Tuesday, October 15, 2019

after parasite

After Parasite

If you're able to push aside the weight
of the shelf with your body and bone, the cave
below the cave below is behind the wall. We pushed
past people out the subway up the stairs to a man
on a mattress spread. We walked past another man
pulling down his pants in front of a mound of trash bags.
In the city night, we stood in line for Parasite.
The house in the film elicited a sense of comfort.
The dark humor eased what could have been
a harsher watch. What some critics call "poverty porn."
The laughter at the woman thrown down stairs.
You laugh and you can't take it back. We were
content in our dark room. I pictured the day
above us, up beyond us, more news of slaughter
buried in the muck of content. A boy in his headdress
in the tent, his flashlight lit. "Think about us," the girl
in the movie said, as lightning flashed across her face.
Earlier that morning, the C-SPAN host had stared
impartially at us. America can be fun.
On the walk to work, from above, the giant billboard screen
blue M&M had winked at me. Once a professor said,
never invoke the homeless in your poems.
They didn't ask to be there. After Parasite,
we take the train back late and push past people out
the doors to a man power-washing the bricked underground.
We sleep on our mattress spread. I dream of a mass shooting
in a restaurant. Before he opens fire, the man in camouflage get-up
waves me out. In the parking lot, through the window,
I see you in a booth as he aims at you and you flinch.
I wake to my racing heart at four in the morning.
A roach wriggling in a glue trap. Why did I leave you
behind? It will be a hard morning to shake.
You sleep and I kiss your cheek and say, "so long,
for now." I find a way in the bluish light to push aside
the weight of the night with body and bone,
somewhere in our city, to find myself down the stairs
in a cave below a cave behind a wall where I lie
on a snowy hillside within a forest of skinny trees.

-Jeffery Berg

bombshell trailer

Trailer for Bombshell. Excited for this one. Charlize looks great.

Sunday, October 13, 2019


Much hoopla has surrounded Todd Phillips' origin story Joker--so much hoopla that I was taken aback how lightweight it really is. Despite Joaquin Phoenix's showy performance as the title character Arthur Fleck--all slicked-back mane, caved-in chest, swirly dance moves, volcanic hysterics and sweat--I never felt much of a connection to him on a human level. He's purely smeared make-up and a joyless cesspool of actorly tics.

My screening began with a PSA for "ending the stigma" of mental illness. It was sort of a strange way to dive into Joker, which ultimately emerges as another trite mainstream Hollywood portrayal of psychological "madness"--the kind of frenzied behavior we've seen exploited by cinema for years. This film is set around 1981 (as the marquee for Brian De Palma's Blow Out suggests), the beginning of the Reagan-era. Here the politics of the times are filtered through the somewhat parallel fictional world of Gotham City with its high unemployment rate, unending garbage strikes and brutal social benefit cuts (including Arthur's own therapy treatments). Arthur's subway shootings of three Wall Street jerks spurs a fiery anti-establishment movement of protesters in clown masks. But Arthur is an accidental savant, he isn't driven so much politically as he is by his own personal vendetta against rich mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen).

In this grimy, grim world, Arthur simply wants to make people laugh, but he is continuously thwarted by society. When Arthur becomes a guest on a late night show (Robert DeNiro plays host--the movie heavily references Scorsese's King of Comedy and Taxi Driver), the movie goes for a direct riff of the mad-as-hell climax of Sidney Lumet's Network. Yet Paddy Chayefsky's script for that film was so dynamic, layered and poetic, that the 1976 movie is more urgent still than this current film which feels distant and fatigued. I was also reminded of Rebecca Hall's devastating portrayal of Christine Chubbuck--a similarly patterned period piece of an unstable, frustrated outsider, striving for a sense of doing good for the world through media relevance. Despite the slick production design (Mark Friedberg), costuming (Mark Bridges, who has done extraordinary work with Paul Thomas Anderson), its photography (Lawrence Sher), its big score (by Hildur Guðnadóttir) and its lofty referencing, the movie never quite feels as bold as it seems to think it is. In the end, what's most interesting about Joker is its entrenched social reaction today, especially because so few, if any, raw character studies are box office draws anymore. Because it's unique in the D.C. canon and hauled in cash, Joker will likely end up changing the landscape of by-the-numbers comic book cinema and imitated within mainstream Hollywood. In that sense, it feels like a great step in a new direction for a tired genre at the end of another decade, but still, this film feels similarly slight and overwrought as many of its action-driven, CGI-ridden counterparts.  **

-Jeffery Berg

Thursday, October 10, 2019

hate crime

Fittingly, Steven Esteb's restrained, earnest drama Hate Crime opens with the metaphorical violence of men and machine interlaced--a quick scene of a man punching an off-screen victim and an idyllic green field mowed over by John Deere. The field will later become emblematic of a truce within a plane of enduring unease.

The film follows two sets of parents in small town Americana. Tom and Ginny Brown (Kevin Bernhardt and Amy Redford) go through their day up to the dreaded midnight hour when their son Raymond (Jordan Salloum) will be executed. They are in a phase of mourning that feels urgent, raw and fresh, and the film covers their vacillating array of emotions. Raymond's victim's parents--John and Marie Demarco (John Schneider and Laura Cayouette)--seem much more hardened and removed, perhaps because they have already undergone the shattering loss of their son. Through a single flashback scene of the crime, hints of discussion and emotional processing, it becomes evident that the two sons were romantically involved; Raymond was deeply afraid to be outed.

This is a very sensitively told story that seems out-of-time with our jaded era. Even the score, by Jay Weigel, featuring woozy strings and piano, feels like throwback to James Horner's most precious themes. I do appreciate the efforts of Esteb and the game cast (Redford in particular is a standout) bringing this work of good intentions to screen, especially considering the ignorance that still persists in our society. The movie is well-focused and clear-eyed and sympathetically-drawn.  ***

-Jeffery Berg

Tuesday, October 8, 2019


Sudabeh Mortezai's sobering film Joy looks at the lives of Nigerian immigrant sex workers in Vienna. The movie begins with a ritualistic spell--a "specter of power" (a phrase which is featured later in a different context on a religious banner)--which hangs over the picture and the actions of its characters. The titular character (a quietly moving portrayal by Anwulika Alphonsus), first seen glum in a streaky blonde wig and cork wedges on the side of a dark, desolate road, takes young Precious (Mariam Sanusi) under her wing. She helps Precious define a new look, with purple-grey extensions and gold heels and make-up to bring out her face--"make her more beautiful."

Caught between supplying funds to their "Madame" (Angela Ekeleme) and their families back home, the film portrays a harsh game of survival for these women. While there is a sense of benevolence around Joy, within the high stakes and in the crushing journey to "pay off her debts," she can go only so far to help Precious--she warns she will steal from her and kill her if she has to in order to remain alive and also support her young children.

Filmed in a bluish, dusky photography (by Klemens Hufnagl), Joy exists in tight spaces across long distances. The cramped housing facility in Vienna basks in the light of celebrity culture filtered through a flatscreen of dangling wires. Magazine tearaways are plastered to the chipped walls, including pictures of Michelle Obama. Eventually the film shows the cruel fallacies of the immigration system and the brutal realities of sex worker business and trade. Deceptively understated, Mortezai has made a very urgent and engrossing film, that leaves open topics of conversation and investigation. ***1/2

-Jeffery Berg

Friday, October 4, 2019

Monday, September 30, 2019


My Judy Garland obsession began somewhere in the early 1980s with The Wizard of Oz. I drew pictures of Dorothy--in severe ballpoint ribboned-braids and heels, acted out Dorothy's antics in our rambling backyard forest, played the soundtrack on my Fisher Price record player over and over. All of this eventually caused Garland burnout in my family--eventually my vinyl record went missing. And there was likely a phobic-tinge in the reactions from my parents who barred me from dressing up in Dorothy garb and renting the film (that silver-stickered MGM label on the VHS is burned in my mind). Soon, still a child, I would get into Meet Me in St. Louis, pine for the VHS of 'Til the Clouds Roll By at Big Lots. And at some point, I stopped thinking about Judy so much--whether that was conditioned, or by choice, it's hard to remember exactly.

I come to this year's Judy, in a less-repressed state but also more world-weary. I recognize that Rupert Goold's film occasionally slips into a mawkishness (I detest the watery, glittery title font), is faintly slipshod, with awkward transitions, some stilted scenes--especially with Garland's young children--but, coming in with low expectations, I was lost in and mesmerized with Renée Zellweger's nervy turn. It's an audacious performance of course, especially from an actress who hasn't really proved herself as an aces singer (some of the notes she hits in Chicago make me wince), nor as an authentic-feeling actress--there's always a sense of ham (Cold Mountain) and visible determination interlaced with a deep, vulnerable insecurity (Chicago, Bridget Jones' Diary). But those seemingly out-of-depth facets of Zellweger's abilities and aesthetics lend themselves appropriately to Garland in this state of her life--a cyclonic ambling toward a sad finish line. I haven't seen it in some time, but in my memory, a better portrayal for both young and older Garland is Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows. Like its predecessor, Judy, could also have been easily nabbed as a TV-movie, but I'm grateful for Goold's film as a theatrical release--where it played well to my rapt, mostly older audience--as a reminder of Garland's talents and the brutal truths behind Hollywood's mythic gloss.

Here, we see Judy broke and homeless, desperately holding on to the custody of her children and her own life. She moves to London to make money through concerts, where, despite being in the midst of a more modern, swinging 60s of sprouting "flower power" shops, her popularity and appeal has sustained itself with certain audiences. In the era of her iconic wisp of short black hair and satin suits and heels, Judy can barely get through these performances, often in a fog of sleeplessness, pills and booze. We've seen two recent music biopics, Rocketman and Bohemian Rhapsody, which showed manipulations from others while tracing the highs and lows of their subjects. In Judy, the subject is female and older, long victimized by her studio system since childhood--the possibilities of rising again limited; a joke about her being with the Rolling Stones sounds like a beautiful pairing now, but in the context of the times, probably impossible. This self-destructive shade of Garland, which encompasses much of this embracing but deeply elegiac film, is not a particularly flattering one, and one that many choose to psychologically bury under the weight of her sparkling filmography and discography. But it feels like a necessary one to occasionally delve into--the promise she held in her final years as an actress and entertainer. It is quite startling that she passed at 47 (many in the theater gasped, though it's all known history), as she looked so frail and much beyond her years.

Zellweger is captivating to watch. It's the kind of high-wire act you breathlessly prepare yourself for a fall, but she's convincing throughout. I preferred Zellweger's guttural, imitative warbling over lip-synced tracks of Garland's vocals. The make-up and hair designs aid in the recreation, as do the brassy costuming by Jany Temime (the teal knee-length wedding dress and hat!). Gabriel Yared's quietly effective score adds to the somberness. Maybe I felt more attuned to and forgiving of this film than others may, because of my interest in Garland. Like those childhood ballpoint drawings, it's impossible to recreate such a one-of-a-kind legend, but try as we might through the limitations of whatever artistry we may hold. ***

-Jeffery Berg

Thursday, September 12, 2019


A couple weeks ago at Ruthie’s Boutique in Provincetown, I bought a used CD of the Jennifer Lopez 2011 album Love? The cashier held it up, studying the cover and said to me coyly, “Now look at her! She just turned 50. May we all aspire to be that.”

Weeks later in a packed theater in Jersey City, on a humid, misty night, you could sense electric crackling when Jennifer Lopez takes to the pole, cash flying about, to the tumbling (and apt) Fiona Apple song “Criminal.” In the same way Brad Pitt’s over-the-hill, how-is-he-still-shaggily-stunning? handsomeness is utilized in Quentin’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, in Hustlers--the deliriously entertaining film by Lorne Scafaria--Jennifer’s magnetic appeal and statuesque beauty adds to its allure. Lopez plays Ramona, a ringleader of sorts, who, along with a few other women under her wing, drugs and embezzles money from rich Wall Street types through the strip club she works for. Because of how elegantly Lopez creates such a compelling, yet compassionate (“climb into my fur” she says, sprawled out in chinchilla and studded heels) figure—its easy to see how club newcomer "Destiny" (played beautifully by Constance Wu) would be so enamored.

Based upon a lauded New York Magazine article by Jessica Pressler, Hustlers strives for on-the-nose social relevance: business going bust after the stock crash of ‘08 is the main impetus of Ramona’s enterprise of schemes du rich dude doofuses. The movie, with its brazen, of-the-moment ensemble (a very fun Cardi B and flute-tootin' Lizzo feature in bit parts), flashy, brand-heavy costuming (by Mitchell Travers), and the slick soundtrack of twinkling Chopin piano pieces interspersed with late- 2000s into early-2010s shiny house ephemera tunes (for me, Britney’s “Gimme More” has always conjured the bubble-about-to-burst American economy, hearing the song thumping at a midnight sale of her album Blackout in the now-shuttered Virgin Megastore of Union Square). Hustlers is Scorsese-light in that it never gets too sprawling nor too grim, but Scafaria shows chops as a gifted, polished storyteller. This is a movie that glaringly embraces its capitalistic glow, deviously celebrates its hollowness and leaves us with a smarmy strip club announcer to call us out as the lights go up again and we go out aspiring to be whoever we want to be. ***1/2

something keeps calling

Video for Raphael Saadiq's "Something Keeps Calling."

Saadiq's excellent new album Jimmy Lee just dropped.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

i used to be normal

"What's a life without a big major chorus?" This is a key, hard-to-argue-with philosophy dropped by one of the subjects from the lovely, buoyant little doc, I Used to Be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story. Directed with heart and empathy by Jessica Leski, the film looks into the lives of four different women from four different areas around the globe, who experienced rhapsodic obsessions with particular boy bands from their teenage eras and still harbor enduring attachments. The main objects of affection here are The Beatles, Take That, the Backstreet Boys, and One Direction--an interesting mix indeed. The Beatles first ushered in a consumerist pop mania as a goofily-attractive foursome creating and performing indelible ditties that would later morph into more experimental, yet still endearingly catchy pieces of art rock as the 1960s wore on. Take That and the Backstreet Boys experienced success at the peak of music video television and physical media. One Direction in the time of new forms of social media and YouTube (the title comes from a viral video of one of the girls--howling out the way her life was before she became obsessed). Even though the particular genius of The Beatles' rock songwriting has yet to be duplicated, footage of ecstatic, screaming legions of fans has. There's a mix of joy in this, the ability to release and scream in a super-dome, but also some sadness: girls longingly caressing the bangs of One Direction; a Backstreet Boys cruise where fans can day-drink and interact, to a rabid degree, with their idols.

While it could be easy to make fun of these subjects and their fanatically wallpapered rooms of clippings (most, in adulthood, displaying their memorabilia in more toned-down, tasteful and aesthetically-pleasing ways), Leski keeps the focus upon the lives of these women, and how their dreams were sometimes kept at bay either by misfortune or by parents and societal biases that still persist.

There is something both ebullient and melancholic in the way these women thought their idols were speaking and singing directly to them, that these women sometimes shaped their lives in order to get closer to their boy bands. All of them sooner or later grow wiser, understanding the impossibility of their desires, but embracing the joy the imagery and music gives to them. I appreciate how thoughtful the director and doc are in their rapport. The photos and Maira Kalman-esque illustrations by Rebecca Clarke, animated by Leath Mattner, add a whimsical touch. ***

-Jeffery Berg