Sunday, January 26, 2020


In the beginning of Paddy Breathnach's film Rosie, a young woman (Sarah Greene) is in a car with three kids in the backseat and one in the passenger, desperately dialing numbers for a place to stay--for at least one night. Her husband John Paul (Moe Dunford) is working in a restaurant kitchen, almost at the end of his shift. The family, squeezed out of their last rented home when their landlord sold it, have dwindling options of a place to stay as each minute, each hour ticks by.

Taking place overall within the space of a near two days, Rosie, is a close, compelling, and breathtakingly anxious portrait of a family living out of their vehicle in Dublin. Breathnach, with cinematographer Cathal Watters, employs hand-held camera and set-ups of tight, cramped spaces to add to the feel of the movie's claustrophobic situation. Acclaimed writer Roddy Doyle's first original screenplay in years, is precise in its dialogue and devastating in its intimacy. What I appreciated about this film particularly is that while tension simmered throughout, Greene, in her rigorous, believable turn, doesn't constantly blow up at those all around her, who thwart her at nearly every turn. How many times can one scream and get anywhere? This pent-up howl is Rosie. Greene is aided by a young cast playing her children with grace and spontaneity. The film was released in limited release in the States in 2019, but has seemed to have fallen by the wayside in favor of flashier work. This is definitely another fine picture from our era in world cinema that compassionately and urgently addresses economic anxiety for those who have been ignored. ***1/2

-Jeffery Berg

Thursday, January 23, 2020

the wild pear tree

Sometimes a movie, seemingly without much flash, can take you on an unexpected journey. This was my experience watching Nuri Bilge Ceylan's absorbing drama The Wild Pear Tree. At over three hours, thoughts of trepidation about the length of the film immediately melted away; it's a compelling study of character and societal confinements, that moves along with a slow yet economic pace, framed in eye-catching photography (by Gökhan Tiryaki). The last film of Ceylan's I've seen was the highly-praised Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, which I found tedious, despite Tiryaki's incredible cinematography. Some of those night shots are burned into my memory.

In The Wild Pear Tree, Ceylan takes on the story of a struggling writer, Sinan Karasu (Dogu Demirkol), fresh out of studies and bumbling about his hometown of Çan on the eve of exams, which will, in part, determine his future. Karasu's family lives in a cramped house. Sinan's father Idris (Murat Cemcir) is a gambling addict, and from the little glimpses we get of his life through Sinan's perspective, his reputation seems to be notorious in town. Sinan tries peddling his book for publication--starting with the mayor (Kadir Çermik) and also trying to scrounge up some money to publish himself. Ceylan's more-than-meets the eye tale, interspersed with eerie dream sequences and some philosophical musings--including on religion (I was lost a bit in that aspect as musings on religion are usually a bit uninteresting to me), have a haunted, intriguing effect.

The camera stays close to Sinan, and his lumbering, blue-jeaned frame, as he moves across beautiful landscapes under varying climates (a sudden rainstorm, golden, summery sun and wind-blown greens, and bitter snow) or even inside a Trojan Horse statue. Outside of these striking visual and aural templates, what could have been a ponderous movie, feels loose and spry--perhaps in part to Demirkol's performance. Demirkol is a "non-actor," this being his first feature. He has a very ordinary appearance and body type, no frills or airs, and I think this helps add to the authenticity of the film. His character sometimes makes misguided decisions, leading to bruises and bit lips; he doesn't always listen carefully, and sometimes acts in a sort of unaffected, nonchalant way to those around him. Demirkol's loose, unstudied feel is one of the main strengths of the picture. Ceylan shows the limitations of Turkish men including the abilities to advance in any way in society--especially dreamy, creative types. Even as The Wild Pear Tree dips into some surreal, fever-dream visions, the movie stays grounded and precise. ***1/2

-Jeffery Berg

Sunday, January 19, 2020

my hindu friend

“We’re never going to have another Fellini film. That’s what matters.” That's a line Diego Fairman (Willem Dafoe) utters in Héctor Babenco's My Hindu Friend. This is a movie about coming to terms with finality. The Argentine-born Brazilian director Babenco may be most familiar to American audiences for his Oscar-winning film Kiss of the Spider Woman. He died at age 70 in 2016. My Hindu Friend is his last film, originally out in 2015, and just now hitting limited release in America. Like Bob Fosse's 1979 All that Jazz and this past year's Pedro Almodóvar's Pain and Glory, this is a director's unique and intensely personal vision of an artist facing their own mortality.

As Diego, Dafoe plays a version of Babenco, a formerly famous director, rail thin and bald from chemo treatments, his roping bones close to skin. He doesn't want to die in a hospital, but at home. But he spends much of this story in a hospital in the first hour of the film, undergoing the process of a painful transplant--"new blood" creating a new system--a new life. Dafoe, always a compelling thespian, plays his moments of pain and fear with his usual exactness. He's a man "going on a trip... not sure there's a way back." The hospital scenes are full of drudgery presented in a matter-of-fact way tinged with dry humor, like signing papers and listening to teams of doctors, specialists and nurses explaining risks. Among the bland and miserable setting, little visual juxtapositions occasionally flourish: a surfer on TV, coasting waves--so very far removed from Diego's physical condition; a stuffed gorilla on the floor, a Disney tie on a doctor, a poodle on the shirt of a nurse; medical machinery suddenly filmed with starry splendor.

These visual cues and the striking shots throughout by Mauro Pinheiro Jr. and also Zbigniew Preisner's very pretty score that drifts in and out, adds to this movie's peculiar beauty and are the main strengths of My Hindu Friend. When it goes for more plot-driven mechanics like Diego's brother asking for a million dollars for the transplant, or Diego's relationship with his wife Livia (Maria Fernanda Cândido), the film feels less interesting. The film unsuccessfully strains of the significance of the titular character. What I appreciated though was how messy the movie was--like the little frank, wine-soaked vignettes of his friends' conversations near the beginning of the film at Diego's wedding.

Eventually we see Diego in a stage of healing, but knowing the director's eventual end, we know this is a portrait of a man who seems to be hurriedly trying to get out as much as possible in his final years--including hallucinatory (complete with fade-outs) scenes with a mysterious man and glimmers of women in various stages of undressing (breasts are a-plenty) that he seems to be deeply attracted to. It is indeed Fellini-esque (and also Fosse-esque) to have this ravishing "much-ness," this striving for profundity in the face of death. And also a nostalgic, pounding love for old entertainment--a bedroom set from an Astaire / Rogers picture figures, as do songs like "Cheek to Cheek" (belted by Dafoe with irony in his hospital bed). Or a visit to an empty studio sound-stage--reliving some filmic glory in the cockpit of a plane. The backyard lightning storm scene set to "Singin' in the Rain" is in particular a stunner and one that finishes out this director's vision, in joyous, dangerous ecstasy. ***

-Jeffery Berg

Friday, January 17, 2020

a hidden life

There’s an early moment of joy in Terrence Malick’s rambling epic A Hidden Life where an Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner), and young daughters are playing a game. “Up in the clouds” on the verdant hills of their land, Franz is blindfolded, trying to capture one of his kin as they lightheartedly try to misdirect him with the sounds of soft metal clangs. Encapsulated in this sweet, brief moment is much of the themes and motifs of the picture. Set during WWII, this idyllic village is removed from the horrors of war. Yet the tensions of a world “stronger than me” trickle into their existence. Franz was a real-life conscientious objector who would later become a martyr of the Catholic Church. His and Frani's story is portrayed here with elegance and reverence by Malick.

I am one who can endure even the weakest of Malick's pictures, which he delivered in a row over the past few years (Knight of Cups, To the Wonder and Song to Song). If nothing else, I can luxuriate in their beauty--those swooping cameras capturing sun-drenched fields and sky. In A Hidden Life, he employs cinematographer Jörg Widmer, who was a camera operator on some of Malick's past projects. The sweeping landscapes of this setting are undoubtedly breathtaking to behold. But what makes A Hidden Life more than just pretty pictures is how we see the townspeople turn against Fani as Franz refuses to serve. The landscape, once idyllic and raptrously beautifully, and so connected to the humans who live there, sours. We see the mud and grueling work that Fani has to undergo to keep her family and farm alive while her husband is off imprisoned by the Nazis for his resistance. And while we are in her unsettled but beautiful world, we know outside there is rampant destruction. Even Franz's grim prison-life is cut-off from many of the worst atrocities of the time. This limited perspective drawn some scorn and has caused a rift in reactions to the film, but the close scope is both symbolic of the failings of humankind and the impossibility of an all-encompassing view.

While Malick's visions often feel of deep religiosity, in A Hidden Life, there's hints of complexity in its views towards the church--especially the way its followers turn their back on Franz and Fani. Besides the soft clanging sounds of the at-play scene, bells abound throughout the picture--signifying arrays of meanings: mourning, warning, fear, the passage of time. There's also a contrast between the church's hushed rooms, with its gorgeously painted ceilings, and its spectacular failings to address the horrors of humankind. We even hear some philosophizing from the church's painter on how people want to see their deities: gilded, high and pure. Maybe it's a reflection too on Malick's own aesthetics, how his standards of capturing high beauty sometimes leaves little beyond its visual allure.

Unlike his uneven rout of recent films, Malick has found a subject here of clarity and is close to his heart. The principal players here are deeply moving and committed and keep the film from floating entirely away. Also adding to its more grounded quality is James Newton Howard's score, mixed with operatic classical pieces, which features an enveloping, coalescing theme. One flaw that continues however is the burgeoning running time. The length here seems excessive and I wondered how shattering its impact would have been with a shorter length, especially with the repetitious nature of the story. Yet, there's only one Malick and his singular vision and telling of this tale is appreciated. ***1/2

-Jeffery Berg

Thursday, January 16, 2020


So Selena Gomez's new album Rare is providing the pop music solace I need currently.

Here's the music video for the title track.

Sunday, January 12, 2020


By happenstance, two well-done films about the death penalty, in particular about black male lives lost to this system, have been released over the past week. Just Mercy is a stirring Hollywood studio social drama based upon Bryan Stevenson's advocacy on the behalf of the incarcerated. Clemency, a sobering tale directed with precision and little flair by Chinonye Chukwu, moves in closer to the cogs within the system, centering upon a Warden named Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard). The name Bernadine is of French origin, meaning "strong as a bear." We are introduced to her simply and evocatively on the night of an execution. Dressed in a dark navy suit, she is poised, unemotional, and yet seeming to bear the weight of years of wearying witnessing. In the tick of the clock and a beeping heart monitor, the execution turns out to be botched; this is a lethal injection that does not go in the "smooth way" Bernadine is perhaps accustomed to. Suddenly her bearish strength is seemingly shaken. The death sets the stage for the spare title card and Bernadine's character study. Upon the lead-up to the execution of another man, an accused cop killer Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), we see moments of Bernadine's resolve and when she occasionally breaks. Her marriage to her benevolent husband (Wendell Pierce) is stilted, she sleeps poorly, she gives into drinking. She, as another character says, is living in "fragments."

Considering its subject matter, I feel trepidation in calling Clemency a "dull picture." Yet capturing "dullness" is Chukwu's strength in this particular study. With the aid of cinematographer Eric Branco, the film is either darkly lit or somberly gray: a white-gray patch of sky covered by a chain-linked fence. The movie is often deathly quiet with some intrusions--the snatches of the sound of protesters outside Bernadine's office, the muted music of a bar, the shadowy metal sounds of the prison, or the warbling electronic score that comes and goes by Kathryn Bostic (one cue, with a breathy, desperate vocal hovering above droning synths, is especially akin to Bernadine's predicament).

We never quite reach an emotional catharsis with Bernadine as maybe we as an audience hope for. Unlike Just Mercy, this film purposely thwarts any sense of hope or uplift. What's done is done and can never be undone. But Woodard brings a subtlety and unique beauty to her turn that's quietly extraordinary. The tenor of her voice, every glance, even a quick little backhanded wave, is flooded with pathos. There is ultimately no actressy, teary, river-rush release, but instead a constant, stringent holding-back. When she breaks into a smile within a drunken state, I couldn't help but feel a tinge of joy, but also sadness, knowing the alcohol would drown Bernadine's stress and pain only temporarily. In a showier role, so to speak, Aldis Hodge brings forth an array of depth and emotion to his character. Both are quite powerful as a duet--characters both entrenched in a sad system from very different angles. ***

-Jeffery Berg