Wednesday, April 20, 2022

the tale of king crab

Sometimes there is propensity for filmmakers within a modern universe to harken back to the bare essentials of the natural world. In Alessio Rigo de Righi's and Matteo Zoppis' The Tale of King Crab, a pair of related folktales emerge, prefaced initially from the modern point-of-view of a group of non-actors regaling in a bar setting. This frame structure eventually dissipates and is ultimately dashed by the end. The filmmakers show storytelling persisting through the ages, and how an assembly of hearty, weathered-faced male hunters relate to and ruminate upon  certain masculine elements in the tropes of romance and western tales. 

The first story follows drunken, bearded Luciano (Gabriele Silli) in the midst of major changes in his meager, lonesome existence. His usual path is obstructed by a gate through the design of a tyrannical prince. It's unclear whether the prince has done this purposefully to spite Luciano, but in addition to that, Luciano's affections for Emma (Maria Alexandra Lungu) are thwarted by the prince as well, and also Emma's father. This is very much Luciano against his world: a rural Italian village where he renders powerless--in his desires and sense of purpose. Eventually he destroys this existence and embarks on travels to remote South America, where he cuts away at his beard and renews himself, disguised as a priest, in a quest with a group of other men, for gold. Supposedly one is to "follow the crab" to find where this gold is hidden. This quest becomes like an every-man-for-himself western, with the score emitting Ennio Morricone-like percussive hits over gunfire and gray, stony terrain. 

The stories are rather simplistic really, and the dull, laconic Luciano as the central figure makes them somewhat tedious, but they are emboldened visually by some truly beautiful shots (the sterling cinematography is by Simone D'Arcangelo), which makes exquisite use of streams of sunlight, hillsides, and bodies of water. The pinkish-red crab skittering about is also a bold (and cool!) image and symbol. To enhance these settings, there is--perhaps purposefully--an exaggerated sound mix of little details: flickering flames, gulps of wine and water, footsteps upon rocks. What comes through the film most effectively is a sun-glinting mirage of hope and the folly of men and their greed and tendencies towards destruction and violence. ***

-Jeffery Berg 

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Friday, April 15, 2022

Sunday, April 10, 2022


When I first went to L.A. as a teenager, I was so excited about being there that I wanted to take it all in. I stuck my camcorder out of a backseat window and filmed buildings, houses, streets, people as they flipped by. It was an amazing experience to feel and be in the moment of, but watching the woozy footage later, less so. A camera that's always moving and hustling has been the force behind the appeal and appalment of Michael Bay's work. Roberto De Angelis' kinetic photography in Ambulance rarely (never?) falls on a lingering shot as the colorful L.A.-setting zigzags and flits by through the movie's central high-speed chase. 

Heist films and vehicular chase moves can be delicious fun, especially if they are brisk and well-cast, with heroes and antiheroes you care about, or at least intrigued by. But when you are rooting for the police to just end everything already, something isn't right. Part of this is due to Jake Gyllenhaal's Danny Sharp as the ringleader of a bank robbery group. He invites his estranged brother, veteran Marine Will (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, doing a great job despite a rank script), who is desperate for money to cover his wife's surgery. The heist--a buzzy high unfortunately contained in the early hours of the film--goes very awry, and Danny and Will end up hijacking an ambulance with medical worker Cam (Eiza González) and injured rookie cop (Jackson White) in tow as hostages. Gyllenhaal is usually a reliable presence, and a charismatic one, even when you can see him stretching his skills. Yet, he seems miscast here, or not a strong enough actor to tackle the junkyard script--ultimately too puppy-eyed adorable to feel threatening, despite his yelling and neck-vein popping antics. He also seems incapable of wading into any complicated gradients this character could have. There's a mysterious debonair quality to him at the outset, but by the time he's "stressed" in the remainder of the film in the ambulance, he becomes a grating mess to watch. Someone that can portray a sense of deviousness, malice, under the guise of bulk, like Mark Wahlberg, who starred in Bay's, mediocre, but much more involving day-glo bodybuilder crime thriller, Pain and Gain, may have made a more compelling presence. 

It could be a fault of the film that most of the actors feel so inconsequential and irritating. The movie is so incredibly busy trying to make every proceeding an eye-popping thrill-ride. Busy but boring has been how I've deemed many mainstream movies of late; they seem constantly spinning in motion with noise and stuffed with a lot of action, fighting and yelling, and yet, seemingly going nowhere on any satisfying level. A film like Ambulance, a remake of a 2005 film by Danish director Laurits Munch-Petersen, could have been fresh, slick and punchy on a 100 minute runtime--the way those 90s video rental thrillers were constructed (that this movie is being so wrongly compared to). Bay movies are unapologetically dumb action products with sledgehammer subtlety. In this current climate of waning moviegoing, a movie-lover has to feel some sort of reverence for trying to entertain us in a theater, even if one finds the work pretty dreadful. There's just a dissonance between the speed of which Bay's Ambulance is spinning and its unengaging, lumbering feel at two plus hours. The heavy dose of slo-mo schmaltz the movie piles on in its closer is even more wretchedly unbearable. *

-Jeffery Berg

Friday, April 8, 2022

placed placelessness: a review of 'the girl and the spider'

The Girl and the Spider plays like a nightmare for introverts. The film is mostly set in two apartments--one being moved out of, one being moved into--where doors are open to rooms, hallways, and opened by others to intimate situations with every conversation quietly observed by someone else. There's also the cacophony of dogs barking, a baby crying, the occasional jackhammer, discordant piano fumbling, and talking, talking. One might want to escape all of this, curl up in a ball and cloak the windows, like the eccentric downstairs neighbor in the picture, who sleeps through the day and only emerges at night for workouts, staring at the shoulders and back of the head of another gym-goer with furious spite and contorted desire. Swiss twin brothers and writer/directors Ramon and Silvan Zürcher helm a film with an almost bewildering sense of contained wildness, tensions, details, cutting dialogue and observations. There's a feeling of crafty witchcraft inherent in the tale and in its visuals too (the crawly little spider of the title, the pools of red wine that drip ominously and blood-like from a tabletop, a dreamlike flash of a lonely old woman dancing on a roof in a windy thunder and lightning rainstorm, as if summoning the spirits of the night). 

Mara (Henriette Confurius) is at the center of these forty-eight hours of moving: days of uneasiness of both chaos and attempted order. Lisa (Liliane Amuat), inferred as Mara's former lover, is the one moving out, and into a new space with another roommate. Mara, with her piercing eyes, a cold sore upon her lip, physically suggests both her mischievousness, steeliness and her wounds while recalling the fleeting joys and terrors of her past (glimpsing Lisa for the first time in a park; a spider that crawled about in her childhood bedroom). These moments are described through dialogue or presented visually in compact, but haunting and mysterious ways. Other characters too, Lisa's mother (Ursina Lardi), the neighbors-- in the new and old flats--recall stories as well. The blueprint of the new apartment, one that Mara re-creates, is presented as clean and orderly, scrambled, orderly again, and ultimately drenched in wine. It's as if Mara, shown as a talented artist as well, is trying to control this new existence that's out of her hands by creating it, destroying it, remixing it, abandoning it. Meanwhile, the days pass on, and in one eerie scene towards the end, a sunlit room quickly darkens into evening. Time is ultimately the controller of this universe, and Mara, despite her cutting jabs and mischief, can only do so much before all of this will be over, and she will have to exist onward somewhere else. Confurius gives a completely excellent and absorbing performance as Mara. I was so drawn to her character, despite some of her loathsome antics. She is the mesmerizing axis of this film. She centers the picture but also upends it constantly.

The score by Philipp Moll is fascinating. It incorporates a lavish, tuneful, waltz-like theme that has a comic, absurdist quality. It trills throughout. A piano riff will occasionally enter, physically played within one of the apartments, but also as background music. I recognized the music at first, wondering, what is this again? And then realized it was the melody of Desireless' 1987 worldwide dance smash "Voyage, voyage." Astrid hums it at one moment, perhaps thinking of lost love or joy from her own past. Soon the song is played outright, the perfect upbeat yet melancholic accompaniment to the tone of the movie, but also encapsulating its themes of searching and traveling. It also nods to a fable-like myth within the film of a woman who works as a maid on a cruise ship; her life is in the state of placed placelessness that the film evokes.

The editing by Katharina Bhend and Ramon Zürcher is impressively nimble in its way of constructing a tale of constant motion, sound, and reactions. Also commendable is the art direction by Mortimer Chen and Sabina Winkler. Supposedly the apartments were constructed from scratch, and the visual play of both of them feel beguiling and authentic. Alexander Haßkerl's photography is crisp, almost uncomfortably clear, and its harnessing of light is enchanting. 

A review of this film on first viewing almost seems inadequate, as the Zürchers' script is rife with boldness, trickeries and symbolism. Repeated journeys to this messy world will probably spark new ideas and discussions. It's reminiscent, in a way, to some of Rohmer's films: I'm thinking of Tale of Springtime in particular, for both its mood, its irritations and its nail-biting instabilities and sexual and emotional tensions. For anyone especially captivated by films about human behavior, The Girl and the Spider, is thrillingly satisfying as a movie in its eternal dissatisfaction.

After my screening, I picked up a couple Girl and the Spider keychains in a bowl outside of the theater. They are fitting promotional tchotchkes to attach to a ring of keys that could unlock doors to new homes and old homes, and an ironic one for a film with doors wide open to everyone. ***

-Jeffery Berg

chloë and the next 20th century

Joshua Tillman aka Father John Misty again takes us on another beguiling journey with the tuneful new album Chloë and the Next 20th Century. There are many musical style throwbacks throughout (bossa nova and showtune-esque serenades). The album opens disarmingly with a slinky big band number and then morphs into a genteel country alt tune, "Goodbye Mr. Blue" (very much a homage to Harry Nilsson's "Everybody's Talkin'"). Few pop artists have as melancholically vivid lyrics as Father John Misty can conjure: Summer ended on the balcony / She put on Flight of the Valkyries / at her thirty-first birthday party / took a leap into the autumn leaves

My current obsession is "Q4"--a sweeping orchestral baroque pop tune--that seems to stab at the cynicism of the entertainment industry (It was just the thing for their Q4 / It’ll be on stands before the holidays).

Speaking of... you can Buy album here.

Wednesday, April 6, 2022


There have been notable international films, both fictional and documentary, over the past few years that address contemporary concerns of society pushing racially, culturally, and economically vulnerable out of their homes and further into the margins. Fanny Liatard and Jérémy Trouilh's Gagarine--its title referring to a mammoth social housing complex in Ivry-sur-Seine, France on the brink of its demolition--tilts towards the angle of sci-fi to tell an intriguing and melancholic tale. The film, originally slated to debut at Cannes in 2020 before the festival was cancelled, occasionally feels prophetic and ominous, a portrayal of a slice of life before the pandemic; its scene involving an eclipse--a wistful reminder of a communal event at the near end of the "before times." 

Gagarine begins with an early 1960s newsreel of considerable optimism, the building complex newly constructed in complete reverence of the ideals of communism. It is greeted by its namesake--Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first man to travel to outer space--and he is received by cheering and adoring crowds and residents. Finely edited by Daniel Darmon, Gagarine, at many points, incorporates the visual space of real footage with the fictional, eliciting the fissions between past, present, and future with considerable impact. The moments of atmosphere and its sonic and imagist renderings are the most successful and potent aspects of the film. 

The somewhat spare character sketches are purposely, perhaps, not as involving as the imagery. The story is told though the close point of view of young Youri (Alseni Bathily), named after the space explorer, who lives, mostly alone--his mother off with a man--in the complex. Youri is acutely intelligent, especially a wizard at mechanics, wiring and science. Youri is drawn to Diana (Lyna Khoudri), who lives in a trailer with her family, and does odd jobs, including mechanics. They ultimately share a nerdy bond and affection for one another that never becomes too cutesy. At first, the film sets Youri out to be an almost saintly figure who is there to mend all the broken halogen lights and elevators as the building falls into disrepair and is slated for inspection. As the doomed fate of the building sets in, however, the film grows more gnarled and complicated. Fittingly, the complex is up for sale as a perfect space for open air retail.

The sets and textures and the real life building within the movie are what make it so specific and memorable. The score, by Amin Bouhafa and Evgueni & Sacha Galperine, is a moody, lovely swirl of oozy synths and twinkling tones. The film, photographed by Victor Seguin, hurtles towards some truly stunning shots as the movie sweeps into magical realist territory. I was reminded of the barren urban settings within sci-films like Omega Man and other "last man on earth" survival fables. There are some awe-inspiring images of light and darkness (especially considering a film that must have been concocted on the low-end of the budget scale). Sometimes these moments are reminiscent of the visual heights of Spielberg's E.T. and Close Encounters. And yet, while there is the sense of whimsy and the fantastical ("the moon is our neighbor"), there's also the lingering knowing of the deadening of human greed, "progress," uncertainty, and our paltry existence as we spin in place within the cosmos. ***

-Jeffery Berg

Tuesday, April 5, 2022