It Follows

It Follows - Maika MonroeRemember the Scream movies? What was billed at the time as a series of knowing, witty take-downs of the slasher film genre, full of self-referential jokes and a spiralling plotline of ludicrously solemn fatalism, now looks like an arrogant attempt to speak on behalf of a genre and a generation, a nauseating spectacle that managed to pander to and sneer at its target audience in equal measure. David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows similarly tackles genre tropes, but without snarky citations. Instead, it sets out an intriguing premise (a slow-moving demon-thing, in multiple human forms, ceaselessly pursues any individual carrying its sexually transmitted curse, which can only be passed on to another person through sexual intercourse), and sticks to it. The film builds a distinctive atmosphere, bathes it in a throbbing, nagging electronic score, and never punctures the mood with the leavening hijinks that are routinely wedged into anything aimed at a teenaged audience. And since movies so rarely frighten me, I’m always happy to admit when it happens: It Follows is really scary. It has a plot like a ghost story told at an unusually mean-spirited sleepover, the sombre tone of a classmate’s funeral, and it lingers in the mind like a malicious rumour.
It FollowsSo, while the Scream films had their cake and stabbed it in the neck by both mocking the silliness of teenagers in horror films and marshalling a cast of very silly teenagers, It Follows has a real feeling for its protagonists’ anxieties. While Scream (you can probably tell I hate those movies, and this is, I promise the last time I’ll use them as a strawman, or even mention them at all…) wrote out the “final girl” trope in big crayons, because it just seemed, like, totally stoopid that horror films should enshrine psychosexual terrors in popular culture, It Follows takes the trope seriously: if slasher movies have traditionally punished the promiscuous and heroised the virginal, this is one film that wants not to mock but to find out why. It takes the stigma and anxiety of teen sexuality and blows it up to a full-on horror trope in its own right. Of course, plenty of horror movies are about teen sex and the punishments that come to its practitioners from primitively moral killers. But It Follows reifies that sexuality into a deathly contagion: victims are confronted with a lethal double standard, sex is what gives them the curse, but also what staves it off.
It Follows A lesser horror film would have made easy mistakes: creating some ancient mystical motivation for the curse; featuring parents or other authority figures; wisecracking sidekicks; pop soundtrack. It Follows creates an atmosphere and then maintains it, without undercutting or subverting the tension. There’s a close-quarters sensuality to many shots that puts us right next to our central subject, Jay Height (Maika Monroe).
vlcsnap-2015-08-16-22h52m41s56 vlcsnap-2015-08-16-23h01m24s167 vlcsnap-2015-08-16-23h13m11s75 Note, for instance, the early scene where she observes the critters from her backyard swimming pool, and makes the easy decision to drown an ant on her arm: hands are prominent in many shots, too, a poignant rendering of a world both perceived through, and jeopardised by, the necessity of touch. This is not an unusual neorealist technique to create a sense of immediacy, but it is absolutely the right choice for this film: aligning us with Kelly makes it all the more frightening, since whatever is coming for her must also be coming for us, and we don’t get to observe her from a safe distance. We scan the environment for approaching death just as she does, and the often shallow focus frustrates that task; rarely has often screen space been so actively weighted with dread.
It FollowsOne strange aspect of the film is its placement in time. Musically and thematically, it’s in conversation with the 1980s. The TV screens seems to show only 1950s science fiction B-movies. This is probably a deliberate strategy to avoid pinning the film down to a specific temporal location, but it also shows us how genres cyclically (50s, 80s, now) latch onto the things they find unnerving (commies/conformity, sex/knives, sex/intimacy). It does mean that a film that clearly wants to talk about young people now, is devoid of the iconography of social media. And yet, it is fundamentally a film about sharing.
vlcsnap-2015-08-16-23h02m30s62 vlcsnap-2015-08-16-23h04m08s18Probably more profound than the film’s metaphor of sexual stigma as a killer curse is the way characters react to the threat, by having sex in order to share their fear. For some in this film, without giving too much away, knowing a potential partner is scared is an opportunity to exploit their sexuality, while others have an altruistic wish to take on the curse on behalf of a friend. But it’s a complicated picture, and ends with a couple unsure of what they’ve done or how scared they should be, anxious that everybody be as cursed as they are, and knowing that they can never be free, just threatened together. It’s a film not about why we hide our shame, but about why we find security in sharing it with someone, anyone else.

Picture of the Week #35: Sixty Sexy Movie Posters

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If ever there was a post that was self-explanatory, it’s this one. I’ve tried to select a few orthodox images amongst the less well-known films and posters, all linked by the ways they use sexual imagery to sell films even when sexuality may only be a small component of the films themselves. View as a slideshow above, or scroll down and click on the thumbnails for a larger view.

[See more of my galleries here.]

Lars von Trier’s Antichrist: Build Your Own Review

It’s a horror film. It’s a battle-of-the-sexes drama. It’s a cabin-in-the-woods supernatural thriller. It’s shocking, controversial, provocative, explicit etc. Lars von Trier is just messing with you. Don’t get so worked up. He likes to poke (figurative) wild animals with (metaphorical) sticks to see what bites. Of course, the sense that he’s provoking his audiences shouldn’t be an excuse to dismiss his movies out of hand – they clearly get a lot of attention, and so he must be pushing just the right combination of buttons to incite so much reaction. Since the film so deftly elicits a set of stock reactions, I thought I’d withhold my own thoughts on the film and instead invite you to build your own review to the film based on the multiple choices below. Save yourself some time, and your knees some jerking, and select your responses in each of the categories most commonly used to talk about Antichrist:

Read on…

Picture of the Week #4: Eyes Wide Shut

Eyes Wide Shut Censored version [Click to Uncensor]

[Click on the image to uncensor it, i.e. to see it as it was originally intended, but beware the naughtiness within…]

OK, adults only for this one. Spectacular Attractions is usually a family show, but this is a different kind of Friday. Here, go and look at Pinocchio, or possibly the Muppets.

A frame grab from Stanley Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut. Kubrick died shortly after completing the film, having promised to deliver an R-rated movie (apparently, he watched a bunch of Hollywood’s more sexually explicit films in order to gauge what would be considered acceptable to receive such a rating). The sequence in which Tom Cruise visits a masked orgy was considered to be NC-17 territory, a rating which ostensibly marks something out as unsuitable for children, but which actually decreases its chances at the box office, rejection by self-righteous finger-waggers and unwarranted controversy from a wide variety of spoilsports. However, although MGM surely would have just snipped out the relevant glimpses of humping, they found themselves hidebound by their commitment not to re-edit or cut a frame of Kubrick’s footage. What to do? The simple answer would be to suck it down and release the film unadjusted, take the reduced box office safe in the knowledge that you hadn’t compromised the artistic vision of a man on whose name you’d been happily trading for years. Alternatively, you could take some digital people and graft them onto the film to cover up those dangerous bits of flesh. Very clever – loyal to the exact wording of their commitment to Kubrick, but actually snuffing out the spirit of it in one quick application of polygons. The result can be seen in the image above.

Barbara Creed saw this as an advance notice of the coming age of the synthespian, when human actors would routinely be replaced by digital substitutes. She suggested that as they took over, we might have to change the way we relate to people onscreen, since the virtual actor would have no Unconscious, and thus not be “subject to the same experience as the living star, experiences such as mothering, Oedipal anxiety, hunger, loss, ecstasy, desire, death.” But then, she also predicted that porn stars, already artificially augmented beyond the realms of realism, could be doubled by virtual actors. It all sounded a bit William Gibson to me, and this week’s picture instead made it look as though digital people were just going to show up in films where they weren’t wanted and spoil everyone else’s view.

The Sign of the Cross: The Devil has all the Best Tunics

Poster - Sign of the Cross, The (1932)_07A slideshow of images from Cecil B. DeMille’s 1932 epic of persecuted Christians in ancient Rome. I’ve been testing out the compatibility of the various pieces of my online “presence”, e.g. Flickr, Twitter, Facebook and all those other bits and pieces that should make online life more coherent rather more fragmented. These slideshows allow me to include more images to illustrate a film text when a single still image just doesn’t make the intended point. By uploading frame grabs to Flickr, I can then use another website, Vodpod, to automatically generate a slideshow that I can embed in a WordPress post. It sounds complicated, but once you get the hang of co-ordinating the various sites, it’s pretty quick and easy. Let me know, though, if you don’t like the new approach. You can see more of these pictures, with labels, download them or enlarge them by following this link, or click on the slideshow to watch them in sequence. You can fast forward, pause or enlarge to fullscreen:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “The Sign of the Cross: The Devil has …“, posted with vodpod

OK, so I’m really just testing out a little gadget, but hopefully you’ll enjoy the contents of the slideshow, too. It’s a real cavalcade of debauchery from DeMille, for whom the best way to illustrate the importance of virtue was to catalogue a veritable spaghetti of sins. The question will always linger that maybe the Biblical advocacy on its surface was really just a disguise that allowed him to draw the crowds to a sensational parade of violent erotica. There would certainly seem to be more flesh and blood and show than is absolutely necessary, and a worryingly imaginative commitment to the full range of naughtinesses, whether it’s the titillating spectacle of Claudette Colbert, almost revealing all in the asses-milk bath sequence, Elissa Landi being tormented for her virtue at a lascivious Roman orgy, or the elaborate execution methods in the Colisseum: nearly-nude women attacked by crocodiles or a gorilla, Amazons impaling/decapitating pygmies, lions eating Christians etc., etc.

Rather than try to resolve the issue of DeMille’s sincerity, I instead see the film illustrating the ambiguities and intricacies of spectatorial positions in cinema studies. Surely DeMille has given us a vision of a dangerously seductive world and shown the fate of some of its victims (the Christians), persecuted for their passive resistance to Roman reiligious prohibitions. It is then up to the viewer whether or not to disregard its righteous message and revel in the rush of disgraceful scenes: DeMille shoots all of them with the same ecstatic overflow of style that he uses for his enlightened martyrs. Whatever the sincerity of DeMille’s Christian mission, he seems to embrace the commoditisation of epic cinema, and its use value as a vessel for  religious messages; there is little division between the raptures induced by communion with either divinity or spectacle and illusion.

Don’t Look Now: “Did You Really See Her?”


You can download a PDF version of this post here. In the PDF version, the layout and images are a little more carefully formatted and stable. 

[This post is intended for readers who’ve already seen Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now: it contains major spoilers, and assumes knowledge of the plot. If you need a reminder of the story, try here. I wrote most of this while re-watching the film (trying to practice typing without looking at the keys!), so apologies if some of the prose is a bit scrappy. I’ve polished up some of it, but thought I’d leave most of it intact.]

Don’t Look Now is, when taken from one particular angle, a film about imperfect vision. It shows us a story of eyes deceived, beliefs challenged by visual evidence, even as the film itself conducts its own experiments in superhuman looking by conjoining separate spaces through graphic matches that suggest a world ordered not by random chance but by the interconnectedness of disparate phenomena. The tension between these two kinds of vision, the one flawed, partial and human, the other selective and authoritative, is one of the things that makes the film work and helps to structure its ambiguous play with superstition and clairvoyance.

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It might seem like a film about mystery, but it’s all signposted from the first scene, where the kids play outside while the parents read and talk indoors. Various cinematic techniques are used to introduce the question of vision, and to make affective links between characters who might not otherwise be spatially connected. Above, you can see a pair of consecutive shots in which Laura (Julie Christie) puts her hand to her mouth, followed immediately by a cut to her daughter doing the same. In another example, little Christine throws a ball, and the next shot shows her mother catching a packet of cigarettes:

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Matches-on-action are usually used to imply spatio-temporal continuity between separate shots of the same activity , but here the matches are between distinct locations. These seem like superficial matches to show the prelapsarian unity of the family, but the graphic matches are used at several points in the film to draw connections between various phenomena. The visual similarity of the red forms of spillage on the photograph and the drowned child’s coat  (the red zones occupy roughly the same areas of the frame) sets up a portentous link between the two moments, a clue which John (Donald Sutherland) will spend the rest of the film refusing to acknowledge:

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But if the connection between the church and Venice and the death of the child is meant to serve as a warning, then why is it built on similarity? The dwarf and the child are not the same, and it is a confusion between the two which will ultimately lead John into mortal danger. If the supernatural world is sending messages, then they are not clearly legible ones. Elsewhere, vision is portrayed as untrustworthy, partial and fragmented, with faces obscured or ambiguous figures glimpsed:

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Julie Christie meets the two English women when one of them gets something in her eye (the other is blind): mirrored images in the bathroom fragment vision. This film is fascinated by the tricks eyes can play, or the beauty of certain effects: light playing on the canal connects to the rain falling on the pond, igniting a memory of the aftermath of Christine’s death. Through the figure of a blind psychic, the film entertains the possibility of a superior mode of sight that comes from sense experiences beyond the eyes.

Does the film want us to conclude that the woman really is psychic and having visions of death and the dead, and thus that it is Sutherland’s incomplete vision, his disbelief in the fact that his daughter is not there in Venice with them that leads him to be killed? Or does it let the viewers decide for themselves whether the premonitions are real? Actually, I suspect it makes it fairly clear that faith in biological sight is misplaced.

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The pile-up of blurred lines between memory, premonition and present experience is the organising principle of the justly famous sex scene. Notable amongst movie sex for being a regenerative moment between a married couple as opposed to an inevitable plotpoint for a male hero and his designated shag, it also fits perfectly with the film’s visionary aesthetic. Beginning with tender foreplay, as the lovemaking escalates, it is intercut with flashforwards to shots of the couple dressing and remembering the sex. As the forward-looking shots become more frequent, they might be seen to take over, making the present action into flashbacks, or at least overlapping the temporal spaces and endowing each image with multiple indentities as present moments, memories or predictions and working them into an affective whole of conflated experiences. Perhaps this scene suggests a moment of closeness between the couple by allowing them a privileged, unified experience where the moment, its aniticipation and its memory all come together: it’s a shame that subsequently, they will judge these multi-temporal visions very differently.

If you’ve ever been to Venice and walked around without a map, you’ll know how perfectly cast it is as the backdrop for this story. Any stroll through the backstreets, particularly at night, can turn into a fiendish, circular journey where landmarks will seem to repeat in random order, canals will seem to move their position or reverse their direction. It’s eerie how easily Venetian pathways can mess with your sense of direction, your faith in your remembrances of space, place and time. Out of the holiday season, it’s a mournful, even morbid place, and the film exploits these qualities to the full by making it an architectural analogue of the characters’ mental and visual indecisions. The blind psychic, on the other hand, can navigate it with ease because the sounds are so acute, the echoes so instructive. It is vision, often the most trusted of the senses, that is portrayed as unreliable.

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It’s a film about grief, but grieving doesn’t mean sitting around crying – for this couple it means considering and modifying their beliefs about death, time and memory. Laura hides her medication, favouring the clarity of natural vision over medically regulated perspective. John sees his wife’s supernatural beliefs as irrational; he describes her to the authorities as “not a well woman”, and it is this refusal to attribute visual evidence to something other than physical presence that leads him into danger: seeing something that looks like his daughter, he cannot connect the little figure in the red coat whose appearance has been previsualised and warned against. Ultimately, then, the film is reliant on John’s misperception, building up to a shock ending that is foreshadowed heavily in the opening scene and  in every other glimpse of his killer-to-be.


The collage of momentous fragments of the opening scene is matched by the death-throes montage that unlocks its significances at the end: all the pieces of the puzzle find their connections to one another in a final spatio-temporal flurry of overlapping times and places, signs and omens. The visual trope of the graphic match, where dwarf and child are made to appear similar, coded by the vivid red macs they wear, even repeating the shot of each figure reflected in the surface of the water, tricks John into accepting that his daughter might be alive before his eyes. But these cannot be John’s vision, because he wasn’t there to see Christine reflected in the water – the film is repeating its own imagery, and giving equal significance to this kind of visual inference and to witnessed sightings, ensuring that seeing something firsthand is not given precedence over other kinds of knowledge and belief. John and has wife have shared similar experiences and interpreted them in very different ways. He sees a premonition of his own funeral but can’t believe that it isn’t evidence of Laura’s physical presence, and can’t accept that his senses might have deceived him. She blithely accepts the evidence of second sight, while he ignores all of the portents, and is punished for trying to believe his senses in the face of other forms of evidence.

You can download a PDF version of this post here. In the PDF version, the layout and images are a little more carefully formatted and stable. 


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Funeral Parade of Roses

“A feverish collision of avant-garde aesthetics and grindhouse shocks (not to mention a direct influence on Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange), Funeral Parade of Roses takes us on an electrifying journey into the nether-regions of the late-’60s Tokyo underworld.

Cross-dressing club-kid Eddie (played by real-life transvestite entertainer extraordinaire Peter, famed for his role as Kyoami the Fool in Akira Kurosawa’s Ran) vies with a rival drag-queen (Osamu Ogasawara) for the favours of drug-dealing cabaret-manager Gonda (Yoshio Tsuchiya, himself a Kurosawa player who appeared in such films as Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, and High and Low). Passions escalate and blood begins to flow – before all tensions are released in a jolting climax.” (Plot Synopsis from

It’s tempting not to review this film, but just to show a bunch of stills and leave them to stand alone as a recommendation to view the whole thing. Almost any frame can be grabbed and held up as a beautifully composed image, but mostly it becomes fascinating for the barrage of eclectic formal experiments.

While these stills show the exciting variety of shot scales and compositional spectacles, they don’t convey the ways in which the mash-up of documentary and fictional techniques drives the film forward. The film provides a mix of extreme narrative contrivance and naturalistic, Brechtian interview with ordinary people and cast members out of character. Peter’s interview to camera even hints at the plot twist which has not yet been revealed. Matsumoto wanted to blend together his disparate cinematic influences; he hails from a documentary background, but was fascinated by Italian neo-realism and the avant-garde, and each of these modes complements, comments on or occasionally undermines the others. Moments of apparently naturalistic documentary footage give way to blatant fabrication and vice versa. At every step, the fiction is undermined by images of its construction. Scenes are linked with bursts of leader film or still images. A sex scene focusing on Eddie’s ecstatic facial expressions is cut short by a shot of the scene being filmed, revealing that he is writhing alone on the bed. Is this scene telling us that Eddie is acting in adult films, or is it an entirely self-reflexive insert to puncture the fictional bubble? Even his final scene of self mutilation is interrupted by a contact shot of stills of the scene being shot, and a cheerful commentator who asks the viewer: “Frightening, isn’t it?”

Whatever it did for progressing the prominence of gay people in Japan, this is less a piece of authentic queer cinema and more an example of captivated sub-cultural tourism. The transvestite body is treated as a fascinating object, shot in fragments during sex scenes, and its always a surprise to see the lead character out of make-up; the camera seems to revel in the illusion that Eddie’s face creates. The pleasured look on his face, the gripped sheets, clutched necks, scraped backs and intertwined fingers would look like the average hetero sex scene if they weren’t dressed up in the garb of queer cinema. Maybe that kind of passing is the whole point of the film, but rather than allowing the queens the indulgence of full immersion in their masquerade, the film thematises the wearing of masks as a universal human trait to hide our true selves. Many scenes draw comic effect from the incongruity of pretty girls who are also prey to the inconveniences of guy stuff:

In addition, Eddie’s traumatic past comes worryingly close to claiming a correlation between incestuous child abuse and homosexuality, but these are minor reservations for an otherwise electrifying, exploratory film that keeps turning up one flourish of visual wit after another.

Read more:

Jasper Sharp, “Funeral Parade of Roses.”
Review at Cinema Strikes Back.
Review at Lucid Screening.
Review by Kevin Wilson at Thirtyframesasecond.

Twentynine Palms

[This post contains major spoilers for those who haven’t seen the film.]

What am I to make of Bruno Dumont’s Twentynine Palms (2003)? It consists mostly of a couple (David and Katia) based in a motel but exploring the surrounding desert in their Hummer. They argue, buy an ice-cream, swim in the pool, have rough sex, fight in the street, kiss and make up, before being attacked in the desert. David is beaten and raped and, clearly more than a little unsettled by the experience, stabs Katia to death in the motel. The last shot is of David’s corpse sprawled in the desert while a traffic cop radios for help, trying in vain to convince headquarters to give a damn.

Dumont claims that the film is an experiment in building tension through a lack of dramatic action, and that the film’s sense of escalating menace is constructed in the spectator’s mind in response to the films longeurs. This is an interesting proposition, implying that we are so conditioned to expect violence to be encountered in the barren landscapes of America(n cinema) that its absence arouses suspicion, but it is rather disingenuous. If the film aims to document the quotidian minutiae of a couple, with all of their bickering, musing and sexual grappling before smashing it all sideways with random acts of unforeseen violence, then that mission is undermined by a series of portents and correspondences that pepper the film. While it is not obviously signposted that David will end up stabbing Katia to death, in retrospect the structured build-up to this conclusion is certainly in evidence.

The spectral premonition of sexual abuse haunts Twentynine Palms in David’s controlling subjugation of his partner in most of their couplings, most troublingly when he holds her underwater to go d(r)own on him. His gurning, groaning orgasms are echoed by those of his rapist. Are we supposed to read this as some kind of poetic justice for David’s own barely-suppressed sexual aggression? Earlier in the film, he expressed little sympathy for a victim of abuse on the Jerry Springer show, which is either a cynical commentary on the distancing, dehumanising effects of trash TV, or a character note to inform us that something is not fully functioning in the empathy division of David’s brain.

The violent conclusion might lead us to look for clues as to why it happened. Are the attackers a group of disgruntled dog owners? Are they marines from the nearby military base? The military motif, symbolised by the Humvee they drive (Darren Hughes has argued that it’s all about the Hummer), crops up more than once. Before stabbing Katia, David has made a messy attempt at shaving his head, mirroring an earlier conversation in which Katia contradicted herself by saying that she found soldiers very handsome, but she would leave her lover if he cut his hair so short. This was obviously a moment that teased a jealous nerve in David, and its difficult now not to see it as yet another structuring device with its reference to an earlier sequence. A scene of each character locking themselves in the bathroom is also repeated:

Katia eventually charges out of the bathroom and leaves the motel room, at which point David grabs her arm to create the illusion that it is he who is throwing her out. When the scene is mirrored at the end of the film, David emerges with murderous purpose, issuing the scream that we have heard him give throughout the film – during sex, while being rammed from behind by an SUV, and finally while slaughtering his girlfriend.

The violent denouement is also foreshadowed by David’s aggression towards Katia throughout the film. Wild, grunting sex is one thing, but we see him hit her several times, and a shot of him creeping up on Katia in the pool is clearly designed to suggest the claim he wants to stake on her body. So, I don’t think I’m being a naive prude when I feel that this is not a picture of an everyday couple going about the typical couply routines, but a deliberate sequence of narrational cues building up a suggestive picture of a man waiting for an external influence to tip him over the edge into bloody madness.

I find his films engrossing and beautifully composed (yes, that’s a cop-out piece of mitigation, thanks), but I find myself instinctively reacting against Dumont’s sensationalism, and his suggestion that I need to see a violent movie in order to demythologise the artifice of the usual movie violence. But he shares with Michael Haneke an interest in everybody’s voyeuristic fascination in depictions of graphic violence. Everybody’s, that is, except for his own. His apparent nihilism is not ours, and his attempts to force spectators to construct their own terror and then torment themselves with it ignores his own role in engineering and administering it. Compare (OK, it maybe an unfair comparison, but indulge me here) this to Christian Mungiu’s masterful generation of terrifying suspense out of bureaucratic procedures in 4 months, 3 weeks, 2 days (2007), where the threat of discovery looms large but is never fully realised. Which deployment of spectatorial engagement is more productive and revealing: Mungiu’s depiction of how a repressive environment causes people to internalise systems of surveillance and police themselves, or Dumont’s cynical exercise in sex-n’-death button-pushing (with the added implication that you devised and pushed those buttons yourself)?

Further Reading:

Manohla Dargis, “Twentynine Palms.”
Marcy Dermansky, “Moan and Groan.”
Errata, “Twentynine Palms.”

Michael Koresky, “Urge Overkill.”
Nick Wrigley, “The Polarizing, MagnificentCinema of Bruno Dumont.”