Wednesday, June 30, 2021


Like many features in recent years, Director Janicza Bravo's Zola (which she also co-wrote with Jeremy O. Harris)  is a tale borne out of an American era in the midst an ongoing proliferation of screens, digitized communications and widening gulfs of disparities. Whether or not one revels in the technological changes of our time, a film like Zola, based upon a Twitter thread by A'Ziah "Zola" King, can put to test one's views and opinions. 

The slew of trailers proceeding this film reveal a confused era of movies. West Side Story's effectively simple soundscape of Rita Moreno's wistful recording of "Somewhere" is an incoming event movie that harkens both forward and backwards. Also in the mix was a Hugh Jackman movie: Lisa Joy's Reminiscenceset in near-future of drowning cityscapes. Jackman's hulking frame, submerged in water and wired up Minority Report-style. Rather than predicting crimes of the future, he's delving back into the past. "Nostalgia became a way of life. There wasn’t a lot to look forward to,” he intones. “Nothing is more addictive than the past.” Released in an America of division and disturbing record heatwaves, Zola's tale can be somewhat simplistic and lacking, but it feels very new, very of this time, and it is directed with rigorous ingenuity by Bravo.

Taylour Paige's waitress / stripper Zola travels with new stripper friend Riley Keough's rowdy Stefani from Detroit to Florida. A rippling half-mast Confederate flag ominously feels like opening curtains to the second half's disturbing odyssey into sex work and crime. Their driver, named X here (played with fitting, unrestrained histrionics by the always great Colman Domingo), is a vicious and cunning pimp. And Stefani's boyfriend Derreck (Nicholas Braun, who has already perfected relentless goofy cluelessness on Succession) is in tow. The plot is a bit ho-hum, with Zola's occasional narration sometimes interjecting with trite "you won't believe what happened next"-kind of jabs. These gestures to the audience, like most winding tweet storms that want to be read, is supposed to shock, but usually is just there to keep you following along. Despite the narrow focus and the violence within the story, Zola, with her resilience and sly humor, is a welcome guide. The treatment isn't the glam hijinks of the first half of 2019's Hustlers (note that Zola was shot in 2018); Zola is a harsh journey in its few days span --one where money doesn't really get anyone anywhere or really obtain anything and doesn't even get to those who have earned it. The movie isn't designed, despite her layered turn, to make you marvel at how good Jennifer Lopez looks at 50. Instead this film is ridden with discomforting images of the body and sex slavery. Zola's story is told through the vitality of a blazingly good cast, and the quietly marvelous and humorously reactive Paige kept me fully rapt.

Some have complained of the film's lack of backstory for its characters. We never truly get to know much of them--their lives and relationships--something we've become accustomed to with all of our hours and hours of episodic television. Zola's mother calls at one point, and we only see and hear Zola's terse replies. But the film seems to be intensely avoiding the mining of too much development. In fact, its prop-like treatment of its characters is exactly the essence of social media itself: a boxy mirage of statements, clips and videos. The jester of the piece, Braun's Derreck, is the anthesis of Twitter. He's fumbly, inarticulate--the opposite of pithy. Both Zola and Stefani have an ease with their language--a sharp-fanged quickness. Sometimes people and sounds seem to be caught in loops (two boys dribbling basketball on heat-baked motel concrete)--like replayed, cyclical clips--a perpetual back and forth that never feels resolved. The framing of the film too, by Ari Wegner (who has shot other visually-intriguing works like In Fabric), in its tight 16mm and mellow, filtered, washed-out presentation, often feels like scrolling through pics, and keeps everything within rigid cropping--as if we can't see beyond the frame to more expansive visual elements. The movie is cut by Joi McMillon (who did fantastic work co-editing Moonlight) and her choices and rhythms work in-sync with Wegner's visuals. Mica Levi's twinkly score--heavy on moments of silence, dissonance, harps and vibraphones, is like a devious sprinkling of fairy dust upon this Wizard of Oz-like fever dream. I was impressed by the daringness of Levi's broody score for Jackie, but the music here, perhaps because it's more pleasing and light and feels more intrinsic in this picture. It's a complicated soundtrack that I'd like to investigate further in its structures and effects. Between cast and crew, Bravo has created a distinctive vision.

Last year, I was floored by the idiosyncratic, series-best episode of Mrs. America entitled "Houston." Directed by Bravo, the story centers upon Sarah Paulson's Alice's Alice in Wonderland-esque drug trip through the 1977 National Women's Conference. Through Alice's loopy perspective, the episode relayed both the chaotic and unifying elements of the event. Alice, who originally opposes the Equal Rights Amendment, suddenly, and waywardly, and accidentally, finds herself among the women's rights supporters she once railed against, including Gloria Steinem. The episode, which movingly opens with the blaze of the nationwide torch relay in Seneca Falls, ends up focusing upon a transformational moment for one woman among many. In Zola, even if the allegiance to the main character's perspective can make her supporting players sometimes end up feeling stock--the events lacking a more ambiguous eye, Bravo's unique ability to follow one's journey through chaos with pathos, levity, and darkness, with the aid of her team's alluring craft, is a gift, and a welcome one in our jumbled American cinematic era. ***1/2

-Jeffery Berg

Friday, June 25, 2021


One of my favorite artists and remixers, Polo & Pan, have released an LP, Cyclorama, and "Magic" (a dash of Pino Donaggio, a dash of Pilot) is one of the highlights!

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

southern ocean

Visualizer video of The Forms' "Southern Ocean" is an eye-popping journey with the background of their complex, mind-melding single.

The first hint of what is to come from The Forms’ upcoming third album, it serendipitously arrives just as National Geographic cartographers announce that the swift current circling Antarctica is worthy of their own name: the Southern Ocean.

Order music here.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

the devil

Devilish new tune + music video from BANKS.

"The Devil" is about being stronger than the demons that haunt you. About rebirth and transformation into the forces of nature we were born to be. -BANKS

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Sunday, June 6, 2021

the ancient woods

Two recently seen films, A Quiet Place Part II and Mindaugas Survila's documentary The Ancient Woods, in very different genres and modes, interestingly could both be interpreted as retreats to the "noiseless." Survila's piece, without the comfort of voiceover and very little human interaction in general, gives us portraits of animal life within "one of the last remaining patches of old growth forest in Lithuania." The results are, at times, stirring and captivating and akin to a thriller: we watch as a wide-eyed mouse titters near a coiled snake. Perhaps it says something about myself that while watching this mesmerizing little film (running for 86-minutes, which seems just right) my mind drifted towards modernity: the air conditioning's staccato pattering in the theater; the wonderment of the use of camera (Survila also shot the film); and the marveling of the film's intricate, exquisite sound design: all the minutiae of the woods and its creatures--crawling ants, the flapping of wings, the humming of bees (this is definitely a movie that works best in a dark theater, with a good sound system and an attentive, quiet audience). After the picture, which left a faint but indelible impression, I went sunning on the pier, one of the things, besides seeing a nature doc in a theater,  that can connect a city dweller to the natural world. In a moment later that day, that reflected just how disconnected I am from that world, in the shower, I wondered, what is this foreign thing I am looking at circling by the drain? A remnant of a rubber band? No, just a blade of grass. ***

-Jeffery Berg

Friday, June 4, 2021

the conjuring: the devil made me do it

Despite the cranked-up volume and antics, there's now a creaky listlessness upon the Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) filmic saga. The formula of retro-set porpcorny horror bookended with pearly religious-tinted sentimentality has grown quite stale. Between the lackluster horror films I've seen so far in recent years, I am wondering if this is just fertile ground for a new, breakout movie or at least a very engaging one.  The The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It is based upon the Arne Johnson (Ruairi O'Connor) case, where the rare defense of demonic possession was used in a murder trial. 

Michael Chaves, who also directed The Curse of la Llorona, and writer David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick, create a very disjointed picture that unnecessarily toggles through point of views and timelines, while showing the enduring relationship between Ed and Lorraine and their pursuit of conquering the source of Arne's possession. The cinematography by Michael Burgess is attractive aesthetically, but its unvarying dark shades and tones began to lull me into a state of sleepiness as the film shouldered through its needless over two hour run time. The sound design has too many scenes that go from zero to one thousand--a gimmicky (and unpleasant) jump scare trick (remember how creepy that simple handclap was in The Conjuring?--do we need these blaring hysterics?). There are some memorable set pieces--like a rat-infested crawlspace and a sinister waterbed--that deliver nice moments. In this film, that peaks too early from the outset with a noisy exorcism, the smaller-scale works better than its thrashing attempts at the grandiose.  

Set in 1981, I kept thinking back to that notable year of cinematic horror--it's impossible to replicate the atmosphere of the films of that time. Horror period pieces and homages have worked sometimes to great effect (Ti West's The House of the Devil and original Conjuring) over the past decade or so, but the conceit is wearing out. Perhaps, instead of raking the past with songs (Blondie's brilliant "Call Me," figuring here gratuitously) and accurate costumes (Lorraine's ruffle-neck poplin blouses!--props to designer Leah Butler), we need more horror of our time that creates a different atmosphere that's still simultaneously effective?  Farmiga often makes these pictures work, with steely seriousness and faint, glint-in-the-eye humor. I was sad some of her good acting moments had to be intercut with atrociously cheesy flashbacks. Her, and the quality, appealing cast, isn't enough to overcome the retread material. **

-Jeffery Berg 

Wednesday, June 2, 2021