‘Widows’: a thriller with levels

Semler at the Cinema features Brandon Semler’s thoughts on the world of film, including reviews, think pieces, previews and more.

By Brandon Semler

“Widows” (2018) is a fast-paced heist thriller that subverts nearly every aspect of the genre, and also manages to offer a multi-level look at the racial, social, political, financial and gender power struggles and imbalances that shape our world — and the freedom that self-earned power can bring to the human spirit. 

Don’t get me wrong — Steve McQueen’s film does not go out of its way to be heady or grandstanding. These themes are needled in clearly, but subtly. What unfolds on the screen is a thrilling popcorn blockbuster filled with twists and turns and all-star performances from a major league cast. 

The screenplay was penned by McQueen and Gillian Flynn (author/screenwriter of “Gone Girl”). Set in Chicago, four women with nothing in common except a debt left behind by their dead husbands’ criminal activities take fate into their own hands and plan to carry out a job (paraphrased from IMDB).

The film presents a web of stories that are dramatically entangled, floating from one to another and slowly painting a larger portrait of the dangerous world these characters live in.

McQueen uses the camera as a curious observer throughout. From an opening car chase sequence (shot from the perspective of those in the getaway van), to a shot following a vehicle of Tom Mulligan (Colin Farrell), McQueen makes the city a character in this film, one that often tells more than words ever could.

Veronica (Viola Davis), Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) are perhaps the three most compelling characters on screen this year. The three all carry unique pain with them through out the film, though that pain was all a product of the same system, a system that ultimately led them all together. 

The Veronica character careens from scared, vulnerable and in-too-deep to a front of baddassery when around others (which becomes less and less of a front as the film progresses). Davis is an unstoppable presence throughout.

The emotional and confidence growth of the character Alice is conveyed brilliantly by Debicki; we’ll be seeing more of her on the big screen. These three actresses carry the emotional bulk of the film, but the supporting cast rounds it out with a depth that is rarely seen in 2018 blockbusters.   

What’s impressive about “Widows” is its ability to encompass so much thematic material while keeping its foot so steadily on the gas. Every scene holds an individual, isolated importance, as the sequences often mean more to individual characters than to the film’s plotting.

This film is one of my favorites of the year. I tried to hold back on even the mildest of spoilers, because this is a film that should be experienced.

Status: Strongly Recommend 

Brandon Semler can be reached at popdiversifies@gmail.com, or on Twitter @BrandonSemler.

‘LM5’: the return of the queens

Pop Odyssey features Jackie Goff’s thoughts, reviews and analysis of popular music.

By Jackie Goff

“LM5” is the best Little Mix album since their 2013 album “Salute” (their best in my opinion) and the two share theme that has only been magnified over time: women.

The songs on “LM5” are more about empowering women and supporting women than it is about sex, love or men that have done them wrong (though there is a bit of all of those from time to time). All in all, this is the kind of pop record we need in 2018 and it’s beautiful.

Here are a few of the record’s standout singles:

“Woman Like Me (feat. Nicki Minaj)”: The debut single from the new record featuring Nicki Minaj, which addresses the things we all deal with but shouldn’t hold us back, such as insecurity or regret for past mistakes. These flaws don’t make you make you any less desirable or worthy of love. In fact, they are trials that make you stronger, more powerful and deserving of someone who can take the good right along with the bad.

“Strip”: Whisper-singing has a way of driving me bat-shit crazy until it eventually grows on me until the song is an earworm that I can’t get out of my head. It was true for Selena Gomez’s “Hands To My Self,” and the same goes for “Strip”. My first couple of listens I wasn’t overly into it melodically, but the underlying message of self-acceptance and confidence meant that eventually, I was all for it. “Strip! / Take off all my make-up ’cause I love what’s under it / Rub off all your words, don’t give a uh, I’m over it / Strip! / Jiggle all this weight, yeah, you know I love all of this / Finally love me naked, sexiest when I’m confident.”

“Told You So”: “The only thing I love more than an empowering Little Mix jam is an acoustic guitar-based song that showcases these women’s insane voices. This song is about the importance of girlfriends who are around to love and support each other in moments of despair and heartbreak. Picking up the damage without dealing out handfuls of shame, even if they saw it coming because, well, he never did treat her right. The whole record is more heavy-handed about supporting your fellow woman than the men who have done wrong, this song is more tender than the rest of the record and supportive about the fact that sometimes your friend gets their heart broken, and your job isn’t to say “I told you so,” but be there with a bottle of wine or a cup of tea and a shoulder to cry on.

Honorable mention: “Woman’s World”: A beautiful tribute to the trails and tribulations of what it’s like to be a woman in this world hoping for a day where women are heard, recognized and respected not for their body, but their brains.

Jackie Goff can be reached at popdiversifies@gmail.com or @jackiemaemusic on Twitter.

Viewer’s notes: my week in movies (11/18)

Semler at the Cinema features Brandon Semler’s thoughts on the world of film, including reviews, think pieces, previews and more.

By Brandon Semler

I realized shortly after starting this blog that I would not be able to review every film I watched, or talk about every little noteworthy film-related thing I experienced. I’m going to offer a bit of a recap of my week here (just for the films I have not already talked about).

Give it a shot, it’ll be fun. 

  • The score for “Suspiria” (2018) by Thom Yorke is my standout favorite of the year so far. 2018 has been gifted with several quality horror/sci-fi scores, including “Annihilation,” “Hereditary” and “Mandy.” This score is beautiful and scary, incorporating gorgeous piano arpeggios with Yorke’s signature soft, spacious falsetto sailing over it, as well as violent synthesizers that imitate voices screaming over a static-soaked radio. The music instills pure existential terror, so in other words it’s been a real blast. 
  • The original “Suspiria” (1977) is an enjoyable and rather inventive horror. Unlike the 2018 re-imagining — which grapples with philosophy and a moving truck full of deep thinking — this film is mostly concerned with providing a psychedelic, contained experience. And it does it well. Status: Recommend for Fans (Horror, Witches, good things like that). 
  • “Singing in the Rain” is incredible, though I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that. Status: Strongly Recommend
  • After experiencing disappointment with “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, I needed reminding of a better time. “Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix” is current “Fantastic Beasts” director David Yates’ first of six installments in the J.K. Rowling world. The film is a highlight of the series, as Yates navigates the darkness the story necessitates without loosing the glimmer of joy that makes the series what it is. Status: Recommend

Brandon Semler can be reached at popdiversifies@gmail.com, or on Twitter @BrandonSemler.

Film Diversifies: ‘Suspiria’

Brandon and Will discuss and pitch a sequel for Luca Guadagnino’s “Suspiria” in the first-ever Film Diversifies podcast. The two also discuss what they’ve been watching lately and some recent news. This podcast was produced by Jackie Goff, featuring music from Doqtr Shine. A written review for “Suspiria” is available here.

‘Crimes of Grindelwald’: the slowest magic around

Semler at the Cinema features Brandon Semler’s thoughts on the world of film, including reviews, think pieces, previews and more.

By Brandon Semler

My prevailing question after walking out of the latest “Fantastic Beasts” installment was: who are these movies for? 

Director David Yates’ fourth entry in the Harry Potter universe (he directed the last four Potter films and the first “Fantastic Beasts” entry) is a dark, plodding thriller that is more interested in its Dan Brown-esque family tree mystery than it is the spectacular universe it lives in. 

And, to state it simply, it’s boring.

“Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” is mostly set in late 1920s Paris, as Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) and allies follow clues and leads that will lead them to stopping Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), an evil and powerful wizard who has recently escaped from custody.

Harry Potter creator and author J.K. Rowling penned the screenplay for the film, and served as a producer. 

Much like its predecessor, the film moves slowly with heavy dialogue and a very dark, limited color pallete, a recipe for a nap. It is evident from two full-length endeavors that these films are not designed for children anymore. Beyond just the dire circumstances (which we admittedly got in later Harry Potter installments), the film’s interest in a family mystery completely consumes it. Much of what unfolds is not easy to follow, and seemingly impossible for a child or early teen. But more importantly, it’s blatantly uninteresting. 

So its not for kids. But as as an adult who grew up on the Harry Potter books and films, I can’t say I find much to love about these either. Though the Potter series went to some very dark places, it felt ultimately rooted in friends, family, love and morality. I can’t quite get to the bottom of what these films are rooted in. Maybe that will become more apparent in the third, fourth, fifth or twelfth installment. 

The character of Newt Scamander remains the obvious highlight of this series, and Redmayne’s portrayal of him is perfection. Though it gets very little screen time, Newt’s relationship with potential love interest Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) is one of the more interesting components of the film, though it is clumsily addressed at times. 

Jude Law is superb as Albus Dumbledore, and if I look forward to anything in the coming installments, its him and Newt. Depp does a fine job as Grindelwald. He’s still quite capable of onscreen villainy.

Some of the current political undertones running through Grindelwald’s rise in the film seemed like an easy dunk, if not a tad heavy handed. However, there is a sequence later in the film where a projection of real-life future horrors is thrust upon people of the time. It was an effective look at the good intentions often confused and misled in the machine of propaganda.

Despite some compelling characters and really cute magic beasts, “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” is a drag. 

Status: Do Not Recommend

Brandon Semler can be reached at popdiversifies@gmail.com, or on Twitter @BrandonSemler.

Jared and the Mill’s ‘Story’ slated for February release

Pop Odyssey features Jackie Goff’s thoughts, reviews and analysis of popular music.

By Jackie Goff

Today, Jared and the Mill released the next single from their upcoming record “This Story is No Longer Available,set for release Feb. 15.

The band, hailing from Tempe, Arizona, continues to put out thoughtful, carefully curated western indie rock that rocks as hard as it feels personal, describing an intensely passionate love. I can’t wait to hear what else is to come from the new album.

Having followed Jared and the Mill for a couple years now, the thing that strikes me most is how the visible sincerity that captured me about their music directly translated to their actions as a band. They love their music and their band as much as they love their fans, and they go above and beyond to make sure that they know it.

Check out “Kelsee’s Shelves” below, and if you get the chance, see them on their upcoming tour. You won’t regret it. 2019 Tour dates can be found here.

‘Suspiria’: a beautiful, tangled web Luca weaves

Semler at the Cinema features Brandon Semler’s thoughts on the world of film, including reviews, think pieces, previews and more.

By Brandon Semler

“Suspiria” (2018) is exceptionally dark and decidedly brazen, seeking meaning in many directions with some of the most effective moments and sequences of any film this year.

The thematic juggling act does not form an entirely focused portrait in the end, but provides a truly memorable spectacle. The film nearly necessitates multiple viewings. One — for me — will simply not cut it.

“Suspiria” is Luca Guadagnino’s re-imagining of the 1977 film of the same name, centered around a young dancer joining a studio with some dark secrets in Berlin, Germany. I should mention that I have not seen the original “Suspiria,” which will admittedly create some blind spots.

The 2018 film flows like a slow and torturous song. Thom York’s spacey score accompanies trippy and horrific dream sequences, brutal deaths and stunning dance; it is easy to get lost in Guadagnino’s vision. The “Call Me By Your Name” director’s immersive tone is both coaxing and revolting, but it is obvious that a craftsman is at work in nearly every scene.

Dakota Johnson stars as the new dancer Susie Bannion. Johnson has a secret buried in her eyes in nearly every close-up, which the film ultimately vindicates. Tilda Swinton plays three roles (a choice worthy of a discussion on its own) and Chloë Grace Moretz and Mia Goth both shine in smaller parts.

The decision to widen the scope beyond the studio, and include Dr. Josef Klemperer (a Swinton role) as a central figure, seemed odd during the film’s run-time. However, the character serviced a contemporary and relevant theme that added yet another dimension, but also another pin in the juggling act.

In the midst of the deeper and more psychological focus, plot clarity is sometimes sacrificed. Most developments are easy enough to follow, but some of the less-emphasized moments, such as the power struggle within the coven, are vague at best.

While the ending is far from predictable, there seemed to be no build up to it from a character standpoint (perhaps this is something that a re-watch will bring new light to). The chaotic and exuberant ending contradicted the more quiet, brutal insanity that the rest of the film portrayed so well.

The film is one of the most interesting and well-directed endeavors of the year, though it is not entirely cohesive. I’m quite intrigued to see how my feelings will change after a re-watch.

Status: Recommend for Fans (of Arthouse films, horror, Luca Guadagnino)

Brandon Semler can be reached at popdiversifies@gmail.com, or on Twitter @BrandonSemler.

Busted yearns for the ’90s in return to early ‘2000s sound

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Pop Odyssey features Jackie Goff’s thoughts, reviews and analysis of popular music.

By Jackie Goff

Upon first listen of the newest single “Nineties”  from British pop band Busted, I was an odd combination of apprehensive, disappointed, perplexed and… something else. I couldn’t quite figure it out. I listened to it over and over again until I could understand what exactly I was feeling.

When they released their 2016 comeback after a decade apart (read my previous Busted post here), I was thoroughly stunned that I loved the record, though it was different from their younger sound. The band took a turn to an ’80s-friendly, synthy pop-rock vibe, which was OK by me. The more mature sound seemed to suit their second act well.

So when I heard that they would be reverting to their old sound for their follow up, I was apprehensive. I was so into the new Busted; I didn’t want to see them go backward.

The song starts with a drum machine beat and synth pads that made me think the direction change wouldn’t be so different, maintaining a bit of the new song. However, by the chorus, we’re aggressively catapulted into heavy guitar and vocals, and the song maintains this tone for its remainder.

I was immediately unimpressed with the lyrical content. In the “Night Driver” days, I almost believed that a stipulation of Charlie Simpson’s return to Busted was that James Bourne had to grow up lyrically; making fewer pop culture references that make the songs sound juvenile.

However, the more I listened, the more the song grew on me, and eventually, I realized what that feeling was. Nostalgia for a time long passed. Nostalgia for the days that I was obsessed with the sounds of OG Busted and McFly (easily the most influential band of my teenage and young adult years). Of course, this is the lyrical point behind the song, and while I couldn’t relate directly to the age that they were singing about, I could relate to it in my own way as I struggle to adjust to the trials of adulthood, particularly trying times, and wanting to go back to simpler times.

So in this particular case, for particularly complex reasons, “Nineties” has grown on me. However, I do hope for more from the new record, and that Busted continues to progress rather than digress.

Jackie Goff can be reached at popdiversifies@gmail.com or @jackiemaemusic on Twitter.

‘Overlord’: body horror for the masses

Semler at the Cinema features Brandon Semler’s thoughts on the world of film, including reviews, think pieces, previews and more.

By Brandon Semler

“Overlord” layers its genres better than it layers its characters, but serves as an entirely watchable body horror with the spirit of a video game.

Director Julius Avery manages some truly gasp-inducing moments. Using a well-balanced pallet of practical effects/makeup and CG, he creates a clear and nightmarish portrait of the small France town the film is set in, and the large, daunting facility where bad things are happening.

Oh, and the bad things are pretty startling too.

The JJ Abrams-produced film follows a small crew of US troops on D-Day, as they make their way through rural France with a specific mission in mind. “Overlord” plants the seeds of a few themes early on, but when the bloodshed starts, they fly out the window along with any remaining normalcy.

The development of the main character Boyce (played by the impressive Jovan Adepo) is clunky and contradictory. Most characters in the film are largely archtypes for monster/military shoot-’em-ups.

Despite a conventional structure, the film’s energy is contagious. Plus, the story is told with a clarity and focus that seems rare for blood fests.

Status: Recommend for Fans (of body horror, JJ Abrams).

Brandon Semler can be reached at popdiversifies@gmail.com, or on Twitter @BrandonSemler.

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