Sunday, October 16, 2022

she said

Smart, mainstream adult dramas are in short supply these days--that's one of the many reasons why Maria Schrader's (I'm Your Man) film adaptation of New York Times reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey's book She Said is refreshing. Let's just say it's not the typical type of movie to be proceeded by the Universal globe, but Hollywood should be making more movies like this. The film tracks Kantor (played by Zoe Kazan) and Twohey's (Carey Mulligan) sweeping, yet meticulous work in compiling and breaking one of the biggest stories of our recent times: the Harvey Weinstein sexual assault scandals. The movie shows their process with a sense of sincerity and urgency: Kantor and Twohey hustle from location to location (Weinstein's victims spanning the globe), getting calls--sometimes threats--in the middle of the night, all while raising kids. There are disappointments along the way--those who don't want to be named, interviewed, found. The movie shows the power of teamwork within the hierarchy of the Times. It's a flattering portrait, perhaps in part because the film makes use of the authors of their source material, location and name, with a calm and direct Patricia Clarkson (wonderful casting) as editor Rebecca Corbett at the helm. Meanwhile, in the background, the ominous tumult of 2017 America plays out--Trump's first year in office, the Las Vegas mass shooting, the Charlottesville Unite the Right Rally. Also shown is the Women's March in Washington, D.C., an outpouring of outrage, protest and comradery under the shadow of Trump's inauguration. Ashley Judd, who played a pivotal role in the March, ends up becoming a key person in and ally of Kantor and Twohey's story (the use of the real and the seemingly "real" is sometimes imbued with subtle humor and effective throughout).  This queasy year is presented vividly and accurately--it's before COVID and the overturning of Roe vs. Wade--and part of the film's power is knowing where we are now and where we were a mere five years ago. It's infrequent, perhaps risky, to see our recent past portrayed in a movie--unless it's a documentary (a plethora of which we are served on streaming services constantly). 

Interestingly, I couldn't detect much in common between Schrader's directing on this and I'm Your Man, except for a visual and narrative smoothness and strong work with actors. Samantha Morton in particular, as a former Miramax assistant Zelda Perkins, is haunting and commanding in a single scene. The way she builds her scene in the manner of a slow crescendo and chilling denouement is flat-out breathtaking. Nicholas Britell's music is, as usual, beautiful, but it's jarringly loud and overbearing in the film--sudden string flourishes dig into scenes that don't need them. The editing by Hansjörg Weißbrich is sometimes choppy and clunky, and some scenes with the usually good Jennifer Ehle feel unexpectedly leaden, but overall, there's a swiftness and economy to She Said. The support and teamwork between women is absorbing to see onscreen and the final moment--juxtaposing the nitpicky banality of their work with the intensity of the story itself and its ultimate influence--is powerful. ***

-Jeffery Berg 

Saturday, October 15, 2022

armageddon time

Even when tackling expansive themes or settings, James Gray's films have an intimate sense of contemplation to them--I'm thinking of Two Lovers, The Lost City of Z, The Immigrant, and Ad Astra in particular. His films have drawn praise for their attention to cinematic form, production values, and the sense of serious-minded dedication. Sometimes, however, there's a feeling of something missing--a flatness, a tediousness, and emotional remove. Due to its rich cast, sense of time and place, Armageddon Time is his best film, or at least the first one of his to get under my skin. It's an imperfect movie, but its moral murkiness--its stirred-up feelings of regret, guilt, anger, and fear--make it palpable. The coming-of- age story is pat on paper--with young Paul Graff (Banks Repeta) as a daydreaming kid in Queens who yearns to be a famous artist. He befriends Johnny Davis (Jaylin Webb) who yearns of being an astronaut. Both kids are goofy, as young kids can be--rambunctious in class--but because Johnny is black, he's punished and treated differently than Paul. These personal situations and the witnessing of malice and racial bias permeate the story against a backdrop of larger American power shifts. Paul is from a brazen, middle class Jewish family. Even if they find Reagan abhorrent and are likely self-described as societally sympathetic and compassionate (Paul's mother Esther, played by Anne Hathaway, at one point utters a shivery and cringe-y "I don't care if your purple, blue..." line that people still invoke), they display biases in a myriad of ways.

In some aspects, the film is about generational differences, especially between Paul's grandparents and parents of the Getz / Gilebrto set and his male generation drawn to punk (the title is inspired in-part by The Clash) and rap (the roots of which spin on Paul's turntable). It's reminiscent of Barry Levinson's underappreciated Liberty Heights, another trapped-in-amber racial remembrance from a Jewish family perspective. In Heights, a black girl wants to take a Jewish kid to the James Brown concert; in Armageddon Time, Johnny wants Paul to go to the Sugarhill Gang concert. Both directors reflect upon shifts, both regressive and progressive, in America and American popular culture. Ultimately fear is what displaces Paul out of his public school into what is supposed to be a "great" institution--a mostly-white elite private school his older brother attends, ensnarled by the Trump family. The people in this school already know, and are constantly told, they are at the top and that they will continue to be at the top. This fusion of being on the precipice of the Reagan landslide and the harbinger of the Trump era to come, is what comes through strongest in Gray's piece. Filmed in a downbeat, brownish hue by the prolific cinematographer Darius Khondji, the movie has a gripping, haunting feel and look. The ensemble is somewhat uneven in their styles--Jeremy Strong as Paul's father is quite showy. But perhaps the acting is just as uneven as the temperament of any family member would be. Anthony Hopkins, still going strong in his extraordinary career, emerges the most effective and affecting as the grandfather who best engages socially with Paul. In a pivotal scene between him and and his grandson, there's a lecture on white privilege and the complicity of white silence as Paul tries to launch a toy rocket. Reflected here are the smallness of humans in a vast, capitalistic scheme: the hulking husks of the Queens Rocket Park looming in the background against a grey autumnal sky of washed-out space-age optimism. ***

-Jeffery Berg

Thursday, October 13, 2022

Sunday, October 9, 2022


In October of 2016, I wrote of Moonlight: "In Barry Jenkins' artful and quietly masterful [film], incidents shift like smoothly-rolling waves" and also, "...hours afterwards, as if coming off a long ocean swim, I felt the ache of what I had witnessed, the rush of water in my ears." I experienced a similar sensation seeing Charlotte Wells' first feature-length film, Aftersun, which was produced by Jenkins (and also distributed by A24). It's rare to see movies that have such a cumulative power. Mostly set at a Turkish resort in the summer somewhere in the latter 1990s, Aftersun follows a vacationing young girl Sophie (a remarkable and authentic Frankie Corio) and her father Calum (Paul Mescal). Calum is estranged from Sophie's mother and seems to be undergoing depression or mental illness. As we sometimes flash to an older version of Sophie in a flat somewhere with her partner, the movie roams around from Sophie's point-of-view--whether a clear remembrance or perhaps a reimagining of what her father experiences (Calum smoking out on the hotel porch late into the night as Sophie sleeps in the dark; Calum in a club under strobe lights). What Calum and Sophie share is a trip of togetherness and love, but also deep ache, as Calum seems so tortured. 

Wells' film is a memory piece that feels like smooth or suddenly sharp-edged glass or broken seashells plucked from a shore. There are ruptures between languidness and the ticking of time, the bereft and a sense of doom. The movie is beautifully shot by Gregory Oke and it utilizes different stock of the era--Sophie's giggly, shaky, hazy camcorder shots, or swimming pool snaps from an underwater camera, or in one of the more arresting moments--the ghostly chemical process of a Polaroid. It also feels like a reminder how expansive the mosaic of self-recorded imagery has become over the past twenty years. Other period details are spot-on--from the pop cues (Blur's epic "Tender" figures elegantly) to the clothing and fads (in one amusing scene, you can tell this definitely takes place fresh after the "Macarena" had burned out). Aftersun captures a twilight of Euro-popular culture. Ultimately this is a filmmaker and a character reflecting upon the past: the title conjures not only the father and daughter's sun-soaked trip where sunscreen and aloe are applied, but also, metaphorically, the kind of smoldering of a relationship that likely ended in sorrow. There are tinges of regret from the minute--an unread book, an unpurchased rug, the sound of breathing--to the extensive and personal. The editing by Blair McClendon shapes a film that has a quiet power instead of an imposing one--it's such a delicate, nuanced piece that it must have been an extraordinarily difficult task (I am also thinking of François Gédigier's virtuosic work on Hold Me Tight). Wells direction shows tremendous promise and skill with working with techs and also actors. The naturalistic turns by Mescal and Corio are truly heartbreaking. ***1/2

-Jeffery Berg

Saturday, October 8, 2022

one fine morning

Léa Seydoux has shown distinctive contrast in just two performances from this year alone: as Caprice in Cronenberg's heady Crimes of the Future and as Sandra in Mia Hansen-Løve's warm One Fine Morning. The camera loves her in both instances, and she is a captivating presence--one isn't certain if she will go from stillness to suddenly bursting into tears. Hansen-Løve has noted she wanted to do something unique with Seydoux in mind, to not capture her with the "male gaze." Seydoux, with her pixie cut and unassuming threads, delivers a turn of kitchen-sink earthiness, even when roaming the chic streets of Paris and while working the difficult task as a translator. If Sandra's gift is listening so sharply that she is able to relay what she has heard in another language, there's an interesting fission that emerges in Hansen-Løve's film of Sandra's work and her real life. Hansen-Løve follows Sandra, also a widow with a young child (played amusingly by Camille Leban Martins), who is caring for her father Georg (Pascal Greggory), alongside her sister (Sarah Le Picard) and Georg's harmlessly feisty ex-wife (the always enchanting Nicole Garcia). Georg, a former philosopher and professor, is suffering from the neurodegenerative disorder Benson's syndrome which affects his eyesight, mobility and memory. Much of the film is about the family moving Georg from one home to another, as they navigate the bureaucracy of assisted care and waiting lists. Beautiful-looking books that Georg owns haunt the picture--almost living, breathing objects; Sandra has difficulty parting with these books as much as she does facing them. She is also having an affair with a scientist Clément (Melvil Poupaud). Clément is married, with a child around the same age as Sandra's. Their affair is a lustful one--brimming with tenderness and riddled with uncertainty--some of the ramifications of which are left a bit of a mystery.

One Fine Morning is a glowing movie with bright and unfussy photography by Denis Lenoir (the primary colors pop!). By contrast, the editing by Marion Monnier, feels jagged and rough--with scenes, even ones that feel somewhat banal--cut before landing on a sense of rest or conclusion. This creates an unsatisfying and repetitious feel which is fittingly akin to Sandra's predicament. As also told through Sandra's somewhat passive point-of-view, it can be a difficult film to get lost in. Perhaps creating distance was Hansen-Løve's goal, as the film feels very close to her own story. It's ultimately a hard movie to knock, with so many nuances and strengths, maybe just gently deride. Just as, on the other side of the spectrum, Sandra gently (and drolly) derides the animated films her daughter adores as "aggressive." ***

-Jeffery Berg  

Wednesday, October 5, 2022

showing up

The art of characters making something is an interesting through line with the films I've seen over the past few days at the New York Film Festival. In Tár, a woman cannily creates a public illusion of professionalism and meticulousness; in The Dam, we watch men make bricks, with one character also mounting a surreal, pyramid-like statue of mud. In Kelly Reichardt's sweet and unassuming Showing Up, the craft of making something is more overt, with Lizzy (Michelle Williams) making ceramic sculptures in her Portland duplex. The sculptures, one in particular of a woman with an arm outstretched as if in dance, are in contrast with Lizzy, who is cranky and physically inexpressive--her frustrations bottled-up--walking awkwardly in Crocs. If her physicality is expressive, it's expressing rampant dissatisfaction through a pinched frown. Her landlord and duplex neighbor, Jo (Hong Chau), also wears baggy clothes (amazing flared jeans) with Crocs. But she's living seemingly in a more hazy bliss (the hard work she does of her own art is done mainly behind closed doors) and is more freewheeling--as evidenced by her first appearance of tumbling a tire to fashion a tire swing. Lizzy wants her hot water fixed, and Jo shrugs it off whenever it's mentioned. It's suggested in the movie that the two once went to art school together, and that Jo's career, is perhaps, sort of ahead of Lizzy's. The two actresses end up creating delightful contrast onscreen. Adding to Lizzy's tension as she readies her show, is working an office job at an art school for her quietly judgmental mother (a wonderfully natural Maryann Plunkett), her father (the always quality presence of Judd Hirsch)--a former ceramics artist himself--and her troubled brother (John Magaro, who starred in Reichart's critically-celebrated First Cow).

The banality of making art that isn't widely celebrated or known, is something extraordinarily rare in film, at least from what I've seen. Reichardt's sensitive portrait shows how the making of art affects the artist--it's a movie about the ticking of time (we see it flash on the stove and elsewhere throughout) and the days turning into night, and all the things that need to be done and all of the unexpected things that can go wrong. One of those symbols that flies through the movie is a wounded pigeon with a broken wing. Lizzy and Jo attempt to nurse it back to health. It could have been symbolically trite and heavy-handed, but Reichardt's movie and the excellent cast--including André Benjamin (his drifty flute-playing on the film's score ending up as pigeon paean) as a free-spirit kiln worker and Amanda Plummer as kooky traveler and couch surfer--imbues the film with tenderness, a light touch, and a sense of the lackadaisical. Reichardt seems to know this universe well. In addition to the fictional set-ups, there are also scenes of art-making, including in during the main titles, at the now defunct Oregon College of Art. All of this is treated with sincerity, simplicity and reverence, making this one of the more quietly inspiring movies of the year so far. ***1/2

-Jeffery Berg

Tuesday, October 4, 2022


A few weeks ago, I first saw the teaser trailer for Todd Field's film Tár, curiously in front of the 3-D version of Jaws. When the thunderous music of Mahler kicked in, a group of teens in front of me started mimicking Cate Blanchett's character's exaggerated conducting with mocking glee. Weeks later, in the very back row of a crowded audience at Alice Tully Hall, in close proximity to many moments of which Tár takes place, the film was introduced by the executive director of the New York Film Festival who asked for patrons to keep their masks on during the screening. A grouchy, elderly man in front of me shouted out, "Where's yours?!" So there this film landed in this post(?)-pandemic era, at least a post(?)-lockdown era, where a (likely) mostly privileged crowd is packed in, and Cate Blanchett (who the grouchy old man attempted a cell phone pic of, zooming in from afar onto her glowing face, striking bangs and black dress) appeared onstage for a brief moment beforehand, telling us the importance of the big screen and of being here. Are movies, especially bold character studies like this one, made with such precision, becoming just as niche as orchestral performances of classical music? There are similarities between the grouchy Upper West Side type and the mocking teens at the cushy reclining-seated New Jersey AMC: both united in trying to make a splash, a scene from their seats in the dark by the light of the screen before anything really begins. At my screening, especially with the film's opening of a live, wry Adam Gopnik New Yorker staged interview of Blanchett's title character, there was a heavy air of commiseration, of immediate understanding of and maybe desire for some aspects of Lydia Tár's particular artistic successes (to be an EGOT; to have a book about oneself published by Nan A. Talese). I was in an audience in the dark watching a movie scene of an audience in the dark watching a luminary onstage.

Field's movie hones in on a specific character of a specific milieu in a "real" space. That's not unusual. Yet, unlike other movies with fictional presidents or fictional characters of considerable, renowned success, somehow, perhaps through its specificities, Lydia's story as a world-famous conductor and composer feels plausible. It doesn't deny the existence of others in the field, in fact, it constantly references them, including the controversial James Levine. The movie is clearly rooted in present day, where orchestras are able to gather once again after a length of time, where mobiles are ubiquitous and sleek cars are getting smoother and quieter. As Lydia treks between her homes in New York City and Berlin, where she is set to conduct Mahler's 5th for a major performance and recording, we see a woman of determinism, power, and considerable wealth. Even her subpar flat looks magazine-ready with monochromatic schemes and burgeoning, but excessively tidy, shelves of books. The dwellings, including the symphony hall and cozily posh restaurant spaces, become intrinsic to the story's atmosphere and Lydia's continuous sense of hushed comfort. She moves through these areas with a keen sense of ease, knowing just where to flick on or off the lights, or, in a ritualistic way, how to light candles and start her work composing on a grand piano (Hildur Guðnadóttir wrote the score: a small melody that gnaws away at Lydia throughout the movie). That's why it feels so startling when Lydia starts hearing sounds (some, in a genius stroke of design, seemed amplified on one single side of speakers that had heads a-turning)--from an irritating, mundane doorbell riff to curdling screams in a desolate park. Hearing (music) suddenly goes from pleasurable to unnerving. Soon, as evidenced in a Julliard master class scene and the icy ignoring of a desperate former lover, Lydia's cruelty and denial eventually becomes her downfall. Through Blanchett's towering turn in nearly every frame of Florian Hoffmeister elegant, heightened photography, this downfall feels acutely colossal.  

Field's script is extremely impressive, giving Blanchett rich monologues to spin on and some chilly statements and retorts. Even though it's quite a dour tale of a perfectionist unraveling, it's blended with heaps of humor. The film has an understanding of genre, from thriller to the sobering, realistic drama to cryptic melodrama. In the Julliard scene, one of the greatest-written moments in the movie, Field's Lydia bounces from Bach to Jerry Goldsmith, and runs headstrong into the briar patch of representation in the classical music world. Lydia's biting humor, genius but sense of superiority makes her troubling, wrathful take on the situation all the more ghastly. There's a rampant joylessness to Lydia--she can be sinister and vindictive in her "transactional" relationships, including with her assistant Francesca (Noémie Merlant), who she strings along and emotionally manipulates, and also the first chair, Sharon (Nina Hoss, in an impactful supporting performance), of whom is also her romantic partner. But then again, Lydia also displays moments of warmth: she drives her daughter Petra (Mila Bogojevic) to school as they belt out song (counter to that, Lydia has a Hand That Rocks the Cradle-inspired moment with Petra's bully); there's also her sense of adoration for music, at least music she likes: as the orchestra's final note recesses into silence, she closes her eyes and brims with a rare smile. Her work isn't all romanticized--it's about drab boards and coldly replacing people. The job of the conductor is a mixed one of vital importance and inflated importance. Often the conductor's name is bigger on the album cover than the great composers they are conducting (an album shot scene with Blanchett in the movie is particularly amusing). But it's also the Maestro / Maestra's job to meticulously enact the composer's work with their instrumentalists through listening, emotion, physicality, and rehearsals. As displayed with the cool use of end credits in the beginning, Field pays tribute to the players of his own symphony.

Like the film, Blanchett mixes a sense of naturalism with knowing flamboyance. As with DeNiro in Raging Bull, Blanchett's turn is a lightning-in-a-bottle centerpiece performance of the audience watching a centerpiece performance that still goes to the bones of the character. As Lydia's ticking metronome-bomb ticks, the film unfurls and curls back up and unfurls again. It's not about the lurid satisfaction of how will Rebecca De Mornay's menacing nanny Peyton get away with her antics in Hand That Rocks the Cradle, it's the lurid satisfaction of wanting Blanchett's Lydia to get caught, to get her comeuppance. Field is too smart though to make that comeuppance pat nor completely satisfying. He ends up landing Tár in an unexpected place, with a shivery, unnerving coda. The grouchy man squirmed and dozed in his seat as the film wound to its conclusion and I watched another audience in the dark who seemed to want to run away from reality, from themselves, and I thought of how so many are searching in front of our screens, for entertainments, in our immensely fractured world. ****

-Jeffery Berg

Monday, October 3, 2022

stars at noon

There's something pithy and tart about the exchanges Margaret Qualley and Joe Alwyn share in Claire Denis' shaggy Stars at Noon, based upon a 1986 novel by Denis Johnson, that recalls dialogue of 1940s noir. Seeing this movie as a breed of neo-noir beset by roiling sexual tension helped me ease into its circumstances. Set in contemporary Nicaragua, though filmed in Cuba due to logistical issues, Denis' film closely follows the travails of Trish (Qualley), an American, who at one point in her life seems to have been a reporter--perhaps uncovering the brutalities of government--but is now aimless, sometimes a sex worker, and drifting drunken in circles (and circles--in cabs, in the streets) around the area and also within the modest hotel run by a wearied innkeeper (a small but strong performance by Monica Bartholomew) where she has been given a room to camp out. For Trish, she wants a way out of this endless maze, but is stuck--without American cash, transportation, a passport. A maybe-knight in shining armor, so-to-speak, an Englishman Daniel (Alwyn), scruffy in a crisp white Graham Greene-esque suit, appears at a bar and the two strike it up through drinks and paid sex in his hotel room. He's on business with an oil company. Was he planted there? Why is he there?--much of these two unsavory characters' motivations remain mysterious. Through drunken binges, the two ultimately get entangled in a torrid, sweat-dripping love affair. There's desperate clinginess, but also blankness (as embodied well by Alwyn's muted, shifty turn) that emerges between them. Daniel ends up embroiled in scandal that puts his life in danger. What nefarious activities he's been up to is unclear as they wade into their swirly affair and plans to flee. 

Denis' films often look at tenuous relationships between people, revealing layers of characters through actions and what they say about themselves. Johnson's novel seems particularly in line with this style--characters are revealed through what they say, but also what others say, and in the heated haze of this movie, none can really be trusted. What's somewhat different is that Denis is in the lane of a certain genre that I don't usually connect her to--an Against All Odds or Year of Living Dangerously-early 80s style thriller of white people in peril in foreign countries (interestingly around the time the novel was written). I respect particularly how complicated and muddy Denis' film adaptation is. It's sometimes jaggedly filmed in hand-held style as it follows the wreck of Trish, and then suddenly still and lushly observant as it locks into a sort of lull of repetition (waking up midday hungover in sweaty sheets happens more than twice). Even though these characters show sudden pierces of reprehensible behavior and attitudes, especially towards non-white locals--the film, and perhaps the novel, doesn't aim to embrace nor pity anyone, just recognize their degrees of their desire and desperation. 

As per Denis, the movie is rich in its crafts. The central turn from Qualley is so riveting, with little bits of testy reactions and thrown-out emotional firecrackers, her make-up-rimmed eyes and feral-like movements and odd vocal inflections are a course in artistry. The score by Tindersticks is an incredibly atmospheric pastiche of jazz: unsettled, prickly percussion and languid trumpet melodies. To me, it recalled some of the scores of 70s neo-noirs like Michael Small's work on Night Moves. When the gorgeous original title song (which feels like a play on Neil Young's "Harvest Moon") kicks in at a desolate, dark blue-lit club, it doesn't quite reach the towering heights of Denis' Commodores "Nightshift" sequence in 35 Shots of Rum (one of the best music in film sequences in modern times), but it still crackles with undeniable sensuality. However, something indescribable is missing from these two characters craggily flung together. Alwyn even breaks away from the dance for a bit, breaking the mood. One wonders, especially now, why this story is being told?--with its markers of the COVID virus hovering over its characters, even having one pivotal scene within the white tent of a PCR site. Yet, even when one of them says something as shudderingly bad as "you're skin is so white," there's an indelible mesmerizing aspect at watching these two continuously fall apart and try to claw their way out. What does this appeal say about the filmgoer who is so taken by it? ***

-Jeffery Berg

Sunday, October 2, 2022


João Pedro Rodrigues’ new film Will-o'-the-Wisp (Fogo-Fatuo) plays blithely and seemingly joyfully with conventional aspects of story, masculinity, eroticism, and contemporary concerns. It's sometimes a musical (of previously recorded tunes--one a cheery 80s tree-huggy television song) / dance movie, sometimes a satire, with rollicky moments of ribald humor. The beginning, with its futuristic jump (here, to 2069) and a man, Alfredo (Joel Franco), in a small room is reminiscent of Edward G. Robinson's death bed scene in Soylent Green. Interestingly, both films end up revolving around persistent environmental anxiety. In Will-o'-the-Wisp, the camera lingers upon a painting by José Conrado Roza while Alfredo farts and a young relative plays with a fire truck (the costuming choice of a weirdly-cut gray sweater seems particularly apt for what could be realistic "future" fashion; the costume design is by Patrícia Dória). The opening moments introduce overriding elements--death, personhood, archness, lingering racist colonialist history--swiftly. The movie then remixes a conventional, self-serious narrative trope "the King" reflecting upon his past (fire truck as a sort of triggering Rosebud) captured in the movie's slim runtime: here, Alfredo's young adulthood as a Prince (Mauro Costa) who wants to be a firefighter. He signs up, much to the disdain and amusement of others. The main titles show his brawny fellow firefighters in drills with an erotic eye (short shorts! shirts that ride up!) as an aria from Mozart's Magic Flute trills frivolously. It's the best sequence in the film--sexy in its matter-of-factness and humorous without feeling forced. The movie's marvelous choreography is by Madalena Xavier (another scene where the firefighters mimic famous paintings nude in the locker room is also a highlight). The rest of the film--doused in obvious ironic flourishes such as commentary on forest fires framed by the glow of palace dinner candles, and a sex scene of crude racial exchanges and dildos in charred woods (a tryst between Alfredo and fellow firefighter Alfonso, played by André Cabral)--will be hilarious to many. Comedy can be as easy to dismiss as "oh, it's just being silly" as it is equally difficult to create. Rodrigues, and co-writers Paulo Lopes Graça and João Rui Guerra da Mata, craft a film that shapes an array of topicalities with foolery. Even Greta Thunberg isn't spared, as a famous speech is repurposed incongruously. The film seems to be saying, can comedy address issues well? Can they address them as well as serious films can? Can films address issues well at all?! Ultimately it's a to each their own movie that flaunts its riskiness. Most of the actors, save for a wide-eyed, stern, butch commander (Cláudia Jardim), are directed a bit blandly--ciphers for the movie's precious wildness. **1/2 

-Jeffery Berg

Saturday, October 1, 2022

the dam

On a sunbaked desert in Sudan, Maher (Maher El Khair) appears, the principal character of Ali Cherri's film The Dam. He silently works among his fellow brickmakers. Meanwhile, a violent revolution is going on in the country. It's on the radio (which takes some tampering with to get reception), on TV. Him and his mates listen and watch, but do not discuss. Off in the distance, on the Nile, the waters of a dam roar--a monstrous development of technology and humankind that in power and scope is in such ferocious contrast to the menial, physical work we see. But there are similarities too--cyclical, ritualistic-like aspects that mirror the daily lives of the brickmakers. Contrast, and some parallels, are found in some of the film's visual cues: the lit-up car of their boss shelling out little (and sometimes no) pay; a tarp painting for tourists of the Nubian pyramids--labor of centuries and centuries ago.

Simmering disquiet and distress, both bodily and emotional, runs throughout and also plays within Maher's own individualistic, yet fablelike tale.  The idea of the fable, with its surreal touches (a wobbly, mud caked mountain speaks to Maher in a shuddery voice in daydreams and nightmares, with twitching branched roots) and visual flourishes are interlinked with Cherri's down-to-earth, near-documentarian presentation (the cast are made up of "non-actors"). Because of global and local events and logistical challenges, The Dam was filmed over the course of five years. The film ends up feeling delicately executed, assiduously edited by Isabelle Manquillet and Nelly Quettier. Some of the movie's quietly stewing anguish is inferred in the subtle use of electronic artist ROB's throbbing score.

Cherri, a visual artist, collaborates particularly well with cinematographer Bassem Fayad. Fayad's work--its play with imagery, with shadow and light, sun hours and moon hours--is often stirring and stunning. There are the most minute bits of movements within still frames (soap suds quietly drifting across the frame until no longer evident; mud moving in the most fine-drawn way, as if captured in prisms of convection, but also unreal as if alive). Fayad and Cherri end up capturing the unearthly in earth itself. ***

-Jeffery Berg