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

Tuesday, May 26, 2020


Moses Sumney has released a fascinating, musically-varied new record.

Here is track "Polly" from græ.

Saturday, May 23, 2020


The leafy green trees of a quiet neighborhood. The low summer hum of cicadas. The genteel setting of Andrew Ahn's (Spa Night) eloquent little film, Driveways, enveloped me fully. A remote medical assistant, Kathy (Hong Chau), takes her young son Cody (Lucas Jaye) with her to her estranged, and now deceased, sister's bungalow home. Upon a late night arrival, Kathy is startled to see that her sister was a hoarder. Through days of frustration, determination and sadness, she works with Cody to clean the house. Meanwhile, retired Korean War vet Del (Brian Dennehy, bittersweet, in one of his final film roles), sits on the neighboring porch eyeing them. Cody, sensitive and smart, perhaps with some sensory issues, does not fit in well with the neighborhood kids (especially the loud, aggressive, gregarious wrestling boys) and soon grows to bond with Del. The two very good actors of extremely different generations, develop affecting performances through their characters' friendship. This is a simple film, seemingly small in scope, yet with an enormous beating heart. I felt very attached to its tender rendering. Chau, who brazenly gave her all in the unfortunate misfire Downsizing, gives a layered turn here to an imperfect character. The quiet score by Jay Wadley and the rich photography by Ki Jin Kim are incorporated well. The title refers to the place were neighborhood chitchats, yard sales, friendly waves, routines, good-byes and new beginnings can all occur. Ahn's film gives these haunted characters paths of reflections and a new sense of hope. ***

-Jeffery Berg

Saturday, May 16, 2020

the wolf house

Joaquín Cociña and Cristóbal León's Chilean film The Wolf House is a twisty nightmarish vision and one of upmost artistic wizardry. If one is looking for a plot, it could be described as a young woman who flees her German colony with a wolf on her heels, taking refuge in an abandoned home in the woods. But The Wolf House isn't so much about plot as it is about its political undertones and the astounding intricacies of its visuals and aurals, which unravel, replicate and renew at a seemingly non-stop pace in a one-shot feel.

In order to truly grapple with this tough film, one has to delve into its history--of the Colonia Dignidad (something I admittedly did not know of until researching and watching this work of art) under Pinochet's rule in Chile. With shrill, distorted choral music, the movie begins with savage irony using vintage clips of this colony: "The dark legend that has been created around us is mainly due to ignorance. They are ignorants ... who fear a community that remains isolated and pure," its narrator presenting The Wolf House as a film "rescued from the vaults."

The ensuing piece is of the main character, Maria, embodying a sense of relentless isolation, recalling elements of the Creation and also of Alice in Wonderland, becoming the house itself at times--paintbrushings emerging as a face in the walls and the doors, biting into an apple. In dollhouse views, roaches scatter, sound effects buzz and whirl, the body continuously morphs from the flat into the three-dimensional--straw-blond hair, blue eyes, and red lips. There are mounds of dirt, creaking doors, chittering birds and insects, sink water that turns plastic-wrap in the basin, flickering candles that populate then disappear, a fuzzy TV hums. And snorting pigs that the protagonist, creating her own "colony," turns into pig-"people" (Pedro and Ana)--with hands and feet. These are some of the more comical and disturbing moments of the film. If they represent the Chilean "peasants" noted in the introduction that the German colony prides on living in so-called harmony with, or as victims of white cultural violence, these primitive creatures molt into more human forms, until they ultimately emerge as waxy, blond, blue-eyed entities "immersed" in Maria's "sweet honey." Maria remarks on Pedro's "progress" in speaking "correctly" and admonishing that he talks "too slow." Meanwhile Pedro and Ana incessantly speak of how happy they are in their existence, to an almost brainwashed, banal degree. What in time happens to Pedro and Ana is a both an upending and embracing of the traditional folktale. Throughout, "the wolf" is a taunting, threatening disembodied voice in Spanish that haunts Maria. The fairy tale references are familiar--from The Three Little Pigs to Hansel & Gretel to the mirror reflections of Snow White to its storybook motif of escaping and returning home. Though what settles as "home" is ultimately ambivalent in this breached landscape. As it closes with warped strains of Wagner, Joaquín Cociña and Cristóbal León's film is an intense, uneasy ride, with sharp moments of black humor and trenchancy. ***

-Jeffery Berg

Further reading: