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)

Elevator to the Gallows Turns 60

Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows is a stylish and seductive thriller about a murder plot gone terribly wrong. But unlike most th...