Tuesday, March 31, 2020

coral road

Since Garrett Hongo's Coral Road is a "pilgrimage"--mostly through stories of Hongo's ancestry of Japanese-Americans in Hawaii--it makes sense that it begins in motion, "out of Hilo." The winding shapes of the poems feel fluid, akin to the constant ruminating of the past and the forward push of moving and thinking in the present. There are many long, elegant sentences throughout, rich in detail and sound. In "A Child's Ark," a poem which the speaker remembers a favorite TV show from the 1950s, the idea of movement is expressed in succinct verbiage where "kids would wend their way through the attractive curves of a game path." This is one of the more unassuming and surprising poems here and is, in a way, the crux of the book itself. Elegantly-constructed, Hongo illustrates how haunted the speaker is since youth in re-creating--"mapping out a village of my own" from distinct physical and emotional details that can be pulled. Many of the poems confront art and artists, photographs and pieces of history (including the scraps of census and immigration docs included within the book) with verve and complexity. I am thinking of the second section in particular of letters from the American Japanese detained in the country during WWII which summon Hikmet and Neruda. In the third section, the poet speaks through an artist: there's a plotting of dense vision and detail which ultimately ends up with "limed pigments"--"my symbols spare and cerulean." I was particularly amazed there, how Hongo is able to move through so much and ultimately end on something beautiful, simple. This dissonance between muchness and "the little to tell" runs throughout. As do images of fire in all sorts of ways, from a cane field ablaze, to torches, comets, "alabaster light over the empty Hawaiian sea," and a lit cigarette. Hongo also touches upon the remove of the artist: painted infernos are merely "benign." What more can be done sometimes other than looking--whether at the remnants of an old Shell station (the word "shell" a play upon the literal sea-laden image which this book is soaked in) or in "Holiday in Honolulu"--a photograph of Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong--and, out of so much richness and pain, trying to express everything simple, deceptively so, and blue.

-Jeffery Berg

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

familiar strangers

Murat Sayginer, the talented Turkish creator of The Flying Fish, which I reviewed last September, brings a sense of dizziness and calm in his short film, Familiar Strangers. Using "deepfake technology," (a notable effect in The Irishman) Sayginer gives us a rotating two-line assembly of two hundred-fifty four faces, all famous actors. Admittedly, I didn't recognize them as actors for the first few seconds of the near four minute short (you can visit Murat's insta for a closer look of the individuals). A pleasant, hazy blending of all the faces was the immediate effect it had on me, before noticing their specific features. Familiar Strangers is backed with Bach's Air on the G String, which adds to its timeless feel. As he did in The Flying Fish, Sayginer mixes classicism with new tech effectively and evocatively. ***

-Jeffery Berg

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

the way back

Ben Affleck has long been an actor of particular blankness. He is a gruff, imposing, masculine presence, without much tics to speak of--akin to a certain kind of Hollywood star that lends well to audience projection. In The Way Back, Affleck, who has battled addiction and the ensuing media storms around it, plays a former high school basketball star who is now an alcoholic construction worker. Relationships with his family and his wife, in current separation, are strained. Suddenly, in what seems to be literal divine intervention, he is asked by the head priest of his old high school to coach the basketball team. Through Jack's (Affleck) brash, unconventional style and long untapped personal talents, he whips the team into shape and guides them to hard-fought victories.

This is the simple framework of Gavin O'Connor's plainspoken film, in a similar vein to his craggy sports drama Warrior. We watch Jack before, and also in the midst of, balancing his life as a coach while hitting his local bar, and also sneaking hard liquor into coffee tumblers, and going back again and again to the fridge for cans of beer. The film gets tripped up a little mid-way by giving us the reason why Jack may have turned to drinking and is so emotionally blocked and removed (this also happened in Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea, featuring Affleck's brother Casey in his pent-up Oscar-winning lead--yet, the shape and feel of that film feels both much more organic and elegantly constructed). Both films show the difficulties men can face expressing their emotions and dealing with grief. The Way Back ends up over-explaining in a few treacly stretches. Still, Ben Affleck's effective turn, the sturdy ensemble, Rob Simonsen's bittersweet score, and the grayish, weathered feel (the cinematography is by Eduard Grau) of the movie, helps it stay afloat. It also--thankfully--occasionally eschews some sports drama cliches, which for a mainstream Hollywood movie with a familiar arc, is pretty admirable. **1/2

-Jeffery Berg

Friday, March 6, 2020

scream, queen! my nightmare on elm street

One of my earliest memories of a horror movie that truly frightened me to my core was Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge. Not only the school bus intro but one glimpse of Freddy's shadowy profile out the window in the yard. This was still when Freddy (Robert Englund) was a terrifying menace and lesser a gooey, wisecracking menace. I was around seven years old or so at a friend's sleepover, who rented it from our local video store. The video cassette covers for the Nightmare series, like many of my generation, is burned in my brain.

The movie soon faded a bit from memory and hasn't been one that I've gone back to too often in the Nightmare saga (admittedly that would be the first, third and, my favorite, the fourth in the group). When I would later watch the bus scene as an adult, it seemed clunky and funny; I am fascinated that I was petrified of it as a child. Also missing for me as a child (and not mentioned out loud by my sleepover cohorts) was the overt gay subtext in the film--though the imagery of inexpressible, sweat-soaked sense of panic that lingered through much of my adolescence, is what still immediately comes to mind when I think of Elm Street 2. Little did I know then as a child, watching in a sleeping bag in the dark on VHS, the plight gay men were going through at the time, including the film's lead actor.

The documentary has been a vital part of recent years of unearthing niche subjects and making them feel more universal. The extraordinarily in-depth Never Sleep Again was a quintessential study of the Nightmare on Elm Street films, and one that left anyone fascinated by the movies on a high of all the interviews and commentary.

Roman Chimienti and Tyler Jensen's Scream, Queen! My Nightmare On Elm Street hones in on the lead of Nightmare 2, Mark Patton. Patton was a young, attractive up-and-coming star who was rising to fame in the midst of the McCarthy-esque, homophobic era of AIDS. Scream, Queen!, a brisk, seemingly frivolous study, traces this era quite astutely, with biting clips galore from the mediascape of the times. Often, the industry becomes its own monster. Patton, who is still ridiculed to this day for his part in Nightmare 2, was told by his agent to "act straight" and basically lost his way in the entertainment world thereafter. This sensitive topic of "straight-acting" has rarely been brought up by movies or documentaries in general, though it remains an inherent cog in the Hollywood machine. Just last night I viewed this year's The Way Back, where a burly Ben Affleck's sensitive cry-side is buried under layers of shouty, masculine machismo uplift. The straight man and his bristling masculinity still remains an alluring role model for men. Patton's casting as the "final girl" archetype of a slasher pic still seems quite subversive.

Scream, Queen! opens with dazzling montages of horror movies of the past, its rich tradition and its appeal to gay men in particular (the monster as "bully"; the final girl as wish fulfillment). Overall, it's well-edited and well-scored (an appropriately throbbing synth nostalgic ride by Alexander Taylor). When it centers upon Patton, it's at its most alive and intimate. We see a brief autobiographical sketch of him, all through photographs and film, and then to his present state--living away in a beautiful, artsy little dwelling in Mexico. Now, his appearance weathered by illness and hurt, he's seen as an activist, emerging out of his home for American horror conventions and screenings, to speak about his experiences from the heart. The director of Nightmare 2, Jack Sholder, seems strangely uncomfortable of his movie's homoerotic subtext--as if it were something to wash away rather than embrace--something to him that's a curious, morbid accident. When Patton finally confronts the screenwriter of Nightmare 2, who was long dismissive and jocular of both Patton's performance sexuality, Patton's brow shakes, as if he is nervously and finally coming to terms with a demon that has long followed him. It's an exquisite scene and one that compliments the gory struggles of his character in the original film. Ultimately, there is catharsis in this unique doc and celebration. ***

-Jeffery Berg