Saturday, January 14, 2017

Metropolis Turns 90

This amazing film by Fritz Lang set a new standard for visual splendor in 1927, and was one of the first feature length movies to attempt a new, speculative reality through the art of filmmaking. Set 100 years in the future, Metropolis is the story of a socially stratified city-state where thousands of workers toil deep underground, servicing the needs of massive power generators. Meanwhile in the gleaming city above, the business elite nervously watch their stock tickers and relax by occasionally cavorting with scantily clad floozies.

Metropolis is a triumph of art direction and set design. The various technical marvels of this futuristic society are rendered in a geometric Art Deco style that is as beautiful today as it was 90 years ago. It’s no stretch to say that this film has, at one time or another, been ripped off by every director and set designer in the profession, and part of the fun for modern audiences is spotting which scenes were swiped by whom.

For instance, the Machine-Man robot here bears a striking resemblance to C3PO from Star Wars. Tim Burton studied the film exhaustively when conceiving Gotham City for his Batman films. But the most blatant homage is paid by Ridley Scott in Blade Runner. He pilfered not only the film's architectural stylings, but actual compositions and framings, as well as two of Lang's futuristic gadgets: a picture phone and a massive mechanical window covering.

Past the eye candy however, Metropolis features a narrative full of confused allusions, including some revisionist biblical history, and a point-of-view so muddled I can't tell what it’s for or against. The acting is typical of silent films - atrocious - and the scene where the city's richest men are driven to hysteria by an erotic dancer simply cannot be taken seriously. Probably wasn't in 1927 either. No, Metropolis is not a film of dramatic subtlety, but it is a visual tour-de-force of extraordinary and innovative design, delivered on an enormous scale.

Folks, we need to get on the stick here. As we sit a mere 10 years from Lang's target date, we see no elevated bullet trains or flying cars. No all-powerful mechanical servants or frenzied revolutionaries combatting the tyranny of the elite. And that’s something we could really use. Our pole dancers are prettier so that's something I guess.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Best TV of 2016

10. The Crown (2016) Netflix

Superbly produced series purportedly about the turf war between young Queen Elizabeth (Claire Foy) and Winston Churchill (John Lithgow), although they seem to generally get along. Matt Smith's Prince Philip steals the show.

9. One Mississippi (2016) Amazon

Tig Notaro's bittersweet comedic memoir feels very fresh and real. It's all about her return to a small town in the south after the death of her mother. A new season is in the works.

8. Downton Abbey (2015) PBS

A grand and fitting ending to this wonderful series. Yet I can't shake the feeling we haven't seen the last of Hugh Bonneville and company.  I hope I'm right.

7. Mercy Street (2016) PBS

The gripping, at times grisly, story of the inner workings at a makeshift hospital during the early days of the Civil War. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is terrific as a protege of Florence Nightingale charged with keeping the place running smoothly while madness reigns just outside the door.

6. Mozart in the Jungle: Season 3 (2016) Amazon

The show got gloriously back on track this year, after a so-so Season 2. Monica Bellucci guest stars as a temperamental opera diva, and her casting is a stroke of brilliance.

5. Fleabag (2016) Amazon

Amazon Studios has a real flair for dark comedy, and they don't come much darker than this grim story of a struggling restauranteur whose business partner has unexpectedly died. Now I know that doesn't sound very funny, but the show is rife with full-bodied laughs. Written by lead actress Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who is a talent to watch.

4. Call the Midwife: Season 5 (2015) PBS

It's 1961 and those diligent British nurses are back. The personnel on this show have changed a lot over the years, but the writing and execution have remained top notch. This season you can even feel a sense of coming social change, and the lovable mop-tops should be along soon.

3.  Occupied (2015) Netflix

Set in the near future, Occupied deals with a Russian invasion of Norway after a dispute over energy production. A few months ago this premise seemed far-fetched, but not so anymore.

2. Happy Valley: Season 2 (2015) Netflix

Yep, the story has a few holes, but this Brit-Noir series is as addictive as heroin. Sarah Lancashire was born to play this part. And the bad guy (James Norton), well I'd pay good money to smack him upside the head with a 3-Wood.

1. Broadchurch (2014) Netflix

Clear your calendar, because once you start this series you won't stop until you've devoured all 16 episodes. David Tennent is the perfect tortured soul detective, and Olivia Colman is his perfect foil. Sit back and prepare to be enthralled.

Honorable Mention

Last Tango in Halifax: Season 3 (2015) Netflix

Transparent: Season 4 (2016) Amazon

All the Way (2016) HBO

Nina (2015) TV5

Schitt's Creek: Season 2 (2015) Pop-TV

House of Cards: Season 4 (2016) Netflix

Monday, January 2, 2017

10 Best Films Seen in 2016

10. Jackie (2016)

This year's most obvious Oscar bait features a chilling recreation of America's worst weekend. Natalie Portman delivers an amazing hologram of Jackie, perfect in every detail but still a bit icily removed. Just like real life.

9. A War (2015)

This is an emotionally charged story about the impossible situations in which soldiers are often placed. Western governments want their military interventions nice and clean, with no mistakes or collateral damage whatsoever, even at the risk of their own troops. But when fighting an enemy with no uniforms who are able to blend into the local populace, are such laudable goals even possible?

8. The Innocents (2016)
Cinematographer Caroline Champetier (Holy Motors, Of Gods and Men) uses desaturated colors to evoke the repressed memories of nightmares, and overall the film is a stark reminder of the fragile line between civilization and chaos. If you liked the somber arthouse hit Ida (2013), you’ll find the films share a number of similarities, including the presence of the great Polish actress Agata Kulesza, as a mother superior in severe denial.

7. 99 Homes (2014)

While The Big Short captured the macro dynamics of the housing crisis, 99 Homes tells the flesh and blood story of human wreckage left in its wake. It is a grim tale of the fraud, deception and outright theft perpetrated by men in nice suits against struggling homeowners during The Great Recession.

6. 45 Years (2015)
This gripping story stars Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courteney as a long time, happily married couple suddenly forced to confront some unpleasant facts about the past. Rampling and Courteney draw upon their vast wells of experience to deliver characters so fully fleshed, they seem to be in the room with you.

5. Hidden Figures (2016)

Hidden Figures tells the inspirational true story of three female African-American mathematicians (Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe) whose work was vitally important to the early days of America’s space program. Set in Hampton, Va. in 1961, these determined women must overcome segregation, prejudice and the white male dominated culture of NASA to achieve their goals. 

4. Youth (2015)

Paolo Sorrentino's Youth is an extraordinary motion picture that offers profound observations on love, artistry and mortality. The film presents the triumphs and traumas of human existence in a loose-leaf, sketchbook form, allowing plenty of time to ponder its complex and mysterious beauty. Youth requires a meditative mental and emotional commitment from the viewer, but that investment pays off handsomely. 

3. Dheepan (2015)

A full bodied immersion in the life of a Sri Lankan rebel (the charismatic Jesuthasan Antonythasan)
who flees his country for a rough and tumble Paris suburb. There he attempts to rebuild his life, starting from less than nothing.  Jacques Audiard's films have had a tendency to start strong then succumb to over-plotting, but Dheepan remains tense, engaging and pitch perfect for the duration.

2. Manchester by the Sea (2016)

Genre-wise, the film is a little tough categorize. It's a melodrama that never becomes melodramatic; a soap that never gets sudsy. Perhaps its most accurate description is a horror film, but the expected zombies, vampires and demons have been replaced by a coven of human weakness and fallibility. In Manchester by the Sea, even the kind and well intentioned can become monstrous, and no silver bullet or stake-through-the-heart can dispatch an accidental evil to its hellish rest. The perpetrators can only be forgiven. Even if they can't forgive themselves.

1. Cemetery 0f Splendor (2015)

Cemetery of Splendor is a film that melds the living and the dead, the past and the future, the ethereal and the mundane, told through the meek, polite tones of the Thai people. Apitchapong Weerasathakul makes films that operate on a different dimension of existence.

Honorable Mention:

Measure of a Man (2015)

The Lobster (2015)

Coming Home (2014)

Mustangs (2015)

Light Between Oceans (2016)

Trumbo (2015)

Sunday, December 25, 2016

It's a Wonderful Life Turns 70

It’s a Wonderful Life is a full-fledged American icon, and an indispensable part of the nation’s cinematic DNA. It defines the term Classic - in fact redefines it - by virtue of becoming more and more popular over the years, finally achieving a status that transcends mere entertainment. The film’s lofty stature is no doubt due to its near perfect balance of rugged individualist destiny and collectivist bleeding heart liberalism. It’s a Wonderful Life sentimentally propagates many popular notions of the American experience, some real some fictional, and holds up a flattering mirror to humanity, which has lovingly admired its own reflection for 70 years.

Fittingly, the plot of It’s a Wonderful Life is tightly entwined with the story of America in the first half of the 20th century. Here an earnest young man of high moral fiber named George Bailey (James Stewart) must put his dreams of college on hold to save his community from a greedy, predatory slum lord (Lionel Barrymore). This pattern will repeat itself at critical moments in George’s life, as his ambitious plans are deferred by the Depression, war and the pressing needs of his friends and family. But, like America, there’s an exceptionalness about George Bailey, and thanks to the divine intervention of a kindly specter named Clarence (the great Henry Travers), the desperate George will grow to appreciate his life through a stunning, nightmarish vision of an alternative reality.

Director Frank Capra made his name with rousing populist dramas that enthralled and inspired the masses. Dubbed “Capra-Corn” by cynical film critics, Capra’s crowd pleasing aesthetic was a natural outgrowth of his extensive background in silent features and short subjects. Known for outlandish situations and ham-fisted acting, these one-reelers were platforms for brisk storytelling and fast paced entertainment, not ambiguous metaphors on the vagaries of the human condition. Capra’s career was only fair-to-middlin’ in those early days, but with the arrival of sound, this egalitarian auteur hit his stride, winning three Oscars in the process. With bouncy, good natured tales of class warfare like It Happened One Night (1934) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Capra reassured his audiences that decent, hardworking folk were on the right side of cosmic justice, and corruption would always find its comeuppance.

It’s this unique sensibility that floods every gauzy frame of It’s a Wonderful Life, sustaining it for generations and making it a nearly perfect holiday family film. Yes, portions of it are quite dated and will be offensive to modern attitudes, as is the case with any film of this vintage. But it remains an astonishingly effective story of sacrifice, redemption and, quite literally, the better angels of our nature. And if you’re not joyfully weeping at the closing scene, go see a doctor as soon as possible. You may be dead inside.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Manchester by the Sea (2016) ✭✭✭✭✭

Perhaps as a token counterbalance to the crapulous events of 2016, the cinematic fates have gifted us Manchester by the Sea, a brilliant and intense portrait of quiet desperation. Even though it's been showered with award nominations, Manchester is a sort of anti-Oscar bait. It features no heroic soul overcoming a disability on the way to achieving greatness, nor does it irreverently capture an important moment in history. It exists in an HO-scale universe where life’s pressures lead ordinary folks into bad decisions with consequences too terrible to imagine, and lives too damaged to ever fully heal.

One such walking wounded is Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), caretaker of a crumbling apartment building in Quincy, Massachusetts. Chandler’s stoic routine of shoveling sidewalks and plunging toilets is shattered one day by shocking news from his hometown; news that will serve as a backstory catalyst and eventually topple the high emotional walls he has built to ward off society. Affleck can, to put it uncharitably, act rings around his older brother, and his loner turn here ranks among the great disaffecteds of cinema, approaching Travis Bickle territory. But Affleck’s Chandler has no designs on avenging the world’s wrongs. His energy - what little he has left - is consumed with sifting through the waste of a life in ruins.

While Chandler returns to the titular picture postcard town, blanketed by a snowfall that has caused life to go dormant, he finds he must settle affairs he wants no part of. For him, it is a town of shunning ghosts and shameful specters, its tidy clapboard houses and cobblestone streets the architecture of his undoing. Director Kenneth Lonergan and production designer Ruth De Jong flesh out every environ through a tense celebration of the stale and ordinary, their sets stuffed with the dingy bric-a-brac of what it means to be working class in 2016 America. The bread and circuses of beer and hockey no longer enthrall Affleck’s Chandler, but his fiery relationship with a bright teenager named Patrick (Lucas Hedges) may provide a glimmer of salvation. And with Manchester by the Sea, we’ll take any glimmer we can get.

Genre-wise, the film is a little tough categorize. It's a melodrama that never becomes melodramatic; a soap that never gets sudsy. Perhaps its most accurate description is a horror film, but the expected zombies, vampires and demons have been replaced by a coven of human weakness and fallibility. In Manchester by the Sea, even the kind and well intentioned can become monstrous, and no silver bullet or stake-through-the-heart can dispatch an accidental evil to its hellish rest. The perpetrators can only be forgiven. Even if they can't forgive themselves.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

The Qatsi Trilogy (1983 - 2002)

The Qatsi Trilogy is a collection of films made by Godfrey Reggio between 1983 and 2002. Each film offers an extraordinary and unforgettable cinematic experience, and their messages are, astonishingly, even more pertinent and vital today. The visual and aural wonders of The Qatsi Trilogy fall into no preset genre or easily explainable category of filmmaking. The simplest description would be a grafting of somber political treatise with IMAX style sensory joyride.

To fully understand these unique works, one must understand the filmmaker, and his singular background and sensibilities. Godfrey Reggio is not an assembly line graduate of the USC film school. In fact, he spent the 1960s as a social worker and political activist, founding several community programs for disadvantaged youth in New Mexico. He also spent 14 years in training for the priesthood, but abandoned that quest to pursue a deeper understanding of the philosophy and mysticism of the Hopi Indians.

Reggio is, in short, a spiritual pilgrim with an Arriflex, and his films question the basic tenets of modern life, using the most basic components of cinema. Reggio’s wordless mediations consist exclusively of images and music, and through time-shifting scenes of the natural and manmade worlds, supported by Philip Glass’s expressive and omnipresent score, Reggio creates a beautiful sensory language that articulates his complex ideas directly to the human soul.

Koyaanisqatsi (1983) leads off the set, and viewers will find themselves mesmerized from the opening frames. The title is Hopi for “life out of balance,” and over the next 90 minutes, Reggio builds a compelling portrait of the insanity of modern life brick-by-brick. While Reggio’s films don’t follow a narrative per se, Koyaanisqatsi begins with a tone poem evoking Earth’s creation. Majestic vistas of pristine Monument Valley and Canyon de Chelly ultimately give way to aerial shots of the various grids imposed on Earth by man, and the dusty havoc wrought on the planet by his extractive industries.

Reggio’s camera eventually makes its way to the steel canyons of Manhattan. What follows is a time lapse montage that stuns and stupefies. Human beings are reduced to mere machine cogs, as long lens shots of crowded midtown streets and undercranked scenes of Grand Central Station at rush hour combine with Glass’ frenetic score to issue a blistering condemnation of technological society. Koyaanisqatsi is a luscious tableau that raises the cinematic experience to the level of the carnal, and seduces and horrifies in equal measure.

The title of Powaqqatsi (1988) translates as “Parasite” and here Reggio shifts his attention to the trauma inflicted on the Third World by industrialization. As workers covered in mud scurry into a mine in Pakistan and Bedouins drag heavy loads through a desert sandstorm, a chorus of children’s voices echo the ghostly chants of a lost culture. An Indian commuter train, bulging with riders, slowly makes its way through an impoverished city choked with thick smog, while Sikh and Buddhist holy men pray for divine providence.

The scope of Glass’ chart widens here as well, incorporating percussive and indigenous instruments. While not as visually bombastic as its predecessor, Powaqqatsi has its share of money shots. Scenes of village life rendered in rippling waters give the proceedings an arresting impressionistic quality, and a slow motion shot of a young Latin American girl in a frilly dress walking past a bullet riddled wall with “Long Live Guerrilla War” scribbled in graffiti will leave viewers haunted and breathless. On its initial release, Powaqqatsi did not receive the universal acclaim of Koyannisqatsi, but viewed with today’s eyes it is a work of mystical prescience. In the 25 years hence, its fevered denunciation of the global economy rings with a despairing truth.

Naqoyqatsi (2002), in essence “War as a Way of Life”, rounds out the trilogy and serves as a powerful and disturbing coda. Working mainly with stock footage and computer manipulated imagery, Reggio casts daggers into the heart of the digital age and its rampant depersonalization. Virtually no ill of the new century is left unscathed, as Reggio cleverly tackles the medical industry, athletes on steroids, relentless advertising and the venal alliances of our politicians, to name a few. In his most potent metaphor, Reggio uses old footage of crash test dummies to draw a staggering equation to victims of terror, leaving a nightmarish aftertaste. In support is Glass’ lushly orchestrated score, featuring cello lines from Yo-Yo Ma that seem dispatched from another world.

Constructed in three acts, Naqoyqatsi’s final stanza draws Reggio’s two decades of observations to their logical, and devastating, conclusion. As the dogs of war unleash weapons of ever greater destruction, history’s great works of art liquify and literally melt into each other, as a culture races unabated to its self-inflicted annihilation. As skydivers flirt with death in a search for cheap thrills, the universe reclaims its besotted and ruined celestial offspring, leaving only a field of star dust where a great society once stood. And we are back to where Koyannisqatsi began, with weathered petroglyphs as mute witness to man’s perfidious folly.

This reviewer first encountered Koyannisqatsi in the mid-1980s. when a local art house ran it as a double feature with Liquid Sky, Slava Tsukerman’s funky, punky, sci-fi exercise in bad taste from 1982. It didn’t seem an odd pairing at the time as each film dealt with worlds facing self-destruction due to uncontrollable appetites. Truth be told, I loved both films, but while history has relegated Tsukerman’s movie to cultish obscurity, Reggio’s existential epics remain relevant and influential, both aesthetically and politically. As Criterion’s release of The Qatsi Trilogy makes clear, Godfrey Reggio is a visionary who sought to use the unique strengths of cinema to present his powerful prophecy of a dire and dissolute future; an objective usually reserved for political broadsides and think tank white papers. Not only was he artistically successful, unfortunately it appears he was right.