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On Trend: The Year of Beyoncé

What she declares about her craft is, thus far, the most telling element of the ever-chugging Beyoncé train.

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On Trend: The Year of Beyoncé
Photo: Columbia Records

If you’ve walked through New York City lately (or, in all likelihood, any major city), you’ve probably been unable to escape Beyoncé’s face. It’s on the posters still pushing her heavily-rotated HBO doc, Life Is But a Dream; it’s on Pepsi ads that first emerged for her Super Bowl halftime show, sponsored by the soda; it’s on promos for Love Songs, the Destiny’s Child compilation album released earlier this year; and it’s on the cover of the March issue of Vogue, which unapologetically declares that the “Queen B” “rules the world.” Written by Jason Gay, the Vogue article, like the HBO film, isn’t especially revealing, and it feels as if it were shaped, to some degree, within the diva’s control, right down to the closing sentence that wholesomely acknowledges the promise embodied by Blue Ivy Carter, Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s one-year-old daughter. The story—which, in a rarity for Vogue, includes a straight-on shot of its subject smiling—registers as one more part of the carefully calibrated Beyoncé machine, which is programmed to put forth an image as sexy and glamorous as it is untarnished and accessible. Such is not to say, necessarily, that Gay’s article rings false, but that it, like the artist herself, carries a constant aura of choreographed perfection, which, now, in the wake of marriage, childbirth, and continuing endorsements from the First Family, is tinged with a new layer of human transparency. Perhaps that layer was always there, and is just now more apparent. In any case, of the many affirmations made within the commendatory Vogue spread, one that leaps off the page is already clear to anyone with eyes: This year, “Beyoncé will be in your life like she’s never been before.”

Outlets like Vulture have had some fun with the banal pearls of wisdom Beyoncé offers in Life Is But a Dream, a film that saw her co-direct herself as a makeup-free talking head. The things she says about growth, god, and connecting fateful dots aren’t about to change anyone’s life, but what she declares about her craft is, thus far, the most telling element of the ever-chugging Beyoncé train. She speaks of her influences, like Nina Simone, and pointedly laments, that, in our iTunes-driven culture, consumers “don’t listen to a body of work anymore.” Like Adele, Beyoncé is an artist who has the power to affect this truth, and she’s doing it. She talks further about bringing vintage R&B soul back to popular music, and expresses a desire to be deep and artful instead of “cool.” That Beyoncé and her team aren’t constantly keeping hipness in mind can’t possibly be true, but amid her current barrage, whose pieces, from an Oprah Winfrey interview to a forthcoming fifth album, seem keenly designed to help her take ownership of 2013, this passage seems the truest and realest thing to surface—a perspective that speaks to Beyoncé’s history and growing dominance.

While she’s always had a presence on the charts, Beyoncé isn’t a hitmaker like Rihanna. In general, her songs, even the mind-numbingly repetitive “Run the World (Girls),” are not typical, and though many are catchy, her oeuvre—or, rather, her entire “body of work”—isn’t a litany of crowd-pleasers. Since she’s gone solo, she’s developed tunes that, in part because of her booming voice, blur the line between ballad and anthem (“Irreplaceable,” “Halo”), and even some of her biggest hits, like “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It),” don’t sound like radio fodder—that is, of course, until they hook you. Give or take less novel tracks like “Sweet Dreams” or “Déjà Vu,” Beyoncé often seems ahead of the curve, increasingly finding ways to slyly channel those classic instincts into palatable pop. Furthermore, while she’s championed a bootylicious style and built the House of Deréon, Beyoncé hasn’t shown herself to be hung up on the superficiality of the look, which, post-Lady Gaga, has become an unspoken must for burgeoning pop princesses, some of whom, like Ke$ha, use it to help mask a certain lack of skill, while others, like Nicki Minaj, haven’t a clue of how to master it. Just as it quickly bailed her out of that inauguration lip-synch scandal (“Everyone knows she’s one of the best vocalists of our time,” sister Solange justified to EW), Beyoncé’s massive talent hasn’t needed the aid of bells and whistles. It speaks for itself. Like the finest contestant on a reality competition show, she may not have wowed you every week like her flashier peers, but for more than a decade, Beyoncé has remained uncannily consistent, and now she finally seems to be rising to the top, a winner.

I just turned 29. Beyoncé is 31. Whenever I want to make myself feel bad for not accomplishing enough, or measure myself against the great doers of my generation, it somehow always comes back to Beyoncé (okay, and maybe Mark Zuckerberg, too). In prepping for this piece, I realized that Beyoncé was only 19 when Destiny’s Child released “Survivor,” which, at that time, was already an evolutionary development for the group. She’s since collected literal armloads of Grammys, shown her range by repeatedly wowing crowds beyond her supposed demographic, and become one half of what’s probably the smartest power couple in entertainment. I’ve always been enamored of her and the professionalism she exudes. At last she seems to be taking her rightful place as musical royalty. You may think she’s always been there, but it hasn’t been at such a commanding level. Maybe it’s maternal strength, maybe it’s that all those dots she talks about have finally connected, but something Sasha-Fiercer than ever has stirred up in this starlet, compelling her to grab you by the throat and finally prove that, as friend Gwyneth Paltrow says in the Vogue story, “she is the best in the world at her job.”

Of course, those who’ve seen her perform live may have already known that. For every boilerplate confessional that pops up in Life Is But a Dream, there’s a graciously uninterrupted stretch of Beyoncé on stage that leaves you utterly gobsmacked. Pulse-pounders of near-impossible energy, like her performance of “Run the World” at the 2011 Billboard Music Awards, are paired with unadulterated beltings of songs like “Resentment”, which prove equally transfixing. Like Michael Jackson’s This Is It, Life Is But a Dream lets you pause and take in the brilliance of a performer who seems to simply have music coursing through her blood. It’s unlikely you’ve ever seen a live Beyoncé set that wasn’t perfectly executed. From movement to vocals, she is perpetually without flaw. As flimsy as it may read, a recent NPR article went so far as to say that Beyoncé would make a fine scientist, so precise is her excellence. Really, can anyone even remember a better halftime performance? There are only a few solo performers who can, or could ever, wholly command a massive stadium stage. Beyoncé is one of them. And now, in her prime, amid the rush of mass exposure, she unveils a world tour, “The Mrs. Carter Show,” which will support the new album that, as she tells it, should be fraught with soul and—make no mistake—listened to in full. The tour will let her command stadiums across the globe, which, in this moment, seems to be spinning on her finger.

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Costume Design

Honestly, we’re so gobsmacked by AMPAS’s skullduggery that we can’t even see what’s right in front of us.

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The Favourite
Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures

In less than a week, AMPAS has successfully stoked the anger of just about every creative in Hollywood, and perhaps sensing a widespread boycott of the Oscar telecast in response to the banishment of four awards to commercial breaks, the academy has now “clarified” its latest attempt to reboot the Oscars for the TL;DR generation. Yesterday, in a letter signed by the academy’s board of governors—which includes president, director of photography, and hater of cinematography John Bailey—members were assured that the four winning speeches will in fact be included in the broadcast, but with all the walking and talking that it takes to announce the winners edited out. Also, those four categories may or may not be given the short shrift in 2020, as apparently there’s a “rotation” system in place that will, I guess, leave the door open for us to not see Lady Gaga walk on stage next year to accept the best actress award for her performance accepting the Golden Globe this year for “Shallow.”

Honestly, we’re so gobsmacked by AMPAS’s skullduggery that we can’t even see what’s right in front of us. Case in point: When I sat down to write this article, I thought this award was going to be a slam dunk for Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody, but as it turns out, the film isn’t even nominated for its costumes. Because sanity prevailed when voters decided they didn’t find any kind of magic in Brian May pulling out his old Queen outfits for the making of Bryan Singer’s film, maybe it will prevail again and AMPAS will take the Oscars off its planned keto diet. And if it doesn’t, we’ll take some solace in three-time Oscar winner Sandy Powell—who for the third time in her career has been nominated twice in the same year—collecting this award for her gloriously ostentatious, stitch-perfect garbs for The Favourite.

Will Win: The Favourite

Could Win: Black Panther

Should Win: The Favourite

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Berlinale 2019: Out Stealing Horses, A Tale of Three Sisters, & Öndög

These films suggest the cinema as another place where we can simulate and reflect on life within and surrounded by natural landscapes.

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Out Stealing Horses
Photo: Berlinale

On the way into Berlin from Tegel Airport, one of the first signs of the city you see is a large tract of land divided into rectangular plots, on each a shed in a variable state of repair. In fact, you can find such areas dispersed throughout the city. Visitors can easily mistake these colonies for third world-style shantytowns, but in fact they’re the bougiest things imaginable: privately owned allotments, known as kleingärten, that aren’t used as primary residences. It’s an institution that allows urban dwellers with enough money to simulate life “on the land,” a slice of rural life plopped down within the city.

As goes Berlin, so goes Berlinale. Several films in this year’s competition suggest the cinema as another place where we can simulate and reflect on life within and surrounded by natural landscapes. There’s a certain nostalgia in these films’ contemplation of the relationship between people and nature—in an age where our actions have precipitated an ongoing ecological cataclysm, the depiction of natural spaces almost immediately invokes the past.

A particularly wistful note is struck by Hans Petter Moland’s Out Stealing Horses, a film about—stop me if you’ve heard this before—sexual awakening set during a rural Scandinavian summer. The film begins in the dark, cold New Year’s Eve of 1999, as an aged and lonesome Trond Sander (Stellan Skarsgård) hides out in Sweden from his troubled recent past. When the 66-year-old Norwegian meets his closest neighbor, Lars (Bjørn Floberg), the film flashes back to the summer of 1948, which Trond spent at his father’s country house in Norway. In voiceover, Skarsgård’s weathered baritone guides us through his character’s reminiscences concerning the tragedy that befell a neighboring family, and how his relationship with his father (Tobias Santelmann) was altered forever when they both became entangled in it.

Although the bulk of its action takes place in the postwar Norwegian woods, Out Stealing Horses regularly brings us back to 1999, contrasting the gray-and-blue perpetual night of a Swedish winter with the variegated colors of summer. Such blatant romantic symbolism doesn’t initially detract from a film that seems at the outset to promise a thoughtful contemplation of mortality. But as the symbols start to multiply—winter for old age and impending death; summer for youth; flowers, birds, and bees for burgeoning sexuality; thunder for emotional turmoil; water for femininity—and the melodrama becomes conventional and bloated, Moland and co-screenwriter Per Petterson’s subordination of natural objects to human meanings becomes increasingly one-dimensional.

Emin Alper’s A Tale of Three Sisters opens with a car driving into a remote, mountainous area of central Anatolia in Turkey. The car, whose hood takes up the foreground of the frame, belongs to Mr. Necati, a well-to-do city dweller on whom Sevkit (Müfit Kayacan) and his three daughters rely for their livelihood. The four live in a small village nestled in the mountains, and since their mother’s death, each of the three girls has tried and failed to serve as Necati’s family’s maid in the city. Nurhan (Ece Yüksel) and Havva (Helin Kandemir) have just returned from their stint, one that ended because the irascible Nurhan was beating the Necati children, and Reyhan (Cemre Ebuzziya) was returned some years ago when she got pregnant, upon which her father swiftly married her off to Veysel (Kayhan Açikgöz).

Veysel, a reluctant and lazy shepherd by trade, is a hapless fool, the kind of guy who will accidentally piss on a grave, then worriedly pose to his village superiors the question: “Is pissing on graves a sin?” Sevkit and the other men regularly laugh at his expense, and Reyhan and her sisters have little patience for her husband-of-necessity. The village’s mistreatment of the earnest but perpetually outmatched Veysel will have tragic consequences.

Tale of Three Sisters isn’t interested in tidy narrative resolutions. Much of the film consists of evocative scenes set amid the glowing brown-red hues of the area’s mountains and the hearth of Sivket’s family home—one of the most memorable of which is a comic, sexually suggestive sequence involving a huge jug of ayran, a foamy yogurt-based drink popular in Turkey. The film works its way toward a kind of moral resolution, though at times the journey there is a bit of a slog. Sevkit is a domineering father, his words taking over both his home and the film, which occasionally feels as tedious as his daughters find it.

Öndög, by Chinese director Wang Quan’an, is a film that takes an elemental approach to the human condition. A good portion of its running time is made up of long exterior shots of the Mongolian plains held for minutes at a time, the frame cleanly divided between the elements of earth and sky. The action, such that it is, often takes place at dusk, which flattens the silhouettes of the diminutive human figures against the blue-orange twilight sky; at times they look like shadow puppets inching their way across an ersatz, cardboard stage. The film’s aesthetics are grandiose in the same measure that they are playful.

Naturally, Öndög is concerned with life and death, and in a manner that evokes cyclical time. It opens with a pair of deaths—a woman’s body is discovered in a field, and a sheep is slaughtered on camera—and it closes with a pair of births (no spoilers here, but, then again, it’s doubtful spoilers can exist in cyclical time). Landing upon the same symbol of eternal recurrence as Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, Wang evokes dinosaur life: One character shares with another that the ancient reptiles were first discovered in Mongolia, making Mongolians their descendants, destined in millions of years to be discovered again, by dinosaur scientists.

Though the film opens with police discovering the aforementioned woman’s body and a young officer (Norovsambuu) left alone in the field to guard it until it can be retrieved, it leaves this plot thread unresolved, subsuming itself in the anti-drama of the herdswoman (Dulamjav Enkhtaivan) who’s asked to keep the officer company. Roaming around the plains on her distinctive camel and tending to her livestock with only the occasional help of a neighboring, motorcycle-riding herdsman (Aorigeletu), the herdswoman is a model of autonomy and self-determination. She’s faster and better with a gun than the police, and flat-out ignores the herdsman’s constant suggestions that she needs to find a man.

Quan’an addresses eternal, cosmic themes through a portrait of rural characters living in a desolate setting, but even if his interest is in the primeval, he doesn’t make his characters “primitive.” They live closer to death and to birth, but they still play Elvis songs on their cellphones, call the police when they’re in trouble, and have medical abortions. And Öndög’s portrait of the human condition also isn’t portentous or overly self-serious; for one, this is a film that will give you a new appreciation for the inherent humor of camel sounds. Slow but never tedious, set under sky and stars but not in the least bit sentimental, Öndög is the festival’s most profound story of human life on the land.

Berlinale runs from February 7—17.

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Actor

Throwing questions of artistic merit out the window, opponents of a Rami Malek win have dutifully cast doubt on his ideological purity.

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Bohemian Rhapsody
Photo: 20th Century Fox

Given how this accursed Oscar season has thrown one obscenity after another at everyone who has any investment whatsoever in the institution of the Academy Awards, it’s as though AMPAS is inviting the world to burn the Dolby Theater down on Oscar Sunday, as Mélanie Laurent’s Shosanna does to the Cinema Le Gamaar at the climax of Inglourious Basterds. And at this point, considering that one of the four awards being banished to commercial breaks is cinematography, and that AMPAS president John Bailey is himself a cinematographer, the presumption of self-sabotage seems credible.

Such are the affronts to progress toward anything other than ABC-Disney’s maniacal bottom line to reverse the show’s declining ratings, and the deadening effect every bad idea has had on our souls, that Rami Malek winning the best actor Oscar for leading with his teeth throughout Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody slots toward the bottom of our shit list. Malek, who cemented his frontrunner status with a BAFTA win last weekend, may be taking a page, if not the whole ream, from Eddie Redmayne’s shamelessly charming campaign playbook. But in the category’s absence of Ethan Hawke, who ran the table with critics for his performance in First Reformed, is anyone’s reserve of outrage bottomless enough to howl about the inevitable results here, beyond wounded fans of A Star Is Born? (Though, don’t get us wrong. We’re happy to give Bradley Cooper the award if it keeps him from going behind the camera again.)

Throwing questions of artistic merit out the window, opponents of a Malek win have dutifully cast doubt on his ideological purity. You don’t have to flash back to Casey Affleck to regard this tack as a grisly mistake, even if you don’t happen to believe Malek got Bryan Singer kicked off of Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody for preying on underage boys. This is an Academy that nominated Green Book for five awards. Good intentions are still more than enough, and what you say is still as important, if not more so, than what you do. And if portraying Freddie Mercury as a misguided homosexual who just needed to find Britain’s one good gay somebody to love leaves a pretty foul taste in our mouths, at least Malek has managed to avoid letting the N-word slip from his mouth on the promotional circuit.

Will Win: Rami Malek, Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody

Could Win: Christian Bale, Vice

Should Win: Any actor willing to publicly stand up in support of airing all 24 categories.

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