Thursday, 5 December 2019

The Best of the Decade: 2010 to 2019

To Start Off With ...

Above my Top Ten, I’m listing the entire output of Terrence Malick from 2010 to 2017, which is undoubtedly my favourite cinematic work from this decade. I rewatched each of these movies, trying to settle on one to place at the top of my list, but Malick’s body of work amounts to a greater achievement than the sum of its parts, and the ideas, emotions, images, and stories that flow through each of them form threads that can start in one movie and run through another.

The Tree of Life is the movie that awakened me to the full possibilities of movies, of how great thought and feeling can be conveyed through sounds and images, and of how deeply and intimately I could be moved by any movie. Malick searches for and devises new ways of looking at every subject (and every object), and each image in his movies packs a concentration of meaning, a focus on the essence and potential of each living thing and the matter that surrounds it, and an abiding sense of the eternal and the cosmic scheme into which it fits. I look at my own world differently now after having seen through Malick’s lens, and it’s a wondrous transformation.

Tuesday, 19 November 2019

My Wishlist for JPO Programmes

After being thrilled to see the lineup for this past JPO Spring Season, I have a wishlist of pieces I would still like to see appearing on future JPO programmes. As an ardent supporter of classical music (a term that needs to be retired but can’t be supplanted), I faithfully attend all its concerts with any programmes it puts up. But, ultimately, what I want from an evening with a symphony orchestra is the kind of inimitable experience that draws people to live performances of any kind: sensitive, vibrant, revelatory renditions of classics, as well as exposure to the less familiar.

The JPO’s primary function is to provide good performances of works in the orchestral repertory. But there’s an important secondary, curatorial function to any symphonic orchestra; the works that are chosen to be played are the works that are implicitly designated as important to the culture, the ones that are chosen to last. The canon is built by the decisions of what to perform, as well as by what to leave out.

For too many people, the “classical” in classical music means definitive, or etched in stone. A great orchestral performance can prove that classical also means radical: the works that have survived the ages can still yield new experiences, new visions, new worlds of feeling, and the works of today that look forward and open up music’s paths into the future yield nothing but the new.

Monday, 4 November 2019

James Gray’s Sublime “Ad Astra”

I don’t know a contemporary filmmaker who communicates such fervent emotions so immediately across the screen as James Gray. He has already made one of this decade’s most passionate melodramas in The Immigrant (from 2014, starring Marion Cotillard and Joaquin Phoenix), and a stirring neo-classical adventure tale about ardent dedication to a noble cause, in The Lost City of Z. To briefly describe the experience of watching his new movie, Ad Astra, which is currently in release: I was held in rapt fascination, and profoundly moved. It’s the most beautiful movie I’ve seen this year, and to think about it afterwards, with wonder and appreciation, heartens me, even when some of my friends who saw it with me didn’t seem to enjoy it much at all.

That Gray makes movies of such deep-seated emotions, that express ideas and feelings with so authentic and idiosyncratic a style, is what makes his cinema beautiful. His images, while richly textured, and shot by Hoyte van Hoytema (who previously shot Interstellar) with purpose, tenderness, and a concentrated focus, are muted; they point to deep wells of emotion, rather than stoking them. The intense experience of a character onscreen is finely sketched with exquisite attention to suggestive and surprising details. The point is to preserve and exalt the purity of the emotions felt, not to gratuitously stimulate them in the audience. Gray eludes the striking and the picturesque, for images of sheer sublimity.

Friday, 1 November 2019

“The Laundromat” is a Lesser Success by Steven Soderbergh

Steven Soderbergh emerged from a short-lived “retirement” with the trio Logan Lucky, Unsane, and High Flying Bird — a one-two-three of upward leaps for an already formidable filmmaker. That his next movie, The Laundromat (distributed by Netflix), is a lesser work will not seriously blight his career. Nor is it as bad as many reviewers would have you think. (High Flying Bird and Logan Lucky are also available to stream, as well as his earlier success Side Effects.)

What works is the movie’s core, the main plot and the host of surrounding subplots. What I don’t enjoy is what reviewers have zeroed in on — the unnecessary asides by Gary Oldman and Antonia Banderas, addressing the camera directly with explanations of the financial schemes they employ, à la The Wolf of Wall Street and The Big Short. The many strands of the story are like the web of real-life people implicated in the Panama Papers scandal, one of the largest data leaks in history and the true story on which the movie is based. Well, it’s the factual event on which the movie is based. I’m not sure how many of the plot elements are from actual real-life stories; obviously Oldman and Banderas’s characters, Jürgen Mossack and Ramón Fonseca, are the real-life partners of the law firm Mossack-Fonseca whose data was leaked. But I haven’t checked up on whether anything else in the movie is based on anything real, and it doesn’t matter either to the movie or to its real-life implications.

Thursday, 31 October 2019

The Pleasures and Limits of “Parasite”

Parasite arrived in South African theatres with a strong reputational backing. It won the Palme d’Or, the highest honour at the Cannes Film Festival, becoming the first Korean film to do so. It’s grossed over $100 million (in comparison, Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman made $93 million worldwide last year). And, not insignificantly, Leon van Nierop has been advocating passionately for the movie for weeks, encouraging viewers to see it once, and once again while it’s still in theatres.

It’s definitely an entertaining movie, and, if it were in English, there’d be very little about it that would be niche or unappealing to a mass audience. In fact, my friends and I went to see it at the upstairs Ster Kinekor movies at Brooklyn Mall, not at Cinema Nouveau, where it was expected to play. The movie is in Korean throughout, with English subtitles, and is, I think, every bit as enjoyable to an English-speaking audience as to a Korean one.

Friday, 20 September 2019

A Very Exciting JPO Spring Season 2019

The Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra has announced its programme for the Spring Season 2019 and I’m delighted to see some of the works that are coming up. I unfortunately missed the last season, due to a number of inescapable priorities, but I’m too excited to miss a single one of the upcoming concerts for the rest of the year.

In the first week, selections from Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess have been programmed; the accomplished Cape Tonian soprano Linda Nteleza and the veritable international star baritone Musa Ngqungwana will be singing solo parts. Porgy and Bess resides in the very top tier of operas composed in modern times — in any time, in fact — and has also risen to eminence as one of the most popular contemporary musical theatre showcases. It’s a prime example of great, ground-breaking art that also has mass appeal, and it’s exactly the right vein for the JPO to strike. The second half of the week’s programme is just as exciting: we’ll hear the First Symphony of Gustav Mahler, a staple composer in the programmes of overseas orchestras, whose work the JPO has never played before. Mahler was no less a genius than Gershwin; it’s a spectacular finish to a promising evening. The conductor will be Wolfram Christ, a longtime principal violist in the Berlin Philharmonic.

Friday, 26 July 2019

What’s Good and Bad About “Big Little Lies”

Available on Showmax.

I confess that I don't love the HBO series Big Little Lies, though I watch it with fascination, and find it really interesting and somewhat entertaining. Much of what there is in the show that I don’t like comes from television conventions. The story is spun out in ways that are designed to luringly drip information onto viewers just too slowly for us to stop watching, and the emotional tension is kindled misleadingly until the conclusion reveals that the point of the suspense doesn’t even matter to the story. The approach to and execution of the plot’s structure are dismayingly manipulative and overdetermined. Conversations are cut off; the characters get many good chances to hurl their feelings and barbed comments at one another, but conversations only go so far and characters exist only so deep as the plot requires, and don’t develop into a fuller story lived out by fuller people.

What I do like about it are unique and specific to the show, and come to the fore in Season 2, which, as my viewing companion Sizo agrees, is much better than the first season. Season 1 depended on flashbacks and artificially stoked suspense and intrigue to deliver viewers from the story’s beginning to its tragic (yet supposedly cathartic) end. Season 2 jumps off of that, and observes the characters as they navigate the aftermath of the homicide that closed Season 1. There’s no longer a specific end point to which we’re being ushered, and (again, as Sizo perceptively pointed out) the development of the characters is now the very substance of the plot. What they think and feel, and what it leads them to say and do, is what takes the story from the start to end of each episode.

Friday, 31 May 2019

An Impressive Start to the JPO’s 2019 Winter Season

I was excited for the opening concert of the JPO’s 2019 Winter Season for a number of reasons. Firstly, to hear the orchestra back in its home venue, at the Linder Auditorium in Parktown. The last time I heard the JPO was at the Opera Jewels concert, which was held in the totally unsuitable Teatro at Montecasino; the sound stopped dead at the end of the stage. In my regular seat at the very top of the centre balcony in the Linder Auditorium, the blend of sound I get is the most resonant and most balanced on offer. Secondly, I was looking forward to hearing Haydn once again after a long absence of his works from JPO programmes. Thirdly, I was most eager to hear from one of my favourite conductors of any JPO season, the Japanese guest Yasuo Shinozaki.

I first heard Shinozaki with the JPO last November, when the clarinettist Robert Pickup played the first Weber concerto with the orchestra. As I reported, I was struck by the orchestra’s precision, unity, and strength under him. Those same qualities were present in his return this season.

Wednesday, 29 May 2019

Double Bill: A Country for Old Men

I wish I’d been able to share my enthusiasm for two new movies while they were still showing in theatres (both came out early in 2019 and have long left the circuit); however, they’re now both available by other means, all the better to savour and ponder them in the comfort of your own home.

“The Old Man and the Gun”

Available on DVD.

David Lowery’s latest movie is about the real-life career criminal and escape artist Forrest Tucker, who was first imprisoned at the age of 15 (in the 1930s), and spent the rest of his life in and out of jail, having attempted 18 successful and 12 unsuccessful escapes, by his own reckoning. Tucker was profiled by David Grann for The New Yorker in 2003, and the movie is adapted from Grann’s article. Robert Redford stars as the 61-year-old Forrest in the movie, which starts in Texas in 1981, and which shows him in action robbing banks, eluding the police investigators on his trail (headed by Dallas Police Detective John Hunt, played by regular Lowery collaborator Casey Affleck), and growing warmly attached to a widow he meets named Jewel (Sissy Spacek).

The Old Man and the Gun seems tinged with nostalgia, shown in a number of its elements — the grainy, period look of the images (shot on 16-mm film); the calmly poised and friendlily animated manner of people in small-town and rural America; the presence of two elder movie stars, who recall heydays of forty, fifty years ago; and the quiet sentimentality with which Forrest regards his long career of risks and thrills. Yet Lowery’s nostalgia isn’t spread in a thick haze of treacle and tears, but is touchingly dignified, and delicately modulated into other complex and nuanced emotions and a serious sense of fun. Anyone who’s seen Lowery’s previous movies (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Pete’s Dragon, A Ghost Story) will be expecting the finely composed, richly layered images that mark each shot of this movie, as well as the concentrated performances by the actors. Here, Redford, Affleck, and Spacek achieve truly beautiful modes of grace and authenticity, that can best be described as sublime. Redford has announced that The Old Man and the Gun features his final onscreen performance, and it’s wholly apt that the role itself is one that centres on performance and charisma. Lowery’s portrait of Forrest Tucker seems elevated into a portrait of the artist Robert Redford, and the very best qualities and abilities that brought him so much admiration.

Saturday, 27 April 2019

“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

Can You Ever Forgive Me? played in South African theatres in February and March, living on the little attention it had garnered from its three Oscar nominations (Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay). The second movie by American director Marielle Heller (her first was The Diary of a Teenage Girl, starring Kristen Wiig), it’s adapted from the confessional memoir of the same name by the author Lee Israel. In the late 80s, after writing a number of notable magazine profiles and celebrity biographies, Israel’s career fell into decline, aggravated by alcoholism and her particularly prickly personality. (A typical quote of Israel: “Macmillan wanted an unauthorized biography [of Estée Lauder] — warts and all. I accepted the offer though I didn't give a shit about her warts.”) In the movie, Lee (played by Melissa McCarthy) is told that she conceals herself so well behind her famous subjects that no one knows her well enough to pay her for her writing. She finds a surprising advantage in that, as she stumbles into the world of collectible literary memorabilia — where she successfully sells off her craftily composed forgeries of famous authors’ personal letters. She enlists the help of an ebulliently shady character, Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), who thaws her polar temperament a little, but is still slammed out by her impenetrable barriers to personal connection.

The specific thematic insights packed by Heller’s movie are not particularly original nor profound, but they ring persuasively and with authenticity: to connect with others, you must expose yourself; to encapsulate the kinds of personas embodied by famous modern authors is itself a form of imaginative art. Lee is somewhat justified to want credit for her compelling forgeries, and Israel received it in oblique ways in real life; her memoirs were received well by critics and the public alike, and her forgeries (most notably those of Noël Coward) were still taken as the real thing long after she’d been exposed. It’s still a remarkable thing to see a movie so frank about so many characters’ homosexuality, and Heller touchingly shows the need for intimacy and acceptance that is masked by flamboyant and impervious personas. In fact, Heller’s entire movie is sensitively wrought and finely grained, with surprisingly tender moments and an overflow of lively, fascinating personality. McCarthy’s performance is especially focused and dynamic, even if the character wishes to avoid those qualities at nearly any cost. Richard E. Grant is terrific fun, and brings an endearing dignity to even the most sordid aspects of Jack. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is not itself a great movie, but it features the kind of careful attention, clear-sighted observation, and tenderness — call it love — that makes an artful storytelling not only worthwhile, but a great pleasure.

Sunday, 17 March 2019

A Wishlist of Upcoming Programmes from the JPO

After an enjoyable Summer Season 2019 at the Johannesburg Philharmonic, which ended this week, and which included some great works that it’s always a pleasure to hear, I’ve put together my wishlist of works that I’d like to hear from the JPO in future seasons. (The Winter Season 2019 programme hasn’t been announced yet, so I’m holding thumbs with one hand while typing this post with the other.) Of course, the orchestra faces many practical constraints, such as having to attract regular audiences who may want to stick to a traditional canon of classics, or the lack of funding required for commissions and rights, or funding to rehearse and perform a work with 100 extra players and rare or exotic instruments. My wishes are likely to remain unfulfilled, but I’d like to hear from other concertgoers if they have similar desires regarding particular works they’d like to hear live.

Bartók: Concerto for orchestra. I’ve been tracking the JPO’s programmes since their relaunch of regular seasons in 2017, and only one-tenth of the programmed works have been composed in the last 100 years. This work premiered 75 years ago, and it remains Bartók’s most popular piece.

Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring. This work is from more than 100 years ago (but only just), though what modern classical composition has been more influential? And what could be further from the so-far solely mellifluous 20th-century works already presented, like those of Gershwin, Ravel, and Bernstein?

Friday, 15 March 2019

Highlights of the JPO’s Summer Season 2019

The Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra’s Summer Season 2019 ended last night and, having especially enjoyed a few particular moments during the season, I’ve highlighted them here to preserve the happy memory of them. I attended the Thursday night concert of each week, and I list my highlights below in chronological order, from reading the season’s programme in January through the four weeks of concerts.

1. The inclusion of two works on this season’s programme written in the last 100 years (the Korngold violin concerto, and Ravel’s G major piano concerto).

2. An all-Mozart week, featuring the last and greatest of his symphonies.

Saturday, 9 February 2019

Barry Jenkins’s Sharp and Tender “If Beale Street Could Talk”

I regret not having the time right now for more than these brief notes on Barry Jenkins’s new work, his adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel If Beale Street Could Talk, which is a wondrous movie and a stirring, almost painful experience to watch. Jenkins’s last movie was Moonlight, which will never be forgotten by anyone who’s seen it. After seeing that movie and going back to the theatre a number of times for repeat viewings, I wrote that I was immensely encouraged as I anticipated Jenkins’s coming masterpieces; now, I can tell you that If Beale Street Could Talk seems like the fulfillment of an impossible promise. Jenkins’s style is now instantly recognisable, in the slow, glowing, sensual tactility of his images, and in the deeply resounding, sharp yet opaque emotional resonances they evoke.

I have another regret, which is that I didn’t get to read Baldwin’s novel before seeing the movie. As soon as I heard about its release last year, I went through every library and book shop in the area looking for it, but came up short. Now, besides Jenkins’s cinematic conception and execution, I have much to praise about how the story is set up and the characters placed to lay out particular ideas, and I don’t know where to give credit. I’ve read Baldwin’s essays with great admiration; what we call fervour in other authors is more like fire in Baldwin, and I still remember how right it felt when I read Harold Bloom calling him a direct descendant of the prophetic lineage of Jeremiah. Bloom also memorably wrote, “Unlike Emerson, Baldwin lacks the luxury of detachment, since he speaks … for a sexual minority within a racial minority, indeed for an aesthetic minority among black homosexuals. Ultimately, Baldwin’s dilemma … is that he’s a minority of one, a solitary voice breaking forth against himself from within himself.” By that description, and knowing what Jenkins wrought in Moonlight, it’s difficult to imagine an author whose material would be more apt for Jenkins, who also works to invert the difficulties of outwardness, and bring forth his, his story, and his characters’ full immense inwardness, in all of its vulnerability and splendour.

Sunday, 6 January 2019

The Year in Movies – 2018

2018 was not an excellent year for this blog. Though I still saw many movies, and many brilliant movies, personal matters kept me from writing and posting reviews (which always takes longer than watching the movie itself). I underwent a handful of wondrous experiences, which I shared here, and a few more that I regret I was not able to share. I feel that I developed and learned more about the work of making movies and of discussing them, as well as about myself and how I view and appreciate them. I hope the chances will come for me to go further in detail in the coming year. A particular development for me personally was an increase in the number of television series I watched. I’ve hardly written anything about television at all, and before 2018 I generally found that work made for television did not meet my expectations of audiovisual artistic creation and revelation; however, my broadened horizons brought me to such wonders as Spike Lee’s miniseries remake of She’s Gotta Have It and Joe Swanberg’s miniseries Easy, which both expanded the form immensely in artistic consciousness and pure, joyous beauty. I look forward eagerly to finding more works like these and perhaps sharing them here with readers, together with the best cinematic works of each year.

Nobody reading this needs to be told that a selection of top movies is wholly subjective; a movie is good when you decide that it’s good, and the choice of the best movies out of any group is based entirely on your unique personal perceptions of each movie. Similarly, a movie becomes important not when it simply gets seen by many people, earns a lot of revenue, or is codified by a prestigious association, but when it makes a connection with the people who see it. The disappointment of the exclusion of Inxeba from the Academy Award nominations for Best Foreign Language Film was quickly eclipsed by viewers’ strong appreciation of the work, and even the controversy surrounding it did not match the enthusiasm of the movie’s supporters.

Friday, 4 January 2019

What to See This Holiday: Three Netflix Picks

Beach Rats (Eliza Hittman)

Available on Netflix.

Lazing on Brooklyn’s beaches, trawling the borough for weed, snagging clandestine hook-ups, the protagonist of Eliza Hittman’s movie Beach Rats, Frankie (Harris Dickson), is an exemplary shirker. Beach Rats is a stunning work of aimlessness and languor; the heat of the summer sun, and the vape and marijuana smoke add a haze to Hittman’s already indolent and largely wordless images. Normally I’m annoyed by or resistant to art-house films in which characters offer many meaningful looks but share few of their feelings, ideas, queries, and concerns; it often seems evasive, disdainful, or unimaginative on the part of the filmmakers. But the lack of talk between Hittman’s characters is a striking artistic depiction of the state of their intellectual and emotional lives: they have no expressive outlets, no communicative means at all of expression; they suppress true emotions and any hint of vulnerability; they don’t indulge aspirations or plans for the future, reflect, dream, visualise, contemplate; the silencing of their inner lives is a deliberately enacted by them, and is memorably evoked by Hittman.

And Frankie encounters distinct difficulties from this silencing. Whatever troubles of identity the other guys are evading, Frankie faces the added dimension of sexual orientation and identity: He chats with men via sex webcam sites and starts to meet up with them to have sex with them, but, as he informs one of his prospective hook-ups, he doesn’t really think of himself as gay. He also unenthusiastically starts up a romantic relationship with a girl named Simone (Madeline Weinstein). He avoids the thought of anything gay altogether, just as he avoids thinking of himself at all, and avoids talking about anything substantial with his family or his smoking companions (he asserts more than once that they’re not his friends). Hittman deftly suggests Frankie’s sensitivity and empathy, as he apologises to Simone after insulting her, and tries to hide emotional pain when considering his family’s suffering (his father is very sick with cancer). But, when given any opportunity arises to deal with his problems, such as when his mother approaches him, Frankie hardens his heart and erects an impenetrable wall of invulnerability. Hittman’s images inhere intimacy, energy, and density where her characters elude these qualities; the tension tightens and relaxes with the unease of youthful anxieties, and she suggests some of the disastrous consequences that such unease may lead to.