Monday, October 19, 2015


Went out to  Jersey City, NJ to MANA contemporary  which is becoming a MALL of art studios and exhibitions. A lot of the art I saw was mediocre as were the rash of shows. I was very disappointed by Saul Ostrow's curated "Here's Looking Back at you: Images of Woman from the ESKFF Collection." There are big names with small works and lesser known artists whose works were larger and cuddling up to cheap gimmickry highlighting bravado brushwork signifying nothing. Tour-de-force photo-realistic paintings that were a shallow display of technique- all surface and nothing to plunge into.

The best exhibition by far was curated by Phong Bui titled INTIMACY IN DISCOURSE: REASONABLE SIZED PAINTINGS. Each of the artists showed a series of works - all beautifully curated - chosen with intelligence and hung with an awareness of how they played off against one another. There are varieties of paint surfaces and styles from aluminum to burlap; abstraction to figuration and a few that were a combination of both. I was immediately attracted to the 4 simple, lovely paintings of trees silhouetted against the sky by Sylvia Plimack Mangold - her brushwork was so fluid that I was thrilled. Minimalism meets figuration with a loving hand.

A wonderful mini, mini retrospective of works by Bill Jensen- ranging from the 1970's to 2013 and a good choice of terrific paintings by Thomas Noskowski. I also responded to Robert Storr whose small strangely colored paintings - had lost some of the awkwardness that I remembered and actually loved; but though more confident there is a still a quirky color palette that threw me off balance. Rackstraw Downs showed images from his Barbed Wire series and one slightly larger more panoramic view. I am less and less of a fan of his work - feeling that the colors and brushwork are in a tradition in which he is perhaps too comfortable - despite being successful.

James Siena had some beautifully painted meticulous op-art-y works that lit up the room as did Ann Pibal and Tom Burckhardt. Robert Feintuch's weird and often grotesque figurative paintings had me return to look at them again and again because they felt so compelling in their distorted beauty. Ellen Altfest's image of a leg - an abstracted form cut off floating in the center of the canvas - combined the sensuous with the mysterious - a small work that makes me want to see many more. This is just a taste of what is available to see and worth the trip to 888 Newark Ave, Jersey City, NJ 07306.
A raw, unedited video is available on youtube at:

Saturday, October 17, 2015


Director Steven Spielberg is the conscience of American film-makers, delving into the dark places of our history - the morally shaky ground of policymaking in a country that prides itself on its belief in upholding the principles of the U.S.Constitution. In his latest film, BRIDGE OF SPIES, he pokes a stick into the headlines of Cold War events - the 1960 U-2 Spy plane incident, in order to shed air and light into the shadowy reaches of official myth-making. Aware that this can be done most powerfully through precise direction, detailed sets, soaring soundtracks, and cinematography that echoes the dreary mood of the times - bright sunshine recedes behind the shadows of deception. The audience is always entertained, despite the subject matter’s depiction of  the  murkiness of ethics and morality. Like the great illustrator Norman Rockwell - we are seduced by an “apple pie” ethos, except there are worms wriggling around in the crust.

Tom Hanks is perfectly cast - an actor who I cannot remember ever playing a “bad” guy - as James Donovan, an insurance lawyer conscripted by the CIA in 1957 during the height of the Cold War hysteria to defend the arrested Soviet mole, Rudolf Abel, (an academy award winning performance by Mark Rylance,) and participate in a US government programmed “kangaroo-court” trial. Except James Donovan believes in the right of an individual to the best defense as the bedrock of our democracy, not willing to compromise his deeply held integrity.

BRIDGE OF SPIES begins with a panning of a dreary Brooklyn street with the Manhattan Bridge in the background looming over the landscape, the camera eventually lands upstairs in a tenement building where Mark Rylance/Rudolf Abel is looking at himself in a mirror painting a quite good traditional self-portrait. This double view is our introduction to the personality of a seemingly Walter Mitty-like individual, his physiognomy imprinted with a haunting and magnetic expressiveness, conveying adversity and conviction. Rylance's sympathetic portrayal of Abel is seductive and thrilling; this spy is a mystery and remains so.

Tom Hanks/James Donovan - a  reincarnation of Jimmy Stewart (thicker in physique) lives a 1950’s  dream life in suburbia; three children and a clueless stay-at-home wife and mother (played by Amy Ryan in a thankless part.) Women are just accessories in this movie - indicative of how they were considered at the time. Thank goodness for the Feminist Movement 20 years later! Getting involved with cloak and dagger politics does not change Donovan - he is incorruptible and strongly rooted to the ideals of American values as put forth in the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

At the same time as the Abel trial - America is preparing to send a U-2 spy plane equipped with surveillance equipment over Soviet territory and the Central Intelligence Agency recruits a young pilot Francis Gary Powers (a bland, handsome Austin Stowell) to complete the reconnaissance mission. In 1960, the operation is implemented and shortly thereafter the U-2 spy plane is shot down by a Soviet surface-to-air missile and Powers parachutes unto Russian soil still alive and is captured and sentenced to a long term of imprisonment and hard labor. A politically heated issue and an embarrassment for the Eisenhower administration - the incident was vigorously denied by the USA and a cover-up was attempted, but the covert military maneuver was ultimately exposed.

Attempts are made to return Gary Francis Power to the USA in order to interrogate him about how much classified information he revealed to the Soviets. The authorities turn again to Attorney James Donovan to negotiate the exchange of spies on Glienicker Bridge in East Germany - Rudolf Abel for Gary Francis Powers; the tension and drama of BRIDGE OF SPIES begins against the backdrop of the Wall being erected in East Berlin - a bleak city in contrast to its counterpart in the Western sector.

 Pragmatic political behavior by officials in the KGB, CIA and FBI are all stick figures in the chess game of diplomacy and Tom Hanks deftly navigates his way through the labyrinth of innuendo and deceit. Espionage, duplicity, betrayal are at the heart of this film. What makes it palatable is the humanity of both Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance’s characters who bond with mutual respect, despite their opposing ideological viewpoints. Director Spielberg can be sentimental, but is able to tunnel through the sappiness with humor and affection. He really likes his two leading men and so do we.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

THE MARTIAN 10/13/15

I am fascinated by films that show how people survive in impossible situations. THE MARTIAN  is an old- fashioned “feel good” movie directed by Ridley Scott who knows how to make blockbusters and hold your attention - though here he goes “off course” from his usual dystopian science fiction-y horror movies like his breakthrough thriller “Alien.”

THE MARTIAN is basically about Mark Watney, (a breeze-through performance by Matt Damon,) as an affable brilliant, but down-to-earth botanist/scientist on a manned flight mission to Mars who  is left stranded on the “red planet",  after a fierce storm untethers him from the rest of the crew. Dramatic footage of sand and flying debris slamming the spaceship upending its stability, forces Jessica Chastain (performing in a minor role as Melissa Lewis, the flight Commander) to make the agonizing  decision to abandon their fellow crew member - assuming he was killed by some space junk that pierced his body -  to continue their NASA mission.

The quiet after the storm shows us a steadfast Matt Damon awakening to his dire predicament, and the knowledge that death is almost a certainty, but never panics; rather he is optimistic, immediately going into survivalist mode - step by step using all that science and life experience has taught him in order to figure out how to live on a planet without water or food. One advantage is the artificial space vehicle/living habitat, or Hab which is still intact - providing oxygen and dietary supplies including his fellow astronauts’ personal effects, along with a trove of "bad" music that becomes an ongoing joke in the film. The lighthearted likeability of Matt Damon, who relates his daily chores and mundane skirmishes with the airless “elements” via a video diary - a technique that keeps the film buoyantly hopeful; psychological depression never sets in - so we know that Hollywood has cast a rosy net of oblivion around THE MARTIAN. And by doing so, it feeds directly into the hearts of Rocky Balboa, and sports viewing fans - we love to see America’s can-do spirit triumph.

This is intrinsically a story about man’s ability to endure in the face of terrible odds - which makes for great theater, and we in the audience cheer him on. Who cannot get caught up in this existential dilemma and not feel the intensity of Mark Watney’s battle to exist? He is not alone - eventually there are others who join the fight to aid him in his heroic efforts to stay alive in an “alien” atmosphere; everyone realizing that there is a looming deadline when necessities will be depleted. Lots of actors contribute to the ensuing drama and add to the film’s tension, which involves the diminished "window of opportunity" - to bring Astronaut Watney home while he is still alive, as the months glide by. 

The supporting actors were chosen to exemplify a “type” in the movie: Jeffrey Daniels as NASA’s Director, caught in the vise of the political ramifications of his decisions; Michael Pena, a fellow space traveler who is the jesting buddy; Chiwetel Ejiofor, an assistant at NASA who is a catalyst for getting things done; and  a surprisingly wonderful scene-stealing performance by Donald Glover as a young “idiosyncratic” Jet Propulsion Lab scientist whose mathematical computations lead to innovative approaches in the rescue attempt to bring Watney home. Being a bit of a wonk, even though I don’t understand the mathematics and physics involved in the computations, I am thrilled seeing numbers and formulas no longer sitting abstractly on notebook papers, but put to use to change the world we live in- another example of what a group’s inventiveness and a resilient outlook can accomplish.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

SICARIO 10/3/15

What are the rules of engagement in fighting the Mexican drug cartels especially if US law enforcement agencies go into foreign territories where they have no jurisdiction; does the end justify any means? Denis Villeneuve’s intense new film SICARIO (which means hit man in Spanish) takes us into the tactical underbelly of those cryptic individuals who carry out US policy decisions “from on high”,  cloaked in legitimacy, though they are prohibited maneuvers that would be considered illegal in any court of law.

The atmosphere is beautifully filmed - either pale, washed out ochers depicting the long dusty border between US and Mexico, or the rich deep blues and blacks of the evening with night - vision goggles irradiating the world around them into skeletal images. Put a young, female FBI agent into this mix - Emily Blunt as Kate, a dedicated officer, former head of a kidnap-response unit based in Phoenix, who is forced to question all that she has practiced and been taught in the Bureau; her fiercely held personal values are turned upside down by the reality of being recruited into the midst of anti- cartel “warriors” who can behave as dark and dirty as their enemy - the drug lords that  control the populous by murdering and slaughtering men, women and children, stringing up body parts hanging them from electricity wires like abandoned baggage on clothes-lines.

Transporting, manufacturing,  shipping and controlling the wildly lucrative  drug industry necessitates making alliances - everyone is  corruptible from the dealers to the federales  and police on both sides of the border - all partaking of the spoils, while their interior sentiments become ghosts evaporating into the surroundings. “It is not personal” are words that exemplify the cool calculations of those in power whose humanity has been shredded, and who barricade themselves with bodyguards and fancy homes from the brutality that they inflict on nameless people.

Kate and her FBI partner ( a good performance by Daniel Kaluuya) are the two newcomers brought along on a mission that they were not briefed on - so the “fog of war” is indeed literally murky. Everything becomes clear with time, but meanwhile we in the audience are as mystified as the protagonists. We meet a team of hardened DEA operatives with Josh  Brolin as Matt - the wise-cracking, gum chewing leader who is a cipher, offhandedly refusing to respond with a straight answer to any question put before him. Despite his Cheshire-like grin, there is a man beneath the lumbering, impenetrable veneer who is callously determined to fulfill the U.S. government’s calculated goals no matter the toll.

Benicio Del Toro is the “star” of SICARO, brilliant as the mercenary Alejandro - a person whose face reveals little, but whose eyes and body language betray a passionate resolve for revenge, and a history of incomparable  pain and suffering at the hands of the drug-lords becoming a person for hire with no longer a “soul” to lose. He is the “enforcer,” expert at torture and killing, yet despite his horrific activities, every moment he is on the screen it is filled with his abundant presence and an acute sense of heartache. 

Kate’s sojourn from an idealistic FBI agent to an awareness of the brutal realities of the contaminated policies used by the United States to combat the  “drug war” is a bit naive and inconclusive. We sense that she remains a staunch believer in the underlying principle of the “rule of law”, but we know all-too-well that she is standing on shaky grounds.