Sunday, January 31, 2021


With elements of Brian DePalma's Sisters, Erin Vassilopoulos's twisty Superior dives into themes of duality, identity, and bonds between twins (played by Ani Mesa and co-writer Alessandra Mesa) with stylish flair. To show their divergent personalities, Alessandra Mesa's Vivian is the uptight, homemaker type who schedules everything out, including sex with her husband Michael (Jake Hoffman); Ani Mesa's Marian is the more carefree spirit, in a punk rock band. When Marian, on the run from her abusive partner Robert (Pico Alexander), shows up unexpectedly at Vivian's house, both of their worlds are upended. Luckily Vassilopoulos smartly blurs the lines, visually and thematically, between these two women in unusual ways as they "switch" lives, and take on one another's characteristics ("you make my memories," one of them says). Even as I write this review, reflecting upon the film, I've mixed up the names between the two! 

The movie is a thriller, in some ways, and also a drama of clashing personalities and survival. Set in October 1987 and shot with the grainy-feel of 16mm (the photography is by Mia Cioffi Henry; interestingly, a camera figures as an important use of self-defense), Vassilopoulos employs some of the visual and thematic panache of Almodovar (red! - the header picture of the red dress and the mirror is one of the more exciting shots in the movie) in a bland, wintry New York state suburb. I'm not sure if these visual choices were intentional homages or not, but a range of influences feel naturally woven within the film. A shot of a character running on a foggy night bridge reminded me of Tobe Hooper's 1986 Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2

Even though the movie, and its lapses into nightmarish visions (wolves on the prowl) is a period piece, its more suggestive of the era, more of a mood / dream piece than a completely accurate depiction (Blues Traveler and Matchbox 20 albums are visible on a CD jukebox). The looks and costuming (by Allison Pearce who also worked on Black Bear)--acid wash, jump suits, high-waisted pale denim jeans and oversized white sneakers, severe bob haircuts are fun to look at, but not distractingly flashy. The music by Jessica Moss enhances the atmosphere, as do, with the help of music supervisor Dan Wilcox, the well-chosen songs like "Spacer Woman" by Charlie and My Bloody Valentine's "Soft as Snow (But Warm Inside)." The sets look as if the crew shopped rural New York state second-hand shops to dot the wood-paneled interiors of the sets. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, as this film has a low-budget charm. There's some humor too, with both Ani and Alessandra's appealing performances, Hoffman as uptight husband and the promising Stanley Simons as goofy ice cream shack manager. While the film is an entertaining one, there are deeper themes of escaping trauma that make it feel more substantial and mysterious. ***

-Jeffery Berg

Saturday, January 30, 2021


There are comedies of manners and there are dramas of manners. Some of Writer / Director Fran Kranz's daring and absorbing Mass brings out the latter. Much of the film unfolds within one room in an Episcopalian church between two sets of parents, both grieving losses of their sons, and both confronting one another in person intimately for the first time. One couple's son committed a mass murder in a school; the second couple's son was one of his victims. Before this meeting, a room has to be set up, and we witness the passive aggressive banalities of this occasion through a woman (Breeda Wool), an assistant at the church, bringing a grocery bag of superfluous snacks and bottled water. Folding chairs have to be placed, the table pitched in the right way. In some sense, it could be meta of setting up a film itself--this light needs to go there, the camera here, this prop there. The drama of manners is all the little tics and annoyances one can have with one another while preparing an emotional event. It may seem insignificant in the face of the wallops to come, but the set-up, and Wool's performance, positions the film with a light, but not shallow, touch in an extraordinary way. 

A cynical viewer may find Mass as purely an exercise in showing off good acting--unseemly for such harrowing, true-to-life subject matter. But as in many enduring films and plays that echo the devastations of our time, Mass unfurls itself as a study in human behavior and cements a belief in the vitalness of human interaction. I thought of the mood and feel of Robert Redford's Ordinary People: from the simple white typeface against a black background of its opening credits, to its portraits of wrenching loss, to its awkward interactions--its drama of manners--that skirt around the tragedy in the center (a gesture of flowers, statements like "I didn't mean to offend" and "I say that as compassionately as I can").

Kranz's script is full of complexities, his direction and blocking well-orchestrated. The couples start out close together at their roundtable but as they talk more explicitly about the tragedy, they slowly start to move apart from one another in the room), the film would not work without its actors. Amazingly, attributed to both cast and script, the film never feels dull in its relative staticity. 

The word acting is in the word distracting, but these are actors who are able to work sorcery in expressing a lived-in existence. Raspy-voiced, a pinched countenance holding back a mixture of volatile anger and grief, Martha Plimpton's performance as Gail is compelling on every level from small moments to a near-end tearful monologue of a humorous moment from her child's past ("the child on him, I could feel so much life"). The same can be said of Ann Dowd as well, an actor who is always a pleasure to watch in her transference of so much feeling (in good and in villainy), who registers peaks and valleys of emotional release. During my viewing, right after Dowd's final story, church bells started to ring out my window, an eerie coincidence. Her and Plimpton's performances have stuck with me for hours afterwards. As Richard, Reed Birney, might have one of the trickier roles, probably a character that's usually inexpressive, and the only one truly buttoned-up and dressed-up for an occasion--in a tie and jacket--he seems stuck to data ("You have access to all his records...") and resistant to the meeting overall; but Birney is never one-note: his performance registers range, and here and there, through remembrances and conflict, we see him break.  It's telling that Dowd's Linda waits to tell her final story after her husband has left the church. Throughout, we see Richard and Linda more at ease to talk freely of their son as a young child; but as they talk about him closer to being older and the age in which he committed murder, they hold back, "trying to restore the memory of who he was." Overall Mass is an ensemble picture of masterclass acting, but there is no gimmickry here. By the end, after a moment of silence, a sort of spell is broken, and the drama of manners comes back ("Thank you for the flowers..."). And finally we are left with a field, a contrast to the small room we were so cloistered in,  below a mountain where the school lays, a ribbon blowing on a barbed fence in the howling wind. ***1/2

-Jeffery Berg

son of monarchs

After watching French-Venezuelan Writer / Director (and also Biologist!) Alexis Gambis's Son of Monarchs, I wondered the ways it could be pegged as Science Fiction. On paper, the film is a straightforward drama about a biologist Mendel (Tenoch Huerta) who travels back and forth (both physically and in haunted memory) from New York City to his hometown in Mexico to visit his family. In her book Screening Space, a vital work on Sci-Fi cinema, Vivian Sobchack writes, "The SF film is a film genre which emphasizes actual, extrapolative, or speculative science and the empirical method, interacting in a social context with the lesser emphasized, but still present, transcendentalism of magic and religion, in an attempt to reconcile man with the unknown." These elements of transcendentalism and science are definitely woven in the fabric of Son of Monarchs, even if it feels like a direct tale of a man torn between and or trying to unite two different worlds. Sometimes this drama is subverted. I definitely felt the first half of the film was going on a familiar, traditional path of self-realization and discovery, but then it flips when Mendel goes back to his work and life in New York. Mendel is a very quiet character, so Huerta has to carry much of his role through expressions of his inner whirring. In some ways, I thought of how Gambis's piece would be a particularly fascinating novel, with interiority and flashback its main crux. 

Visually, the film is appealing to look at (the photography is by Alejandro Mejía) and involving. The movie errs however in its scenes of butterfly-filled forests of Mendel's childhood in Michoacán. The overtly sunlit photography, the smiling children--it feels flimsy, sentimental (perhaps because we are viewing it through the lens of Mendel as a child); I yearned for the imagery there to be more layered as it is in the rest of the movie. Obviously butterfly-filled forests are going to pretty--could it be a more arresting visual if more complex, less gilded, more contrasting? 

Son of Monarchs is at its strongest when it gets weird, when surreal images coalesce with the mundane--such as microscopic shots of butterfly wings, larvae in petri dishes, peeling away layers with a scalpel and with squelchy sounds, a bravura tattoo-making sequence (a permanent, tangible etching within the film). Also intriguing are the human relationships with the animal world--including the idea of spirits of the dead moving within animals ("to continue the life cycle"). There's also a scene in New York where a woman does performance art of "what's it like to live... to embody a tree?"

There is much to appreciate in the ways in which Gambis's movie traces animalistic symbolism in varied manners, from the spiritual to the corporeal (hand shadow animals on the wall) to the political. In Mexico, we see the ramifications of deforestation and copper factory mining (including the death of Mendel's parents): the tensions between the survival of human-life and natural world ("This land belongs to no one," a character says). In America, we see the rectangular buildings, object-filled rooms of New York; a former horrible President is referenced as well, from his immigration policies to him calling Mexicans "animals." All of these elements are intrinsic and compelling in Son of Monarchs, though it can feel a bit weighty for a movie fronted with the quiet, somewhat nondescript Mendel, despite Huerta's strong acting. Still this is a worthwhile film to investigate. ***

-Jeffery Berg

Friday, January 29, 2021


Beautifully assembled of mostly hand-drawn animation, sometimes interjected with newsreel footage, and based upon Danish director Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s friend's life, Flee is a haunting documentary of a refugee's experiences. The film begins with dark lines moving over a white screen, breath, running and solemn strings (Uno Helmersson, who composed the terrific music for the documentary The Painter and Thief, pens another evocative score here; besides the score there are excellent choices in pop music tunes as well). "What does home mean to you?" A voiceover intones. "Home, somewhere safe... you know you can stay and you don't have to move on. Something that is not temporary." 

This sense of displacement is an ongoing theme throughout Flee both visually and contextually. Even our "talking head" is somewhat askew, an expression of discomfort on his face. Rasmussen toys with this traditional doc motif by asking the subject, Amin (a pseudonym to protect his identity; a name that happens to be interestingly close to the word "anonymous"), to adjust his posture; what seems to be Amin talking to us straight-on, is actually revealed to be a man laying down, recalling his painful history. In lieu of the idea of running, escape and survival--there's also the aspect of being able to relay one's trauma at one's own "pace." How much does one emotionally feel comfortable sharing and at what speed can they build to a point of unlocking distressing, horrific remembrances?  

As the narrative illustrates the desperation and despair in the quest for "home," the film can be both serious and playful, like Amin himself. We watch Amin's coming-of-age story and budding sexuality (fantasizing about Jean-Claude Van Damme) as a young boy, wearing his sister's dresses around Kabul, a-ha's "Take on Me" on his headphones. And later, his life in hiding in a rough Moscow after the fall of communism (Mexican soap operas pass the time for Amin's family as they wait to know their fate). The pop references work really well as both a source of joy and dark irony: like a crowd assembled around a new McDonald's in Russia; Roxette's "Joyride" playing as Amin eyes his teen-hood crush; Ace of Base's "Wheel of Fortune" suggesting themes of fate and luck in love paired with Amin's dire circumstances. A frayed portrait of memory, Flee and Amin tell us things that are burned into the mind, and things that are forgotten [a trek through gray, cold dark woods flickers with a moving color of flame and then a child's light-up shoes--a particularly eerie image of consumerism, identity, desperation in hiding inherent within the plight of any refugee crisis). As Amin tells his story at a later age, there is a sense of relief to see he now lives in relative comfort as an out queer man with his fiancé, Kasper. Yet, nothing is perfect, and a certain restlessness still lingers, especially as they look for a new home together. There's simultaneously a certain distance and intimacy to the animation, such as an ordinary scene of showing Amin and Kasper cooking in the kitchen (the familiar, "real-life" tinny sound of docs is there, but the visual is rich and warm and artful rather than mundanely "realistic"). Because the animation is so aesthetically beautiful, it has an enveloping quality of getting closer to the story, especially in its well-crafted, sometimes heartbreaking dramatizations; a small boat of Sweden-bound refugees, smuggled by human traffickers, waving at the towering Norwegian cruise ship, the passengers above gawking with flashes of cameras, is particularly striking and an appalling visual cue of ongoing world-wide injustice and inequalities. Rasmussen smartly stays out of the way and instead paints a compassionate, non-didactic portrait that invites larger questions and revelations of refugee crises of the past and present through the lens of just one man's story. ***

-Jeffery Berg

magic mirror

I am digging the mid to late-70s vibe of Pearl Charles's record Magic Mirror.

You'll hear shades of ABBA, the Hues Corportation, Wings and Fleetwood Mac in the instrumentation and melodies, toppped by Charles's alt-country-twang vocals.

From Kanine Records bio:

Pearl Charles has been playing music since she was 5 years old. At 18, she formed country duo The Driftwood Singers with Christian Lee Hutson, singing and playing guitar and autoharp. At 22, she joined garage rock band The Blank Tapes as drummer. After two fun-filled years immersed in the rock and roll lifestyle, she decided it was time to pursue her own songwriting, and began developing the songs that formed 2015′s eponymous debut EP.  Drawn to poppy hooks and catchy choruses, Charles draws on what she loves about the 60s, 70s and 80s while developing her unique style as a solo artist.

In 2018, Pearl released debut album, Sleepless Dreamer, which Rough Trade described as "The best country pop we've heard in years" and Buzzfeed called her "A modern June Carter meets Lana Del Rey."  With the upcoming release of the follow up, Magic Mirror, out January 15, 2021, Pearl leans into furthering her own brand of country-disco.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Tuesday, January 26, 2021


Just discovered Jengi, courtesy of The Magician's blazin' hot fire Magic Tape 100 (to drop tonight!).

Here's a wild, distorted, housey mix of a Carly Simon disco classic.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

art by jenna kowalke

Here is some striking art from Jenna Kowalke.

When I make art, I think about art exhibition spaces, artworks and objects sitting in museum storage areas, the relationship between writing lyrics and composing songs, and chance encounters. I consider marks on paper or canvas to be objects which I assemble or group into collages or collections.

Follow & see more of Jenna Kowalke's work on Instagram here.

falling in love

 Uptown Funk remixes Surface's bright 1983 single "Falling in Love."