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Friday, October 24, 2014

KILL THE MESSENGER 10/24/14


I try to see every one of Jeremy Renner’s films after his great performance in Kathryn Bigelow’s THE HURT LOCKER where he played a Sergeant in Iraq dismantling IED’s (improvised explosive devices) in the dusty,  tension filled streets of BaghdadI will never forget a scene in the shower, water pouring over his bloodied torso slowly slumping down to the ground, tears mixing in with the wet spray that was bathing his body; an attempt to cleanse his psyche of the horrors of warfare. In KILL THE MESSENGER  directed by Michael Cuesta, based on a true story, Renner is in another descent - one that is politically driven - in an intense performance as Pulitzer Prize winner Gary Webb, an investigative journalist for the San Jose Mercury News writing a series entitled “Dark Alliance” on the CIA’s drug dealing connection to the “Contras” during the war in Nicaragua in the 1980’s.

“…Webb investigated Nicaraguans linked to the CIA-backed Contras who had smuggled cocaine into the U.S. Their smuggled cocaine was distributed as crack cocaine in Los Angeles, with the profits funneled back to the Contras. Webb also alleged that this influx of Nicaraguan-supplied cocaine sparked, and significantly fueled, the widespread crack cocaine epidemic that swept through many U.S. cities during the 1980s. According to Webb, the CIA was aware of the cocaine transactions and the large shipments of drugs into the U.S. by Contra personnel. Webb charged that the Reagan administration shielded inner-city drug dealers from prosecution in order to raise money for the Contras, especially after Congress passed the Boland Amendment, which prohibited direct Contra funding…” [Wikipedia]

In this film we experience an institutional backlash to Webb’s reporting, including correspondents from the prestigious NY Times, The LA Times and The Washington Post, all glazing over the story in their own papers; the tragic manipulation of facts in order to destroy the veracity of Webb's coverage of events. We view the absence of San Jose Mercury News’ editorial support at critical moments in Webb’s heroic delving into extensive research; the Reagan Administration’s financing of a war through drug trafficking pitting “truth vs. power”; the perversion of principle to the needs of “security” on the backs of the  south central Los Angeles community. One does not need to “kill the messenger” with bullets - one can do so through the media attacking the person not the story under the potent pressure of the government.


KILL THE MESSENGER attempts to portray Gary Webb in his domestic, familial role as a loving though humanly “flawed” father of 3 children, with a supportive loving wife (the beautiful actor Rosemarie De Witt)  all in danger and threatened by Webb’s probing into the murkiness of political sludge - the undisclosed secrets of the inner workings of government aired out inviting dirty revenge. This is also a David vs. Goliath tale - a lone person who in his “innocence” believes in the unveiling of the machinations of authority through the pen and the judiciousness of our legal system. 

The portrait of Gary Webb is a tenacious and vivid study of idealism in the fight for the unearthing of corruption. I left the theater saddened and disheartened, but at the same time hopeful for those rare individuals who are fearless enough to stand up for what they believe when their support system has been paralyzed by fear of retribution. Hard to do. They merit my deepest respect and admiration.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

THE DROP 10/15/14

James Gandolfini’s last film, THE DROP is a good one starring Tom Hardy (who I loved in LOCKE), Noomi Rapace and James Gandolfini...my kinda movie full of contrasts. Written by MYSTIC RIVER’S  Dennis Lehane and directed by Michael R Roskam, this darkly filmed tale of “redemption” - an “innocent” man beautifully played by Tom Hardy as Bob Saginowski, a seemingly clueless individual bartender tending bar in a neighborhood Brooklyn hangout; a place where there is both laughter, joy, and deceit, working for his burly cousin Marv (Gandolfini ) whose questionable ethics precipitates a deadly confrontation with Chechen mobsters who use The Bar  as a place for their underworld “money drop” (laundering) operations.

Great actors operating in luscious, yet stark environs, with a tension that does not let up evident in the terse, almost silent dialogue. One night the "repentant" man walking home  from work  - a man  who tries to live a quiet solitary existence - saves the life of an abused pit bull dog; this act propels the plot and alters the situation of key figures in the movie. The cocoon that encased Hardy unravels with the yelp of a vulnerable near-death puppy; and with it a protective instinct  is generated which extends to Noomi Rapace - a frightened demoralized young woman whose house and property are pierced by the cries of the anguished dog - a psychotic message delivered in a garbage can.

Other characters menace and stir unrest and danger - the plot becomes convoluted and there are scenes giving us the back story of Marv’s (James Gandolfini) domestic arrangement with his sister, a man in debt, a father in a nursing home and enormous pressure to get out of town - to get away from it all. His cousin Bob Saginowski is unflappable observing what is going on, but at the same time sympathy and tenderness begin to penetrate his sentient “stillness.” This could be considered a familiar oft-told- tale, but what makes it a successful movie is THE DROP ’s study of the humanization of a person who has “dropped out” and the stoic Tom Hardy who does not say much, but through facial and body movements conveys the deeply human need for connection.


Monday, October 6, 2014

Panel Vienna 1900: Portraiture, Perception, Reception, and Restitution 10/6/14

The International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR) Panel with Alessandra Comini, Prof. of Art History Emerita at SMU in Dallas and curator of Egon Schiele: Portraits exhibition opening this week at Neue Galerie in NYC , Eric Kandel, Nobel Prize Neuroscientist and Jane Kallir Co-Director of Galerie St. Etienne was excellent. All three panelists gave us differing yet complementary insights into post 1900 Viennese portraiture.
Alessandra Comini focused on four turn-of the century Viennese Expressionists: Egon Schiele, Richard Gerstl, Max Oppenheimer and Oscar Kokoschka. Her presentation was - as usual - and I am a big fan - delivered with clarity, straightforward and humorous, without undermining the intensity of their work, but rather enhancing our awareness of the artists and their art with surprising unconventional observations. She also related these artists to an important historical period of time, contrasting their "expressionistic/anxious" portraiture with 19 century staid representation. By placing images side by side we experienced the powerful break from tradition mirroring the historical changes in the Austro - Hungarian Empire.
I was fascinated by Eric R. Kandel's presentation. He wrote a book titled Author, The Age of Insight—The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain - [The Age of Insight takes us to Vienna 1900, where leaders in science, medicine, and art began a revolution that changed forever how we think about the human mind—our conscious and unconscious thoughts and emotions—and how mind and brain relate to art. At the turn of the century, Vienna was the cultural capital of Europe. Artists and scientists met in glittering salons, where they freely exchanged ideas that led to revolutionary breakthroughs in psychology, brain science, literature, and art. Kandel takes us into the world of Vienna to trace, in rich and rewarding detail, the ideas and advances made then, and their enduring influence today...] Dr. Kandel was also quite charming with a great sense of humor including sound effects of neurons charging in his powerpoint images of the brain looking at art - which made me laugh out loud.
Jane Kallir took us into the questions of restitution in re Nazi art stolen from Jewish families during the Holocaust - using her grandfather Otto Kallir - who had a gallery in Vienna called Neue Galere (no relation to the Lauder Museum in NYC) - and his flight after the 1938 Anschluss to America where he opened Galerie St. Etienne in NYC in 1940 bringing with him Schieles,Klimts, Cezannes, and other Modernists that the Nazi's allowed out of the country at that time because they were considered "degenerate art." Kallir's first show of Schiele was in 1940 but he was unable to sell any of the work - the drawings went for $20 and the watercolors for $60.. Later the Nazi's held on to the "despised" art and sold them to countries that did value the work in order to get money to use for the war effort. 

Fascinating panel and personal, as my parents also fled Nazi Germany and came to America in 1939 and settled in NYC.  

Sunday, October 5, 2014

GONE GIRL 10/5/14


Man as possible wife-killer; woman as possible psycho; two conflicting stories clash in director David Fincher’s new film GONE GIRL, an emotionless, topsy-turvy commercial thriller with no heart and a web of deceit. It is hard to write about the film without giving away any spoilers so be forewarned in case I slip. This movie could have been interesting dealing with the charade of  appearances, media manipulation and sensationalism of a tragic event; the psychological ramifications of childhood idealization, and a look at the dynamics of marriage - but instead devolved into a badly made horror film wielding not fright, but embarrassed laughter. I ended up not giving a damn about Nick or Amy as the couple were named, and kept muttering (sotto voce) who cares???? 

Beefy Ben Affleck is the accused husband  Nick Dunne - bland and physically big - his neck almost lost in his ever-worn blue shirt. I suppose GONE GIRL wanted  a man who exuded strength, but his mumbling words often got lost in the sound track and he was so expressionless, even in the throes of early romance, that  I liked him better in the much - maligned 2003 movie, Gigli.  

Rosamund Pike plays the beautiful wife Amy Dunne - a childhood heroine of a beloved children’s book series called Amazing Amy, written by her parents idealizing their young daughter - who in the pages of the story lines achieves unattainable pinnacles of  success  - the seeds of the earliest misrepresentations and distortions germinating in her young life. Pike is not lusterless and her appearance and cooly calculating mood changes, gives her more profundity than her bland, stolid husband.  Games, stratagems and subterfuge are at the essence of this femme fatale’s style and spirit. 

We meet the couple - where else but at a cocktail party - wham! love at first sight - their flirtatious language is pure Hollywood banter, and soon the idyllic relationship jumps to the next level - wedlock. We meet them again at their 5th wedding anniversary when Nick returns home to find his wife is gone amidst a scene of broken glass and  possible violence. The plot with all its contrivances then becomes a whodunit and a dissection of “holy matrimony.”  Among the possible offenders are the #1 prime suspect Hubby? Or ex-boyfriend? stranger? or an elaborate frame up? The movie goes on for almost 2 1/2 hours ensnaring the audience in spiraling serpentine maneuvers of revelations and booby traps that are moving so rapidly that we do not have time to get bored. A highlight of the film Tyler Perry’s performance as the ultimate high-powered defense attorney - sharp, cynical and very expensive with a constant twinkle emanating from his eyes -  a breath of much needed fresh air wafted unto the screen when he appeared. Too bad GONE GIRL did not have more of that revitalizing oxygen instead of its suffocating ossified climate. 

Saturday, August 30, 2014

MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT 8/30/14



Oh Woody Allen what has happened to your work? The most recent films have become so light-weight that they float lazily into oblivion. MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT  turns the spotlight on an abrasive, egocentric magician outfitted in “exotic” Chinese garb performing stereotypical tricks to great acclaim by appreciative audiences in 1928 - a time  between the two World Wars - a period of wild release and emancipation. Though this epoch is not integral to the story, it gives Woody Allen an opportunity to clothe the actors in roaring twenties attire, showcasing upper class elegance in the milieu of the wealthy - their grand homes, furnishings, decor and cars. The best part of the movie is the use of a soundtrack with some wonderful Bix Beiderbecker, Cole Porter, Beethoven, etc. scores. Colin Firth - who literally appears anguished at having been cast in the role  of Wei Ling Soo aka Stanley Crawford - a British “rationalist” snob, who is an unlikeable bore, both whiny and pretentious, ironically disdainful of the “sucker” patrons who applaud his “genius” at deception and chimera.

The gist of this tale is the attempt by Stanley Crawford - our “brilliant” illusionist who literally knows all the tricks in the book - to debunk a young beautiful “spiritualist”, Sophie Baker (a vapid performance by Emma Stone,) who is creating a sensation in the Cote d’Azur for her clairvoyant skills. He is called to this task by a fellow magician and childhood friend, Howard (Simon McBurney - a Roman Polanski look alike) to expose Sophie as a fraud, having seduced a wealthy family and particularly the shallow, banjo crooning scion into her world of seances, contacting the spectral inhabitants of the invisible “world beyond.”

Romance blooms - Pygmalion style - as love is the ultimate head-spinning aphrodisiac. The power of attraction transforms the world  from the mundane to the exciting  - this is where true alchemy resides. Since this is a Woody Allen movie, we  have come to anticipate his fascination with the mysteries of amore, his fixation on chemistry and  magnetism; MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT continues that predilection with enchantment. 


Allen is also attempting to deal with the consequences of surrendering oneself to a belief in magical thinking, and the lengths to which faith can be a necessary corollary to existence in a world fraught with uncertainty and eventual death, dealing with the big existential questions - tossing in heavy-duty names such as Nietzsche and Hobbes. Lots of potential here but alas  MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT is neither a side-splitting parody nor a serious exploration of the mysteries of existence. Instead it relies on a veneer of “style”, jaunty music, quick cuts, and predictable blathering in an endeavor to captivate and beguile audiences, who will not be fooled by the film’s superficial chicanery.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

BOYHOOD 8/3/14


Richard Linklater’s masterful new movie BOYHOOD chronicles one family’s journey through time - focusing primarily on Mason, a 6 year-old boy who we first see engulfed by the green of a meadow, gazing up at the clouds in a clear blue sky - dreamy and contemplative - peering at a “hole” in the firmament - indicative of a spirited intelligence and a demanding curiosity which becomes more apparent as we accompany him through the seasons of his life till he becomes 18 years old. What makes this movie so rare and  acutely natural, is the director’s use of identical actors -  Linklater reunited the same cast a few days annually -  over the span of 12 years to film a narrative based on fiction, though (according to interviews I read with the director) some parts are semi- autobiographical. We the audience are privy to the ease of the character’s interactions, the resilience of relationships, the corporeal transformations, the disappointments, struggles, and joys as we pass through the unknown that is the span of their lives, echoing the stories of our own odysseys. 

Ellar Coltrane as Mason gives a performance that is not a performance but a revelation - an uncovering of a presence — the son of a divorced woman (a luminous Patricia Arquette) who is responsible for the care of her two children; a carefree, unaccountable, but loving father (Ethan Hawke in another terrific role) and the ever-present sibling (Lorelei Linklater, the director's daughter, a  feisty budding actor playing the sister) who is three years older and both annoyed and annoying to her little brother. The tribulations on the path from childhood, when we do not have much control over one’s life to adulthood, when you do have the ability and capacity to make choices for yourself  - are documented with an honesty which pays attention to details that are both intricate and commonplace.

There is a lot of familial affection in BOYHOOD as each individual in the movie reconciles, adapts or rebels at changes in his/her situation.  Adults make mistakes - the ever-watchful mother is equally observed by her vigilant son who is sensitive to nuances in the glances and expressions that pass between grownups, which only a child can sense intuitively, without fully  grasping their intent and personal significance. Mason is a rangy, affable young man - good-natured, perceptive, and literally probing -  investigating the world around him, be it by asking THE existential questions such as - how do we find and express that kernel of ourselves distinct from others - or in his teens examining the poetry of  phenomena and wonder with a camera. 

BOYHOOD could have been titled FAMILY-HOOD; the dynamics of the nuclear family are played out from the drama of routine financial burdens to the thrilling awakenings and complexity of sexual attraction, love, friendship and loss. The continuous unfolding of the passage to maturity is breathtaking in its subtlety.  Before our eyes we witness the entry to confidence and self-awareness using a cinematic technique that is unique; one scene smoothly flowing into the next communicating that time moves on relentlessly - and we are all caught up in the undulations of the tides. 

Link to Interview with director Richard Linklater:

http://tinyurl.com/mx3z6g9e

Friday, July 11, 2014

JEFF KOONS - WHITNEY MUSEUM EXHIBITION - 7/11/14

Had to exit the Jeff Koons show early as all the surface shininess triggered one of my ocular migraine "auras" and the world before my eyes shattered into zig-zag patterns. Coffee anyone? The polished stainless steel mirrors and fabrications penetrated my retina but not my being and therein lies the rub. Ironic that I was not disappointed to leave because nothing made my heart skip faster. I was so looking forward to a "rush" - to that feeling of excitement that I got upon seeing the Isa Genzken show where connections were being made that felt fresh and discoverable.

Previously I had been charmed - utterly charmed particularly by Koons' large outdoor sculptures, but this exhibition revealed a wannabe Disney world seductively beckoning, but with a cynicism - a lurking, underlying moral abyss/vacuum. That brings me to the earliest works on view - the Hoover Vacuum Pieces - elegant sculptures encased in an airless void lit by cold fluorescent lights to become worshipful glowing objects of yearning acquisitiveness.

The wall texts talk about the culture of manufacturing desire through advertising and salesmanship and how JK wanted to expose that subterfuge. Except with time and the costs of fabricating larger and more expensive pieces to meet collectors' demands, Koons becomes the salesman that he once decried - he learned too well and metamorphosed into the commodity that he once had "railed" against.