police force. She’s only 13, her brother Mohammad is 11, and the two live with an aunt because their mother is in prison. Once Walaa is in the police force, she gets to have a gun and be in charge of her own life. She won’t have to answer to a man or ask permission to go her own direction. For the free-spirited teenager, it’s a dream come true.

Directed by Christy Garland, What Walaa Wants follows this young Palestinian girl as she lives in Balata, grows into adulthood, and attends basic training to become a member of the police. As a child, Walaa is at least a tad incorrigible, always sticking her nose around and causing problems. She’s also an obvious product of her surroundings – casually recounting an assassination…

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State of the Blog – The First Quarter of 2018

The first quarter of 2018 is squarely in the books, and a State of the Blog post here on Plot and Theme is long overdue. If you do not recall from earlier, I decided to move these from a monthly basis towards a quarterly basis, which basically just means that there’s way more to talk about. First, I’ll delve into the cool flicks that I saw early this year. Then, I’ll detail the neat things to look forward to over the next quarter (so, through June). Finally, we’ll go over some bookkeeping here on the blog.

Let’s go.

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It’s Finally Time for a “Top Ten Movies of 2017” List

It’s finally time for me to reveal my Top Ten Movies of 2017 here on Plot and Theme. I know, everyone settle down. Now, in previous years this piece has come out sometime around the middle of January, as I hastily throw together a Top Ten list ASAP. Usually, this means that a few films that graced the coastal elites in the latter half of December don’t get consideration because they don’t show in whatever Podunk I am currently populating. By waiting a few months into the next year, I get to add more sweet flicks to my list, plus I was able to watch some of the older films a few more times. It should turn out well.

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