Behind the scenes at the library

Frederick Wiseman has done it again. Two years ago, I wrote about National Gallery, a three-hour long documentary that brought us an all-encompassing view of the National Gallery in London. I’ve recommended it at the time, and I still recommend it. Now Wiseman has made an even longer movie about one of the best-known institutions in New York: Ex Libris: The New York Public Library. I have to warn you: it’s 197 minutes long, and it turns Wiseman’s completist tendencies into a disadvantage. Continue reading

When has a stitch ever saved anyone?

Phantom Thread one of the best-looking movies this season. Since it’s set in the 1950s British fashion scene, it’s certainly the best-dressed movie, without flaunting its lavishness. The dresses, often also the people and the atmosphere of the movie, have a kind of gorgeousness about them. The film feels like it was made decades ago, but it is far from dated. There is a love story at the core of the film, between a high-end middle-aged fashion designer called Reynolds Woodcock and a clumsy French-speaking waitress named Alma Elson. Reynolds is immediately smitten with Alma; while most other men would want to undress her, he is thinking about dressing her up, already sketching clothes for her in his mind. Continue reading

Dope, anyone?

It’s somewhat surprising that Errol Morris’ Wormwood seems to be the first documentary to combine a cast with big names for the dramatic scenes with the traditional doc-staples of talking heads, collages, home movies and grainy photos. It’s a balancing act in more ways than one, and here, it seems to work, if only just. Wormwood is about the death of Frank Olson, who seemed to have fallen out of a 13th story hotel room window in New York and died on the sidewalk in his underwear. He was a CIA chemist who worked for the U.S. army and did research for biological warfare. For years, the story went like this: Olson, together with some of his workmates, was drugged with LSD in November 1953 for a new project about mind control, had a bad trip and finally committed suicide ten days later by leaping to his death. It was an accident, the CIA said, and they were sorry, and the Olson family got to meet President Johnson, who apologized for the tragedy, and the CIA promised to stop all mind-control projects, and that was that. Continue reading

Year of Good and Bad

2017 has been a difficult year. I’ve realized that, since the news about them broke, I have avoided all films starring Kevin Spacey or produced by Harvey Weinstein. Same goes for Woody Allen, Bryan Singer and others. I would like to say that it was an unconscious decision, but I have to confess that it was largely intentional. Used to be a time when I could easily divorce an artist’s stupid statements or antics from his or her outstanding artistic performance. The fact that Morgan Freeman appears in a Turkish Airlines ad makes him look like an idiot, but it probably won’t keep me from watching The Shawshank Redemption again. With sexual threats or abuse by Weinstein, Spacey and far too many others, a line has been crossed. I can no longer sit there and watch John Doe do his grisly work without thinking of Spacey and his crimes. So how to react? Should I really stand before my movie shelf and start throwing out Seven? The Lord of the Rings trilogy? Anything ever produced by the Weinstein Company and Miramax? All the Tarantinos? The English Patient? How do Woody Allen fans react to such abuse? Fans of X-Men or The Usual Suspects? I know, of course, that the harm done to the abused persons is not limited to the movie business, and that the damage they suffered weighs far more than the harm done to cinema and acting, but since movies are a crucial way of storytelling, at least to me, and since storytelling has the human condition at its center, I suspect that those movies will play differently to me when (if?) I watch them next time. Something, a kind of honesty in storytelling, will be lacking. Continue reading

Dark Town, Gloomy Times

It’s just about possible that this year’s best supernatural TV series comes from Germany. It’s called Dark, it’s available on Netflix since December 1st, so it probably won’t be on any best of lists for this year. It should be. Dark borrows from some of the most favorite horror TV series of the last two or three years; it takes what it can use from the recent Twin Peaks, Les Revenants, True Detective, Stranger Things and others, and distils those borrowed spare parts for long enough to turn into its very own material. There are two things that make it worth your while: it tones down the supernatural element and focuses on its characters enough so it doesn’t have to rely on its McGuffin too much, and it creates its own atmosphere so well that it’s easy to forgive it a few shortcomings. It’s a slow series, ten episodes of about one hour, but some scenes are almost bristling with intensity. Continue reading

Detroit goes down

Detroit is a miss. The beginning and the ending are weak bookends to a middle that is strong and impressive cinematically, but the movie as a whole lacks two basic ingredients: a moral point of view, and a minimum of Detroit-specific context. I don’t think either of these flaws are the director’s fault: Kathryn Bigelow knows how to place her audience in the middle of a scene involving crowds, be it a war or a riot. My guess is that the lack of context comes from the screenplay by Bigelow’s frequent collaborator Mark Boal, who wrote The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, also directed by Bigelow. Continue reading