Friday, January 21, 2022

physical megamix

I'm loving that we got this lovely "Physical Megamix" in celebration of the 40th anniversary of Olivia Newton John's classic pop album.

Order the deluxe re-release of Physical here.

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

first to love

Here's the music video for Maia Friedman's (of Dirty Projectors) "First to Love."

Plum, pulsing beat, sunny guitar strums, and Maia's delicate vocals make for lovely listen. 

The album is out March 11th.

Saturday, January 15, 2022

wheel of fortune and fantasy

Ryûsuke Hamaguchi's Drive My Car became last year's critics' consensus darling, winning top prizes from the major groups: the rare trifecta picture win from New York, Los Angeles, and the National Society of Film Critics. Perhaps what's striking a nerve is the film's clean, enigmatic, impressive structuring (the stirring, shapely script is truly a work of art), and also its inherent ambition, but also modesty, as it presents its themes of grief in a time of collective grief--and uncertainty--across the globe. It too could be its key visual cue: an indelible cherry red car, blazing vividly against a mass of bland, neutral-toned modernity. 

But I personally found myself more enraptured and attuned to a less splashily received film from Hamaguchi last year, the sharp and utterly exquisite Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy. Because of its three-tale structure and compact runtime, it felt more like a potent punch, hitting me with a stronger sense of whimsy and melancholy. Both films, however, show a filmmaker and writer who is keenly perceptive.

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is an anthology picture of three short stories, set in the real (and imagined) modern world. The triptych feels connected through premises of mistaken identities, coincidence, miscommunications, and loss. They also feature three distinct female voices at their centers. As a musical motif, Schumann's gentle "Kinderszenen, Op: 15: No. 1” (a piece that personifies the innocence of youth) sets the dreamy, spry tone of each chapter. 

While the stories are perfectly assembled and stand well on their own, as a collection, they build one by one to the emotional heft of the final piece in its aching human connections and misconnections. Sometimes the stories speak to each other and to the film itself, in content and structure. There's an in-joke within the cheekily titled second piece, "Door Wide Open," where an author (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) muses upon his sex scene (read aloud at great length by another character in the film--similarly to listening to Chekhov read by a woman on a tape player in Drive My Car's red Saab) in his Akutagawa prize-wining novel; "Having this appear in the middle," he says dryly, "I figured readers would want to continue reading until the end." Overall, this film is a beautiful encapsulation differing gradients of relationships. The optimism of budding love of one character is juxtaposed with the feelings of an old love. And by the time we reach the conclusion, a character's affections are never fully realized--to the point where one misremembers a face, a name. This final section, "Once Again," is the most moving and rich, set in an inverse of the current pandemic where the online world is shut down, and people have gone back to sending letters and buying physical media (for those of us who enjoy physical media, this is a solid joke). This computer virus is just the background of the tale, but this lack of access to the internet has caused a sort of ghostly amnesia that's integral to the plot: what was the name of that person you may have fallen love with years ago, what did they look like? This eloquent story captures a touch of whimsy, ambiguity and an underlying live wire current of deep pain, embodied by Fusako Urabe's affecting performance. 

There's even a knowing sense of the antiquated. The idea of a friend realizing her friend is dating her ex, isn't new territory at all, not to mention having the ex run into the two by happenstance at a café as well, especially in a vastly populated city like Tokyo. But there is something comforting about the insularity of Hamaguchi's fiction as it muses over broader ruminations. Most of the film is composed of lengthy conversations between two people. When it strays from that--from a door open for a conversation to now be heard by others in a school hallway to an awkward class reunion to a teenaged son returning home in a house of two women conversing, to the happenstance café meeting itself, we can sense the intensity of the fumbling, the fissions between the idea of two, and the want of having the door both closed and open to the world. ***1/2

-Jeffery Berg

Thursday, January 13, 2022

fever dream

Despite its lilting, goldenrod photography, Claudia Llosa's Fever Dream--an adaptation of Samanta Schweblin's novel--is a mysterious and muddy picture of oscillating genre and whereabouts. From the outset, Nina Simone's "Ain't Got No, I Got Life" blares on a car stereo. The song is a riff of a medley from the musical Hair. In the musical, the song anthemically celebrates sexuality and living in the face of dying in Vietnam. In Simone's version, it's a powerful song of black celebration, protest and contemplation. In both versions, the song's lyrics are about the body. Fittingly, corporeal concerns are at the very root of Fever Dream. In a stirring and lusciously described sequence, a woman, Amanda (María Valverde), watches and narrates to the voice of a young boy, David (Emilio Vodanovich), the actions of another woman, his mother, Carola (Dolores Fonzi); immediately, there's a sense of displacement--the film within Amanda's body and within her mind, yet also outside of it, studying herself. It's a beguiling and fantastic start. 

Amanda is visiting her old home with her young daughter, Nina (Guillermina Sorribes Liotta), in tow. Next door is the beautiful Carola and the mysterious David. What is this constant push and pull, this continued, simmering, buzzing worry that are uniting and untying these characters? 

While staying grounded in its earthy fields and forests and material specificity (the smell of "sun cream"), Llosa's film also delves into otherworldly, spiritual realms. Furthermore are overriding elements of eco-horror: polluted bodies of water that dot the rural Chilean landscape and harbor dangerous concoctions. With effective, purposefully jolting edits (the editing is by Guillermo de la Cal), gradually the film reveals its mysteries, and in turn, unfortunately gets less involving as it wears on. The work of the gifted cinematographer Oscar Faura is sometimes distractingly bright and genteel for the material at hand; it doesn't really work as juxtaposition either. Overall, Llosa's effort of bringing such tricky, knotty material is definitely  praiseworthy, but perhaps Fever Dream is more potent and seductive when it floats in mystifying stasis. ***

-Jeffery Berg 

Monday, January 10, 2022


Cruelty begets cruelty and violence begets violence in Belgian Writer / Director Laura Wandel's taut Playground. At a mere 72 minute runtime, this stringently directed and edited (by Nicolas Rumpl) movie is a quietly intense experience. Effectively filmed throughout at a low angle by its cinematographer Frédéric Noirhomme, Playground stays unnervingly tight to the height of the adolescent perspective and within the confines of the film's gated setting. The camera trickery could be seen as a gimmick--(reminiscent, in a very different vein, of the fever dreamy Muppet Babies) with adults seeming large and foreboding--viewing them from the perspective of their lower half rather than their top half, unless they sit side by side with a child or crouch down to their level, but the photography works extremely well in this format, especially when the story is imbued with the realism of its dialogue and performances. 

The effective, stomach-churning opening shot of Nora (a very good and haunting Maya Vanderbeque), with tousled, short-cut hair and a teary, gray-eyed expression as she clings to her father (Karim Leklou) before the day starts, is a harbinger of all of what's to come. Young Nora, shy and withdrawn, becomes increasingly worried after witnessing her brother Abel (Günter Duret) repeatedly being bullied and harassed by kids at their school. Nora's own experience isn't exactly a warm, cheery one: the school--a place of drab colors, terse faculty and uneven supervision. The classmates, too, can be cruel as well. Her friendships are somewhat frayed--the nature of them changing day to day (one's life purpose hinging on whether or not you're invited to the birthday) as they converse in the stifling-feeling cafeteria or play upon the "sand pit," where they conjecture the bodies of children are buried. When a cruel remark is tossed out, often we don't see the face of the character making the statement, which makes it all the more rattlingly piercing; often, Nora isn't directly looking at bullies in the eye, but internalizing all the toxicity, eyes cast downward. For those who had difficulties in childhood socialization, this can be acutely triggering. 

Wandel's simple narrative becomes more complex as it explores and questions the ethical experiences of the witness. Also, we see how the nature of bottling up pain, for both boys and girls, for both children and adults (namely the father), and how that pain can manifest. Viewing as an adult, one ruminates on all the aspects this school mirrors certain behaviors of adulthood, and also, frustratingly, the ways in which adults could be better at what they are doing in the movie. It can be a dispiriting experience, as the watery-lit claustrophobia of Nora's world, has such little moments of joy or self efficacy. But Wandel's adroit, literally small-scale venture is like a Petri dish reckoning of societal ills. ***

-Jeffery Berg

Saturday, January 8, 2022

spring blossom

Suzanne Lindon impressively writes, directs, and stars in Spring Blossom. The coming-of-age movie is like a slim novella--the kind read outdoors at a sunny French café--similar to one depicted in the film--with a ringed coffee stain on the cover. Lindon plays sixteen year old Suzanne. Suzanne is somewhat awkward, soft-spoken, bored at school and bored of her schoolmates. At a party a friend asks her which of the boys there are cute and to rank them on a scale of one to ten: "If I really had to do it," Suzanne says, "I'd give everyone a '5'." Her sister and her parents are amicable and low-key, an ordinariness that doesn't call much attention to itself. There's a lot of chewing pens, staring off in mid-distance, nibbling on breakfast, checking one's nails. This mundanity is interrupted by a handsome theater actor named Raphaël (Arnaud Valois) who, often in solitude, frequents the café near Suzanne's morning route. Well-dressed, strong, bearded, with curly dark hair and piercing yet gentle eyes and a cherry red scooter, Suzanne is captivated by him from afar. 

Lindon's film is well-crafted, eliciting a strange symbiosis between the pair--from uneventful little details (removing make-up from eyes) to the more fanciful, especially once they move closer together: choreographed dances (set to, of all things, the driving strings of Vivaldi's sacred music from Stabat Mater--a nice inverse to the driving strings in Mary J. Blige's "Family Affair" in a memorable party scene shot). As in any teenaged story, music has a particular, centerpiece impact. The delicate score is by Vincent Delerm; showing all the many myriads of talent, Lindon also sings the main theme song, "Seize printemps," as well. This tale is a fleeting one, and predictably not much happens between the two, but Suzanne's longing is palpable, as is Raphaël's quiet interest. When Suzanne enters his world through a party scene, the differences between them deepen. This modest film has its moments of distinctive observation, and shows incredible promise for Lindon. ***

-Jeffery Berg

Thursday, January 6, 2022

the fever

In Maya Da-Rin's mesmerizing The Fever, the sensibility of the tactile and the sensuous is here. I was completely intoxicated from early on--a shot of a night-time torrential rain-shower out the open door of a port worker's shack. That port worker, with his wide strong body and slightly swollen mid-section, standing in the darkness is Justino (Regis Myrupu), an indigenous widower living in Manaus. Forming in the wall protecting his home from floods, is a winding crack--partly a foreboding metaphor for the uneasiness that lies ahead for him, especially as his empathetic daughter Vanessa (Rosa Peixoto) is soon off to study medicine in Brasilia, possibly leaving him behind for at least five years. 

Da-Rin's film is skillfully structured into two distinctive sections and is a portrait of existence; it's cut in half by the mysterious bouts of fever Justino is suddenly struck by. Here, we see the shipshape, orderly, but grubby and unseemly, modern world we want to (and most films often) ignore: mammoth containers packed to the skies. Justino describes his job as a night watch guard at a port as lurking about like a "hunter with no prey." The movie shows the lonely monotony of his route home--sirens, hissing buses, a semi passing rounding the bend at the same time every night under the sodium lights. Sometimes Justino closes his eyes, listening to the cacophony of metal, walkie talkies, and insects. Throughout, The Fever features a strong sound mix--vivid dialogue (sometimes of different dialects and languages), the murmurs and clangs of the industrial world, (sirens, trucks and and cars rumbling) and the surrounding thrum of the natural world. On the outskirts of Manaus, lies a rainforest where a mysterious creature lives (perhaps heard by Justino through the breaking of branches and rustling in bushes), that every now and again emerges, frightening the locals. 

Is this "stained world" that Justino lives in unlivable / making him ill?  Where crooked blinds of a hospital room clang against the wind of a half-open window, where the breeze from a rattling fan is described as "the wind is nice," where a tiny service for the indigenous is held in a green-lit shack, a small group singing of God and bright futures ahead, where he endures the racism ("squinty-eyed") from a fellow workmate, where it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been alive--what counts for your past work is only what's “in the books.” Justino's fever and a visit from his brother could possibly break this dead-end existence. But Da-Rin's picture feels more opaque than neat and tidy, floating above any tendency towards broad strokes. Instead, it's full of carefully attuned observations--a portrait of  displacement, of perhaps-"eradication." ***

-Jeffery Berg 

Tuesday, January 4, 2022

7 prisoners

Set in modern day Brazil, Alexandre Moratto's 7 Prisoners is a straightforward, no-frills, but harrowing story. Young Mateus (a very good Christian Malheiros, who also starred in Moratto's Socrates) moves away from his family out of his rural home to accept a job that is seemingly bound with promise and prosperity in São Paolo. Alongside his fellow young workmates (Bruno RochaVitor JulianLucas Oranmian) from similar societal and economic backgrounds, the group arrives in the city, with energy and excitement. They stare out the van windows at the traffic and tall buildings. Mateus later claims he has "dibbs" on a condo: "I wanna see the city from way up high," a line that becomes more ironically baleful as the film progresses. They arrive at the living quarters of their gated scrap metal yard, run by the cunning Luca (Rodrigo Santoro) with his piercing eyes, thin frame and scraggly graying beard, gun in his blue jeans. Soon, Luca reveals himself as menacing and tyrannical, as the group of young men begin dangerous work in the junkyard with no pay or care, lifting heavy and sharp metal and removing rubber from wires for a lucrative resource: strands of copper.  

The film becomes most distressing and complicated when Mateus, through his loyalty, gets placed as a sort of sub-leader of the group. He also becomes implicit in acts of human trafficking, and we witness the thorny chain of corruption that starts from the top. The strong performances by Malheiros and Santoro help illustrate the their characters' complicated relationship and the film's tensions. The portrait of São Paolo is not a flattering one, especially visually, and incongruent with the insect-buzzed lush greenness of Mateus's hometown in Catanduva. The grayish, unadorned, matter-of-fact photography by João Gabriel de Queiroz captures the haphazard and steely ickiness of the city. We see the results of the young men's slavery in sizzling, crackling ugly tangles of black wires: "... enough to keep this city running," Luca says to Mateus in one scene, and then pointing, with a prideful smile, "That wire copper wire came from the junkyard. Look at your work across the city." It's an obvious metaphor for how entangled these characters are in the agonizingly hopeless system, but because of Thayná Mantesso and Moratto's taut screenplay, no less a potent one. ***

-Jeffery Berg