Sunday, June 26, 2022

the house

Where are we going and where have we been? These are just some of the philosophical musings that the gorgeously-wrought stop-motion film The House ponder. Directed by Emma de Swaef, Marc James Roels, Niki Lindroth von Bahr, and Paloma Baeza, The House is split into three tales ("And heard within, a lie is spun," "Then lost is the truth that can't be won," and "Listen again and seek the sun") that take place in different eras and from different perspectives. Each tale are unwinding rooms of secret doors and surprises, going through the textures and innards of the house.

A ghostly tale (directed by de Swaef & Roels) is the opener, akin to Shirley Jackson or the under-the-skin morbidity of Roald Dahl, of a young girl and her baby sister who watch their parents' behavior go through startling transformations in their plush new mansion. The dialogue and action is fairly straightforward, almost a little too pat, yet throughout, it becomes more eerily unsettling. Part of this is due to the exquisite visuals, especially the special effects and stop-motion animation; the production design for the film is by Alexandra Walker with set decoration / art direction by Nicklas Nilsson. In this chapter, the moon-wide, beady-eyed faces of the doll characters manage to be remarkably expressive.

The second tale (directed by von Bahr), placed somewhere in contemporary times, may be the most familiar one to current concerns, especially city real estate. A frantic, greedy developer (portrayed on-the-nose by a rat in human clothes) cheaply and hastily flips the house with streamlined modern accoutrements and accents (you know--the granite countertops and mounted flat screen TV, a strip of ugly purple tile in the luxury bath), only to be ravaged underneath and within the walls by scuttling beetles and squirming larvae--for this to accumulate into a Busby Berkeley-styled musical number by the creepy-crawly critters is quite the amusing centerpiece of the whole film.  

A third story is even more disturbing, taking place gauzy sun and fogged-over drowned world of our future as a landlord desperately dreams her dream-home as her house literally is sinking into the sea. The complexity of each of the stories' protagonists and the cautionary theme of greed that runs throughout make The House an unnerving and compelling trio of stories; even if it isn't necessarily a horror movie, the visions presented are unsettling. The strong voicework includes some recognizable actors, including Helena Bonham Carter, Mia Goth, and Jarvis Cocker. Save for the movie's musical number and the end credits song (sung and co-written by Cocker), the music by Gustavo Santaolalla, like most of his work, is more ingrained in the movie's atmosphere than it is flashily obvious. ***

-Jeffery Berg

Friday, June 24, 2022

mad god

Visual effects extraordinaire and legend Phil Tippett conjures awe-inspiring work in his thirty-year-in-the-making Mad God. The movie is comprised of little dialogue (mostly squelches and screams and baby cries) and cyclical, fragile narratives of steam-punkish figures who travel down into a ravaged underworld. Startling, nihilist and darkly humorous, Mad God is mostly about the use of sound (headed by sound designer Richard Beggs) and sight--some truly eye-popping (literally, sometimes) stop-motion and art that are both squirm-inducing and astonishing. We see tiny, shadowy human-like figures treated as blithely and crushingly as insects. Bodies of water glow nuclear neon. Wonky, steely machines whirr and drill. As a human face from above peers down with a magnifying glass upon this chaos (or is it under rhythmic, obliterated-soul-controlled order?), one could wonder, where are we going on this journey? The answers seem as muddled as the grimy, grinding atmosphere--fittingly, a map is sometimes shown, disintegrating further and further in each shot. Dan Wool's excellent, eerie score completes the film's sonics with haunted, guitar-strummed and glockenspiel gentility. Tippett's meticulous work bleeds onscreen with what may have reaped both artistic exhilaration and exhaustion. This bold science fiction film can be especially grueling in its probing of the many inner fears of humankind (rampant tech, destruction, and alienation). ***

-Jeffery Berg 


Wednesday, June 22, 2022


In the tradition of his film adaptations of Romeo + Juliet and The Great Gatsby, Baz Luhrmann offers up another glitzy and grand tragedy with Elvis. It's told from the warped perspective of Elvis Presley's notorious manager, dubbed The Colonel (Tom Hanks playing against his usual admirable, heroic type as villain with a peculiar accent and wrapped in wobbly latex). Awash in debt and health issues, The Colonel narrates this tale from his morphine-dripping death bed, that spottily spans Elvis's (Austin Butler; with Chaydon Jay playing the young version) childhood to the final years. It's immediately an unusual and bracing perspective, and, in a sense, the film winds up being a feverish American nightmare rather than a fun and celebratory ode--a tale of a doomed pop figure manufactured and promoted by a grifter. 

The film clocks in at nearly three hours, but it's uneven in the eras it portrays of Elvis' career. Primarily, it hones in on his meteoric rise during the mid to late 1950s, and then cements itself in the late 60s and early 70s of Presley's '68 Comeback Special and his Vegas residency--skimping over the early and mid-1960s. Maybe because of this, the film feels centerless. Priscilla Presley, despite Olivia DeJonge's sturdy performance, may be one of the most underwritten and underbaked "supportive wife" roles I can think of--she almost seems like an objectified, floaty ghost. Is it because we are seeing Elvis' life through the Colonel's eyes? Or is it just lazy screenwriting, creaking under all of the Luhrmann panache? Unlike his other adaptations from masterpieces, the script credited to Luhrmann himself, Sam Bromell, Jeremy Doner, and Craig Pearce, has some cringeworthy moments, with The Colonel's derivative narrating that bang out on top of Luhrmann's already obvious visuals, including "I don't know much about..." lines that recall Forrest Gump

Like Gump, Hanks is playing a cinematic symbol, an almost "unreal" person. Here, he is saddled with icky prosthetics and make-up that's nearly as garish as Presley's tackiest décor--but in deep contrast with Presley's angular, suave looks. The shapeless movie plays almost like a predatory love affair--and perhaps that is true to life. But when Hanks suddenly isn't there lurking about and over-narrating the piece, the film becomes much more involving: a scene between Elvis and Priscilla during his military time set to Kacey Musgraves' gravely and elegant cover of "Can't Help Falling in Love" sparks. Alongside Musgrave's rendition, the soundtrack is spiked with samples and re-dos of Elvis tunes (including "Vegas," which samples Big Mama Thorton's biting and far superior version of "Hound Dog"). The soundtrack works well as a tapestry of sounds, as Elvis is infamous for stealing the stylings and music of black artists, while being simultaneously influential on an array of pop artists today. Another highlight is the amazing singer Yola as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, an artist who inspired Presley in childhood. 

The crass commercialism of Presley is well-defined in the film, especially through The Colonel's hucksterism. Even when Presley tries to keep up with the hipper Stones and Beatles in the latter '60s and dabble in authenticity, gravitating towards another management team, the guise of cool rootsiness is all through the prism of leather-jacketed consumerism, exploding in the rousing Elvis: The Comeback Special--one of the best parts of the movie, despite The Colonel annoyingly huffing and puffing around backstage. 

Luhrmann's film does raise interesting questions and images of combustible creativity and sexuality tangled in the web of capitalism, but sometimes it's so overwrought, it ends up feeling less stirring than presented. Presley's sweaty, energetic, against-type classic "Suspicious Minds" is stricken out too literally as The Colonel plots his own "trap" for Elvis (one strike is great, but several, mapped out on a cocktail napkin, is overkill). Overall, as it lumbers through, the picture struggles to be consistently effective. Bob Fosse's All That Jazz, is also a heavily-edited, similarly sinister take on showbiz, but instead, shows us the sweaty realism of its characters and relationships and really saves the baggy, madcap razzle dazzle for the closer--a wrenchingly potent, simultaneously fantastical and raw ending. Luhrmann's film sticks so close to The Colonel's vision of an enigmatic, godly Elvis, that the film not only never catches a breath, but never really delves into a feeling of who Elvis was or the music he made (many of his songs, especially the deep cuts, of such a gold-recorded career are absent in the movie). When Priscilla mentions all the women he's been with, we never see it--we only get a saintly and sanitized version who cowers and cries unless shimmying onstage. He's often framed in small spaces, on the floor of his mother's closet hanging on to the hem of one of her dresses after her death, or in his cars, or his low-ceilinged rooms--padded in satin like a coffin. Onstage, he roams freely, and seems most alive, even as he is trotted out like a racehorse driven to exhaustion. 

I felt the film did little favor to Butler, as the script is so weak and the film itself is so chopped-up through montage and frenetic editing, I couldn't really get attached to his performance. But I found he ended up capturing the essence (or the sense of essence) of Elvis better than the film does. Also Catherine Martin's costuming (photo above from Harper's Bazaar) is absolutely smashing--from all those supporting players, extras, to the King himself. Even if the movie is underwhelming, it's really thrilling to behold such magnificent crafts (those Priscilla hairdos! that hip-swinging choreography! those recreations of Graceland!). **

-Jeffery Berg 

Saturday, June 18, 2022

jurassic world: dominion

I have seen all of the Jurassic World films, but they all run together in my mind like a messy finger painting--with nothing noteworthy or distinctive about them. I will remember Jurassic World: Dominion for something though--giant locusts.  Also, for the calculated move of bringing back the trio of Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, and Sam Neill, who starred in the original incarnation, and despite their breath-of-fresh-air charms, seem a bit shoehorned in here in this overstuffed eco-horror monster movie. There are some worthwhile things about Dominion, another creaky entry from Colin Trevorrow into a franchise that's definitely grown long in the tooth. The special effects are spectacular--with dinosaurs that are quite life-like and not overtly sun-flared CGI-looking. The sound design is a fun ruckus, almost shaking the theater to Sensurround disaster movie levels--a throwback to another era of Universal Studios product. Dominion sometimes speaks to the large anxieties of our times: living through and with the tragedies of climate change and also to corporations that manipulate and dominate not just the material world, but aspects of the natural world as well. Here, a soft-spoken, non-assuming Campbell Scott's dodgy Lewis Dodgson devilishly exploits genetics to control earth's food supply. But the parallel storylines of the original cast members in one thread with bland Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard's lagging tale in the other, don't quite unite satisfactorily, even if DeWanda Wise proves to be a an enlivening action star and Goldblum, in particular, offers some needed jaded humor in the soggy bog of the latter half. Steven Spielberg's (who executive produced Dominion) original, based upon Michael Crichton's novel, still remains unmatched in its ability to marry intriguing, weighty themes with awe-inspired and exciting dino-action. Young Isabella Sermon's plotline of cloning and her late mother's experiments is a bit of drag too--ultimately, we honestly just want to get back to dinosaurs stomping about and terrorizing people and audience members calling back at the screen. **

-Jeffery Berg

Friday, June 17, 2022


Olivia Peace's film Tahara, written by Jess Zeidman, at its best, occasionally recalls the stinging bite of Daniel Waters' Heathers script. But it's a more gloomy picture, a discomforting day-in-the-life slice, shot in striking overcast tones by cinematographer Tehilah De Castro, with brief moments of fancy (cute stop-motion animation). 

In the aftermath of their small Hebrew school classmate's suicide, two young women Carrie (Madeline Grey DeFreece) and Hannah (Rachel Sennott, recently a standout in Shiva Baby) reflect and prattle away, sometimes viciously--more so on Hannah's part--at those around them. Teen life is always fraught with intensity, but perhaps because of the circumstances, Hannah feels compelled to hastily plot to nab the affections of classmate Tristian (Daniel Taveras); meanwhile, Carrie harbors her own attraction towards Hannah. 

Even if the film is a somewhat squirmy sit alongside the claustrophobic feel of the setting--a few rooms within the school--Zeidman does nail the pause-riddled tartness of teen dialogue. However, sometimes there are jokes that fall flat and moments that take away from the tension and sense of affected realism, such as overwrought, performative weeping from other teens. Both DeFreece and Sennott give quality performances in a somewhat talky, but brief sketch of a movie. Something about DeFreece's raspy voice and intricate emotional reactions is particularly compelling--she's one of the main reasons to see this picture. Although there are weighty themes of religion and autonomy hanging over the film, and its modesty is admirable, somehow it doesn't quite hit as hard in the way it seems calibrated to. **1/2

-Jeffery Berg 

Friday, June 10, 2022

infinite spring

Lovely tune and music video from Shrines.

Video Directed by Brody Bernheisel

Video Produced by Joel Inchaustegui

Cinematography by Noah Fowler

Choreography by Georgia Usborne

Featuring Dancers:
Quinn Dixon
Mio Ishikawa
Dasol Kim
Georgia Usborne

Wednesday, June 8, 2022

lost illusions

Social climbing, backstabbing and lies--these are aspects inherent in many a story, but few authors have distilled this chaos as urbanely and meaningfully as Honoré de Balzac. Pithy quotes from his work continue to abound as observant gospel. The task of capturing Balzac's work cinematically must be both arduous and precise. Xavier Giannoli's nimble and smashing adaptation of Lost Illusions, written and published between 1837 and 1843, captures both Balzac's grandeur and specificity. The story of a poet moving from the provinces to Paris, and becoming entangled into the treachery of publishing and social worlds, is ravishingly well-executed by Giannoli and team. At its core, Lost Illusions is a coming-of-age tale, a hero's journey, but it also feels a bit like a mafia picture of sardonic nefariousness, where the side who can pay the most for artificial, mechanicalized applause, rules the night.

The yearning and searching character of Lucien, played by Benjamin Voisin, changes over the course of the film due to the circumstances around him and the characters, many of them vociferous, whom he interacts with. Handsome, slender and lanky, almost blank-faced, Voisin visually has sort of an unmarked quality that blends between the dreamy poet and the unflinching schemer. His work is helped in part by the magnificent costumes by Pierre-Jean Larroque's costumes which portray Lucien as blue-suited dandy to his raw unraveling towards the end. Lucien succeeds and sometimes falls flat, but he is continuously a wannabe thrown in the circumstances of survival in a society inherently devious and rotten. 

The film version of Lost Illusions reaps the tropes of classic literature--coincidences (those chance meetings) and heavy symbolism (spilled ink and wild animals)--but still feels fresh: the mentions of "fake news," the divide between "truth" and freedom of press and expression and governmental control, the fissions between art and commerce, the societal concerns of upward mobility, money and fashion, are all still, of course, pertinent to the concerns modern audiences across the globe. As are the basic facets of cruelty and love (Lucien's ongoing affair with a good-hearted older woman, Louise, played sweetly and quietly, but also assertively, by Cécile de France is a piercing relationship). 

Although lengthy and stuffed with detail, Lost Illusions flits by and really moves along (in one scene, the camera pans room after room of Lucien's newfound decadence: the sort of visual pomp that can be an irresistible aspect of 1800s French period pieces). The forward-feel hurtling is aided too by Vivaldi violin allegros that some may find excessive, but in a tale that wades into the folly and pleasure of excessiveness, I found just right. Voiceover helps patch-over plot points, but also adds to the film's importance of storytelling (a very good, well-cast Xavier Dolan, a side-eye master, emerges as Lucien's literary foe) that mimics the serial nature of Balzac's publications. Also strong in a supporting role is Vincent Lacoste whose Etienne ensnarls Lucien into the world of the newspaper he works for. Etienne uses Lucien's gift with language to publish hot-tempered parodies of the ruling class (including Louise's husband) simply because "controversy sells." These particular men could have easily have been boxed into caricature but they are ultimately complicated figures that complicate Lucien's life and decisions--due to Balzac's source material and the script's rendering by Giannoli and Jacques Fieschi with collaboration by Yves Stavrides. This could have been adapted into a cushy miniseries, but there was something so delightful about taking this in as film, with its briskness and richness, and quick pang of an ending. ***1/2

-Jeffery Berg  

Sunday, June 5, 2022

the dream and the radio

Renaud Després-Larose and Ana Tapia Rousiouk's audacious Canadian film Le rêve et la radio (aka The Dream and the Radio) begins in static, with twinkling piano rounds and flickering images bathed in yellow and pink light. A voiceover speaks of adulthood and childhood, how children "perish" in the bodies of adults. A woman runs across a field and then collapses in the grass with a book, as if mimicking the wonderment of childhood simultaneously with the futility of adulthood. This dreamy opening is then cut suddenly by the sound of sirens and hockey fans clanging in the streets, celebrating a game. 

The opening illustrates the clashing textures and tones of Després-Larose and Rousiouk's work. It's a film that wears its heart and pretentiousness on its sleeve, shrouded in the dissonance between the brutal, "trenchant" world of money-making exploitation and the dreamy, "poetic" world of beauty. Its trio of characters live on meager means in a candlelit flat (likely abstaining from electricity in both reasons of cost and reasons of principle) and all try "to be more poetic" in their creative passions and in their living. One gives out free books to people on the street. One is writing a novel in fits and starts. Another runs a radio broadcast. Occasionally they may pick up a shift at a soulless clothing and entertainment memorabilia store of thumping techno (where film is turned into commerce--and even, discounted trash cans). Sometimes they analyze one another's dreams, mining for meaning and symbolism. Some scenes are wrapped in prickly humor: one of the clan, Beatrice (played wonderfully by Geneviève Ackerman, who co-wrote the film with the two directors, who also star with her) ruefully flings paint balls at sunglassed models on a glowing blue Guess billboard. Within the film, a plot point of a lost-and-found cellphone becomes a ruse of sorts that twists and retracts and reflects. It's owned by a mysterious character named Raoul (Étienne Pilon), a red bandanaed self-described revolutionary whose wavering enigma swirls around the three characters. In a huge speech to his group, Raoul's words are drowned out by swirling garbles of electronic sound--a sonic clue, perhaps, that the film is portraying him as more opaque than his dogma--or perhaps, his message is purposefully being distorted from other forces above him.

Through the guises of film and radio, these fussy electronic (sometimes tinny and harsh, sometimes swelling and romantic) and visual embellishments, including ratio-switching and juxtapositions, are all part of The Dream and the Radio's fabric and fortitude in its decadent runtime. The film, and its characters, resist tech but also depend upon it (a product of "institutions" and "daily absurdity") to get their messages out there. Even speaking of people as a "great force of resistance" sounds like describing humans scientifically or through tech vernacular. The trio are filmed in golden yet shadowy picturesqueness in their flat. They express their disillusionments, their dreams, their desires and the film itself mimics their inner and outwardly yearnings. The movie cuts to pretty and unpretty images with voiceovers. Sometimes these interludes feel like intermission cards from 1950s technicolor movies: bombastic orchestral music with grandiose horns by Olivier Messiaen may play over a picture of a burnt orange sky. There are the sounds of a police inquiry overlaid with an image of a glistening moonlit bay that cuts to quartered images of surveillance. The film wants to "ground itself" like an adult but also wants to soar playfully like a child. The disillusionment of growing up for these characters, and perhaps by their players, is only quelled by the importance of creating things; full of zeal and fervor, it's a languidly-paced film celebratory in its sense of collaboration and in its ticking unease. ***

-Jeffery Berg

Friday, June 3, 2022

crimes of the future

One night, David Cronenberg's Crimes of the Future ended up infecting my dreams. The next day, the dream was a muddle, but the remnants of its atmosphere and nightmarish corporeal images remained. Cronenberg's film delves into many intriguing, smart ideas: humans evolving to a plane of painlessness, needing new forms of pleasure (one doesn't even know how to do "the old sex" anymore), and also adapting to the plastic environment around them (doesn't it feel like, in some respects, we are all headed there?). One usually thinks of Cronenberg movies with a lot of flair and panache, which this one has, but it is also interestingly more like a play: very talky and mostly set in small spaces. His actors, too, are blocked in bizarre ways--why is this one standing where they are standing? Or awkwardly hunched over against the wall? It's as if the very sense of natural human positioning is off-kilter. In these environs, the premise of a performance artist couple--Caprice (Léa Seydoux) and Saul (Viggo Mortensen)--making art out of organs--is a clever one, and also a plausible one in an avant-garde field that pushes the boundaries of craft and exhibition. Like ventricles, there are side plots of characters drawn to Caprice and Saul for different reasons: a scruffy father (Scott Speedman) using his deceased son for experimentation and spectacle and a peculiar bureaucratic medical pair (played by Yorgos Pirpassopoulos and Kristen Stewart). All seem to be linked in the idea of pushing things and bodies to its limits--almost addled, drug-like states, fueled by the next

The setting that would typically be cinematically associated with this newness and next-ness would be sleek and shiny. But Cronenberg's world here is the polar opposite: gritty, relentlessly grim, shabby old buildings, sometimes riddled with twisted strains of graffiti, and peeling interiors. It's as if the people of this world are so within their own bodies or within the bodies of others, that they could care less of the physical worlds around them. The premise, the dark optics, squishy make-up and visual effects, Howard Shore's gothic electro score and Seydoux's enigmatic performance are the standouts of Cronenberg's film. Through its oft loquacious characters, sometimes the movie talks too much--and says too much--about what it's about, rather than dwelling quietly in its mysterious shadows. Mortensen is a Cronenberg muse of sorts, but his showiness can be distracting, especially against Seydoux's ravishing sense of naturalism. The actorly tics of Stewart work well however, since Stewart's character, Timlin (quite a name--that feels like quirky mix of the words intimate, intimidated and timid) who desires after Saul, is a strong contrast to Caprice. Even if the film, on first viewing, doesn't quite coalesce as powerfully nor potently as it seems to strive to be, it's always a pleasure to be unnerved by what Cronenberg concocts, especially in the vein of morbid science fiction. **1/2

-Jeffery Berg

Wednesday, June 1, 2022


Dreamy new tune from L.A.-based artist Emma Ayz.

Speaking of the track, Ayz says, I was listening to a lot of Ella Fitzgerald. So many of her songs are vocals and beautiful instrumentals, just classically pretty... There’s no live orchestra on the track. It’s insane how you can make it sound so real with a MIDI and orchestra samples.

The music video is directed by Tess Lafia.

spitting off the edge of the world

It's been a while! Here's a big new single from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs featuring Perfume Genius

Preorder new album here.

The music video is directed by Cody Critcheloe.