Thursday, February 02, 2017

Seen in… January 

The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long but that didn't apply to these two Bright Lights

2016 was a bit rubbish. To avoid thinking about it, I thought it best to retreat into a world of fantasy and science fiction. Unfortunately, as Asimov knew, the best science fiction is about today not tomorrow and as we know from the golden era of musicals, the escapism of fantasy is glorious but fleeting. Now as I’m writing this, I’m watching Hypernormalisation, a documentary for the BBC by Adam Curtis and it’s hard to know what’s real and what isn’t which is the point of the film. The film relates how at some point the citizens of the Soviet Union became so disillusioned by the deception and lies of their government that they stopped believing in anything but they played along with the lies anyway. Living in the artifice of society created by the government became normal, “The fakery was so real, it was hyper-normal.” The film traces a line between 1970s Syria and New York City, the rise of Donald Trump and the obfuscation of Russian media manipulation. So yeah, there’s no hiding the awfulness of our times but here are the stories where I hoped to hide.

A good old battle of the bastards from Season 6 - pretty much summed up the year.

Game of Thrones Season 6
Finally, I get it. I’m joking but I do think this is the first season when all the red herrings of past seasons have meant something and that all the subplots and branch stories were meaningful rather than being a waste of time. All the characters of the Seven Kingdoms are tumbling towards something very climatic and wild and we can’t wait to see who, if anyone, will take the Iron Throne.

Silicon Valley Season 3
It’s hard to know if this show is really good, or I think it is really good because it reflects so much of my working life of the last 17 years. If you work in technology, you’ll love this absurd comedy about a hot but struggling start-up. If you don’t work in technology, you’ll gain insight into a culture that fetishizes failure and believes that its success is evidence of a true meritocracy. It certainly merits laughter.

A moment of solace in Moonlight

Thank you director Barry Jenkins for punching my heart awake. Moonlight is a story that takes place over three different stages of an African-American young man’s life. He is poor, growing up in single parent home with a drug-taking mother, in a hard scrabble neighbourhood and he is gay. The film captures issues of isolation, poverty, insights into the Black American experience and the realities of growing up homosexual in world where you must hide that fact. This is a moving, beautiful and intense film and is the necessary antidote to the disaster porn of super-hero films and neo-patriotic tripe.

Lovely lovely La La Land

La La Land
Okay so intensely personal emotional films aren’t what you need in the dead of winter? Why not try what we did during the Great Depression to escape from dire everyday life? Musicals. What’s interesting about this musical is its timing. Though taking years to be realized due to financing and casting problems, this lovey bijoux, amuse-bouche arrived just when we needed it most. It’s a simple love story, not just between Jazz musician Seb and actor Mia, but between the filmmakers and their love of Hollywood’s glory days of musicals. There are times when this contemporary musical can look a little bit like a Gap or Old Navy ad or a Feist music video but it’s reverent nostalgia is lifted by innovation and beauty and a bittersweet story. The lovely and delicate lighting during magic hour seems something only possible with digital cinematography. When I say the movie looks digital, I don’t mean it disparagingly, but that it is beautifully digital. In the end, this film was a bit like a fantastic candy that you loved but once finished you could barely recall the flavour. It was ethereal and uplifting but not long lasting.

Singin’ in the Rain
If you see a contemporary movie that is an ode to great musicals like Singin’ in the Rain, then you should probably see Singin’ in the Rain. Oddly, Singin’ in the Rain is itself an ode to other musicals and the songs of Arthur Freed. I’d never seen the film from beginning to end before but of course knew many of the famous numbers. One odd thing about this movie is how badly they shoe-horn the songs into the narrative. It’s all a bit “meta” as a part of the plot is Gene Kelly’s character recalling how they saved a silent film by re-making it as a musical comedy using existing footage, which in a sense is what Singin’ in the Rain does, by making a movie re-using the best bits of a by-gone era to highlight the songs of Arthur Freed and skills of the movie’s leads, Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor and the young ingenue, Debbie Reynolds. Another reason to see this film was that the beautiful young lead, Debbie Reynolds had died only a few weeks before. RIP Ms. Reynolds. You are immortalized in Technicolor.

Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds
Timing is everything. This Cinéma verité documentary shows the wonderful humour and relationship between Carrie Fisher and her mother Debbie Reynolds. The film captures the dynamic duo only months before Carrie Fisher would suffer a heart attack and die days before the end of 2016. Her mother would die a day later. Fisher’s acerbic wit and intelligence is in full bloom in this film as is her mother’s love and generosity. This was a show biz family to the end and it’s remarkable to see Fisher as a child in home movies and as a 60-year-old veteran of Hollywood.

I did the math and Meryl Streep was 40 when she did Postcards from the Edge and she looked amazing.

Postcards from the Edge
If you’re going to watch a documentary about Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, why not watch a fictional account of their relationship? Postcards from the Edge is the film based on Fisher’s book of the same title, and is the story of Susanne, played by Meryl Streep, an actress trying to piece together her career after a stint in rehab. To ensure a role in a new film she agrees to stay with her mother, played by Shirley MacLaine, who is herself an aging acting icon. This is Hollywood royalty playing Hollywood royalty (or a fictional version of it). It’s a comedy with a heart type of thing that may or may not work for you, but at every turn the film enjoys peeling back the fakeness of movie making perhaps as a metaphor for how we need to peel back our own layers before we can really know each other (I’m pretty sure that’s what it’s about).

I personally live by the adage to "follow someone who looks like they know where they're going", one of Dirk Gently's insights.

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency
This Netflix original is based on the series of very funny books by Douglas Adams so of course, it’s clever, funny and full of science fiction. I sort of prefer the BBC version done a few years ago which felt more like a Douglas Adams story, mostly due to the all British cast. This mostly American cast is younger and better looking and the series has a vaguely Dr. Who feel to it (if that helps you decide whether or not to watch it).

Sherlock Season 4
It was the best of episodes and the worst of episodes. By the 4th season of this contemporary version of Sherlock Holmes mysteries, we’ve come to understand that Sherlock’s detecting skills are as believable as Superman’s flight and that he is strangely obsessed with James Moriarity. The first episode brings a bit of a shocking death, the second episode deals satisfyingly with that aftermath and the third and final episode is absolutely one of the worst things I’ve ever seen. In an attempt to make this the greatest challenge ever for Holmes the writers have stretched credulity beyond the breaking point where I actually was kind of insulted by the whole thing. Shame. I’d hate that to be the end of the series.

Steve Jobs
This critically acclaimed bio-pic of Apple founder Steve Jobs pulls off a remarkable trick of taking something really boring and making it tick along as though no time had passed at all. It’s a strange construction in that the three acts of the story are told at three crucial Apple product launches. Sorkin the screen writer creates deeply expository, stagey dialogue which the skillful cast of Michael Fassbender as Jobs and Kate Winslet as Joanna Hoffman interpret emotionally for us. I’m starting to think of actors reciting Sorkin dialogue as being similar to Shakespearean actors. Because the dialogue is so heavily loaded we depend on the actors as our guides to the meaning of the text. The director Danny Boyle breaks the boredom by upping the urgency whenever possible. Yet, I could see why this was a dud at the box office. It’s still kind of boring and who wants to watch an obsessive megalomanic belittle his friends and be a jerk to his own daughter even if he is “changing the world”? I think part of the poor response to the movie is the narrative of Apple “changing the world” was kind of overblown in 2015. We’re so use to seeing new world changing technology happen all the time that we reject the idea that one company matters that much. If Apple hadn’t come along, someone else would have so the importance of the stakes at hand are reduced to the personal which, again, shows Jobs as some kind of anti-social jerk who thinks respecting people is better than loving them, or that being kind is unnecessary when you’re paying for everything. It should be noted that several people who knew Steve Jobs have said this depiction, much of which is invented for the sake of storytelling, doesn’t reflect who the man was. Sure, he could be a jerk, but that he wasn’t an obsessive jerk all the time.

Jude Law contemplates what he's supposed to be thinking in HBO's The Young Pope

The Young Pope
Whew boy. Again with “timing”. This HBO series is about a surprisingly young (and re-assuredly handsome) American cardinal who is chosen as the new pope. Jude Law plays Lenny, aka Pope Pius XIII and rather than be a compromising bridge between the progressive and conservative elements of the Church by virtue of his age he turns out to want a return to a Catholic Church from an earlier time - like 1500s or so. This is a beautifully weird, poetic and surreal take on the many intertwining machinations within the secretive walls of the Vatican. That view into the Vatican (or its recreated sets) may be one of the best reasons to watch this series. This series is from the man who created Il Divo and The Great Beauty so if you're familiar with those films, then you'll know what kind of unexpected poetry this show reveals.

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