Thursday, October 31, 2019


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


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