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.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

joker


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

joy


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

judy

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

hustlers


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.