Tuesday, August 15, 2017

On the Road: Venice, the City That Wishes You'd Stay Home (or does it?)

This is the second in a series of "off topic" posts inspired by my recent choir trip to Europe. However, I promise to tie this to at least one movie!

Venice has become the persnickety old maiden aunt of Italian tourism - one with a parlor full of valuable antiques that she's trying to save for the "good" company, all the while railing and swatting away at the ruffians who crowd in, dripping melted gelato and pizza grease, scattering litter and snapping selfies. She throws modest shawls over the spaghetti-strapped shoulders of young women entering her churches and demands that you don't dawdle too long on her picturesque bridges. And no one pays any attention to her warnings.

Venice regularly tops lists of cities that want tourists to stay away, and their pleas are not working. The city averages 60,000 day-tripping visitors a day.  That's a whopping lot of people packed onto a relatively small set of tiny, bridge-linked islands. It's also sinking into the Adriatic Sea at a rate of 2 millimeters per year, one presumes under the massive weight of all those tourists.

Nevertheless, the Venetians battle valiantly to make tourists respect their city for the centuries-old showpiece of history, commerce, architecture and art that it is - and not treat it like the Italian pavilion at Epcot.  They've passed ordinances banning picnicking and the sale of fast food in heavily visited areas.  There is even a law forbidding you to stand too long on any bridge, so as not to bring the pedestrian traffic to a halt.  I can assure you, not one of these ordinances is being enforced. I personally witnessed a  couple scarfing a huge, shared bag of potato chips while sitting directly under the "No Picnicking" sign in St. Mark's Square, and I had a hell of a difficult time getting past the selfie-snappers blocking all but a narrow passageway in the middle of the Accademia Bridge.

It was a very hot, very tourist-packed July day when our group arrived in Venice.  But my first experience of the fabled "La Serenissima" was very different.

In February 2000, I tagged along on a friend's ski club trip to Austria.  I had no intention of skiing  the Alps - I could barely manage the smallest green hills in Michigan and Wisconsin- but I totally wanted to be part of the optional day trips.  One of those was to Venice. We left Innsbruck on a bus at 5:30 in the morning and got back around 11:30 that night.  I never once regretted the lost sleep.

When we arrived just across the bay from Venice around nine that morning, the city was enveloped in fog. As we piled into a motorboat to taxi over to St. Mark's Square, the fog began to lift - and all those famous, beautiful, 15th century buildings of Venice slowly emerged from the mist.  It was indescribably beautiful, like entering a dream world.  The air was chilly and damp, and the day was gray, but it hardly mattered.  I was in a daze all day: wandering the labyrinthine streets, taking a long gondola ride that passed under every famous, fabled bridge on the Grand Canal. There were virtually no other tourists in the city that day, and the streets seemed to belong just to us and the locals.  Just as we were getting on the boat that would take us back to our bus that evening, the fog rolled back in behind us, covering Venice in mist once more.  I have never had a more magical day as a traveler.

It was a blazing hot July day when I returned to Venice along with my choral group, and there were massive hordes of tourists everywhere. The views were still beautiful, if a bit harder to take in. After a trip to the Murano glass factory and a guided visit to St. Mark's Square, we were free to wander on our own.  And I had a plan.

The infamous Peggy Guggenheim had long captured my imagination.  The niece of Solomon Guggenheim, founder of the famous museum in NYC, Peggy was a lover of abstract art - and abstract artists - in every sense of the word.  She had money and a discerning eye, and she amassed a brilliant personal collection of works by Picasso, Kandinsky, Duchamp, Dali, Pollock and many others in her villa on the Grand Canal.  She was bold and unconventional. She had two husbands, two children, and many lovers, but was most devoted to her dogs. (The Venetians called her "L'Americana con i cani" - the American woman with the dogs) and she was buried among them in the courtyard of her villa. After she died, her home was opened to the public as a museum where her collection was showcased.  And, for years, I had been dying to get a look at it.

So I went off my own in search of Peggy's treasures (no other abstract art lovers in the group!).  It was an easy trip at first - although I had a map in hand, I could find my way to the Accademia Bridge by following signs posted at the end of every block.  But once over the bridge, I was lost.  I'm convinced that Ms. Guggenheim didn't really want anyone to visit her former home, because she made it so hard to find!  I wandered the surrounding neighborhood for nearly a half-hour before figuring out that I needed to wander down a tiny, narrow "street" that was barely wide enough to let two people pass each other, then into a small piazza, and then into another tiny "street". The Collection lay behind wrought iron gates just off that ... let's call it an alley, which is what it really was.

Was it worth the stressful trip? Yes! Absolutely!  My only regret is that my confusion in getting there reduced the amount of time I could spend admiring the impressive collection of masterworks. I was also interested to see the bold, imaginative (and somewhat disturbing) work of Guggenheim's daughter, Pegeen, to which an entire room is devoted. Here's the infamous statue that sits outside the villa, facing the Canal: "Angel of the City" sculpted by Marino Marini. If you look close, you'll see that this little guy is, umm, really excited to be looking out on to the Grand Canal.

Because I had taken almost all our allotted free time to visit the Collection, I had missed lunch and was ravenous by the time I ran into a group of fellow choristers headed to a famous gelato spot. This wound up being my lunch:

This is the specialty of the house at Gelateria Nico on the Grand Canal: a small brick of chocolate hazelnut gelato dunked in a tall glass of whipped cream. This is about as brilliant as dessert gets, and I wolfed it down in mere minutes.

Our entire group concluded the day with a gondola ride and dinner.  Our gondolier was young and handsome, friendly and mildly flirty with the group of middle-aged women he steered around the canals.  He claimed not to be a singing gondolier, but with a little encouragement he favored us with a few bars of a pop ballad and proved to have a lovely, rich baritone voice.  He was such a good sport and so nice that I had to wonder if all this talk of tourist-hating Venetians might be a bit overblown.  I reflected on a day in which I'd encountered no attitude or impatience from anyone in a service role. In fact, when I'd stopped for a bottle of water at a pizza place earlier, the woman who served me was effusively friendly and offered me an enthusiastic "grazie!" (Maybe because I ordered "acqua, per favore," using Italian rather than my own language?)  Perhaps that persnickety old Zia Serenissima is softening and getting used to the ruffians in the parlor after all.

Movie tie-in: Where do I even start?

My whole love affair with Venice started long before I ever set foot in the city - at the movies.  How many times have you seen that famous landscape?  Think of Summertime, A Room with a View, Don't Look Now, The Talented Mr. Ripley...  The list goes on and on.

Not to mention the fascinating documentary Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict.

But I'm going to pick Lasse Hallstrom's Casanova, a thoroughly silly and highly enjoyable romp starring the late Heath Ledger in the title role, Sienna Miller as his love interest, and whole ensemble of wonderful actors (Jermey Irons, Oliver Platt, Lena Olin among them) having a merry time in a most romantic setting.

It's hard to make a movie in Venice that doesn't capture its beauty, but Casanova is one I recall giving the sunniest, most beautiful views of a city that is all about beauty.  And it's far and away the most fun film on this list.  Rent it and enjoy yourself.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

On the Road: Reflections on Prague - Then and Now

Sometimes, this blog is about movies... and sometimes it's about the life in between them.  As regular readers know, that life in-between occasionally involves travel.  Here is the first in a series of observations from my recent trip to Europe - a performance trip made by my community choir.

But I promise - I'll find a movie association for every one of these post!

I first visited the Czech Republic in 2001; my memories of that trip are spotty and impressionistic now, but the overriding, lingering impression I retain is of a country not yet entirely comfortable with tourists - especially American tourists.

In Prague, you could sense the aspiration to attain (or, more correctly, regain) status as a world-class cosmopolitan city, but there was still ample evidence of the austerity and deprivations of the Soviet era. I recall our cab driver pointing proudly to an abstract sculpture on the site where a statue of Joseph Stalin had once stood. "Stalin, bye-bye!" he crowed exultantly and waved. The hotel to which he delivered us was spartan but clean and comfortable, and gave the distinct feeling of having been converted to lodgings from some other kind of establishment.  The tiny baths in our rooms were obviously converted closets that one had to step up and into from the room where we slept.  The hotel dining room resembled a high school 'cafe-torium' and the breakfast buffet food was portioned out in plastic bowls and cups arrayed neatly on humble trays.

We took a dinner cruise on the Vlatva River.  A trio of men played Sinatra tunes and I think some people danced.  The buffet featured a desultory array of dishes and ample supplies of fresh apples, bananas and pears.  A hostess explained to us that the fresh fruit was still seen as a great treat, having been so hard to come by during the years of Soviet occupation.

One Saturday night while we ate dinner in quiet pub, I watched a television variety show hosted by a pair of middle-aged women: one an aging, ditzy blonde and the other a sturdy, sardonic character actress. Imagine a sketch-and-music show co-hosted by Goldie Hawn and Margo Martindale and you'll have some idea of it.  They sang a opening song about being buddies, performed a comedy sketch in which they played witches.  I didn't - and still don't - understand a single word of Czech, but I could follow the comic beats in everything they did.

The formula for a television variety series may have been universal, but our face-to-face interactions with Czech service people were far less intuitive. English wasn't widely spoken there at that time; if a Czech person knew a second language, it was more likely to be German. So maybe it was the language barrier - or maybe it was the vehemence with which the teetotalers in our group refused the complimentary shots of becherovka proffered at every meal - but we managed to piss off a whole series of waitresses, clerks and ticket agents.  Their surly glares felt personal at the time, but in retrospect, they probably weren't. This, after all, is a country that uses Franz Kafka as the iconic face on its tourist trinkets.  Even our tour guide at Prague Castle was dour and gloomy, muttering his dissatisfaction with Vaclav Havel's government as he led us into the courtyard. I joked to my friends that the Czech tourist industry needed a little instruction on guest relations from the folks at Disney , but privately I felt rather embarrassed at having, however unintentionally, offended our hosts.

Still, the city was as incredibly beautiful as I had heard - a mixture of perfectly preserved 18th century Baroque buildings and gorgeous Art Nouveau architecture, all trimmed with endlessly interesting decorative details: murals, statues, religious icons, wrought iron frills and flourishes.  Here's an example (and no, this is not where we stayed - then OR now):

I also recall a perfectly delicious dessert we consumed at a cafĂ© in Old Town Square: a crepe filled with fruit and ice cream, drizzled with chocolate and topped with a generous dollop of whipped cream.  In retrospect, it doesn't seem a spectacular concoction. But it was the whole experience: the late afternoon sunshine, the cheerful bustle of tourists beneath the famed Astronomical Clock , the sweetness of the dessert and the smiling disposition of the first friendly waitress we'd encountered in Prague - that made it so memorable.

Flash forward now to 2017:

My first impression of Prague when we arrive on a Friday morning is that tourist-driven consumerism had definitely taken hold of the city. Our hotel on Wenceslas Square was sleek and modern with good-sized rooms and an Andy Warhol portrait of Franz Kafka behind the front desk.  The Marks and Spencer store I remembered from my previous visit as the lone, isolated outpost of Western consumerism has been joined by H&M, Sephora and many other merchants easily recognizable to American mall shoppers. The square was unusually quiet for a Friday  - most Prague denizens being out of town on a national four-day holiday weekend - but by the weekend, the streets were fairly clogged with tourists from all over the world. Also, there were numerous buskers and tourist-trinket-scammers, the likes of which I don't recall seeing at all in 2001.

The city is infinitely more welcoming to English speakers than in 2001 . Every sign and menu is in English as well as Czech, and everyone from the impeccably dressed young woman who sells me garnet earrings to the waiter who brings us salads and peach iced tea for our first lunch, speaks the language more or less fluently.  If servers are not quite universally warm and effusive, they are unfailingly polite. No glares, no surliness. (Then again, there is almost no one in our group who will turn down a shot of becherovka - a potent liquor, redolent with cinnamon and cloves, that goes down smooth and allegedly aids digestion.)

With the group, I revisited Prague Castle, and this time our friendly guide, Pavel, has only lovely things to say about Vaclav Havel, which was a kind of relief.  Like so many tour guides, Pavel brandishes a red umbrella high above his head so we can find and follow him in the crush of the many tour groups jostling for space and good photo set-ups.  His only fault is that he cannot walk slowly - his red umbrella bobs so far of ahead of us that we sometimes can barely keep him in sight.

We discover the delights of becherovka and Pilsner beer, while we learn to avoid Czech wine.  We learn that a dish called "Moravian Sparrow" is, in fact, roast pork in a delicious onion and garlic gravy. We sit in a friendly pub one afternoon and pick our way through a sort of Czech charcuterie plate of various cheeses, pork, ham and pickles. But sadly, we never get a chance to sample trdelnik, the ubiquitous dessert of ice cream served in a cone made of fried, sugar-dusted dough.  Maybe I'll be back in another 16 years to try it....

And of course, this being a choir performance trip, we sang - first in St. Nicholas Church on Old Town Square, then on the following night at San Salvator Catholic church just off the Charles Bridge. Our audiences are mostly comprised of appreciative tourists, many of whom film us on their phones. (So now we are the stars of vacation videos all over the world!) Also, just one word: ACOUSTICS!!! We never get this kind of sound at home - it's a real joy to hear our voices reverberating through these spectacular spaces.

We took a dinner cruise one night on the Vlatva, just as my friends and I had done before - and not much had changed.  This time, the music was provided by a duo - one man on clarinet, the other on banjo - which gave the sensation that our river cruise was taking place over the endlessly rolling credits of a Woody Allen movie. There was again fresh fruit on the buffet - grapes and apple wedges - but also a large of array of tasty meat, fish and vegetable dishes. We happily spread out on the top deck in the evening air, drinking wine and watching the gorgeous cityscape of Prague roll by. This one delightful evening was exactly as I had remembered it sixteen years earlier.

Movie Tie-In:

All those gorgeously preserved 18th century buildings made a perfect backdrop for the 1984 film version of Amadeus.  Czech-born director Milos Forman used Prague as a very convincing stand-in for Vienna in the exterior shots, and filmed some interior theatre scenes there as well.

In fact, the real Mozart had a connection to Prague: his opera Don Giovannni premiered there in 1787, where it received a rapturous reception.  The theater where it was performed still stands today, a commemorative plaque on the door and a statue of the Commandant character just outside (both of which I stupidly failed to photograph.)  A slightly altered version of Don Giovanni was performed in Vienna the following year to slightly more reserved applause.

In the interest of dramatic license, playwright/screenwriter Peter Shaffer totally fudges this information in Amadeus, where Salieri informs us that the opera opened and closed in the same week in Vienna, a failure and a flop. So now you know the REAL story.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Oscars 2017: So, We're Doing This Again...

It's Oscar time again. Pardon my asterisks, but I am completely out of f***ks to give.

It's not that 2016 wasn't a fantastic year for films (It was!) or that the really great ones aren't up for any Oscars (Many of them are!).  It's just that ... I'm SO DONE with 2016 and I'm tired of celebrating anything to do with it.  Outside of the cinema, 2016 was a thoroughly crap year that I don't want to revisit - even through film clips and ESPECIALLY not through a weepy "In Memoriam" montage. (Frankly, just the experience of living through 2016 felt like being trapped in an "In Memoriam" montage that just kept rolling and getting sadder and sadder.)

Also, I'm REALLY TIRED of talking about La La Land. And I loved La La Land!  It was at the top of my list of the best films of 2016. But it doesn't merit the level of bickering and controversy it's generated. Seriously, everyone needs to chill out and rent The Young Girls of Rochefort this weekend. (Get a clue, people - it's not based just on Hollywood musicals!) Meanwhile, I will keep trying to get the melody of "City of Stars" out of my head, where it's been stuck for over three months now.

But... I'm a film blogger who writes about the Oscars every year, so I'm digging deep for the motivation to give you my annual "Good, Bad, Undeserving and Overlooked" assessment of this year's nominees. (Disclaimer: as of this moment, I still have not seen Lion, Nocturnal Animals or Elle. Watch this space for late-breaking updates, as I plan to finally see at least one of those in the next 48 hours...)

Before we begin, a word about this year's host: I have only the highest hopes for Jimmy Kimmel, who seems like the perfect choice to helm this year's ceremony.

Last year, at the height of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy and Chris Rock's edgy hosting gig, I predicted that "we can probably expect an old-fashioned, crowd-pleasing white host in 2017." I fully expected that host to be Billy Crystal; even so, I wasn't entirely off the mark. Kimmel is the easiest to take of the network late-night hosts: funny but not too edgy, naughty but not smutty, topical but without the bite or sting of pointed satire.  He occupies a comfortable, enjoyable middle ground between the exuberant ass-kissery of Jimmy Fallon's "Tonight" show and the barbed political takedowns on Stephen Colbert's "Late Show."  Kimmel's emcee chops were developed over years of hosting  the American Music Awards and the Emmys. He'll be funny, and he'll keep the show humming along nicely, without too many Trump jokes. And despite the fact that I enjoy a good laugh at the President's expense, I'm actually looking forward to that.

And now, on to the nominees. Due to my overwhelming Oscar ennui, I'm keeping it to bare-bones predictions and shout-outs this year. No long-winded essays or cries of shock and outrage - just the facts, ma'am:

Best Supporting Actress
     Will Win:  Viola Davis for Fences
     Should Win: Viola Davis for Fences
     Overlooked: Julianne Moore for Maggie's Plan (Because she was so funny! After playing so               many silently suffering women, we forgot she had such wicked comedy chops.)

Best Supporting Actor
     Will Win: Mahershala Ali for Moonlight
     Should Win: Mahershala Ali for Moonlight
     Overlooked: Hugh Grant for Florence Foster Jenkins (best performance of his career), Alden             Ehrenreich for Hail Caesar! (he stole the film!), Ralph Fiennes for A Bigger Splash (his                       happy dance to the Stones' "Emotional Rescue" alone merits the nomination)

Best Actress
     Will Win: Emma Stone for La La Land
     Should Win:  Natalie Portman for Jackie
     Overlooked: Molly Shannon for Other People (she's come a looong way since SNL), Susan                  Sarandon for The Meddler (a lovely performance in a underseen, underrated film), Amy Adams        for Arrival (because how is she not on this list?)

Best Actor 
     Will Win: Casey Affleck for Manchester by the Sea
     Should Win: Denzel Washington for Fences
     Overlooked: Tom Hanks for Sully (contrary to popular belief, he does NOT play every role the              same), Joel Edgerton for Loving (every bit as great as his nominated co-star).

Best Director 
     Will Win:  Damien Chazelle for La La Land
     Should Win: Barry Jenkins for Moonlight OR Mel Gibson for Hacksaw Ridge
     Overlooked: Pablo Larrain for Jackie 

Best Picture
     Will Win: La La Land
     Should Win: Does it matter? La La Land is going to win and that's fine, although I'd also be               happy to see Moonlight take the top prize.
     Overlooked: Jackie and Allied.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

A Kangaroo at the Vatican and Other Surprises

So here's something that actually happened on last night's episode of The Young Pope: the Pope ordered a kangaroo to be let loose in the Vatican Gardens.

Not just any kangaroo, mind you, but the one sent to him by the good people of Australia as a congratulatory gift on his ascension to the papacy.  A kangaroo that whimpered and growled quietly inside his crate until Pope Pius XIII gently summoned him forward with a whisper of "C'mon, sweetie..." and a beckoning hand gesture not unlike that shown in pictures of Jesus bringing Lazarus back from the dead.

Is it wrong that I laughed out loud for a full 30 seconds during this scene? Or that I broke out in fresh peals of laughter all over again every time we saw someone walking or sitting in the gardens, thinking "Now'd be a GREAT time for that kangaroo to show up and kick those cardinals in the head with his giant kangaroo feet!"

HBO's advertising for its miniseries, The Young Pope, suggests scintillating prestige television drama. But the actual show suggests that writer-director Paolo Sorrentino dropped acid, then decided to make a mash-up of Angels and Demons and The Devils, but without the sex or Tom Hanks.  It's gorgeous, but not salacious, shocking not because it's dishing up prurient details, but because it ricochets from straight-faced seriousness to Cloud Cuckooland without warning. The titular young pope doesn't swear or screw around (although he does enjoy cigarettes), but he demands a Cherry Coke Zero for breakfast and makes it clear that a regular Diet Coke simply won't do.  He gives his first address from his balcony at night and in silhouette so that no one can see his face and bellows like Ned Beatty in the "You have meddled with the primal forces of nature" scene from Network. Also, that kangaroo thing.

Another thing that actually happened in last night's episode: Diane Keaton - playing Sister Mary, the nun who raised Lenny in an orphanage and is summoned to Rome to be his personal assistant - gets a late-night visit in her room by the pope.  She opens the door, not wearing a prim, nun-like nightgown buttoned up to her neck as you might expect, but a flimsy robe over a T-shirt that announces in bold letters, "I'M A VIRGIN. THIS IS AN OLD SHIRT." (And, in case you're wondering, she retains that status when the scene is over. Like I said, nothing freaky going on here.)

Jude Law plays the former Lenny Belardo, now Pius XIII with a little bit of slippery charm and a whole lot of sociopathic menace. It's as if his Dickie Greenleaf character from The Talented Mr. Ripley was resurrected and swathed in papal robes, only now he's scarier. He's actually uncomfortable to watch; every minute feels like Pius XIII is about half an inch away from a full psychotic break.  I guess that's evidence that Law is great in the role, but ... yikes!

On the other hand, you'd be hard pressed to find a mini-series so visually sumptuous. Cuckoo-bird though he may be, Sorrentino has an unerring eye for shot composition and the dramatic use of color. The shots of St. Peter's Basilica are unbelievable - in some cases, literally so.  Those close-ups and overhead shots of the Pieta would be impossible in reality, since the Michaelangelo sculpture is kept behind bulletproof glass.  Are these CGI shots? (Because if so, they're much better than the God-awful-obvious CGI kangaroo.)

Sorrentino made the acclaimed 2013 film, The Great Beauty - a rambling, gorgeous meditation on modern Italy that opens with one of the greatest party scenes in movie history. Then he made the 2015 film Youth (also playing on HBO this month) which was also gorgeous and seemed to be about something, but finally had no discernible point whatsoever.  With just a couple episodes down, it's still too early to tell if The Young Pope has a viable through-line, or whether it, too, will be an accumulation of visually arresting absurdities with little ultimate meaning.

But I've decided that I'm in for the whole ride. The Young Pope won't be to everyone's taste, but for me, it's already headed towards my personal pantheon of exuberantly nutty Over-the-Topness - a collection which includes Kenneth Branagh's Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, those Cate Blanchett biopics of Elizabeth I, the opening scenes of Heaven's Gate and pretty much all of Ken Russell's career.

And I really hope the kangaroo is back next week.

Monday, January 16, 2017

These Might Be the Best Films of 2016

It' s that time of year again: the doldrums of mid-January, in which I finally get around to naming the best films of the previous year, mere weeks after the real critics have published their lists and moved on.

My list, as always, is preceded by a self-deprecating preamble where I explain that I saw only a fraction of the 2016 films that serious and/or professional critics took time to view. (A grand total of 77, as of this weekend.) Also, I remind you that the list of films I see is shaped both by my personal tastes and the rigors of my work schedule; as such, it generally excludes anything excessively violent, anything produced by the Marvel franchise, or anything that was in-and-out of theaters in two weeks or less, especially if those two weeks coincided with a looming work deadline.

On the other hand,  the fact that I'm not obligated to see the many, many crap movies released in a given year means that the ones I do see are carefully curated to ensure maximum viewing value.  So the list you're about to read might, in fact, be the best films of 2016. You've already seen almost all of these on 'real' critics' lists. There won't be many surprises here.

A couple of quick notes about eligibility:

To be on my "Best" list, the film must have been released in the Chicago area for the first time sometime during the 2016 calendar year, whether in theaters or via home streaming.  By this criteria, the following 2015 films were under consideration for this year's list: 45 Years, Anomolisa, The Revenant Son of Saul. (SPOILER: None of them made it.)  It also means that some films showing up on other "Best of 2016" lists will be considered for my 2017 list: Silence, Hidden Figures, Toni Erdmann, 20th Century Women, Neruda, PatersonThings to Come.

The other criterion for eligibility is, of course, that I had to actually see the film.  I ran out of time, opportunities, or (in a couple of cases) inclination to see all of the following: Loving, Elle, Arrival, Green Room, Nocturnal Animals, Hacksaw Ridge, The Handmaiden.

The good news?  There was a whole lot of great film to be enjoyed in 2016 - so much so that I decided to do a "Fifteen Best" list this year, rather than the traditional "Ten Best."

In ascending order of preference, those films are:

15. Everybody Wants Some! (Richard Linklater)

Linklater's easygoing campus comedy takes place over a late August weekend in 1980, following the members of a Texas college baseball team as they settle into a ramshackle shared house, party, chase girls, smoke weed and play ball.  It's atmospheric and meandering, rather than heavily plotted, but it captures the mood and spirit of the times damn near perfectly (as I can well attest, having been a college senior myself at that time). To my great shame, I have never seen Linklater's Dazed and Confused, so I can't make an intelligent comparison to his well-loved high school comedy.  But I greatly enjoyed this one on its own terms.

14. The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos)

When I first saw The Lobster in the theater, I was so overwhelmed by its bleakness and cruelty that I almost wished I'd never seen it.  But I couldn't get it out of my head. I've since watched it two more times via home streaming; the smaller screen (and access to a fast-forward button for one particular sequence of animal abuse) made the bleakness more bearable and enhanced the subtle brilliance of the deadpan, jet-black humor.  In this oddball dystopian tale, single people are rounded up and taken to a remote hotel where they have 45 days to find a mate or else be turned into a animal of their choosing. If you (like me) are a single person, you'll especially appreciate how Lanthimos finds the absurdities in society's disapproving take on the unattached and cranks them to a lunatic nth degree.

13. Allied (Robert Zemeckis)

A superbly crafted World War II romantic thriller that feels old-fashioned in all the right ways. It channels Casablanca and a little of Alfred Hitchcock, yet never feels entirely derivative.  The less you know about the plot and its twists going in, the better; it sweeps you up and away into its narrative with classic storytelling and gorgeous cinematography.  Rush to see this while you can still find it on a big screen. It's glowing, glamorous opening scenes set in wartime Casablanca won't be nearly as dazzling on your TV.

12. Little Sister (Zach Clark)

A bittersweet comedy of family heartache and healing with a few surprises.  A badly burn-scarred Iraqi war veteran returns home; his sister (a former Goth teenager turned Catholic nun) comes to visit and helps to bring him back to life.  Set in 2008 against the election of Barack Obama to the presidency, the film's political themes are underdeveloped, but its unsentimental depiction of family quirks and conflicts is perfectly tuned. I especially liked that the young sister's religious devotion was depicted respectfully and without comment. As in his 2013 film, White Reindeer (which also made my "year's best" list), writer/director Zach Clark skillfully blends genuinely moving moments of human connection into the most outrageous scenes.

11. Hail Caesar! (Joel and Ethan Coen)

The Coen's love letter to early '50s studio filmmaking takes scattershot aim at a whole lot of targets (Communists, musicals, Biblical epics, studio meddling in the morals and private lives of its contracted actors) and culminates in a heartfelt, if barbed, appreciation of the magic that comes from it all.  Alden Ehrenreich steals the film as the young cowboy actor being uneasily shoehorned into a sophisticated comedy. An extended sequence of him on a date with an up-and-coming actress is a particularly sweet digression from the hi-jinks.

10. 13th (Ava DuVernay)

DuVernay's powerful, damning documentary examines a little-remembered qualifying clause in the 13th amendment and how it's been used to keep institutional racism alive.  She lays out a carefully assembled, multi-faceted case. (Hell, she even gets Newt Gingrich to make some of her points on camera.) An important film for anyone to see - and a particularly enlightening one for anyone who doesn't fully understand or believe in white privilege.

9.  Little Men (Ira Sachs)

Writer/director Ira Sachs continues to make intensely moving personal drama about New Yorkers at the mercy of their city's ever less affordable real estate market. (See also his 2014 film Love is Strange.) The close friendship between two  boys - one is a dressmaker's son, the other is the son of the dressmaker's landlord - is severely tested when the dressmaker's rent is raised higher than she can possibly afford.  It's gentle and sad, and not a single character is portrayed in black-and-white terms. Sachs, the most generous and sensitive of filmmakers, shows us neither villains nor tragic heroes - only flawed, decent humans struggling to make the best of a bad situation. Heartbreaking and sweet in just the right proportions, with the tiniest bit of satire just to keep things from sinking into bathos.

8.  Sing Street (John Carney)

No one captures the infectious joy of making music quite like John Carney (who previously brought us Once and Begin Again). In his best film yet, Carney focuses on aspiring young musicians in mid-1980's Ireland who write songs inspired by Duran Duran and meet after school to play and shoot videos.  It's a feel-good film with a healthy, leavening dose of reality, effectively capturing the excitement of a cultural moment as well as the economic desperation that led many young people to leave Ireland for England. There's a nicely played romance in the mix and, of course, lots of very enjoyable music.

7.  Krisha (Trey Edward Shults)

The story template is familiar: a long-absent recovering addict returns to the family fold for Thanksgiving, where's she's handled with everything from kid-gloves kindness to indifference to outright hostility.  What distinguishes this film is its uncanny way of putting us inside Krisha's head as she navigates a minefield of family conflict with ever-increasing anxiety.  Director Trey Edward Shults cast his real aunt Krisha in the title role, and himself and his relatives as her family members; they bring an unsettling naturalism to the proceedings.

6.  A Bigger Splash (Luca Guadagnino)

Like Guadagnino's previous film, I am Love, this is a decadent and sumptuous watch. It verges on being travel magazine porn with scenes of characters languishing around a pool and savoring freshly made cheeses and freshly stirred daquiris in an exotic island setting. I'm not immune to the charms of ogling beautiful people enjoying beautiful things; I'd watch this over and over just to see Ralph Fiennes' exuberant dance to the Stones' "Emotional Rescue"  on a lazy, sunny afternoon. But Guadagnino adds subtle layers to his remake of the equally decadent French film La Piscine by setting it on Panetelleria Island - off the coast of Sicily and within sight of Tunisia, smack in the path of refugees heading toward Europe.  Those refugees play a minor role around the edges of the gorgeous, privileged life depicted here, but their desperation casts a shadow over the beautiful people's story as it edges towards tragedy. As you would expect, Tilda Swinton - playing a rock star whose recent throat surgery has rendered her speechless - gives a stunning performance, even without words.

5. Sully (Clint Eastwood)

A no-fuss depiction of heroic action, with Tom Hanks rather brilliantly portraying Captain "Sully" Sullerson as a man who simply did what needed to be done in the moment. The highly fictionalized drama that Eastwood makes out of the investigations follwing the celebrated "Miracle on the Hudson," sometimes seems a bit forced.  But his minute-by-minute recreation of the crash and subsequent rescue is a breathtaking piece of cinema, the kind which literally keeps you on the edge of your seat even though you know how it's going to come out.

4. OJ: Made in America (Ezra Edelman)

This has the unusual distinction of making both this list and the number 2 spot on my "Best Binge Watches of 2016," since it was also shown on television.  As I said on that other list, it's "a masterful, nearly 8-hour documentary that exhaustively examines race and celebrity in America through the prism of O. J. Simpson's rise and fall. Simpson's story plays like Greek tragedy. Director Ezra Edelman shapes a mountain of material and interviews into riveting drama, the television equivalent of a great book that you can't bring yourself to put down.  Interestingly enough, this five-part TV series has landed on most critics list of the year's 10 best films, and is short-listed for the Best Documentary Oscar.  And deservedly so. I'm going to predict, here and now, that it will win that award."

3. Jackie (Pablo Larrain)

Among the many things this film does to brilliant effect is to capture the fragmented mental state of a woman struggling to process her own trauma while taking care of business for her family and her country.  That's not to trivialize the horror or the historical impact of JFK's assassination itself, because Jackie certainly makes those things clear; in fact, it concurrently captures the fragmented and frightened state of the entire nation with equal brilliance. Natalie Portman's canny, finely calibrated performance gets at both the steeliness and the vulnerability beneath the First Lady's flawlessly composed patrician exterior. Larrain approaches a frequently depicted historical event from a fresh and original perspective and gives it renewed relevancy. (Some passages in which Mrs. Kennedy ponders the nature of truth and whether it is contained in the written words of a news story feels all too relevant to our current times.)That's no small achievement.

And then ... we skip to first place, which is a TIE, because... don't make me choose...

1. TIE - Moonlight (Barry Jenkins) and La La Land (Damien Chazelle)

Two very different films: both are equally masterful, and both seem like the films we most needed in the tumultuous, contentious year just past.

Moonlight is a beautiful, poetic, emotionally shattering coming-of-age drama of a young, gay, black man growing up in the projects of South Florida.  It's a linear narrative, but one that communicates most powerfully through images and wordless sequences (the motion of water beneath and around the boy as he learns to swim, the sensation of his free hand digging into beach sand as he embraces and kisses another boy for the first time.)  These scenes have an intimacy and emotional resonance that nearly breaks your heart.

There's a welcome subtlety and an unforced impact to the revelations in Moonlight, particularly when its young protagonist realizes that the neighborhood man who's become a badly needed father figure to him is also the dealer supplying his crack-addled mother.  The moment is heart-stopping, yet we're left to let the process the significance of that for ourselves.

Given our current political climate, it's no stretch to worry that stories like Moonlight might be suppressed in the near future, but that's not the only reason to celebrate it. It is a stunning cinematic achievement in its own right - and would be so at any time.

La La Land is a bit of an escape, yet I would argue it is no less emotionally resonant and no less needed.  The recent backlash against its heralding as the second coming of the Hollywood musical was both predictable and misguided.  Make no mistake, La La Land makes many conscious references to the great musicals of the Vincent Minelli/Stanley Donen heyday, but let's not kid ourselves - that heyday is never truly coming back. It was a product of its own time, one that this film looks back on with admiration and longing but was never going to fully re-create. Besides, La La Land owes as much, if not more, to the bittersweet and modest charms of Jacques Demy's Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort as to the MGM masterworks.

I never minded that the song-and-dance talents of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone were serviceable, but hardly dazzling; that's entirely in keeping with the Demy influence. (Although, truth be told, I did wish that someone had coached Stone on the proper technique for belting before she recorded her eleventh hour solo number. There's a bit more involved than just yelling the lyrics.)

Damien Chazelle infuses La La Land with a spectacular visual beauty that underscores its themes of yearnings for love, for times and art forms that are passing away, for success and artistic fulfillment. That the film builds to a bittersweet climax in no way dashes the hopefulness that drives its narrative.  And hope is something badly needed now.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

2016 in the Rearview: Reactions I Wasn't Supposed to Have

This is the first in a series of posts looking back at the films of 2016.

For many years now, I've had a film blog or one sort or another.  And along with my annual ten best list, I've always identified at least one film that "I Liked More Than I Was Supposed To" - the kind of film that no one in their right mind would put on a Ten Best List, but which I remembered fondly for providing a rollicking good time and little-to-no artistic merit. (The honorees have included Ted, 2012, Neighbors, and It's Complicated.)

There were a few contenders for this dubious accolade in 2016, but surprisingly there was also one film that begged to receive its Bizarro World equivalent: the "Film I Was Supposed to Like, But Didn't."

Every year has its share of overrated critical darlings, but Manchester by the Sea is an entirely different case. It's well made, impeccably acted and written with emotional authenticity and genuine human insight. It probably deserves every award nomination it gets. And it's just about unbearable.

Because it's one thing to tell a story about a man in deep emotional pain who repeatedly fails to overcome the traumatic events of his past. But it's quite another thing to make people watch that in excruciating, unrelenting detail for two-and-a-half hours: every awkward conversation, every painful confrontation with an estranged family member, every rejection of help or new relationships. And it doesn't help that director Kenneth Lonnergan underscores the film's most tragic scenes with bombastically mournful music, as if he couldn't trust the audience to have the correct reactions. There are occasional bits of attempted comic relief, but played so dryly they barely register. (One screwball-worthy scene with Gretchen Mol and Matthew Broderick seems to have been spliced in from another film altogether - until it, too, ends on a depressing note.) By the the two-thirds point, I wanted to escape the theater so badly, I was gripping the armrests to try to keep myself in my seat.

Manchester by the Sea is by no means a bad film. But its authenticity works against it. It feels like emotional torture porn.

After seeing it, I went home and popped in the Blu-Ray disc of the 2016 film I most liked (that I wasn't supposed to) as a corrective. And it worked. Which is kind of a miracle...

Because Bridget Jones's Baby is a film that no one was clamoring for, with a premise that makes no sense and a hackneyed plot contrivance that plays out almost exactly as you'd expect.

That it succeeds as a funny, cozy, heartwarming bit of entertainment is a testament to the one quality that covers a multitude of cinematic sins:  star power.  Or, more to the point, the enduring spark of chemistry between Colin Firth and Renee Zellwegger. Early in the film, there's a scene at a christening party where Firth's Mark Darcy looks on as Zellwegger's Bridget dances to "Gangnam Style" with a gaggle of children; between her bubbly good spirits and his adoring gaze, it's as sweet a depiction of a match made in heaven as I've seen on screen all year.  In the hands of these two most appealing actors, Bridget remains lovably and laughably flawed , while Mark Darcy retains his status as the most attractively repressed English male since, well, the original Mr. Darcy of "Pride and Prejudice."

Otherwise, nothing here makes much sense. No one who's followed the exploits of Helen Fielding's plucky, faux-pas-prone heroine - on the page or onscreen - would expect her to have reached the age of 43 without marrying Mark Darcy. (In fact, Fielding's own 2012 novel, "Mad About the Boy" gave us Bridget as the widowed mother of two young children, re-entering the dating world after Mark's tragic death.)  But Bridget's alternate history on film is hardly a drag; she's still upbeat, still plucky, still surrounded by funny, slightly ribald friends and co-workers who clearly love her, and her world is a sweet and friendly place to spend a couple of hours.

Oh, and Patrick "McDreamy" Dempsey is on hand, too, as a dating website billionaire who could be Bridget's baby daddy.  But honestly, he's the least interesting thing on the menu. Next to the longing gaze of Colin Firth, he doesn't stand a chance.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Binge watches of 2016: Ranked

This post may lead you to believe that I have far too much time on my hands. But allow me to defend myself.

While most of you normal people were watching The Voice, Dancing with Stars, Madame Secretary, This is Us, or the final episodes of The Good Wife, I was watching the series listed below.  Unlike Homer here, I never spent an entire day on the couch surrounded by pizzas and chips with my weary eyeballs glued to episode after episode of a single show.  I have, however, watched 2-4 episodes of one series per night for enough nights in a row to finish a season (or, in some cases, the entire series.)

I'm a bit of a serial obsessive by nature, given to finite periods of intense enthusiasm for one particular filmmaker, actor, author, performer or genre. I sate myself on the work of one artist at a time and then move on.  I was born to binge-watch.

And as I noted in the preceding post, 2016 was a record year of binges for me.  I completed 11 major binges in 2016 and have another in progress this week.  The list below is strictly a reflection of my own personal tastes and preferences; there are no Marvel franchise shows here, no Stranger Things, no Goliath, no Sense8.  Even so, I think I covered a lot of ground.

Here are the shows I watched in ascending order of preference:

In progress now: Oliver Stone's Untold History of the United Statues (Netflix)

I'm just three episodes in, and Stone has already thoroughly excoriated Harry Truman, laying full blame for the Cold War at his feet, while suggesting that Joseph Stalin wasn't all that bad of a guy. Yes, it's every bit as provocative and controversial as you'd imagine, but Stone also delivers a good bit of compelling evidence for his claims. This series was first broadcast in 2012 on Showtime; I'm watching it with both an open mind and a healthy dose of skepticism.

11. Crisis in Six Scenes (Amazon)

More evidence that Woody Allen has just about lost his comedic touch, albeit with a couple of bright spots.  First there's the wonderful Elaine May, lobbing some obvious but inspired improvisations at Allen that he just barely manages to keep afloat. (Allen plays a former ad man; May occasionally name checks the products for which he wrote copy, including 'orthopedic ice cream' and "Earl of Sussex frozen fish balls.") Also, the final episode has every character in the entire series descending on one house, and Allen's directorial/traffic control skills are kind of dazzling as he moves the actors from room to room and scene to scene.  Allen and May play a long-married couple looking for a little excitement and finding it by sheltering a hippie revolutionary on the lam (Miley Cyrus, who seems to be enjoying herself, but isn't remotely believable).  It feels like it a mildly amusing artifact from the 1960s rather than a contemporary film that is merely set in that era.  That's something I guess, but it's not enough.

10. Downton Abbey, Seasons 1-6 (Amazon)

Oh, Crawley family and your house full of servants, I just can't quit you!  So just days after the final Downton episode was broadcast on PBS, I started revisiting the series from the beginning, show by show, all the way to the resplendently happy ending.  Watching the shows on a daily basis for few weeks really brought home to me just how ritualized and regimented the upper class British life was (that daily gong when it was time to dress for dinner, the appointed time for children to be with their parents, and so on). Also, it reminded me that, once every season, Lord Grantham did something noble and beneficent for Mrs. Patmore that reduced her to quivering tears of working-class gratitude. It's not ranked this low because I didn't enjoy the binge; it's ranked this low because it's the only one I'm embarrassed to have done.

9.  One Mississippi (Amazon)

I really wanted to like this series more, but that would require Tig Notaro to develop an acting range extending beyond "deadpan." The low-key bemusement Notaro employs in her stand-up work is less effective when she's meant to be the emotional center of an often sad and painful story. This autobiographical dramedy has her returning to her Louisiana hometown after her mother's death, and it's well conceived and well written. But Notaro, is overshadowed by the other actors, particularly the very fine John Rothman as her emotionally constipated stepfather.

8.  Transparent, Season 3 (Amazon)

After an impressive debut and a flat-out brilliant second season, Transparent foundered and flailed this year and didn't always satisfy.  The third season had less to do with issues of gender identity than with the clueless white privilege and unbridled narcissism of the entire Pfeffernan clan, but it wasn't entirely without its moments of transcendence.  I just can't anymore with Sarah's repeated journeys up her own ass or Josh's trembling lower lip and watery eyes after yet another person walks away from his stupidity and selfishness, the fine performances of Amy Landecker and Jay Duplass notwithstanding. What I did like: Shelly's triumphant one-woman show (Judith Light for the Emmy!); Rabbi Raquel's balls-out, raging takedown of the insufferable Sarah (another reason to love Kathryn Hahn!); Cherry Jones' wild irascibility all season long. Also Jeffrey Tambor and Gaby Hoffman, doing everything they do in every show. The plotlines may be all over the place, but the cast remains uniformly impeccable.

7.  Catastrophe, Season 2 (Amazon)

Bawdy, tender, raucous, foul-mouthed, romantic, cynical and very funny: Catastrophe is all of that, and sometimes all of that in the very same moment.  When last we saw Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan, their wedding night was about to be interrupted by the arrival of a baby they conceived in their first weekend together.  Season two opens a year or so later, with a second baby on the way and the breakneck pace of their smart-ass-bickering-leading-to-hot-sex still intact.  With dizzying comic precision, Delaney and Horgan pile layers of escalating, R-rated screwball absurdity on top of sharply honed insights into marriage, work and parenthood. The season ends on a tantalizing cliffhanger that has me eagerly awaiting Season 3.  With just six episodes, each under 30 minutes,, Catastrophe is the closest thing to instant gratification that a binge watch can deliver.

6. Bojack Horseman, all 3 seasons (Netflix)

I would never have guessed that a cartoon series about a self-loathing, alcoholic former sitcom star (who also happens to be a horse) could be this engrossing or this deep.  Series creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg has imagined a bizarre, funhouse-mirror image of Hollywood where animals and humans work together on both sides of the camera, and inter-species romantic connections are no big deal. (Even a cat and mouse find true love together at one point.) A rapid-fire blend of puns, cheap gags, showbiz satire, and inspired absurdities are seamlessly woven into some genuinely bleak and emotionally devastating storylines. Season three includes one nearly dialogue-free episode in which Bojack struggles to return a lost baby seahorse to its family; it's no exaggeration to call that episode Chaplinesque in both its comic invention and its pathos.  I stand in awe of the mind that conceived this show and I can't wait to see where it goes in season four.

5.  The Larry Sanders Show, all 6 seasons (HBO Now)

In fairness, this wasn't quite a binge watch for me; I worked my way through the series in random, rather than chronological, order over roughly a month's time, but I got it all in.  This groundbreaking series from the '90s wasn't available anywhere for years till HBO released it to their streaming app in September.  Twenty-four years after its debut, it remains brilliantly funny. The comic triumvirate of Garry Shandling, Jeffrey Tambor and Rip Torn remain peerless in their command of character-driven 'cringe' comedy. Together they milk more genuine belly laughs out of neurosis, arrogance, ego and showbiz insecurity than I'd have ever thought possible.

4.  Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Season 1 (Hulu)

Let us now praise Rachel Bloom, the ridiculously talented star/co-creator of this wholly original and delightfully cartoony TV romcom. Bloom plays an unhappy lawyer who ditches a partnership in New York for the California hometown of her long-ago drama camp crush, where she slyly infiltrates his social circle in an effort to win him back.  Every episode includes inspired and insanely funny musical interludes - production numbers that deftly parody everything from Beyonce's Lemonade to The Music Man and Gypsy. Blooms sings like a Broadway diva and dances like an old-time hoofer, but her sensibilities and apologetically off-color humor are solidly rooted in contemporary sensibilities. Her show is so fast-paced and funny that you might not notice how it subversively explores, then overturns, all the standard tropes of romantic comedy. Bloom and co-creator Aline Brosh McKenna invest even their goofiest characters and silliest set pieces with deceptively deep emotional truths.  In short, it's lots of fun, but also more than meets the eye. I'm now watching Season Two the old-fashioned way: one weekly broadcast episode at a time.

3.  Orange is the New Black, season 4 (Netlfix)

What is it about third seasons? Like Transparent, OITNB had a rocky, unsatisfying third season, but rebounded with a harrowing fourth year where Shit. Got. Real. The back stories for Suzanne, Flaca, Maria and Lolly were revealed, each one more sad and horrible than the last. Piper got knocked down to size in the cruelest of ways. Prison management was privatized, resulting in compromises that led directly to tragedy in the final chapters. After watching 13 episodes in four days time, I felt like I'd been rolled over by a truck: devastated, heartbroken and blown away as you can only be by the greatest human drama. Just writing this makes me want to go back and watch it all again.

2. OJ: Made in America (Hulu)

A masterful, nearly 8-hour documentary that exhaustively examines race and celebrity in America through the prism of O. J. Simpson's rise and fall. Simpson's story plays like Greek tragedy. Director Ezra Edelman shapes a mountain of material and interviews into riveting drama, the television equivalent of a great book that you can't bring yourself to put down.  Interestingly enough, this five-part TV series has landed on most critics list of the year's 10 best films, and is short-listed for the Best Documentary Oscar.  And deservedly so. I'm going to predict, here and now, that it will win that award.

1. The Crown, season 1 (Netflix)

With an apparently limitless production budget, a cast of fantastic actors and a script by that estimable chronicler of the British monarchy, Peter Morgan, this biographical series on Elizabeth II is a monumental achievement and brilliant ten hours of television.  The Crown has something for everyone: sumptuous sets, beautiful costumes, great performances, historical detail, political intrigue, pomp, circumstance, humor and heartache.  It's a veritable banquet of both eye candy and brain candy, laced with the illicit thrill of seeing how royals behave behind closed palace doors. Let's decide right now that the 2017 Emmy roster will absolutely include Best Supporting Actor nominations for John Lithgow (Winston Churchill), Jared Harris (King George VI) and Alex Jennings (the Duke of Windsor), plus a certain nod for Eileen Atkins as the formidable dowager Queen Mary.  But save a spot, too, for Claire Foy, who totally nails Elizabeth's reserve and restraint, but with sufficient nuance to save her from being stuffy or unsympathetic. The moment when Queen Mary in her black mourning veil first kneels in obeisance before her granddaughter may be the most spine-tingling moment of drama I've seen on any screen - big or small - all year long.