Thursday, November 30, 2023

omen (augure)

An intense, lingering ache permeates Belgian / Congolese multi-talented (a musician, and now a filmmaker) Baloji’s inspired and bold directorial debut (the film won the Un Certain Regard – New Voice Prize at Cannes). There is the pervasive sense that no one can ever truly feel settled. The film skillfully delves into different aspects of displacement, separated acts from the perspectives of four people, but centers mainly upon Koffi (Marc Zinga), a thirtysomething Congolese man who lives in Belgium with his partner Alice (Lucie Debay). The two travel to his hometown of Kinshasa where the film mostly takes place. There, Koffi and Alice are immediately met with distrust and quiet hostility from the townspeople and his own family. When one of his sisters lets Koffi hold her child, a sudden nosebleed accidentally starts dripping on her baby’s face, prompting shrieks of horror and accusations of Koffi invoking a curse. This is one of the many instances within the story’s subject matter and the film’s own aesthetics where tensions lie in the chasms and overlaps of superstitions, science, surrealism, “reality,” intellectualism, religion, and folklore. Artfully, the film never advocates for nor imposes a single stance, but instead explores thorny territories of morality, mortality and belonging. 

We also meet young Paco (Marcel Otete Kabeya), a dancer donning a tattered pink ballet outfit who performs in the street with a gang during Easter celebrations. Like Koffi, he also has a sudden seizure—one of the prophetic motifs in the film, alongside babies, milk and blood—symbols of life and death. Paco also engages in wrestling matches before lively crowds, and soon ends up in a turf row with another street group, who flips a school bus—the living quarters of Paco’s clan. The people of Kinshasa reside under the shadows of mines which loom imposingly over many scenes in the film. 

Tshalia (Eliane Umuhire), the fresh and lovely younger sister of Koffi, unmarried and also estranged from the rest of her family, learns she may have contracted an STD. These three characters are sympathetically portrayed as outcasts of this society. There is a push and pull of townsfolk challenging, and also, especially in Paco's sense, discarding them, but also needing them (as in Paco's performances, or when a harmonizing group of salespeople humorously appear at Tshalia’s door). 

The film is dynamically shot by Joachim Philippe; two sequences in particular are visual stunners: a Hansel and Gretel retelling (with its vibrant green trees and billowing hot pink smoke), and a dream sequence of Koffi’s mother, Mama Mujila (Yves-Marina Gnahoua). In her arresting story, set months later in September, she is grieving the death of her husband. The glowing colors of earlier have now faded into the striking, rich black and brown hues of night. Weary and alone, she wakes in bed to an expanse of a desolate landscape dotted with burning effigies (a stunning shot). At one point, she kneels and begins to desperately dig into dirt, as if to resurrect her buried husband—the scatter of rocks she tosses away above the earth hauntingly sounding like the knick-nocking of bones. ***

-Jeffery Berg

Tuesday, November 28, 2023


As with her unmissable directorial debut Promising Young Woman, Emerald Fennell continues to shamelessly overcook themes and scenes to delirious effect in her latest. Florid and gothic, with its summer heat color-saturated photography by Linus Sandgren (La La Land), the mid-2000s, mostly English castle-set tale pairs well (or clashes well) with cinematic treatments of Bret Easton Ellis (aspects of the film are reminiscent of Mary Harron's adaptation of American Psycho or Paul Schrader's The Canyons, scripted by Ellis). It also has plot elements and pervasive intense sexual longings found in Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley and Strangers on the Train (one of Fennell's characters may likely be named after Farley Granger from Hitchcock's film version), and André Aciman's Call Me By Your Name and Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty (both of which were prominent novels published around the time Saltburn is set). 

There is sometimes a novelistic feel to Saltburn, with voice-over reminiscing from its main character Oliver Quick (derided as a "scholarship boy who buys his clothes from Oxfam" with a Call Me By Your Name flip tricky-Dickensian title; he's played marvelously by Barry Keoghan). We follow his uncomfortable, squirmy times at Oxford as he becomes infatuated with fellow student Felix (Jacob Elordi). Felix is somewhat genial, with his lanky build, floppy dark hair and pierced eyebrow, but also sort of dull and disaffectedly cool. Oliver slowly becomes part of his inner circle (there's something acutely aching about Arcade Fire's "No Cars Go" playing at their first significant bar scene interaction). Felix's longtime friend Farleigh (Archie Madekwe) who also lives with Felix's family, seems threatened by this new relationship. Sometimes Oliver is off and sort of off-putting, but soon the two re-bond. After graduation, Felix invites Oliver to spend summer at his family's rambling titular estate (humorously, Felix gives a disheveled tour of the rooms and the "dead rellys" of this ridiculous place). 

The prickly and sprawling first and second halves of the film are the strongest, and the funniest, as we watch Oliver (occasionally sadistic in his all of his times "to pretend" as the MGMT track suggests) ingratiate himself into this kooky clan spearheaded by Rosamund Pike's Elsbeth and Sir James Catton (Richard E. Grant in his second movie this year, after The Lesson, playing a wealthy father in a house near a perilous pond; perhaps intentional casting, Grant's piercing, light-eyed appearance is closer to Oliver's than Felix's). Elsbeth's friend, the mooching "Poor" Pamela (a brilliant Carey Mulligan), who Elsbeth describes as a "complete limpet," with her red-banged wig, cold, unemotional expressions and stiff movements is an absolute hoot (I wanted more of her! Maybe a whole "Poor Pamela" movie?). As Felix's sister Venetia (Alison Oliver, completely absorbing here) intones prophetically, "We are all about to lose our minds," it becomes apparent that everything is going to unravel garishly, psychosexually, and grandly.

The reputation for this film has been dubbed as shocking, but for those raised on decades of music videos and thriller junk, it won't be. In a way, it's interesting to see many "prestige" mainstream films as so staid, whereas much of television has become so artfully violent and carnal (in years past, it used to be the other way around). Perhaps because Fennell has worked in television (including Killing Eve), she seems comfortable in this register, and quite fearless. She builds good, thorny characters and helps elicit striking performances. Much hinges on the lead, I can imagine another film flatlining and collapsing without Keoghan's layered and fidgety strangeness. 

Even though Saltburn isn't nearly as meticulously plotted and executed as Promising Young Woman, the third act a saggy, over-explained disappointment (save from the absolutely fantastic resolution), watching it again, it's so elegantly filmed and deliriously engrossing. The riveting string score by Anthony Willis mirrors Oliver's delusions and freezing diabolicalness. The varied costumes by Sophie Canale (there's lots of fun to be had in the simplicity of the apparel at the Midsummer's Night Dream themed party (Abercrombie jeans & angel wings)--a funny and perfect allusion / illusion). The pop music supervision, lighting, mood (these are all such lavishly alone characters) captures a vapid melancholy of a pre-smartphone era twilight. ***

-Jeffery Berg

Sunday, October 29, 2023

sunday matinee at taylor swift: the eras tour

Newly-minted billionaire Taylor Swift glides through this concert film with sequins and red lipped cheesin’ at the peak of her pop powers (unless, of course, there are more peaks to come), opening and near-closing with “Mastermind” abilities (the dark edge of her having control over a fawning, smart phone-lit audience is one of the set’s creepy subtexts). The edited version of this pricey concert in L.A.’s towering SoFi stadium (fitting for a student loan debt-ridden nation) went down well with a Diet Coke (whom sponsored Swift in 2013 and whose cans perfectly match her Red era aesthetics) and gnawing dwellings upon chaos and mortality [the weekend’s wake of war (I passed a small protest for ceasefire on drizzly Commercial Street on the way to Provincetown’s Waters Edge Cinema), another horrible mass shooting, Matthew Perry's death—someone from that cheery forever-young cast of Friends suddenly gone]. 

Swift’s earworms, to some’s great annoyance, have been burrowing away in the background of major shifts in the early 21st century: their uncomplicated chord progressions give comfort; their “Easter egg,” furtive lyrics (all hail concrete details—like a scarf in a drawer) provide a tinge of mystique while initiating one to experience a sliver of celebrity-dom. The tour’s setlist (smartly, each album is contained, but not chronologically drawn upon) conjures up the youthful, sunny feels-like-high-school and “22” optimism of the Obama era in her Fearless and Red tracks, to the forlorn intimacy of COVID lockdowns on folklore (still her most interesting record). The “roaring 20s” from that wistful album’s opener “the 1,” probably refers to age, but I can only think of its latent irony in how the beginning of this decade started out with such global uncertainty and tragedy. It’s performed by Swift in a creamy, crepey dress with gold glints (designed by Alberta Ferretti). This quiet enclave of the setlist features some of Swift’s dreamiest, intricate lyrics and storytelling (under all the pop domination hullabaloo, she’s sometimes under-appreciated as a gifted lyricist; one wishes her songs were covered more by other artists--I would love to hear Stevie Nicks cover "willow," who Swift evokes in her Bella Donna-esque caped performance of it here). The narrative tale, “the last american dynasty,” is thankfully captured here too—a breezy and weird song about an oil money wife having a “marvelous time ruining everything.” 

The lyrics “charming, if a little gauche” could apply to this concert film as well—with its corny designer studs (especially the snake one during reputation’s corner) and gangly choreography. The direction by Sam Wrench, photography by Brett Turnbull are solid, if not particularly distinctive, and the tour itself doesn’t have the flashiest tricks up its sleeves nor compelling pizzazz visuals of other legendary pop acts like Madonna. Here, while floating above "Lavender Haze," she is constantly connecting to fans, with their friendship bracelets and hand-heart symbols, an ecstatic audience who, when Swift isn't center-framed, we briefly see in ecstatic scraps, filled with many who may have moved through the emotional tumult of adolescence with her music. Swift's in-between bits are awkward. Perhaps her gawky lack of charisma when she speaks and dances is part of her relatability—you too can feel like a “monster on a hill,” dancing and loving her music, and she will squintingly smile and love you back.

Swift’s overtures to nature in folklore and evermore (especially when she was hit recently with her private jet controversy) has always seemed as tenuous and performative as a Terrain store, so when she sits down at a monstrous grand piano covered in fake moss, it’s laughable, but she seems to knowingly poke a little fun at it too. Part of the appeal of the Eras Tour is to witness her growths of her skills as a songwriter: from earnest corndog country (“Our Song”) to straight-up anthemic and ebullient (all of the 1989 performances are undeniable) to the unassuming and thorny (there’s a little bit of regression on some of the Midnights tracks—but “Anti-Hero” is smashing and “Karma,” with its ridiculous lyrics and lunging beat still makes me swoon--here, a perfect, uplifting closer). 

Is the communal mania of going to this tour, this concert film (and films like Barbie) somehow related to a hungered mixture of our need-to-be-seen-and-shared social media age and our post COVID-vaccination times? Swift was already (and still is right now) dominating the music industry. Just go to your local Target—one of the last mainstream dregs to find physical media of music in a mainstream brick and mortar store—and you may see disheveled shelves of just Taylor Swift albums on vinyl and CD’s (her current ones and re-recordings of her old ones), some with a kaleidoscopic array of appealing album art for each record. With so much "free" music out there, there is a narrowing pool of artists, with the aid of a strong label, and a canny marketing team, who amass tremendous dominance over the industry. But credit should be given sometimes to the artist themselves. Ultimately, any popular icon has detractors, but the skeptic who finds this film on a rainy Sunday in a sparsely-attended theater (sans pre-teens dancing in circles) may be temporarily buoyed by quality music and Swift’s relentless "hope of it all." ***

-Jeffery Berg

the holdovers


I really enjoyed the casting, performances, and details in Alexander Payne's The Holdovers.

My review is up at Film-Forward.

Friday, October 27, 2023

fellow travelers - episodes 1 & 2

In the wake of a known homophobe elected as House Speaker, the sensitive and absorbing McCarthy-era entrenched and Washington D.C.-centric Fellow Travelers lands on Showtime (episode 1 streaming today, and airing Sunday). America is a splintered country, constantly progressing and regressing like shoreline, with a splintered media landscape; the people who should watch Fellow Travelers probably won't, but there is much to glean and learn from the miniseries' not-so distant American queer history for both older and newer generations. Based upon a sturdy 2007 novel by Thomas Mallon, the series follows a through-the-decades relationship between Hawkins "Hawk" Fuller (appropriately nicknamed, played by piercing-eyed Matt Bomer) and Tim Laughlin (Jonathan Bailey). The first two entries move primarily back and forth between the early 1950s and the mid-1980s, during the AIDS-crisis. The series opens to 1986 with the wistful strands of Stevie Wonder's "If It's Magic" (throughout, songs complement characters and actions), where Hawk is introduced at his roomy house with a Mitt Romney-ish disposition, monied, graying around the temples and married (Lucy, played by Allison Williams). One of the immediate strains here is trying to make both Bomer and Williams look stodgy and authentically "old"--their aged make-up isn't quite credible, and faintly distracting.  

The series, however, hits its stride (so far) plumbing the Lavender Scare, where Hawk, Tim, and others within their career and social circles are swept up. In some ways, it is a glossy and unsurprising depiction, with Philip Glass-y music and smooth photography (shot by frequent Ryan Murphy collaborator, Simon Dennis, whose burnished glow camera work is as lustrous as Boomer's sleek body and countenance), and softly erotic depictions of men talking about McCarthy on a sofa while unbuttoning each others' white Oxford shirts in cigarette smoke haze. 

Yet, beyond the surfaces, it's agonizing to see the splitting of couples, the interrogations, the burdens, festering paranoia, and secrets ("Why don't you pretend?" Nat "King" Cole croons after one nighttime street scene after a tryst). It is probably why creator and writer, the intelligent and thoughtful Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia and recently, co-adapter of My Policeman), and director Daniel Minahan (for episodes 1 & 2), revel in bawdy, explicit sex scenes. These sequences are moments of intense, fleeting pleasure and release for closeted men, and complicated as well, characterizing Hawk's career-climbing shallowness and sexual dominance as barbed and self-protective and the boyish Tim, with his Clark Kent eyewear, fumbling, subservient and sweet. Bailey has a more introspective character to play; in the outset he seems to be looking to advance his State Department career (who in D.C. now and then isn't and wasn't?) but he at least seems to have a political philosophy (one figures, with glimpses of him living in 1980s San Francisco, he will go through significant changes). 

It will be interesting to see the direction this series takes in developing them further. In the second episode, we start to see the denseness of Hawk in particular as we see early interactions with Lucy and trip home to visit his family (Rosemary Dunsmore appears in a standout turn as his mother), flashing back to a prior relationship (objects--a tennis trophy and a D.C. paperweight--are emotional triggers for Hawk, as he continuously seems to bury over his queerness). Also in the mix are Roy Cohn (Will Brill), and Hawk's boss and Lucy's father Senator Smith (Linus Roache in another unrecognizable showing). Marcus (Jelani Alladin) is a Black journalist who has had some history with Hawk, and figures as a somewhat tenuous connection. Hopefully the series will continue to sketch him further--and his deepening flirtation with nightclub singer (Noah J. Rickets, who provides sultry music cues)--as he currently feels a bit adrift from the overwhelming force of Tim and Hawk's relationship.  

-Jeffery Berg