Monday, September 21, 2020

the inheritance

Ephraim Asili's first full-length feature film The Inheritance mixes the feel of documentary and narrative fiction in a fascinating portrait of a Black Philadelphia social collective named House of Ubuntu. Julian (Eric Lockley) helps set this collective alongside a small group of people in a home of books, music, political readers and magazines inherited from his grandmother. There are guest speakers, like those who shed light on the story of MOVE, the philosophies of John Africa, and the 1985 tragedy inflicted by the government of Philadelphia. This is a pivotal, captivating part of the film in particular, utilizing and mixing footage with the heartbeat-feel of the present. Also within the film are moving poetry readings by Sonia Sanchez and Ursula Rucker and spare shots of hard-hitting, meditative quotes for the characters and viewer to ponder over. 

However, The Inheritance is not a ponderous piece. Visually, the movie is very involving and rich. I was particularly drawn to all the loving shots of old books and LPs, their covers and jacket designs (Toni Morrison's Tar Baby is a striking moment of a young woman in reading--perhaps ignoring someone's green smoothie mishap in the kitchen). The items of Julian's grandmother's past, in the hands of a new generation, are warmly captured--a tapestry of Black experience / art infused into the current. Asili seems Godard-inspired (a poster of La Chinoise figures) both in style with those bright primary colors and moments of electric, exquisite compositions (the film is shot and edited by Asili) and in genre-play, tone and sound (the mix and editing style is rough, occasionally jagged, but never in a flashy, obtrusive manner). The color palate, of course, is not Godard's alone as Asili creates an exquisite piece of his own collage-like piece of art: per Asili in Artforum, "Once I accepted the conditions of studio filmmaking, the black box became my blank canvas and I built the set design color by color, object by object. I spent about nine months traveling around to different stores and markets buying the objects that provide much of the mise en scène. I also used a lot of materials from my personal collection. Every book, poster, painting, piece of fabric and furniture was handpicked." I am fascinated by his process and care here. But this film is more than just canny craftmanship, it's lovably worn-around-the-edges, especially in the unfussy performances of the ensemble, and is stirring in its subject matter. With any group of people trying to foster a community under one roof, there are squabbles here and there--trying to remain shoe-less, creating chore schedules, figuring out who should be a guest speaker--the ramifications of which can be both minutia and of upmost significance within the fold of the collective's vision. ***

-Jeffery Berg

Friday, September 18, 2020

lovers rock

After watching Steve McQueen's "Lovers Rock," I was reading Langston Hughes and came across these lines from his poem "Harlem Night Club": "Jazz-boys, jazz-boys,-- / Play, plAY, PLAY! / Tomorrow.... is darkness. / Joy today!" The sensuous dance party held in "Lovers Rock" encapsulates a fleeting, joyful party in a particular moment in time. Even within the party, as undercurrents of disharmony and moments of distress arise, we know paradise can't last forever. "Lovers Rock" is a gem within McQueen's Small Axe series, about the Black West Indian experience around 1980. 

I have been a fan of McQueen's work, especially 12 Years a Slave which, despite being a story that had been told before and despite its subversively old-fashioned presentation in the vein of familiar "heroic" white cinematic tales, was still a  startling movie and one that struck like a bolt of lightning in the middle of 2013. I was enraptured too with both Shame and the very underrated Widows, both of which didn't get the same galvanizing response from audiences and critics, but offered similarly complicated characters and unflinching subject matter within rapturously specific tales that few films of today offer. There is something broadly painted about his films, yet so honed-in and microscopic.

"Lovers Rock," a day into night into the morning after piece, begins with a train moving through darkness akin to a rolled-up carpet we see being moved for the dance floor. Much of the opening, elegantly filmed, is the set-up for the event in bay-windowed sun-glinted, paint-chipped interiors, elegantly filmed (photography is by Shabier Kirchner). Immediately we are eased into the rich, transporting sound mix. Women in a kitchen preparing food happily singing "Silly Games" (an overture to an unforgettable, what's-to-come centerpiece moment of the film). Young women gleefully singing Blondie's "Sunday Girl" with handclaps. The textured sound of flipping through papered-45 sleeves. Getting the sound-systems and speakers right and the echoing mic checks. Usually I am sensitive to and irked by the over-amplification of the rustling sound of burning cigarettes / joints in films (a phenomenon in indie films of recent years), but here it doesn't seem superfluous--its intrinsic to the atmosphere. As the film moves to the party, the lighting morphs to a rosy orange glow, a bulb hung around the DJ's neck, and here we begin to see the frictions (big and small) between men and women in a social setting--women on the dancefloor in the beginning chopping it up with "Kung Fu Fighting" and then down with a strand of Chic's "He's the Greatest Dancer" (compare and contrast that to Chic's desperate, chilly appearance with "I Want Your Love" in Shame) as the men pose as wallflowers, scoping out the scene, and then soon, the men and women are dancing together, with some on the outs, vibing, eyeing on in moments of loneliness. Like a ballet, a dancer enters out-of-rhythm and off-kilter, setting a new, impassioned tone on the floor. Time literally stopped and nothing else mattered when I first saw the dance set to Janet Kay's "Silly Games." It's such an unbelievably gorgeous, haunting experience--one of the most ecstatic filmmaking moments of song and dance I've seen in a while. And as the flitting images of crosses suggest, this party is communal, holy. As with much of McQueen's other work, the movie is more about experience rather than complex narrative, so the encounter, potential-relationship story at the center of "Lovers Rock" of young Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) in a faintly glittering purple sheath (perfect costuming all-around by the reliably great Jacqueline Durran) and Franklyn (Micheal Ward), isn't as riveting as the world rotating around them. But as this paradise moves into the morning after with a beautifully-shot bike ride and our buzz killed by a red-haired white man, "we can see it in" her "eyes," Martha relives her night with resplendent joy. ****

-Jeffery Berg

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

kane train

Smooth flows from Machinedrum + Freddie Gibbs.

New album A View of U drops October 9th.


The Relic (feat. Rochelle Jordan)
Star (feat. Mono/Poly & Tanerélle)
Kane Train (feat. Freddie Gibbs)
Wait 4 U (feat. Jesse Boykins III)
Sleepy Pietro (feat. Tigran Hamasyan)
Spin Blocks (feat. Father)
Idea 36 (feat. Chrome Sparks)
Believe in U
1000 Miles (feat. Sub Focus)
Inner Eye

Friday, July 31, 2020

trapped in gold

New tune from Fort Never, "Trapped in Gold" is now available on all streaming platforms.

Lyric video below.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

zombi child

Director Bertrand Bonello has had a varied, unusual and fascinating career so far--his films always visually rich (House of Tolerance and Saint Laurent among them). His latest, Zombi Child, continues that streak. It's difficult to parse out the plot of the film without revealing too much--a slow-drip of a story, with folk elements. Its roots are in Haiti, beginning with a cut-up blowfish; ground powder softly placed in loafers. Soon, the man (Mackenson Bijou) wearing those loafers, perishes in the street. From cutting cane, workers barely able to stand, the film suddenly moves into present times of a mostly all-white Parisian girl school learning about the French Revolution. A gaggle of girls discuss their black classmate Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat)--is she "too weird" for their little sorority? Echoes of De Palma's Carrie kicks in--especially those languid locker room shots, girls blow drying their hair; Stephen King is also blatantly mentioned.

Yves Cape's (Holy Motors) elegant cinematography is full of flair and brings out Bonello's impressionistic visions. Other horror influences, like Tourneur and Val Lewton, are there, but are also muted, as Zombi Child grapples with large social dilemmas. In its "spacial geometry," the film flits by with allusions to war, colonialism and societal revolutions. Even in history class, with its pristine desks and whiteboards, the sense is that history is perpetually buried and made smaller for each generation--dulled down to another dull lecture. While the movie's deceptions of racial identity and issues seem meekly developed, there are moments of razor wit, as when the white girls and, a seemingly reluctant Mélissa, participate in a chant-like trap sing-a-long in their forbidden after hours candlelit art room retreat--a student's paper sculpture on a table, spiny like that blow-fish. There's a bizarre aura to the Napoleon-founded school, where the students must be part of a particular legacy. The school has a too-tidy, insidious Suspiria vibe, even though the movie doesn't venture too deep there.

As with Bonello's other work, he is more interested in visually telling a story than wonky plot mechanics. Girls lie in the grass, mindlessly scrolling their phones, feeling like "corpses." Meanwhile, the picture, exquisitely edited by Anita Roth, makes some incredible cuts. One powerful example takes us from a serene, leafy sun-lit campus to wind-rustled cane fields at night. Mélissa's history haunts her, is overlooking upon her cinematically, even though as a character, she seems somewhat removed from it, perhaps because, socially, she has to be. Her parents died in the 2010 earthquake--a heavy grief has molded her into someone who seems wise beyond her years, stoic, and withdrawn. The movie also links her character to the story of Clairvius Narcisse. The latter half of the film goes into all sorts of unbridled visions. Balancing all of this is a tricky act for Bonello, crew and the very good cast, the movie remains a captivating moodpiece. ***

-Jeffery Berg

Thursday, June 4, 2020