Friday, December 13, 2019

bombshell


Bombshell is Jay Roach's saucy expose on Fox News in midst of the scandal and downfall of its creator Roger Ailes. The picture definitively paints Ailes as the one clear villain at its core, and that could be the film's main problem. The compelling characterizations by the supporting players and its trio of main actresses--Charlize Theron uncanny as reporter Megyn Kelly, Nicole Kidman as Gretchen Carlson, and Margot Robbie as a starry-eyed Kayla with her Fox News media dreams--make for an undeniably entertaining, watchable movie, but everyone is ultimately undermined by Roach's sloppy direction (touches include cutesy, distracting cable news-like title cards helping to announce to us who people are) and seasick-inducing photography by Barry Ackroyd. Why do we need so many frenetic zoom-ins? The frantic tension of the story is inherent within. Scenes aren't allowed to breathe, busily stacked and collapsing like dominoes; in one particular moment, where a photog is stalking outside Kelly's vacation home, what should have been frightening, feels poorly-staged and amateurish. It's when the film slows down, it's at its most effective--like a tense elevator scene and Kayla's first closed-door harassment by one of the most powerful entities in media (played with icky, theatrical creeper eccentricities by John Lithgow).


Ultimately Carlson helped spearhead the take-down Ailes, which is the main narrative of the picture, with the interweaving of Kelly coming to terms with speaking out on her past and Kayla's fresh traumas. But the parallel story line of the rise of the insidious Donald Trump to presidency (and Fox’s part in that, which is curiously too muted here) during the same time as Ailes’s downfall, doesn’t coalesce as well as it could have. Perhaps to help immediately paint Kelly with sympathy, the movie begins with Trump’s rampant Twitter attacks against her after her “tough” questioning of him in an early Republican debate. "Am I the story?" She incredulously asks. And too, we wonder, the same. The movie then moves to focus narrowly upon the hideous, cultish environment of a hideous network while stretching thin to tackle Kayla's plight (who, despite Robbie's valiant efforts, ultimately emerges as an uneven, simplistic character, perhaps because she’s a cardboard fictional composite of some of Ailes’s victims), Carlson’s bland legal counseling sessions, and Kelly’s reluctance to come forward. As this tornado swirls around, the movie loses sight of the monster the network helped create.


Bombshell is difficult to stomach because it feels so cowardly and trite in its portrayal of its subject matter. There’s something alluring about Theron’s commitment to impersonating Kelly, but simultaneously repulsive as well. Do we really feel for Kelly when the film strives to sympathetically paint her as  coming forward because of her family (the clan surprises her in a completely bizarre “jump scare” moment) while also going on to gleefully emcee he Republican convention?—one of the most repugnant ones in recent American history. Many of our American films are obsessed with either high fantasy or waxing poetic over past centuries, so it’s admirable and important for filmmakers to take a stab at our contemporary times. Perhaps we are meant to feel as queasy about the state of the nation as Kelly after drinking her maybe-poisoned coffee. In that respect, the film succeeds, but as Roach’s glossy but terrifying Game Change did, it doesn’t offer a cathartic moment of take-down that the film seems to be aiming for, because there's too much rotten about so many of the characters here at their core. **1/2


-Jeffery Berg

Monday, December 9, 2019

diamantino


The antithesis of the sharp angles, swiftness, and precision of soccer (football, here in this Portuguese film Diamantino) may indeed be fluffy puppies happily leaping in slow-motion through snowy, pink cotton candy clouds. That is one of the fun, surrealistic images that sticks and kicks off--so to speak--Gabriel Abrantes' and Daniel Schmidt's wonky and satirical portrayal of the titular soccer star (played effectively with doe-eyed earnestness by Carloto Cotta). As Diamantino plays under a "new cathedral"--a superdome open to sky--he's immediately cast as a Christ-like figure, buckling under the pressure of the World Cup and the pitfalls of keeping up a macho facade in the public eye.



As in much world cinema over this past decade, the refugee crisis comes in focus as a central topic, when Diamantino's party boat rescues a group adrift; the athlete had never thought much of world issues before--his mind only on soccer--which exposes his childlike naivete. When his father passes away, the lonely Diamantino feels an urge to his adopt his own "refugee" (Cleo Tavares)--he mispronounces as "fugee" (a poster of The Score album figures as an in-joke). Meanwhile there are, in what must be a symbolic gesturing of phobia, women around him, plotting--including his shrewish twin sisters (portrayed with a nosiy, over-the-top ruthlessness that occasionally took me out of the picture) and the shady "Dr. Lamborghini" (Carla Maciel) who plans to clone him for nationalistic purposes. With these things at play, and our protagonist circling like an unwitting pig in a maze, the plot swerves around itself into a satirical thriller with low fantasy and sci-fi elements.



Through its plot mechanics and technical artistry, Diamantino feels very much of the moment in terms of calling out injustices and group-think ignorance. In the soccer star's ads for anti-refugee isolationism, the photography, by Charles Ackley Anderson, switches from its fuzzed quality in the narrative (the film is narrated by Cotta effectively in dream-like recollections) to sharp HD with corny, machismo visuals. There are constant perspective switches from-below and high-up: ashes spread over the edge of a foggy cliff, the superdome viewed from sky, a drone and a T-Rex balloon hovering. This is a very clever movie, but not too cutesy. Even if the approach to timely, important subject matter may feel a tad too glib, hats off to the filmmakers who created something inventive and memorable. ***

-Jeffery Berg

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Monday, December 2, 2019

poetry reading tuesday 12.3




Will be a featured poet at the Backroom Broadsides in Jersey City at the Fox & Crow.

Fox & Crow
594 Palisade Ave, Jersey City, NJ 07307
Tuesday, 12/3: 7:30 PM – 10:30 PM

Retro Movie Love Podcast: 1999 Films!




My guest spot on the Retro Movie Love Podcast with Meep (Michael Ferrari of Cinema Du Meep) is now live on all platforms.




We discussed our favorite movies of 1999, which is still heralded as one of the greatest in film history. There was a lot of variety to the pictures that year--across all spectrum of genre--with enduring iconic films, bold directorial debuts and many underrated gems.  It was fun to return to these movies and watch some for the first time!

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

marriage story


Situated near Trump Tower and the Plaza Hotel, the no-frills, yet inherently classy Paris Theater in New York City has a history of single-screen showings of films that appeal to the upper-class and intellectuals. After its recent closure, streaming giant Netflix swept in and re-opened it. It feels like a splashy and perceptive PR move: usher in screenings of their slate of films like Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story that were refused showings in chain cinemas for awards season consideration, while also rescuing an institution of cinema-going. Marriage Story in particular speaks to the sort of audience who would go to the Paris Theater--a classy set, craving complicated, grown-up entertainment which has become more scarce yearly in movies. I came to the Paris on a mild Fall morning on the eve of Veteran's Day--barricades and security around Trump Tower, more stacked than usual, before his impending arrival for the day's ceremonies. The theater was half-full, an older crowd mainly clad in black coats. In the cold-ish dark, it felt like the set-up for a stuffy experience. Ultimately, however, Marriage Story emerges, like its influential predecessor, Robert Benton's Kramer vs. Kramer, as something much more warm, earthy and broad-appealing than what a typical upper-crust character study may imply.



Baumbach's films, in dramatic and witty ways, look at characters in crisis. They are mapped out with alluring, but seemingly no-nonsense theatrical flair. They feel studied, beautifully executed and organic at the same time--a miraculous combination that has made Baumbach a fixture but also underrated as an auteur. Young couple Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) are going through a bi-coastal divorce, while raising their young son Henry (a nod to Justin Henry?), played by Azhy Robertson. As their relationship is fraught romantically, they are also coming apart in their livelihoods. Charlie wants to maintain his creative life in Park Slope as a talented New York theater director. Nicole wants to establish herself outside the confines of performing in Charlie's work, by shooting a pilot in Los Angeles, while also yearning to become a director herself. Like the couple in Kramer vs. Kramer, Charlie and Nicole have a somewhat enviable status (Charlie nabs a MacArthur Genius Grant), but with the aid of the gifted players portraying them, the characters emerge as sympathetic and whole in their personal tumult, especially as they battle their lives through the harsh (and harshly-lit) courts; Laura Dern, Alan Alda, and Ray Liotta play lawyers with their own specific personalities, battles and at times, morally suspect agendas--some more blatant than others.


All of the dramas and poignant comic moments are drawn exquisitely by Baumbach and his talented crew. I've always been a fan of the editor Jennifer Lame, who did such lovely work on Baumbach's Frances Ha. It's the kind of non-flashy editing that often doesn't get recognized. There is one symbolic scene in Marriage Story, involving the closing of a gate, that's one of the best edited sequences I've seen this year. Throughout, as we see the couple and lawyers spar, the awkwardness of family life, the rhythms of the film are achingly apt. Shot by Robbie Ryan (The Favourite), the movie captures both the New York setting and L.A. settings well, especially interiors. 



I was entranced by Randy Newman's score. It's a risky one for these times: tuneful, romantic; sprightly strings, horns, and reeds.  Definitely a score of late bygone sensibilities (almost like silent film ragtime-esque score re-writes) that's been out-of-style for decades. Immediately, it establishes the singular atmosphere of the picture. The movie opens with a whimsical portrait of what both characters "love" about one another--through a scattershot of imagery. It's completely charming and ends up culminating in a devastating way. Overall, music in the film is elegant and spry, but also fragile, and compliments emotionally raw moments of the story effectively. A particular Broadway musical chestnut becomes a naked expression of Charlie's bewilderment at his situation.


Outside of its technical merits, Marriage Story boasts a terrific ensemble. Johansson hasn't been given a role as strong in quite some time--and she kills. Often with tear-rimmed eyes, and an expression of emotional exhaustion, she gives a layered turn. A monologue in her lawyer's office is an impressive moment: it's an actor's showcase, but you also feel her character deeply through her delivery and specificity of action. Driver has always been a fun actor to watch. Here, he's in one of his deepest, most vulnerable roles. I couldn't help but tear up at his gangly "Invisible Man"--earnestly and desperately trying to create a fun Halloween for his son in sprawling, late night L.A. There's plenty of moments like these of quiet tenderness and bittersweet, physical comedy that's just as wrenching as a painful, drab-apartment-set shouting match. In supporting parts, Laura Dern is electric as high-powered attorney Nora. Had she not already been so wicked in her Big Little Lies turn, the performance would be even more startling. On a surface level, she emerges as a sort of villain in Marriage Story, but in hindsight, she's something more complex, especially after a biting, delicious monologue towards the end of the picture--you can see she's surviving (and thriving) in an extremely flawed system. In contrast, Alda is appealing as a fuddy-duddy lawyer in his cluttered office, seemingly beleaguered by the system and amusingly weary from his own rocky past relationships. It's great to see Airplane!'s Julie Hagerty so pitch-perfect, funny and believable as Nicole's mother. And Merritt Wever, who was so utterly fantastic in this year's Unbelievable series, is great in one of the movie's funniest screwball scenes. Even actors in bit parts, like Martha Kelly as "The Evaluator," are outstanding. I felt most distant from Henry's character, perhaps because the movie is mostly entrenched in the perspective of adults. Azhy Robertson does good work with a tricky role that could easily be too precious or irritating.


Released at the end of its decade, Kramer vs. Kramer was the top-grossing film of 1979. Mainstream audiences flocked to see it in the theater! It was a cultural phenomenon. It had a Vivaldi soundtrack and was a zeitgeist picture of its time! I doubt at the end of this decade, Marriage Story will make the same impact. As Netflix holds its grip on striving to both capitalize on auteurs making great movies and also drive pronounced competition against traditional movie-going, we, as American viewers, are left at the end of the 2010s on wobbly territory (like the uncertain leasing of a single-screen theater) for the future of the movies and its experience. We get more bang for our buck for spectacle on widescreen, but as I got up and left the picture, passing a woman sobbing alone in her seat as the end credits neared their conclusion, the lights coming up a little bit in the Paris, I felt immensely touched and satisfied. With Marriage Story, Baumbach affirms the power of the art-form through the compact, fleeting time frame, script, visuals, references, and rich performances. It couldn't be anything else but a movie. ****


-Jeffery Berg

Friday, November 1, 2019

that's love can do



This early 90s Stock/Aitken/Waterman dance tune by Boy Krazy has got me vibin' lately. Love it so much!



Thursday, October 31, 2019

harriet


Surprisingly, or not surprisingly, there has been no major film about Harriet Tubman until now; Kasi Lemmons' (Eve's Bayou) new film comes riddled with great anticipation and expectations. For those looking for a complex portrait of this symbolic pillar of American history, whose life is still opaque and underappreciated by many (even to get her on the twenty dollar bill in recent times has been met with ridiculous opposition), will not be completely fulfilled. However, the movie is slick and involving--thanks to its brisk pace, handsome photography (by John Toll, who established the look of the historical epic of the mid-1990s with his Oscar-winning work on both Legends of the Fall and Braveheart), and a graceful, centerpiece turn from Cynthia Erivo.


Harriet mainly focuses upon Tubman's first escape from slavery and her subsequent trips back to lead over seventy slaves to freedom. She is often hit with bouts of spiritual "visions" which guide her throughout her courageous quests. These visions are lensed with a bluish tint--a chaotic, quick-flitted rendering of abuse in chattel. I was reminded of the snowy, bird-swept prophetic visions in well water in Anthony Minghella's Cold Mountain--a subversive nod, if it is indeed a reference here. What makes Lemmons' film compelling (and somewhat subversive) is that it seems molded after white male hero historical action dramas that have been churned out from the Hollywood machine for decades. The captivating Erivo, defies the odds pitted against her--including slave owner Gideon (Joe Alwyn)-- and rises to occasion. Despite the movie's rousing surface narrative, there is also the complexity of her life in Philadelphia with abolitionist William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) and a stinging undercurrent in her friendship with her elegant, born-free house mother Marie (Janelle Monáe).


After my screening, someone shouted "be blessed all." Someone laughed and said, "you too." Even if the film leans heavily into faith-based appeal, I guess there could be worse notes to leave on in these times. Outside, a mother and her young daughter took a selfie in front of the poster--an image of Harriet, with her cocked hat and rifle--that has been buried in history books and popular imagination in favor for the older, regal Tubman in her later years. The mother and daughter smiled and walked away into our current moment. A film can't capture everything in history but when it skims a surface that wants to make you want to explore deeper, there is a value there. ***1/2

-Jeffery Berg




For further reading, I appreciated this Vanity Fair article from K. Austin Collins which has a unique perspective compared to many critical reviews I've read and why it's more mysterious, runs deep: "... there’s a tension at work in Harriet that’s missing from other, 'better' movies. Sometimes, Lemmons—who directed the wonderfully spectral Southern gothic Eve’s Bayou—hits you with a curious bit of framing or a propulsive bit of energy, visions of a world that’s as alive with danger as it is with spiritual possibility. It’s also a vaster and in many ways wilder film than it will get credit for, a movie that leans into the excitement of Tubman’s mission so energetically it almost morphs into a heist picture, dredging up odd romantic and religious energies along the way."

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

western stars


Bruce Springsteen has long been emblematic of American yearning. His new solo album, Western Stars, is a wistful, grand collection of songs. The rock edge of his previous work is more understated and spare here, giving way to a gorgeously-produced full orchestra--with remnants of homage to Glen Campbell's string-drenched Jimmy Webb-penned tunes. The gravel of Springsteen's voice adds a nice tension to the lush tracks. In the film Western Stars, directed by Springsteen and Thom Zimny, Bruce and orchestra play for a small, quiet, seated audience in his hundred-year old, worn-down barn, lit atmospherically by strewn lights.


Those expecting raucous arena rock may either be disappointed or intrigued by the deliberately-paced, string and mellow horn-laden tunes. An effective Patti Scialfa performs by his side. Her addition to "Stones" is particularly haunting and reflective and better than the track on the album release. With the exception of a rousing cover of "Rhinestone Cowboy," the film is mostly a play-by-play of the record--no Springsteen chestnut standards emerge. The staid, though vocally and instrumentally impressive, performances are interspersed with slow-mo horses over open landscapes, flitting vintage home movie Americana and some footage of a younger Bruce and Patti. The imagery is not particularly striking, but lovely and pleasing to look at; over it, Bruce ruminates in platitudes on growing old, cars, nature, relationships and the origins of his songs. Overall, Western Stars the film deepened my appreciation of the album and is a nice slice of an artist still delivering beautiful work, even if its wrapped in a sleepy shroud of stars. ***

-Jeffery Berg


Tuesday, October 22, 2019

ghost movies!


Meep's Retro Movie Love Podcast on Ghost Movies is now available to listen to here! It was so fun to watch and re-watch these films. I especially love listening to Meep and Ben's commentary. Ben's thoughts on The Entity are particularly well-articulated and insightful.

Audio YouTube below!


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.