Saturday, 21 January 2023

Bill: My Top Ten Films

In commemoration of the latest decennial poll of the Greatest Movies of All Time from Sight & Sound magazine, I’m posting Top Ten lists on my blog from friends and readers. Feel free to send me yours.

Here’s the list I received from my friend Bill, an accomplished (and award-winning) filmmaker in their own right. Their assorted selections here (reaching from New York to Tokyo) have proven fascinating, and come together into a kaleidoscopic whole. I especially appreciate a Top Ten list that acknowledges a contribution from African cinema, and also my own views on Taxi Driver accord well with those given below.

Wednesday, 2 November 2022

Jag: Top Ten Films

In commemoration of the next decennial poll of the Greatest Movies of All Time from Sight & Sound magazine, I’m posting Top Ten lists on my blog from friends and readers. Feel free to send me yours.

Here’s the list I received from my friend Jag. His eclectic choices highlighted some movies unfamiliar to me, and his persuasive commendations make me want to sit down and watch each of them one by one, even the ones I already know. Cléo from 5 to 7 is aptly described as the masterpiece it is, and I heartily join his praise here. I particularly appreciate lists with a broad geographic base (this one stretches from Los Angeles to Tokyo), and enjoy finding any feature or idea that links the selections; here, I notice the interesting predominance of movies from very early in their directors’ careers.

Monday, 31 October 2022

JPO Spring Symphony Season: Second Week

Just a few short notes from Thursday's JPO concert, the second in this Spring Symphony Season.

Justus Franz was back to conduct, and the soloist was the Latvian violinist Kristine Balanas. (After our ovation, she let us know she had been to South Africa twice before, and found our audiences warm and generous.) She played the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, with an incredibly sweet, flowing sound (like a light lyric soprano), which was a bit small at times; sometimes, when the orchestra played, I couldn't hear her at all. She also played with a strikingly free rubato, some of the freest tempi that I've heard from a soloist. Her encore was a lovely tango, played with even greater sweetness and sensitive tempo fluctuations.

Monday, 10 October 2022

Jurd: The 10 Greatest Movies of All Time

The British film magazine Sight and Sound conducts a famous decennial poll, among movie critics and directors, for the Greatest Films of All Time. The first poll was in 1952, and the next one will be released later this year. It’s probably the most prestigious and respected of all such lists, and is one of the places that beatified Citizen Kane as the greatest of all movies. (Famously, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo knocked Citizen Kane from its Number One spot in the last poll, in 2012.)

No one asked me for my vote for the Top Ten, but, to observe the 2022 poll, I’m giving my own choices here. The task turned out to be inordinately tricky; there’s a host of inspiring and transformative artists that I would want represented in a list of the best that cinema has to offer – far more than ten little slots can accommodate. For the most part, I’ve resorted to whittling down a list of my top directors, and selecting one movie to represent each; it’s not a perfect system, and I’m just as unhappy about what needs to be left out as what I’m proud to include. But what would be a better number? Would we be happier if we could list twenty movies? We’d still have to cut out a few greats. Would fifty do, or would that start to make the selection a little less special? (Forget about ranking; there’s no idea for grading movies in individual slots that has ever made sense to me.)

Do please send me your own Top Ten selections; I’m very interested to see and publish as many individual lists as I can.

Saturday, 1 October 2022

“Don’t Worry Darling” is Terrific

I’ve just come back from seeing Olivia Wilde’s new movie, Don’t Worry Darling, and I’m very excited to report that it was a terrific undertaking. I’ve seen many reports from people who found the movie unoriginal, dull, and insubstantial – and they’re entitled to those views – but my own experience was very, very different. From what I had heard, I was expecting a retread of The Stepford Wives, but from the movie’s first moments, it emerges as a keenly observed, deeply emotional, fiercely engaging work. And Wilde is shown to be a strong and distinctive director, one who can focus her assembled cast and crew not only into the absorbing endeavour of finely crafted storytelling, but into a unified artistic vision, a white-hot worldview presented visually.

If you’re interested in watching the movie fresh, perhaps you should stop reading here and go see it, because a lot of the thrill comes from the unfolding of the plot (though I won’t give away any details here). The setting of the movie is the microcosm of the wide world that is traditionally seen as the modern man’s lorded realm; namely, the household and the picture-perfect family that resides there. Like Ira Levin before her, Wilde has selected the insular and isolated suburban American neighbourhood of the 1950s as its quintessential representation – it’s the archetype of nuclear families with half-deified heads, as well as of women’s repressed individuality. It’s almost like Wilde has put a visual form of voiceover over her movie, to say, there’s a reason the mid-century feminist movement broke out in places that looked just as idyllic as this.

Saturday, 3 September 2022

Movies to Watch on Netflix

This post is simply a list of movies that I like, that have been made available on Netflix, and that I hope more people find, watch, and enjoy.

From the time that I started drafting this post until I got it ready to publish, I saw that a number of my selected movies have been removed from Netflix. I decided to keep them on this list, in case you’d like to seek them out elsewhere.

Let me know if there’s anything I’ve missed that should be recommended to other readers.

The 15:17 to Paris (Clint Eastwood, 2018). Three young men (two in the US army, one their schoolfriend) stopped a terrorist attack on a train ride to Paris in 2015. In this spare yet enraptured re-telling, Eastwood casts the men (none of whom are professional actors) as themselves, making for a strange and wholly memorable vision of latter-day heroism.

Ad Astra (James Gray, 2019). Brad Pitt plays an astronaut in the late 21st century, searching for his long-lost space-exploring father (Tommy Lee Jones), and averting disaster for Earth. This Heart of Darkness adaptation is especially moving and memorable for the subjective depths it penetrates. (Read my blog post about it here.)

Saturday, 18 June 2022

Two Joyful Weeks at the JPO

Reading a concert programme can give a concertgoer an advance impression of the kind of experience they might undergo. A little knowledge on the works programmed, of the soloist, and of the conductor can go a long way – and previous experience of each can go much further. But they can only go so far. No concert can be heard in advance, no feelings can be felt before they arise. And the foretold experience of a concert is a slender mirage that melts away as soon as the first real notes are played.

Take, for example, the first concert of the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra’s Winter Symphony Season. I read, first, that the young Venezuelan flautist Joidy Blanco would be the soloist, playing Mozart’s Second Flute Concerto (K. 314), and that the conductor Robert Moody would then direct the JPO in Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. The whole endeavour would be kicked off by Mozart’s overture to Cosi fan tutte. I read, second, that Blanco would be replaced at the last minute (due to travel complications) by Liesl Stoltz, the highly accomplished South African soloist whom we have been fortunate enough to hear at the JPO before, and that Stoltz would be replacing Blanco’s scheduled encore with a virtuosic showcase of her own choice.

Knowing what I know about Stoltz, Moody, Mozart, and Beethoven, I quickly drew up some ideas of how the evening would go. There would be some difficulty in the orchestra (as there invariably is on opening night) keeping precisely in sync for the Mozart. Stoltz would play decorously, and would dazzle in her encore. The Beethoven would roll out with inevitable boisterousness, just as it has a hundred times before, and would linger (uninvited) in my head for the rest of the week. (The Beethoven was last played by the JPO just eighteen short months ago.) I also harboured the quiet hope that Moody – a cheerful American southerner – would address us before taking the podium for the Beethoven, as he had done so memorably at his JPO début in 2019, conducting Brahms’s Third Symphony.

Friday, 13 May 2022

An All-Too Conservative JPO Symphony Season

Well, the JPO has released the “new” line-up for its Winter Symphony Season, and it invites concertgoers to a challenging game of spot-the-difference with any previous season. Actually, a more apt challenge would be to put the new programme next to one drawn up by a prudish and dowdy old spinster 100 years ago, and then guess which is which.

Okay, Rachmaninov's Fourth Piano Concerto was written only 96 years ago. The difference is that the spinster – enamoured of Rachmaninov as everyone always has been – would have cheerfully programmed the brand-new piece; the JPO can only love a composer when he himself (rarely she) is entirely de-composed. In my 5 years of attending JPO concerts as a dedicated subscriber, I have only heard about 30 minutes of music written by people still living; that’s about 1% of the music performed by the orchestra.

Friday, 17 December 2021

“West Side Story” 2021

Some brief notes on Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of the Broadway musical and remake of the 1961 movie.
 I don’t have much to say about the alleged cinematic artistry of Spielberg, nor how I feel about his Disneyfication of West Side Story; the movie is exactly what you’d expect to come from Spielberg in 2021, and for some viewers that will be as pleasurable as it was tedious for me.

I went into the movie – and happily sat through its 156-minute run-time – because of my deep and abiding love for the music of Leonard Bernstein, and, for all of my fellow-admirers, this effort is no disappointment. West Side Story was a music triumph at its premiere, in 1957, and has gelatinised, in the most gratifying way, into a sterling classic, both in the worlds of musical theatre and classical music. I’m glad to hear that I’m not alone in thinking of Bernstein’s music as among the great achievements of American composers in the 20th century, and I was heartened to find that, as much as I didn’t enjoy what Spielberg was bringing to the work, I didn’t mind enduring it, because each time a song began in the movie, I sat with a large literal smile beaming all the way to the end.

Saturday, 12 June 2021

Barbra: My First Time

I don’t know who would believe me if I said that I was a Barbra Streisand virgin until yesterday. It wouldn’t strictly be true; I’ve seen clips of her on The Judy Garland Show, and in Meet the Fockers and Guilt Trip, but I wasn’t exposed to the dazzle of her music making until I turned on The Barbra Streisand Album for my drive home last night.

The album was Streisand’s studio début, and I won’t forget the experience of hearing its opening. After a short meandering solo by a plucked double bass, Barbra’s mezzo voice pierces the open silence above it, with a rhythmic incisiveness and mercurial inflection. She starts with the now-famous six-note falling scale that opens “Cry Me a River,” and that her distinctive tone immediately renders new and unfamiliar.

I was surprised to hear the wide range of approaches she takes on in one album, to convey her meanings. She veers from poise and precision – an elegance that may befit a salon in fin-de-siècle Paris – to brassy, growling roars, where she loses (that is, gives up) her control over pitch, pronunciation, and other aspects of making a nice sound. Her broad spectrum of expression covers infinitesimal nuances, subtle gradations in colour and timbre, and always seems to arise from a spontaneous idea or impression – moments become masterpieces, flung out on the wing.

Streisand’s distinguished artistry, and the sound of it on my inadequate speakers, made me think of the immediate recognisability of many of my favourite artists – Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe, Louis Armstrong, Emily Dickinson, Terrence Malick, Maria Callas, Chantal Akerman, Wes Anderson, Glenn Gould, Clint Eastwood, Nina Simone, or Jean Seberg – and how their style is more than an idiosyncrasy, or a brand. Style (at least, that of a great artist) is an outward expression of an entire personality; it’s the shuddering of a great soul, rendered as a physical experience. It’s why the styles of the artists mentioned above – as highly influential as each of them was – are so inimitable, why any attempt to reproduce them can only come off as the shallowest mimicry, and why coming across it in their work, in each moment-by-moment encounter, can feel like an enlargening of life itself.

Saturday, 29 May 2021

A Moving Musical Documentary on Netflix

I watched a very moving documentary on Netflix last week:
Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened, which tells a story of the highly anticipated original Broadway production of the Stephen Sondheim musical Merrily We Roll Along, and its immediate failure. The 2016 documentary was directed by Lonny Price, one of the production’s main cast members, and he interviews Sondheim, the production’s director, Hal Prince, a number of his castmates, and two notable audience members who saw the original run. I watched the movie as someone very interested in the work of Sondheim, and came away from it deeply touched by the experiences and perspectives of the people it features.

The documentary’s setting is the musical theatre of Broadway in the early 80s, but its subject is the expectations and frustrations – the dreams and subsequent hard reality – of any young person starting out in life. This happens to be a theme of the musical Merrily We Roll Along as well, and the plot, as relayed by Sondheim and Prince, is an apt parallel for the stories told by the once-young-and-aspiring real-life performers that Price interviews.

Sondheim and Prince had hired a cast of young performers, in their late teens and early 20s, each of whom was making their debut on Broadway, and who couldn’t have been more thrilled by the entire experience, including that of being a part of the history of their heroes. Price engagingly includes himself in the telling of the story, as well as the story of how the documentary got made, in part.

The show’s failure (closing after just 16 performances) had a devastating impact on all the documentary’s subjects, even Sondheim and Prince. Some of the young performers tell of struggling in a tough and competitive industry, one famous one struck on enviable success, and at least one left the acting profession entirely. More than the details of the production or what came after, the most engaging aspect of the entire movie is the affecting care and attention that Price pays to the people involved. The then-young performers are now all much older, and each carries a wealth of experience that’s instantly evoked in their interviews.

The weight of emotion that comes with that experience is brought poignantly to the movie’s forefront, and the documentary becomes a story that mirrors that of the show: Young people with big dreams transform into baffled, worldly, and keenly emotional older people. The tender observation – call it Love – with which Price shows their stories (including his own) is what enriches those emotions, and turns his documentary into a powerful experience.