Thursday, February 13, 2020

fantasy island


If the vintage TV series Fantasy Island, like many Aaron Spelling projects, offered comfort and projections of aspiration in the late 70s and early 80s, Blumhouse's Fantasy Island--a twisty, sludgy thriller landing in the wake of a new decade--offers an unending sense of unease and swoops of corny comedy. Directed by Jeff Wadlow, with little visual complexity, the movie is, in a way, an off-brand Diet drink version of Fyre Festival docs and the winking, winding, genre-play horror films of the past few years from the Blumhouse brand.



The plot requires leaps and bounds of suspensions of disbelief, which I can usually roll with, especially in a movie like this, but Fantasy Island is patently so creaky, it quickly loses tension and interest. We meet a group of contest winners--Melanie (Lucy Hale), Patrick (Austin Stowell), Gwen (Maggie Q), and two cringey, dude-bro friends Brax (Jimmy O. Yang) and J.D. (Ryan Hansen)--who are ushered into Fantasy Island by the mysterious Julia (Parisa Fitz-Henley) and the island-owner Mr. Roarke (Michael Peña). On Fantasy Island, Mr. Roarke is here to make your ultimate fantasy come true! From here on out, the plot swings into alternate realities and timelines ensue.



The appealing cast--giving their all, despite the muddled script (by Wadlow, Chris Roach, Jillian Jacobs), the lush locales (shot in Fiji) and the continuous, rigorous tossing and turnings make Fantasy Island a sort of entertaining curiosity in the current cinema landscape. Yet, at a 109 minutes run-time, the jig runs thin fairly quickly. Patrick's story-line--his wish of being a soldier--is particularly lugubrious. At times, I was taken back to the strand of characters in island-set peril in Irwin Allen and James Goldstone's When Time Ran Out... Watching Fantasy Island, I yearned for 1980 simplicity or even Aaron Spelling-soft-core corn. Complicated genre pictures are welcome, especially if one has the skills of Jordan Peele, but the rip-offs that have paled in comparison are a chore, especially when swabbed with bad sentimentality. Wadlow impressively hobbled this together on a mere seven million dollar budget, so there will probably be more on the horizon. If you do choose partaking in this feeble adventure, I do not suggest making a drinking game out of taking a sip anytime someone says the word "fantasy." *

-Jeffery Berg

Sunday, February 9, 2020

the 2019 jdb awards

Here are my personal film awards for 2019!

A look back at 2018 when the awards were spread out among a variety of films! Eighth Grade took Best Picture and Sandi Tan won for Director and Documentary for Shirkers.



picture

PARASITE




nominees

FOR SAMA
THE IRISHMAN
THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO
LITTLE WOMEN
MARRIAGE STORY
ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD
PAIN AND GLORY
PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE
3 FACES



director

Bong Joon-ho, PARASITE



nominees

Pedro Almodóvar, PAIN AND GLORY
Noah Baumbach, MARRIAGE STORY
Céline Sciamma, PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE
Martin Scorcese, THE IRISHMAN



actor

Adam Driver, MARRIAGE STORY



nominees

Antonio Banderas, PAIN AND GLORY
Woo-sik Choi, PARASITE
Leonardo DiCaprio, ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD
Jimmie Fails, THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO



actress

Alfre Woodard, CLEMENCY



nominees

Marianne Jean-Baptiste, IN FRABRIC
Lupita Nyong’o, US
Mary Kay Place, DIANE
Octavia Spencer, MA




supporting actor

Jonathan Majors, THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO




nominees

Tom Hanks, A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD
Aldis Hodge, CLEMENCY
Song Kang-ho, PARASITE
Joe Pesci, THE IRISHMAN



supporting actress

Zhao Shuzhen, THE FAREWELL




nominees

Laura Dern, MARRIAGE STORY
Jennifer Lopez, HUSTLERS
Carmiña Martínez, BIRDS OF PASSAGE
Tilda Swinton, THE SOUVENIR




ensemble

PARASITE



nominees

BIRDS OF PASSAGE
DIANE
THE FAREWELL
MARRIAGE STORY



original screenplay

Bong Joon-ho & Jin Won Han, PARASITE



nominees

Pedro Almodóvar, PAIN AND GLORY
Noah Baumbach, MARRIAGE STORY
Joe Talbot & Robbie Richert, THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO
Quentin Tarantino, ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD



adapted screenplay

Greta Gerwig, LITTLE WOMEN



nominees

Hu Bo, AN ELEPHANT SITTING STILL
Micah Fitzerman-Blue & Noah Harpster, A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD
Christian Petzold, TRANSIT
Steven Zaillian, THE IRISHMAN



foreign film


PARASITE




nominees

BIRDS OF PASSAGE
PAIN AND GLORY
PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE
3 FACES



documentary

FOR SAMA




nominees

AMERICAN FACTORY
APOLLO 11
HONEYLAND
WRESTLE



cinematography

Yao Hung-i, Dong Jinsong, & David Chizallet, LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT




nominees

Fejmi Daut, HONEYLAND
David Gallego, BIRDS OF PASSAGE
Claire Mathon, PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE
Jörg Widmer, A HIDDEN LIFE



film editing

Jean-Luc Godard, THE IMAGE BOOK



nominees

Davíð Alexander Corno, A WOMAN AT WAR
Atanas Georgiev, HONEYLAND
Todd Douglas Miller, APOLLO 11
Thelma Schoonmaker, THE IRISHMAN



original score

Cavern of Anti-Matter, IN FABRIC



nominees

Disasterpiece, UNDER THE SILVER LAKE
Matthew Herbert, GLORIA BELL
M83, KNIFE+HEART
Emile Mosseri, THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO




original song

“Guarding the Gates,” QUEEN & SLIM



nominees

“Collide,” QUEEN & SLIM
"Control," HER SMELL
"A Glass of Soju," PARASITE
“La Jeune Fille en feu,” PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE



art direction / production design

PARASITE



nominees

A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD
THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO
ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD
PAIN AND GLORY



costume design

Arianne Phillips, ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD



nominees

Julian Day, ROCKETMAN
Jacqueline Durran, LITTLE WOMEN
Andrea Flesch, MIDSOMMAR
Mitchell Travers, HUSTLERS



make-up & hair

BOMBSHELL



nominees

JUDY
ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD
ROCKETMAN
US



sound design

CLIMAX



nominees

A HIDDEN LIFE
1917
ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD
ROCKETMAN



visual effects

1917



nominees

AD ASTRA
CRAWL
DIAMANTINO
STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER


-Jeffery Berg

Saturday, February 8, 2020

jeffery berg's top 10 films of 2019

2019 brought an array of films from around the world with different styles and stories. Many portrayed an unsettled state, especially in terms of economic division. Here is my Top 10 of the year.


10.

FOR SAMA



Brutal, searing diary-as-film from Waad Al-Kateab. An urgent love letter to the filmmaker's daughter in the midst of constant life-threatening conflict.


9.

LITTLE WOMEN



Rich and dense adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's classic novel. Not the pedestrian retread it could have been. Greta Gerwig's keen direction and script gives it immediacy and sense of the personal.


8.

ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD


Quentin Tarantino's immersive re-imagining of Hollywood on the eve of Sharon Tate's murder. Eclectic, richly-evoked details (that L.A. radio soundtrack!) boost the experience.



7.

THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO



An elegiac story of a man trying to reclaim an old home in increasingly gentrified San Francisco. Beautifully-told, with touches of whimsy embedded in a tale of pervasive sadness and frustration. A bold directorial debut from Joe Talbot.



6.

3 FACES


Another powerful snapshot of Iranian life from Jafar Panahi. This one travels to the countryside where Jafar takes an actress to connect with a family of a daughter who may or may not have killed herself.



5.

PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE


A flashback story of a painter commisioned to do a portrait of an aristocratic woman. Since the subject is unwilling, the painter studies her in detail on their daily walks to capture her essence. I was taken aback how well-executed the compositions in this film are and by its inherent, seemingly unforced tension that brims from the screen.



4.

THE IRISHMAN


Martin Scorsese's much-ballyhooed Netflix epic is a much more modest-than-expected story of key mob hit man. Exquisitely edited by Thema Schoonmaker and Joe Pesci is particularly sly and compelling. "Is that all there is?" the film asks. This is a cremation, in effect, of the twentieth century but with sudden resonance within aspects of America's current presidency.



3.

MARRIAGE STORY



Noah Baumbach's tender rendering of a bi-costal divorce and the legal drama that consumes it. I feel like these kind of smart family dramas, ones made with such careful attention, aren't made too much in America anymore, so I found it particularly moving and refreshing.



2.

PAIN AND GLORY


Director Pedro Almodóvar and his male muse Antonio Banderas return with a rhapsodic, semi-autobiographical dream of a movie. Gorgeously executed and wryly funny. A story of the past and present colliding, and of filmmaking itself.




1.

PARASITE





Maybe it’s a bit anticlimactic to have this as another number one on another best of the year list. But I didn’t see a movie that was kicking on all cylinders as astoundingly as this one. The ensemble is great, the script is energetic and crackling, amazing set designs (that unforgettable house!), and striking social commentary of class division and the cannibalization of others that hits its points home (literally, like a stone), but also comes leaves you feeling muddled and uneasy. Watching again, knowing its twists and turns, I found it an even more stirring ride.



other notable films from 2019 (in order of preference):

A Hidden Life, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Midsommar, Birds of Passage, Hustlers, The Wild Pear Tree, Atlantics, Rosie, Joy, The Farewell, American Factory, Booksmart, Us, Diane, Honeyland, Daughter of Mine, The Souvenir, Apollo 11, Gloria Bell, Rocketman, Harriet, I Lost My Body, Wrestle, 1917, Ma, The Third Wife, The Image Book, An Elephant Sitting Still, Knives Out, Judy, Ready or Not, In Fabric, Transit, Sorry Angel, Holiday, Diamantino, A Woman at War, Uncut Gems, Queen & Slim, The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open, Climax, Just Mercy, Black Mother, Clemency, Downton Abbey, Never Look Away, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Under the Silver Lake, Velvet Buzzsaw, Jobe’z World, Her Smell, One Child Nation, Sauvage, Jojo Rabbit, The Lighthouse, The Report, Ash is the Purest White, A Land Imagined, Family, The Gospel of Eureka, Ms. Purple, Pet Sematary, State Like Sleep, I Used to Be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story, The Dead Don’t Die, Rust Creek, Fyre, Annabelle Comes Home, Furie, Crawl, Knock Down the House, High Flying Bird, Western Stars, Tigers Are Not Afraid, Dear Ex, Roll Red Roll

-Jeffery Berg

Monday, February 3, 2020

the turning


There have been so many incarnations and riffs off of Henry James' 1898 The Turn of a Screw--from 1961's Jack Clayton film The Innocents to Alejandro Amenábar's 2001 film The Others--that it seems unnecessary for yet another one. However Floria Sigismondi's gorgeous-looking The Turning is a moody update situated on a fog-drenched estate in the cellphone-less early 1990s. I call The Turning another entry in the recent string of Gen X-disillusionment pictures: from the taunted classmate desperately re-creating teendom in Ma, to adults in Us and It: Chapter 2 revisiting their demons. Even non-horror pictures like Marriage Story, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, and Hustlers are survivalist tales from different American perspectives that dabble in the thematics of social structures.


Mackenzie Davis, who was so appealing as the titular nanny in Tully--another piece of Gen X despair--returns here as governess Kate with a prominent blond bang and chin-length chop, roomy sweater and boot wardrobe and a hip little yellow sports car. She approaches her new employment in a gated, rambling mansion with awe. Leaving behind her best friend roommate (Kim Adis) and a mentally-disturbed mother (Joely Richardson), Kate seems determined "to make a difference" in the lives of parent-less children and perhaps has found a new idyllic existence. But things seem off with the introduction of the icy Mrs. Grose (Shakespearean actor Barbara Marten going all-in with a steely turn). And while little Flora (The Florida Project's Brooklynn Prince, doing here what she did best there: offbeat spontaneity) seems precious, the creaky mansion has its quirks--a twisting hedge maze, an eerie mannequin in the bedroom, and a shadowy, off-limits wing of the upper floor. When moody bad boy Miles (Finn Wolfhard) shows, Kate is rattled, and the evil ghost of former groundskeeper Quint (Niall Greig Fulton) starts making his presence known.


While nothing too surprising happens plot-wise in The Turning, and its conclusion is an almost disastrous muddled mess (my audience left in groans), I found myself intoxicated with the look and feel of the film, especially for a studio horror pic. Sigismondi is known for her film The Runaways and her incredible oeuvre of music videos for artists such as Bjork, Marilyn Manson and David Bowie. Her work here is often beautifully composed. Cinematographer David Ungaro captures the landscapes and gloomy interiors elegantly. Also bonus is a surprising, rich, grunge-era inspired soundtrack of newer and older artists (Courtney Love sings a catchy theme tune, "Mother"). I was also compelled by Davis, engaging throughout, who tows the tricky line between the film's sense of reality and, perhaps, insanity. This atmospheric flick is set under the spell of the news of Kurt Cobain's (perhaps the ultimate ghost of Gen-X) death which introduces the "present day." Even if the results of the film are a bit messy, I admired Sigismondi's risks, the vibe of the picture and its feel of a bygone time, lingered. ***

-Jeffery Berg

Sunday, January 26, 2020

rosie




In the beginning of Paddy Breathnach's film Rosie, a young woman (Sarah Greene) is in a car with three kids in the backseat and one in the passenger, desperately dialing numbers for a place to stay--for at least one night. Her husband John Paul (Moe Dunford) is working in a restaurant kitchen, almost at the end of his shift. The family, squeezed out of their last rented home when their landlord sold it, have dwindling options of a place to stay as each minute, each hour ticks by.


Taking place overall within the space of a near two days, Rosie, is a close, compelling, and breathtakingly anxious portrait of a family living out of their vehicle in Dublin. Breathnach, with cinematographer Cathal Watters, employs hand-held camera and set-ups of tight, cramped spaces to add to the feel of the movie's claustrophobic situation. Acclaimed writer Roddy Doyle's first original screenplay in years, is precise in its dialogue and devastating in its intimacy. What I appreciated about this film particularly is that while tension simmered throughout, Greene, in her rigorous, believable turn, doesn't constantly blow up at those all around her, who thwart her at nearly every turn. How many times can one scream and get anywhere? This pent-up howl is Rosie. Greene is aided by a young cast playing her children with grace and spontaneity. The film was released in limited release in the States in 2019, but has seemed to have fallen by the wayside in favor of flashier work. This is definitely another fine picture from our era in world cinema that compassionately and urgently addresses economic anxiety for those who have been ignored. ***1/2

-Jeffery Berg

Thursday, January 23, 2020

the wild pear tree



Sometimes a movie, seemingly without much flash, can take you on an unexpected journey. This was my experience watching Nuri Bilge Ceylan's absorbing drama The Wild Pear Tree. At over three hours, thoughts of trepidation about the length of the film immediately melted away; it's a compelling study of character and societal confinements, that moves along with a slow yet economic pace, framed in eye-catching photography (by Gökhan Tiryaki). The last film of Ceylan's I've seen was the highly-praised Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, which I found tedious, despite Tiryaki's incredible cinematography. Some of those night shots are burned into my memory.




In The Wild Pear Tree, Ceylan takes on the story of a struggling writer, Sinan Karasu (Dogu Demirkol), fresh out of studies and bumbling about his hometown of Çan on the eve of exams, which will, in part, determine his future. Karasu's family lives in a cramped house. Sinan's father Idris (Murat Cemcir) is a gambling addict, and from the little glimpses we get of his life through Sinan's perspective, his reputation seems to be notorious in town. Sinan tries peddling his book for publication--starting with the mayor (Kadir Çermik) and also trying to scrounge up some money to publish himself. Ceylan's more-than-meets the eye tale, interspersed with eerie dream sequences and some philosophical musings--including on religion (I was lost a bit in that aspect as musings on religion are usually a bit uninteresting to me), have a haunted, intriguing effect.


The camera stays close to Sinan, and his lumbering, blue-jeaned frame, as he moves across beautiful landscapes under varying climates (a sudden rainstorm, golden, summery sun and wind-blown greens, and bitter snow) or even inside a Trojan Horse statue. Outside of these striking visual and aural templates, what could have been a ponderous movie, feels loose and spry--perhaps in part to Demirkol's performance. Demirkol is a "non-actor," this being his first feature. He has a very ordinary appearance and body type, no frills or airs, and I think this helps add to the authenticity of the film. His character sometimes makes misguided decisions, leading to bruises and bit lips; he doesn't always listen carefully, and sometimes acts in a sort of unaffected, nonchalant way to those around him. Demirkol's loose, unstudied feel is one of the main strengths of the picture. Ceylan shows the limitations of Turkish men including the abilities to advance in any way in society--especially dreamy, creative types. Even as The Wild Pear Tree dips into some surreal, fever-dream visions, the movie stays grounded and precise. ***1/2

-Jeffery Berg

Sunday, January 19, 2020

my hindu friend


“We’re never going to have another Fellini film. That’s what matters.” That's a line Diego Fairman (Willem Dafoe) utters in Héctor Babenco's My Hindu Friend. This is a movie about coming to terms with finality. The Argentine-born Brazilian director Babenco may be most familiar to American audiences for his Oscar-winning film Kiss of the Spider Woman. He died at age 70 in 2016. My Hindu Friend is his last film, originally out in 2015, and just now hitting limited release in America. Like Bob Fosse's 1979 All that Jazz and this past year's Pedro Almodóvar's Pain and Glory, this is a director's unique and intensely personal vision of an artist facing their own mortality.



As Diego, Dafoe plays a version of Babenco, a formerly famous director, rail thin and bald from chemo treatments, his roping bones close to skin. He doesn't want to die in a hospital, but at home. But he spends much of this story in a hospital in the first hour of the film, undergoing the process of a painful transplant--"new blood" creating a new system--a new life. Dafoe, always a compelling thespian, plays his moments of pain and fear with his usual exactness. He's a man "going on a trip... not sure there's a way back." The hospital scenes are full of drudgery presented in a matter-of-fact way tinged with dry humor, like signing papers and listening to teams of doctors, specialists and nurses explaining risks. Among the bland and miserable setting, little visual juxtapositions occasionally flourish: a surfer on TV, coasting waves--so very far removed from Diego's physical condition; a stuffed gorilla on the floor, a Disney tie on a doctor, a poodle on the shirt of a nurse; medical machinery suddenly filmed with starry splendor.



These visual cues and the striking shots throughout by Mauro Pinheiro Jr. and also Zbigniew Preisner's very pretty score that drifts in and out, adds to this movie's peculiar beauty and are the main strengths of My Hindu Friend. When it goes for more plot-driven mechanics like Diego's brother asking for a million dollars for the transplant, or Diego's relationship with his wife Livia (Maria Fernanda Cândido), the film feels less interesting. The film unsuccessfully strains of the significance of the titular character. What I appreciated though was how messy the movie was--like the little frank, wine-soaked vignettes of his friends' conversations near the beginning of the film at Diego's wedding.



Eventually we see Diego in a stage of healing, but knowing the director's eventual end, we know this is a portrait of a man who seems to be hurriedly trying to get out as much as possible in his final years--including hallucinatory (complete with fade-outs) scenes with a mysterious man and glimmers of women in various stages of undressing (breasts are a-plenty) that he seems to be deeply attracted to. It is indeed Fellini-esque (and also Fosse-esque) to have this ravishing "much-ness," this striving for profundity in the face of death. And also a nostalgic, pounding love for old entertainment--a bedroom set from an Astaire / Rogers picture figures, as do songs like "Cheek to Cheek" (belted by Dafoe with irony in his hospital bed). Or a visit to an empty studio sound-stage--reliving some filmic glory in the cockpit of a plane. The backyard lightning storm scene set to "Singin' in the Rain" is in particular a stunner and one that finishes out this director's vision, in joyous, dangerous ecstasy. ***

-Jeffery Berg



Friday, January 17, 2020

a hidden life


There’s an early moment of joy in Terrence Malick’s rambling epic A Hidden Life where an Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner), and young daughters are playing a game. “Up in the clouds” on the verdant hills of their land, Franz is blindfolded, trying to capture one of his kin as they lightheartedly try to misdirect him with the sounds of soft metal clangs. Encapsulated in this sweet, brief moment is much of the themes and motifs of the picture. Set during WWII, this idyllic village is removed from the horrors of war. Yet the tensions of a world “stronger than me” trickle into their existence. Franz was a real-life conscientious objector who would later become a martyr of the Catholic Church. His and Frani's story is portrayed here with elegance and reverence by Malick.


I am one who can endure even the weakest of Malick's pictures, which he delivered in a row over the past few years (Knight of Cups, To the Wonder and Song to Song). If nothing else, I can luxuriate in their beauty--those swooping cameras capturing sun-drenched fields and sky. In A Hidden Life, he employs cinematographer Jörg Widmer, who was a camera operator on some of Malick's past projects. The sweeping landscapes of this setting are undoubtedly breathtaking to behold. But what makes A Hidden Life more than just pretty pictures is how we see the townspeople turn against Fani as Franz refuses to serve. The landscape, once idyllic and raptrously beautifully, and so connected to the humans who live there, sours. We see the mud and grueling work that Fani has to undergo to keep her family and farm alive while her husband is off imprisoned by the Nazis for his resistance. And while we are in her unsettled but beautiful world, we know outside there is rampant destruction. Even Franz's grim prison-life is cut-off from many of the worst atrocities of the time. This limited perspective drawn some scorn and has caused a rift in reactions to the film, but the close scope is both symbolic of the failings of humankind and the impossibility of an all-encompassing view.



While Malick's visions often feel of deep religiosity, in A Hidden Life, there's hints of complexity in its views towards the church--especially the way its followers turn their back on Franz and Fani. Besides the soft clanging sounds of the at-play scene, bells abound throughout the picture--signifying arrays of meanings: mourning, warning, fear, the passage of time. There's also a contrast between the church's hushed rooms, with its gorgeously painted ceilings, and its spectacular failings to address the horrors of humankind. We even hear some philosophizing from the church's painter on how people want to see their deities: gilded, high and pure. Maybe it's a reflection too on Malick's own aesthetics, how his standards of capturing high beauty sometimes leaves little beyond its visual allure.


Unlike his uneven rout of recent films, Malick has found a subject here of clarity and is close to his heart. The principal players here are deeply moving and committed and keep the film from floating entirely away. Also adding to its more grounded quality is James Newton Howard's score, mixed with operatic classical pieces, which features an enveloping, coalescing theme. One flaw that continues however is the burgeoning running time. The length here seems excessive and I wondered how shattering its impact would have been with a shorter length, especially with the repetitious nature of the story. Yet, there's only one Malick and his singular vision and telling of this tale is appreciated. ***1/2

-Jeffery Berg