Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Towards Zero

I haven't read Agatha Christie since I was a kid. With Towards Zero I immediately recognized the basic formula but was still amused and engaged by it all. All the characters portrayed as having some kind of secret, the artificially contrived sense of suspense, the ending where everything is explained and things you couldn't possibly have known revealed to tie it together. You can't take it to seriously. Good silly fun. A nice way to kill an afternoon or two.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Cafe Society

Woody Allen's Cafe Society is a breezy fluff piece of nostalgia that has an enjoyable pace and is nice to look at. The characters are not drawn very well and do not really stand out. The story is simple and fairly straight forward -- with a few distracting side plots and irrelevant scenes. I wasn't particularly into it and felt bored by Allen's chronic plays with love triangles, but I thought the ending was very sweet and it kind of made the whole thing come together for me.

Indecent

Indecent is a unique play that tells the story of a Yiddish play written in Warsaw in 1907 and the troupe that performed it for years. It spans all the way until 1952 and takes place in Europe and America.

The play itself, The God of Vengeance, takes place in a Jewish brothel and has a central love scene between two women, and because of this the Yiddish theater initially rejected it for making Jews look bad. However in spite of this it became a hit in Jewish theater throughout Europe.

Throughout Indecent we see snippets of the play performed and become familiar with the plot. The controversial scene is called the rain scene, where the two women make love. This is not actually shown until the end but is referred to for it's beauty and depiction of pure love (when we do see it, it's kind of ridiculous, but it's okay). In the US the cast is prosecuted on obscenity charges.

Indecent takes place in the context of serious anti-semitism and is about a specific era of Jewish history that came to an end with the Holocaust. The last third of the play is grim yet beautiful. Because of ingenious and beautiful and dark and haunting staging, the final years of the troupe chill the audience with an awed impact. I found this a singularly powerful play (in spite of a few cliches here and there).

Harlots

Harlots is a ridiculous show that recently aired on Hulu. It's just one season and in spite of how dumb it is I watched the whole thing. It is basically a soap opera taking place in 18th century London brothels and focuses on a silly rivalry between two madames. The trials and tribulations of different prostitutes are part of the drama, particularly the family of the madame played by Samantha Morton (who I love). There is tons of sex, and gorgeous costumes, but it isn't sexy at all. It isn't funny even though the drama is laughable. Still, I bet if they make a second season I will watch it.

More Veep!

After binge watching the first two seasons of Veep in 2013, I began watching it as it aired, episode by episode. I love this show so much that when this season ended I went back and watched them all from the beginning. It's so good. Watching them back to back you have a clearer sense of some of the plot twists. The humor is so biting. Selina is so mean that after a while it became a little difficult to watch, but I still loved it. The performances all amazing and Julia Louis Dreyfus does an incredible job.

The Financier

I didn't like Theodore Dreiser's The Financier. I've liked other books by him. This is about a young man (Frank) with a gift of understanding finances and an intense focus on making money. He is extremely rational and pragmatic. The problem with the book is that it focuses on so much on his financial dealings, especially two specifically shady transactions. The details of these are told over and over and over, often in the exact same words, so it becomes tedious and redundant and too much of the core of the book. There is also a love affair that is interesting but not compelling. There are a number of characters in the financial and political world but all of them are two dimensional and forgetable (except perhaps Butler, the father of the young woman Frank falls in love with).

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Garth Fagan Dance

Last night I saw Garth Fagan Dance at Celebrate Brooklyn. It was amazing. I loved every minute of it. The program was six dances and the company was fantastic and charismatic. The choreography blended modern with Afro-Carribean and classical technique. I think my favorites were the lovely, slow, evocative "No Evidence of Failure" and the rousing and fun "Geoffrey Holder Life Fete... Bacchanal". I'm going to keep an eye out for more of their performances.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Lila Downs at Celebrate Brooklyn

Last night I saw the amazing Mexican singer Lila Downs at Celebrate Brooklyn. I have been listening to a beautiful album of hers for years and it was wonderful to see her live. She is a great, soulful performer. The audience loved her and even though I didn't understand any of the lyrics I felt the rich emotions and was glad to be part of such joyous heartfelt experience. I usually don't care for the visuals at concerts, but these were amazing.

House of Cards S5

Season 5 of House of Cards is not that compelling. The narrative arc surrounds the Underwood's struggle to remain in power and it becomes rather convoluted. Because there is no ideology and no motivation other than power for power's sake there isn't any real meat there. It's stylized and moves in a way that kept me watching, but I'm sort of over it and don't know if I'll even bother with the next season.

The Exception

The Exception is not an exceptional film but it's solid. Interesting, well-acted, focused. It concerns events that take place in Holland where Kaiser Wilhelm is in exile during World War II. It's a spy story where a german officer (there to guard Wilhelm), a Jewish servant (they don't know she is Jewish), and the Kaiser himself become entwined. I liked it and am curious if it's based on true events. Some of the plot points were predictable, but the tight plot and relatively restrained acting made this okay.

Boyhood

I was disappointed with Boyhood. I had heard so many good things about it. I think what people like is the gentle touch of watching the boy grow up year by year, and the simplicity of the scenes, the ordinariness of life. But I felt it was too ordinary. I wanted more emotional conflict, more drama. That's not what Boyhood is about so it's kind of an unfair expectation. I could appreciate the loveliness of it, and thought every scene on it's own terms was very good. I just wasn't that connected or invested or riveted.

Alice Adams

Because I loved The Magnificent Ambersons so much I immediately downloaded another of Booth Tarkington's Pulitzer Prize winning novels, Alice Adams. I did not like this one nearly so much. It was very simple and straight forward. A decent story, well drawn characters, but there wasn't much nuance to them and the relationships were kind of one dimensional. And I could easily see where the plot was going. It was a good fast read, though. I guess it felt more like a short story than a full novel.

Orange is the New Black S5

Orange is the New Black S5 was HORRIBLE. I really hated it. It all takes place moments after the intense cliffhanger ending of S4, and the 13 episodes span a three day riot.

This season was so sloppy, out of control, unrealistic, ridiculous, and tone deaf. I can't go into all the sprawling absurdities because of spoilers, but I will mention that the women had officers hostage and made  them do a talent show! So stupid. It was like that constantly.

I'm really disappointed. I had loved this show so much.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Beatriz at Dinner

Beatriz at Dinner is a dark comedy of manners, but more complex. Beatriz is a Mexican massage therapist and healer whose car breaks down at a wealthy client's house and is invited to stay for a fancy dinner party.

Salma Hayek plays Beatriz as a quiet, intense, solidly grounded woman whose mere presence stands out against the dazzling, fast talking, superficial women around her and whose forthright gaze makes the men uncomfortable. This contrast highlights the others blase social  callousness in ways that are hilarious and intensely cringe-worthy.

But it's more than just hilarious. Beatriz carries and absorbs the pain around her and faced with such an onslaught of unrelenting indifference her anger quietly grows to the point of confrontation. It is mostly directed at John Lithgow's wealthy real estate developer's character, and the tension and crisp dialogue between them is delicious.

It's a great movie. All the acting is spot on, and every scene crackles. Mike White is the writer and I think he's a genius, particularly at writing complex, pained, and alienated women characters.

Before I Go To Sleep

Before I Go To Sleep is a ridiculous movie. Frustrating and strangely predictable. It's a thriller about a woman who wakes up every morning with no memory of who she is or anything from the past. She is living with her husband who must remind her of her life every day. She starts keeping a video diary to help her remember and things become sinister as she questions the identity of her husband and the circumstances of the accident that led to her amnesia.

It's slightly gripping but sort of annoying. You want to figure out what's going on but the twists here and there get in the way a little bit and it's hard to care about any of the characters because the plot and concept dominate.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Meridith McNeal at Figureworks


Meridith McNeal has a new show at Figureworks in Williamsburg. More beautiful work from her Inside/Outside Windowphilia series.

These colorful watercolors have an incredible depth and nuance. As in all her work there is just so much to see, such beautiful attention to detail. These paintings are particularly notable in the way they depict reflections. Instead of being inside looking out, as many of the images at Five Myles are, these are more the outside looking in, and the artist and and the scene behind her are captured in the renderings of the posters and displays in the windows themselves. Amazing work.

The fresh new Figureworks space looks amazing and the intimate setting was perfect for McNeal's bright and complex art. In addition to the art, which is all for sale, the artist created several unique items, each featuring aspects of a different piece of art. Some pillows, phone cases, and water bottles are on sale -- I bought a beautiful pillow myself...

Rauschenberg at MOMA


The Rauschenberg retrospective at MOMA is a wonderful experience. His paintings, sculptures, and assemblages are dramatic and arresting. I was particularly interested in his earlier works, which I had never seen before. His black paintings, burnt and textural, were a particular favorite.

Friday, June 9, 2017

The Magnificent Ambersons

I loved Booth Tarkington's The Magnificent Ambersons.  I gobbled it up in a couple of sittings. It's the story of an old genteel wealthy family in the midwest who see their money, social standing, and way of life fall away after the turn of the century. The narrative focuses on a young, spoiled, clueless, arrogant and proudful young man, and for most of the book this is funny and amusing. Yet as the plot unfolds the story of his mother's love life, entwined with his own prospects, becomes somewhat tragic. The ending, which includes a maudlin death bed scene, is very sentimental. But it totally worked on me and I was crying like a baby.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Meridith McNeal: The View from Here



Yesterday I saw a breathtaking exhibition. Meridith McNeal's solo show at Five Myles Gallery in Brooklyn, The View From Here, displays several works from her ongoing Inside/Outside Windowphilia series.

I had what I can only call a "swooping" feeling when I entered the dark gallery where these large scale watercolors are hung. Although each window depicts a different interior and exterior, being in the middle of the room felt like I was on a special veranda with panoramic views of a magical landscape.

Individually each painting draws you into the scene. The open windows are literally inviting. McNeal's  subtle colors and meticulous attention to visual detail masterly enhance each vision which she generously offers the viewer. This is a beautiful, one of a kind show by a one of a kind artist.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Orange is the New Black S4


Season 4 of Orange is the New Black is intense and disturbing in ways that seem to go beyond the previous seasons. As I've said before, this show gets better and better. Perhaps Season 3 is my favorite, but this one had me sobbing and terrified.

Litchfield is now run by a private prison company that is even crueler and more callous than previous administrations. The prison is now overcrowded and he guards are more sadistic. The dehumanization of the inmates is a consistent tension throughout the season.

In S3 I got annoyed at the panty ring thing, and it continues here a bit but takes on a much more combative and scary element. As the ring shuts down Piper has inadvertently created a race struggle between a new white power group and the Latinas. The excruciating scene of the Latinas putting Piper in it's place was gut-wrenching and almost impossible to watch. There is a long arc involving a murdered CO that illuminates some of the characters, particularly the sad and lost Healy.

Pentsatucky continues to grow in ways that are surprising considering her character at the beginning of the season. The depth of her performance broke my heart.

Caputo struggles with the impossibility of humanizing the monstrous system, and his conflicts not only gave him more depth but highlighted the ugly, unjust, and crushing nature of our punishment system.

The narrative reaches a crisis in the final two episodes, ending with a tense and dramatic cliff hanger. I'm glad S5 will be released soon.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Everybody Lies

Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are is such a lame book. It would work as a New Yorker article, but there is just not enough in there for a book. It is about how big data of our online behavior can reveal things that traditional data used and gathered by social scientists cannot get at. It's interesting, yes. But after a few examples you get the point.

I read this at night before going to bed and it worked for that purpose. There were noteworthy tidbits of facts and insights but unfortunately I have already forgotten them all.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Sarah Silverman: A Speck of Dust

Sarah Silverman's A Speck of Dust is great. Her wry and coy sense of humor is engaging. The quirks of her timing marvelous and her perspective clever.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Lots of Netflix Comedy!


This semester I watched a lot of Netflix comedy specials. I can post about each one because I don't really remember them all. The list includes Louis CK, Jim Norton, Katherine Ryan, Kathleen Madigan, Ali Wong, Jim Jefferies, David Cross, and Neal Brennan. As well as others I can't remember.

I was not crazy about Ali Wong, who had an aggressive show off way about her. I thought Katherine Ryan was kind of charming and had a solid comedic presence that I appreciated. David Cross and Louis CK were both funny, but this was not Louis CK's best performance, and David Cross always has something a little unpleasant or arrogant in his demeanor.

I was surprised how much I enjoyed Kathleen Madigan who has an unexpected Mid-Western thing going on that offered a different perspective and was very funny.

Neal Brennan's 3 Mics alternated between segments of one-liners, general stand up, and emotional monologues. I appreciated his honest about depression in the latter, and his stand up was solid. I didn't think the one-liners were good and he delivered them too slowly, letting each mediocre joke hit and rest for too long.

My absolute favorite was Jim Jefferies. I liked him so much I watched two other earlier specials available on YouTube and HBO. His humor is cutting and fierce. As negative and obnoxious as he can be, I found him incredibly likeable and hilarious.


Wizard of Lies

I am never a fan of biopics and have to learn to lower my expectations with them. That said, Wizard of Lies, about Bernie Madoff, was pretty okay.

It didn't cover new ground or offer new insights from all the intense coverage the story got in 2008-2009, but it was interesting to revisit it. I thought the acting was pretty good. Like in all biopics I felt something of substance was missing, some dramatic core.

At the end he asks if he's a sociopath and I couldn't help feeling that his awful nefarious actions are no worse than the legal actions of the Republicans who are currently trying to pass budgets and bills that will have vast and cruel effects. And I think he was right that during the 2008 financial crisis focusing on one evil-doer was more satisfying to the public than trying to grasp the systemic injustices in the system.

Museum of Art and Design: Judith Leiber

There was also a Judith Leiber show at the Museum of Art and Design, Crafting a New York Story. I thought this was kind of boring. Her bags definitely have sculptural and artistic and craft elements that I appreciate as objects. But as bags I think they were tacky. There were many that were dramatic and interesting, but as a show I didn't feel like it it worked. People always think because of my beading that I will like Judith Leiber, but mostly  I think her bags are tacky. Here are two that stood out for me.

Museum of Art and Design: Fashion after Fashion


The Fashion after Fashion exhibition was more interesting than the Counter Couture. This featured deconstructed and reimagined sculptural pieces breaking away from traditional fashion and using fashion as the foundation for art pieces.

Museum of Art and Design: Counter Couture


The Counter Couture show at Museum of Art and Design was just okay. The handmade clothes from the 60s were dramatically lit and the environment was cool but most of the clothes were kind of boring to me. The exception being these crocheted pieces.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Mommy Dead and Dearest


Mommy Dead and Dearest is creepy! An awful, awful story.

It's the story of Gypsy Blanchard, a girl who was raised by a mother with Munchauser by Proxy Syndrome. Since she was an infant, Gypsy's mother made her sick and pretended she was seriously ill. All sorts of diseases and ailments. Drugging her. Not allowing her to walk and putting her in a wheelchair. Lying about her age and dressing her up like silly doll. It is such a disturbing story of very serious, very extensive, very prolonged child abuse.

Then, Gypsy begins an online secret love affair with some weirdo and she has him murder her mother!

The documentary includes many photos and videos, both of Gypsy feigning illness and talking like a developmentally disabled pinhead as well as a perfectly fine Gypsy in bed with her boyfriend. Also included are their text exchanges. The most disappointing parts are the interviews with Gypsy, now in prison. She seems naive and sweet but manipulative and creepy at the same time. The horror of what she went through is unfathomable and she came across as so bland and syrup-y. This documentary raised many more questions than it answered.

Girls Season 6

ARGHH. I have been a stalwart fan of Girls. I enjoyed it and defended it when everyone else was criticizing it for various reasons which never felt important to me. I loved Season 5. But damn, the final season sucked. I was not at all into it.

The pregnancy plot line seemed desperate and grasping. Yes, there were scenes and episodes I liked. But the way they tried to wrap Hannah's story up was very unconvincing and unrealistic and they totally lost me. Parts were utterly preposterous. Very disappointed.

Master of None Season 2

I recently watched al of the second season of Master of None, Aziz Ansari's sweet Netflix series.

The strength of this show is Aziz -- his ebullience, his curiosity, his humor, and his wonderful good nature and seemingly genuine kindness. He throws light on various pervasive forms of racism, gives homage and dignity to the myriad people whose lives are ignored in mainstream storytelling, and performs a running commentary on contemporary upper-middle class urban life.

Both season have an off quality to me. Something awkward in the acting or timing that I can't quite adjust to. Season 2 is cinematically (and to a lesser extent thematically) sophisticated, but there is something amateurish in the execution that I can't quite put my finger on.

The narrative arc of Season 2 is Aziz's budding relationship with a charming woman he met in Italy (those episodes shot in black and white and sending shout outs to Italian movie classics). As this developed I felt myself growing a bit distant. The storylines and scenes with his friends and dates were crisp and fresh to me. But with the love interest it felt a little tired. It dragged a little. I think part of the problem for me is that she was SO charming. A caricature of charming. Hi growing fondness and love for her was understandable and relatable, but her her-ness seemed made up to me.

Fargo: TV Series


I watched the first two seasons of Fargo the TV series recently. It is a stunning, breathtaking, punch you in the gut show. Cinematic, violent, strange. The plot is layered and arresting. Tense. Over the top and beautifully balanced.

The first season distracted my by its similarity to the movie, particularly the character Lester's version of William H Macy's performance, as well as the tempo of the speech and accents. But it really drew me in. The plot kept thickening. Billy Bob Thorton was perfectly himself and the perfect villain.

I had trouble getting into the second season, as it takes place in the 70s and for some reason I just felt like ugh, I don't want to watch a 70s mob thing. But again, it drew me right in and the plot moved and twisted in engaging and surprising ways. I actually cried at the two scenes where you see the overlap between both seasons.

Both season 1 and season 2 of Fargo take place in the same vast and bleak winter landscape and play on similar themes: unwitting, naive nice-seeming people doing horrendous things surrounded by and contrasted with the openly evil and sociopathic. Each has solid, unshaken characters who stand at the moral core balancing the dim-witted and narcissistic bad guys, worse guys, and ill-fated dupes.

The Verdict

I think I saw The Verdict in the 80s when it came out and I remember thinking it was a very good movie. Boy does this shit not hold up. Such a long winded cliche. The legal drama around a medical malpractice suit is tired and unnuanced. The odd romance is sexist and ridiculous. The acting is melodramatic and tiresome.

Shit Town

Shit Town was my first podcast. Through several episodes (7?) the narrator, Brian Reed, recounts the story, using interviews with everyone involved, of an extremely eccentric and unique man in the deep south. He emerges as brilliant. John B was a strange, obsessive, talented and deeply lonely man who lived on many acres and had an intense inexhaustible contempt for the world in general and his town in particular. His rants, in his deep accent, were stupendous screeds against everything that is wrong with this country. Basically everything he said was on target, and it almost makes you wonder how the rest of us are so complacent and unafraid.

Shit Town starts off when Brian Reed is contacted by John B to investigate a murder in his shitty town, but it soon becomes the greatest character study I have ever encountered. We learn about John B's talent as an antique clock restorer, his amazing maze he created on his grounds, his unlikely friendships, particularly one with a disturbing yet engaging young man, the breadth of his knowledge, and the unrelenting psychic demands of his world view. From interviews with family, business associates, old friends, and town officials, and the ever compassionate narration of Brian Reed, a complex, unsettling, and deeply sad portrait of John B is painted. One that broke my heart.

What About Bob?

Another stupid movie. What About Bob? features Bill Murray as an extremely neurotic OCD dysfunctional who goes for one therapy session with a shrink who has a stupid new book out. He immediately thinks the shrink is his savior and proceeds to stalk him on his summer vacation. Maybe a cute moment here or there. You are supposed to dislike the arrogant shrink and enjoy the way Bob inadvertently torments him. But I saw him as a wildly inappropriate stalker who was also very annoying. This may be my least favorite Bill Murray movie.

Romy and Michele's High School Reunion

I've always sort of wanted to watch Romy and Michele's High School Reunion but was embarrassed because it looks so stupid. Well -- it is stupid. But it is also a little bit fun, very good natured, and essentially harmless. So whatever, I enjoyed it. Besides, I always love Lisa Kudrow no matter what she's in.

Homeland

Last month I watched all 6 seasons of Homeland on Hulu (I got a special subscription for it). It was so intense. I just loved it. There were several episodes in a row where I was sitting on the edge of my seat, literally.

The storyline with Brody in the first three seasons began to bore me and I fucking hated him. My favorite seasons were 4, which was set in Pakistan, and 5, in Berlin. So much happens in each episode that it is hard to keep up. I mean I would kind of forget what had happened just an hour previously. But I loved it. All the characters were great, solid performances. The plot is absurd at times, but also incredibly dramatic and entertaining. I was totally sucked in.