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Monday, January 29, 2018

The best films of 2017

Elizabeth Olson and Jeremy Renner star in Wind River
Here it is again - Oscar time. As I often do, I'm taking the opportunity to comment on some of the best films from 2017; however, as will become apparent in a few paragraphs, I feel I have reason to avoid prognosticating on what films or actors may win this year's statuettes.

First, a disclaimer: I have yet to see four of the nine Best Picture nominees. Those include at least three I plan to see when I can (The Shape of Water, Darkest Hour, and Call Me By Your Name), all of which come highly recommended. Would I pick one of those films as the best of the year? Possibly, though I don't expect that. For sure, though, I can't speculate on how the Academy will vote on Best Picture without seeing a bigger sample.

What I can say is that the Academy has definitely left out one of the year's best films due to politics, and that is Wind River, which unfortunately had a minor connection to the accused rapist Harvey Weinstein. Ironically, Wind River sends potent and well-crafted messages in support of women's rights, so to snub it even after the film's director and Native American producers excised the Weinstein name from their product is just plain wrongheaded.

Another film that is inexplicably absent from the Best Picture nominations is The Florida Project, which got one well-earned nod for Supporting Actor for the always-great Willem Dafoe - and that's it. Both Wind River and The Florida Project are in my Top Five, while the Best Picture nominated Lady Bird, The Post, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri are not - so, screw the Academy. That said, those are all in my second five, so maybe I should be a little more tolerant. Oh, well, call me cranky.

By the way, I'd say 2017 was a good year for movies but not a great one - none of these picks garnered my highest rating, though half of them came close. Why not? It's hard to pinpoint exactly, but when I recall a five-star movie - say Brokeback Mountain, or Spotlight - I find these offerings were slightly lacking in comparison.

And now for the list:
  1. Phantom Thread - This has eked out my pick for best of the year because, despite being awkward and unresolved, it features excellent visuals, originality, and brilliant acting - not only by the incomparable Daniel Day-Lewis, but equally by his two female co-stars, Lesley Manville and Vicky Krieps. Manville and director Paul Thomas Anderson could win Oscars for this.
  2. The Florida Project - Has all the characteristics cited above, with a double emphasis on originality. Few films manage to be so uplifting while exposing so much darkness. Very funny, when it isn't breaking your heart. The perfect antidote to Disney.
  3. Loving Vincent - Speaking of darkness and light, this unique animated feature took 10 years to make and it was worth every minute. Comprised of 65,000 paintings, it tells the story of the year following Vincent Van Gogh's mystery-shrouded death by immersing us in his life-affirming art. Rightly nominated for best animated feature.
  4. Wind River - Writer-director Taylor Sheridan knows how to craft a crime thriller, as he did last year with Hell or High Water (which he wrote but did not direct), and this one is set in a forbidding Western landscape, too. Grimly satisfying, I call it Winter's Bone meets Frozen River. Only an implausible extended shootout kept it from being my top pick of the year.
  5. Dunkirk - Most films tell a story with dialogue, in combination with images and sound. Dunkirk relies almost entirely on the latter two elements to communicate a very vivid story of an unusual moment in a terrible war, and it nearly succeeds. Music plays a bigger role in this film than any actor did, but it doesn't feel melodramatic; rather, it is deeply experiential. And the visuals are spectacular.
The rest: I rated the following six films about equally, and so I present them in no particular order. A few got a lot of attention, whether fully deserved or not; some were perhaps undeservedly overlooked. 

Beatriz at Dinner stars Salma Hayek as a servile massage therapist who, during a very awkward dinner at a very rich client's house, suddenly finds her mojo. Some crackling dialogue follows, as do a few bizarre scenes within a set limited to the house and its environs.

The Post doesn't need much introduction. As a former newsroom staffer, I relished every moment of ink-stained nostalgia the film dished up, no matter how stagy. But it's Spielberg, and he always panders. Saved by Meryl Streep's masterful performance and, of course, a ripping great yarn.

Lady Bird is a small, character-driven drama featuring two terrific actresses who spar entertainingly as only a mother and teenage daughter can. Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf earned their Oscar nominations, and first-time director Greta Gerwig does herself proud. But, frankly, it's a touch forgettable.

The Big Sick also represents a directorial debut, and it is fresh and funny, even if underneath the bizarre stuff it is still a sticky romance. The young married couple whose life it's based on got a Best Original Screenplay nod for this one, and they are worthy of it.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has to be my pick for most overrated movie of the year (possibly to be unseated by The Shape of Water - we'll see), even though it is actually quite good. In fact, it's my kind of movie, so I'm not biased against it - but I'm a little perplexed that it's winning so much attention, especially because that doesn't usually happen to my kind of movie. Could be I'm just wrong on this one!

Patti Cake$ is perhaps this year's most overlooked film. It tells the story of a trio of misfits who try to break into the local New Jersey rap scene, and actually convincingly pull it off - almost. A few touching stories are intertwined, with a killer soundtrack of originals and plenty of colorful imagery to go with them. Check it out, I promise you will enjoy.

Vicki Krieps and Daniel Day-Lewis star in Phantom Thread



Sunday, January 21, 2018

In Brief: Barbara Takenaga at WCMA

Installation view of 18 small paintings at WCMA by Barbara Takenaga
photo by Arthur Evans
We took a drive over the mountain pass to see Barbara Takenaga's show of more than 60 paintings at Williams College Museum of Art, and it was well worth it.

Barbara Takenaga Green Light 2013 acrylic on linen 
The show is dazzling, beautifully installed in several rooms of different sizes, and every corner you turn gives you another "wow" moment.

If you go, be sure to find a way to crouch down and view some of these beauties from a low angle - that way, you will better be able to experience their metallic iridescence under the ceiling-mounted lights.

It ends Jan. 28 - so catch it if you can. But, if you can't, there is some consolation in the form of a lovely hardcover catalog that includes most (or all) of the work, and it's reasonably priced. I liked the work so much, I purchased the book to show Mom.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

The Patroons are back!

A view of the Washington Avenue Armory during Saturday's game
photo by my old buddy Hans Pennink, stolen from the Times Union
Good-sport spouse and I attended the home opener of the new Albany Patroons professional basketball team on Saturday, and we had a great time. Like the glorious Patroons of old (circa 1980s), this team plays in the Washington Avenue Armory, a well-lit venue with character, history, and a quite good-looking hardwood court.

While technical difficulties marred the franchise's North American Premier Basketball League debut (i.e. no scoreboard or shot clock, and a truly insipid buzzer), it was still a pretty successful launch, with an announced crowd of 1,507 and a solid win for the home team. One of the beauties of the Armory, and the source of its legendary intense atmosphere of past Patroons success, is that it's small enough so even 1,500 people can warm it on a frigid night, and 3 or 4 thousand will positively rock the place. I don't think even the most optimistic boosters expect such numbers any time soon (or ever), but I do think the quality of the experience has the potential to draw healthy crowds if management can work out the kinks.

Coach Rowland directs his team
Hans Pennink/TU
Meanwhile, the legacy is alive in the form of Head Coach Derrick Rowland (aka Dr. D), a stalwart team member in the Pats' heyday, and one of the top players in the history of the old Continental Basketball Association that fostered the original franchise. Rowland leads a crew of athletes with a range of professional and college playing experience who delivered a very entertaining game, replete with speedy play, smooth long-range buckets, and rim-rattling dunks.

After a raggedy first period in which the Rochester RazorSharks seemed to have the upper hand, especially on defense, the Pats gathered themselves and, by the start of the third period, had gained a lead they did not relinquish. The play was fast and physical, the officiating was iffy (though spiffy, uniform-wise), and the player rotation allowed every starter and bench-warmer plenty of opportunity to make a strong first impression on expectant fans.

I attended just about every home game played by the champion Patroons of old, and I'm not about to say that this roster could compete with the likes of Tony Campbell or Mario Elie (to name two of many former Pats who went on to have significant NBA careers), but I was not at all disappointed by what I saw on Saturday. Among the standouts, ex-Los Angeles Laker Smush Parker ably led from the point, rocketing some beautiful passes along the way; rangy forward Torren Jones earned my respect, and a double-double, with great play in the paint; and local hero Lloyd (Pooh) Johnson buried several threes to help ice the game. And that's without currently sidelined Siena product and 2012 NBA D-League Rookie of the Year Edwin Ubiles, who should prove to be among the team's best players when his back feels better, and former Patroon Jamario Moon, a crowd-pleaser with scads of NBA and international hoops cred, whose presence will help to sell more seats if they can convince him to sign on.

So, I'll be back, with high expectations, and the hope that this thing gets some traction and regains a little bit of the old glory - or at least brings back the crazy fun of a filled-to-the-rafters Armory vibrating in the Albany night.


Sunday, December 10, 2017

Shows seen, and to be seen

Luis Molinari Flores Unititled II 1971 screenprint
I'm putting this one first, because it will be the first to end: When We Were Young, Rethinking Abstraction from the University at Albany Art Collection (1967-present) lives up to its two-breath title by presenting a nice, beefy slice of strong, colorful work in various media (mostly prints). It will hang at the University Art Museum only through Saturday, Dec. 16, so get there if you can.

I took the opportunity to glimpse the show after stopping there recently to hear New York City-based art critic and poet John Yau speak, but the show without Yau would also have been worth the trip. The  works include world-famous names such as Josef Albers (a tasty folio screenprint in which ochre confronts gray), and locally famous artists such as Jenny Kemp (a gorgeous gouache that also features gray and yellow) as well as one great untitled print from 1979 by Garo Antreasian, an artist previously unknown to me and a very happy discovery.

Speaking of Yau, he showed slides by a dozen or so painters he has written about, including Williams College professor Barbara Takenaga, who has a retrospective show currently at the Williams College Museum of Art through Jan. 28. I loved the examples of her work that Yau presented, and will make every effort to cross the Berkshires soon to see that exhibition.

An unidentified Civil War officer
Troy's Photo Center of the Capital District, a gloriously or grotesquely cluttered space (depending on your point of view), has quite a different display on view through mid-January, titled Unknown Military. Here are nearly countless pictures of many sizes dating from the Civil War through the Vietnam War, along with related objects and ephemera, as well as examples of the types of cameras that would have taken the pictures, all presented as if in a cabinet of curiosities.

This is not an art exhibition - it will be of interest primarily to history buffs, veterans, students, and so on, in addition to enthusiasts of documentary photography. One word of caution: Unknown Military is intended as an ant-war presentation, and it has some challenging, graphic content. I personally found it overwhelming, but others will surely revel in its excess.

Installation view from The Coffins of Paa Joe and the Pursuit of Happiness 
Almost as overwhelming, though much more spaciously installed, is a museum-scale show featuring well over 100 artists at The School, a project of New York City's Jack Shainman Gallery that sits upstate in Kinderhook. The exhibition, entitled The Coffins of Paa Joe and the Pursuit of Happiness is sprawling, both physically and conceptually, with pointed juxtapositions that crisscross the centuries, and full-wall constellations that mix contemporary photographs with traditional African sculptures, along with just about everything in between.

It's a bit like cracking open the mind of a collector on steroids (and it may be just that, more or less), but the exquisitely renovated former public school building is so pristine and perfectly designed that it softens the impact of what otherwise might seem utterly chaotic. Please note, The School is open only on Saturdays from 11 to 5, and the show is slated to end on Jan. 6.


The last show I'll mention is also a rather vast display, in this case a showcase exhibition of the Albany Institute of History & Art's superbly impressive collection of Hudson River School paintings. I always knew the Institute had a great collection of this movement, featuring the top stars (Thomas Cole, Frederick Church, Asher Durand) and the rest, but that knowledge did not prepare me for this feast of 88 works in one big gallery.

The level of detail and the overall quality of these paintings are both immediately pleasing to the eye and demanding of intense scrutiny. There are many delights to discover, including some views that feature sites within the immediate vicinity of the Capital Region, not to mention the Catskills and the Adirondacks as recurring themes.

The Hudson River show will remain on view for an unspecified (though surely lengthy) period, but I recommend that you go sooner rather than later, because you will want to return. It's that good, and it's that difficult to take it all in at once. I've been twice, so far, and I will be back.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Just in case you were wondering ...

Pink Wall, Deruta
It's been about nine years since Get Visual debuted, first as a feature of The Daily Gazette online edition, then independently on this platform. In that time, I've published more than 260 articles, most of which have been art reviews. I've also published only one of my own photographs, in August 2010 (see it here). At that time, I wrote that I would "very probably" never do that again.

Today, I'll break that pledge, with five examples from a recent trip to Italy. Just in case any of you were wondering whether I still take photographs, here's proof that I do. Hope you enjoy! -DB

Adriatic coast near S. Vito
View of the Majella from Chieti



Houses and Canal, Comacchio
Portico, Bologna

Monday, October 30, 2017

Dazzled by Millennia

View of the interior of the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna, Italy
When it seems that contemporary art is over-hyped, too gimmicky, or just generally full of crap, it can be a tonic to go back a few centuries - or more - to experience some of the art that has stood the test of time - and that's just what my spouse and I did on a recent trip to Italy.

My relationship with Italy is 40 years long and just about as deep. Usually, when I go there, it's to reconnect: with friends and family, with familiar places both urban and rural, and with Italian life as it is lived today. Though I try to make a point of also going to new places when I'm there, it isn't my habit to check in with the art treasures of the past that made the peninsula so popular to begin with.

Pattern detail from the mausoleum
But, on this trip, I broke with tradition. The new places we visited, while still lively and lovely in 2017, also featured some not-to-be-missed historical sites. So we bought the tickets and lined up to see the best of those, in Mantova (aka Mantua), a delightful city on the eastern edge of Lombardy, and in mosaic-centric Ravenna, at the Adriatic end of Emilia-Romagna. Both cities are designated UNESCO World Heritage sites, and there's no doubt they are worthy. We were well rewarded for our trips there and would gladly go back to both.

Natural detail from the mausoleum
I will not try to describe the mosaics we saw in Ravenna - pictures fail to do it, and so would words. The experience of seeing them for the first time was literally breathtaking. We began with the top draw - the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, a modest brick structure built around 425-450 AD that is encrusted over every interior centimeter with the most dazzling images and patterns imaginable from that era or any time since. You duck in from a bright day to an intimate space, your eyes adjust to the soft light that filters in from alabaster windows - and speechless awe is the only possible response.

Detail portrait of the Empress Theodora
in the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna
Equally powerful are the mosaics that adorn major parts of the large Basilica of San Vitale, also in Ravenna. These were installed over a longer stretch of time, and completed in 547 AD. The capstone piece of the group is a rectangular mosaic that depicts the Empress Theodora and her court (across the apse is a matching picture of her husband and his entourage, but the guys are nowhere near as pretty). This image could be right out of Vogue magazine - presumably designed by the Richard Avedon of the day - and it is just as astonishing as Galla Placidia's little tomb.

Mosaics have special qualities that speak easily across time. Because they are constructed of tiny cut pieces of colored stone, there is a directness to them that is absent in painted images - you can see exactly how they are made; there is no mystery to the technique. But in the presence of a work like the mausoleum, you are knocked out thinking of the effort that went into creating this richly beautiful imagery: the collecting and cutting of the stones in so many colors (plus, of course, real gold - after all, this is Byzantine art); the laying out of the highly complex patterns; the planning of the naturalistic imagery, and so on. How many hands, and how many years, were required to accomplish such a construction?

Detail from the Camera degli Sposi, Mantova
You think not so much of an artist (clearly, there was a large crew of skilled workers involved) as of a culture that brought this into being. The people of this culture wanted to show us everything in their world - its animals, its plants, its sky, its people ... and then added their own clever illusory patterns of stars and feathers and geometry, maybe just to show off. Unlike paint, the colors in these stones would never fade - and so they are stunningly rich and vivid today, more than 1,500 years later.

But if you did want to think of an artist, our visit to the Camera degli Sposi in the Ducal Palace in Mantova would provide you with just the right one. Andrea Mantegna, a native of Padova who died in Mantova, worked from 1465 to 1474 on this roomful of frescoes, demonstrating a level of naturalism that hadn't been achieved in European art before that point (and certainly not in fresco, a notoriously tricky medium). Like the mausoleum in Ravenna, this is a room that is decorated over every surface (including the flat ceiling, transformed into a stunning illusory "oculus") and it leaves your jaw hanging open.

Its charms are many, including numerous gaily clad figures, accurately rendered animals, and fanciful images of Rome (a city Mantegna never saw in life). It also features a famous self-portrait by the artist, hidden in the curls of ornamental trompe l'oeil architectural details. In contrast to the egoless immersion of Ravenna, here we have the self-referential Renaissance man on full display. And he was awesome. Sometimes, it's hard to think that any artist working today can honestly measure up.

Fresco of the court of the Duke of Mantova in the Camera degli Sposi, Mantova







Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Healing Power of Music

When the going gets tough, I usually find solace in art. Whether it's opening a well-written novel, visiting an exhibition of work that vibrates with life force, or tuning in to the sounds on the radio, these modes of human expression have got the power to heal me. Most reliable among them, though, is live music.

This weekend, for the 34th year in a row, the Lake George Arts Project put on its free two-day festival of jazz, and the music did its thing, as ever, to soothe my soul and revive my interest in life's best moments. I share decades of memories with friends, strangers, and spouse from this annual gift of musical spirit, and look forward to many more. Endless thanks to John Strong and Paul Pines, who make it happen, and to the musicians who have brought their talents to this extraordinary venue year after year (including, perhaps most significantly, the days immediately following the 9/11 attacks, when we hunkered together there in shock and pain, and yet were strengthened and uplifted by the musicians' ability to carry on).

Ola Onabule
I love listening to many kinds of music, but jazz holds a special place for me, perhaps because it favors improvisation and, so, is an engrossing, real-time display of creativity when performed live. The performers we caught on Saturday beautifully embodied that essence: Ola Onabule, a British Nigerian singer with style, verve, chops and a great sense of humor (best riffing on the Minnehaha's foghorn that I've heard yet); The Cookers, who quite simply and literally blew us into another dimension; and the Dave Liebman Big Band, 18-strong and vividly relevant as they celebrated the great legacy of John Coltrane.

We missed the other four performances of this edition of the Jazz Weekend, so I can only wish for those who caught them that they were half as good as these three (and I'd bet they were every bit as good) - but you don't always get to do everything you want to do. Still, what we caught was more than enough to wash away the soil of the work week (and the rest of our troubles), and I just wanted to pay a little tribute here to the sweet joy we felt there.

Do yourself a favor - whenever you can - drop the phone, get out of the house, and go hear some live music. I guarantee it will lift your spirits like nothing else.

The Cookers