Sunday, September 18, 2022

pearl


Self-delusion and desperation can be a dangerous combination. This is the predicament of Pearl, the title character (Mia Goth) of Ti West's horror film. It's an origin story of his earlier release, X, a deliciously and unabashedly sleazy, southern fried 1979-set fright-romp. Both movies were made on paltry million dollar budgets, and both films make quite the striking pairing. As melodramatic pastiche, Pearl in particular is so unusual for contemporary movies in its tone and visual style. It's the kind of film that is jarring against the slew of washed out, dimly-lit serious arthouse horror pictures and the branded, jump scare-filled cash grab horror movies I'm used to viewing in cushy recliner seats of mainstream theaters. It's admirable that with both films, West seems to be enjoying himself, creating splashy art he wants to make, with little care for the palate of an imagined modern audience--whatever that might be, as we all seem so splintered lately. But Pearl doesn't feel so self-serving that it isn't entertaining. Its tight runtime and lean tale becomes a pleasurable experience even as it forays to the most unsavory images (a dead pig riddled with squirmy maggots, for example, was enough to make me uneasy). 

Pearl yearns of being a dancer in the picture shows--she lives on a dull farm in the midst of the 1918 pandemic with her extraordinarily stern, German immigrant mother Ruth (Tandi Wright) and her ailing father (Matthew Sunderland), rendered speechless and of limited movement likely by stroke. Her husband Howard (Alistair Sewell) is off at war. The plot, like its mis-en-scene, is quite stilted and antiquated, set up with its bright, goldenrod photography (vividly done by Eliot Rockett) and screen wipes, like a creaky thirties or forties color weepie. Pearl's character is shot in a very lonesome way, in fields or along desolate roads or among her cute farm animals--her closest companions--that cower from her overwhelming presence. As she rides her bike, she's reminiscent of Margaret Hamilton's Miss Gulch. But West's film and Goth's performance surveys Pearl with an empathetic eye. Both West's material and Goth's turn (who also wrote the film with West) toe that line between zany, zingy caricature and moldy realities. Like Pearl's dead-end existence, the movie can feel repetitive, with the round and around strict mother theme [a trope in horror, most acutely in Psycho [a car sinks in a swamp here too) and Carriealmost suffocating the whole movie--but that stifling build-up is necessary for the thrills in the later half to feel so stirring. 

It's not necessarily an unpredictable movie--it seems to want to ride on and luxuriate in its formulas. Tyler Bates and Timothy Williams' lush, swelling string score aids in that as well. But winky, cutesy moments are offset by piercingly bizarre ones--like a dance with a scarecrow (and its utterly disconcerting face) that goes from goofily Wizard of Oz-ish to macabre. When Goth is given a monologue for the horror movie ages--she absolutely destroys it--the camera lingering on her much longer than what feels comfortable (this sense of the uncomfortably long and the pleasure in the unsatisfyingly unknown was also so tremendous in West's The House of the Devil). Like Todd HaynesDouglas Sirk-inspired Far from Heaven, Pearl feels very queer. Unlike Haynes' film, I'm not sure if that was as such an intentional aspect here. But the filmic inspirations, the dashingly handsome symbolic projectionist (David Corenswet) seemingly as promise to break out of small town and small-mindedness doldrums, and Pearl's dresses (and gender queer moments--with a top hat) and misfit nature, her disapproving, Christian parent, are all wound up in a feverish sense of gay identity. Between this and X, West sure is creating an exciting universe within the genre, and showcasing his prowess with period detail and tones of simultaneous frivolity, humor, devastation (that closing shot of Goth illuminates it all, and it is a wow). ***1/2


-Jeffery Berg


Friday, September 9, 2022

private desert


Aly Muritiba's luscious-looking film Private Desert begins with a man running alone at night and second person narration: "I always think about you when I'm running." This sense of directness and simplicity is part of the construct of Muritiba's movie of sexual fluidity in rural Brazil. We meet the bulky, strong-backed Daniel (Antonio Saboia; this film is unafraid to show off his beautiful body), who is reeling from losing his job in law enforcement. The film cues that it was due to violence committed on his part towards a rookie recruit now on oxygen in a hospital; otherwise, the story is fairly vague about what happened--the incident symbolized in a cast on Daniel's arm. In addition to this awful situation, Daniel also lives with his father who has dementia and also rendered speechless. This former decorated sergeant known to have some eminence in the area, is bathed and dressed and fed by Daniel; meanwhile Daniel's sister Debora (Cynthia Senek) pleads that their father should be in a nursing home. She has started seeing a new girlfriend--something that seems to visibly unsettle Daniel (is it the disapproval of a lesbian relationship or jealousy or both?--it's suggested that he was also dumped by a woman recently). In the dimly-lit, dingy abode (grease marks on the side of the oven, yellowish sheets and pillowcases, dirt-streaked walls), Daniel hangs on to what he can control, and stubbornly clings to the care of his father, and, perhaps, the machismo and dignity of his father's past. There's a sense of emasculation--through loss of work and loss of health--that emanates through these crucial early scenes. Additionally, Daniel has been finding some solace in text exchanges with Sara (Pedro Fasanaro). He hasn't met her, but is seemingly infatuated. Triggered both by his hopeless situation, and after not hearing from Sara after sending her nudes of himself [a sort of shame and emasculating vulnerability as he puts himself out there (literally) to no response], Daniel packs his bags and takes the tarp off his Chevy truck, driving out in search of her. As the prison-like barred driveway gate opens, and a flick of sensuous and melancholic guitar music kicks in (the subtle score is by Felipe Ayres) and the main title cards appear, Daniel sets out on his journey.



As Daniel desperately searches for Sara, driving into the desert: the barren and open landscapes and open roads under bluish purple and soft golden skies (the lovely cinematography is by Luis Armando Artega), ultimately putting up flyers around the area where she lives, the film switches to the point-of-view of the genderfluid Sara, who works during the day as Pablo at grueling food loading docks and lives with their religious grandmother (Zezita Matos). There's a certain symmetry in the care of familial elders in both Pablo and Daniel's lives. Worried for their safety, of "breaking the spell," and of Daniel's violent past actions (afraid of "which Daniel will show up"), Sara is understandably afraid to meet Daniel, but ultimately they do intersect in a bar. Unprecedented in the movie, there's suddenly a flicker of light in Daniel's eyes and a smile when he sees Sara in person for the first time. Later, under the gauzy haze of Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart" (a wonderfully-used track), there's the suggestion that their relationship will become more intimate. 

Muritiba sensitively handles the distresses and desires of the film's characters. It is often a film about those emotions: fear and desire, acting simultaneously. And furthermore, sometimes frustration: Saboia  in particular, flares between anger (fighting back tears, walking around in circles, knocking his head against a locker, breathing raggedly and heavily) and stubborn determination. With his inability to healthfully emote, he has mostly inward reactions. His tightly wound cast, of course, becomes a leaden symbol, especially once he rips it free--after banging it against rocks--and his new plane of existence is borne. Fasanaro gives a very intricate turn, the feeling of wanting to get out of one's existence ("a stream of water about to burst and run wild") is made palpable. Overall, because of these two turns and the lush photography, the movie becomes a delicate character study and a stirring rumination on sexuality. ***

-Jeffery Berg



Thursday, September 8, 2022

barbarian


One of the enduring representations in our universe of the haves and have nots are the working class vs. the British royal family. I happened to see Zach Cregger's zanier-than-expected Detroit area-set horror flick Barbarian under the cloud of the news of Queen Elizabeth II's passing. While these two events may seem disparate, many movies of the past decade or so, both domestic and international, have illustrated the conflicts and strife of the persistent widening gap of wealth throughout the world. Horror especially is a genre where social issues can be addressed in different shades--sometimes blatantly, sometimes with more subtlety. Recently, I saw the new, vivid 3-D rendering of Steven Spielberg's 1975 Jaws. While there, I overheard one puzzled audience member say, "I didn't know this was going to be an old movie." Even though it is an "old movie," interestingly, above the surface of its lurking terrors and riveting action, its plot of anti-science profit over public safety feels particularly acute in an era of an ongoing virus, especially its rampant mishandling (and ignoring of completely) in its early months. In horror, humans are almost worse (or just plain worse) than its monsters. Thankfully, like Jaws, Cregger's smart picture is a blend of both the subtle and the blatant--without losing focus of its frightening visuals and disarming humor. 



It's set up as an Airbnb mishap tale with Tess (Georgina Campbell) in Detroit for a job interview as a documentarian's research assistant arriving at her gentrified rental house in a raw, hallowed-out neighborhood. To her surprise, Keith (Bill Skarsgård) has settled in there as well. A double-booked Airbnb in a creepy setting is a good premise to begin with for a horror picture--especially when Skarsgård wavers so well between gentle and potentially menacing--but Barbarian, is decidedly and thankfully) up to more than that. Abrupt tonal shifts happen (I don't think I'm used to these in recent movies! And either was my audience, who audibly gasped their choruses of "What the... ?") and the film becomes increasingly twisty, with breathlessly desperate characters making questionable decisions, prompting many moments for patrons to shout out "why is she going in there?" Basically it's a good popcorn pic layered with shrewd commentary on our fractured economic, racial and gender disparities. When Justin Long (of similarly goofy Jeepers Creepers lore) pops up as an odious Hollywood, "let me put you on speaker in my convertible" exec type, I was prepared for hokey caricature, but Long suavely makes it more complex (and--very funny!--especially when using a tape measure). It's a firecracker of a performance. The film's make-up, art and set direction crew, alongside Joe Murphy's clever editing all create a movie of pleasure, ickiness and moments of real heart-pounding, jittery flashlight-lit what's-behind-the-corner suspense. And while it's ambitious threads don't all come together so satisfactorily, it's still a rousing effort, and definitely one of the more distinctive movies of the year. ***

-Jeffery Berg  





Friday, September 2, 2022

three thousand years of longing


George Miller last dazzled many with his 2015 re-work of Mad Max. Consistently, Miller has been an eclectic filmmaker, offering up a mix of quirky and visually splashy movies. His latest, Three Thousand Years of Longing, based upon an A.S. Byatt short story, is, despite its likely good intentions, an unfortunate misfire. 


Tilda Swinton plays Dr. Alithea Binnie, a scholar, who begins to narrate this genteel tale. Alithea is in Istanbul at a narratologist conference. There, she stumbles upon an intriguing glass bottle and brings it back to her hotel where it suddenly unleashes the smoky presence of a pointy-eared Djinn (Idris Elba) who grants her three wishes. The Djinn relays his own origins and journey in a ponderous sequence of yarns spanning ages and geography. Elba is a great actor, but he can't overcome Miller and Augusta Gore's script or the movie itself. His fantastical character feels lifeless and flat rather than fascinating. Besides the atypically hideous cinematography by John Seale, distracting titles that resemble takeout menu fonts, corny effects (disappointing, as Miller's films are usually so visually impactful), there are no urgency to the stories that the Djinn spins, making this long chunk of the movie a near impossible watch. Some, however, may find the light humor and the idiosyncratic nature of the mythologizing appealing. 

Things get a bit more bearable when we are out of the confines of that hotel room and Alithea takes the Djinn back home to London. It's an inexplicable decision given that Alithea seems so content in her lonesomeness. She lives such a pristine existence--not a speck of dust or flaws anywhere--(a mishap at airport security is one of the film's better scenes) and Swinton is already such a compellingly chilly performer, that it's hard to believe or really feel for her character. Predictably, the Djinn cannot exist in the cacophony of modern living (interestingly, a bit of a link to Swinton's other recent project, Memoria). The movie ends with a puffy and treacly conclusion that's lit so maudlin-bright that it looks like an allergy medication commercial. The only points given to the movie is its strangeness and audacity, something precious these days. **

-Jeffery Berg




Thursday, September 1, 2022

the invitation

A struggling black New York visual artist, Evie (Nathalie Emmanuel), is stuck in a rut of demeaning catering jobs. She is unexpectedly whisked away to a gothic mansion of her white upper crust near-"royalty" relatives after taking a DNA test. This is the set-up to Director Jessica M. Thompson's and Writer Blair Butler's horror film The Invitation, which, like a few movies in past years, has similarities to social commentary thrillers like Ready or Not or Knives Out, where the well-to-do are odious and skewered like shish kabobs while sympathetic, spunky female protagonists scrape and claw their way to to survive and topple villainous patriarchal families. In The Invitation, the plot swerves a bit to a gooey central romance between Evie and Lord Walter (Thomas Doherty). In the beginning, Walter is warm and handsome in a generic way, but Doherty plays him just slightly unnerving enough to portray that something sinister is afoot. The love interest story refreshingly doesn't dwell upon its sociocultural implications, but it's a flimsy tale that becomes a bit of a bore. Soon, but not soon enough, the film devolves into a silly romp, with winking throwbacks (names like Lucy and Mina Harker abound). Throughout, The Invitation is gussied up with make-up and flickering candles and billowing draperies and eye-catching costumes (by Danielle Knox) in the vein of Charles Band and Hammer, which is all well-and-good, but when Evie starts fighting video game / MCU style, the movie abandons its atmosphere and oddball logic, despite Emmanuel's sturdy turn. **

-Jeffery Berg 

Friday, August 5, 2022