“Black Mirror”—Dark Reflections of the Mind

Black Mirror
Black Mirror

I’ve just discovered the extraordinary showstopper, “Black Mirror”, a British sci-fi television series that is part “Twilight Zone” but darker and more bizarre. In six episodes in Season One we are let into a dystopian future narratively thrilling yet outrageous, because of its plausibility.

The season finale, “White Christmas”, is certainly not full of holiday merriment. This bleak episode showcases the handsome and versatile Jon Hamm (the character Don Draper in “Mad Men”), as Matthew, a charming guy who does not possess any moral tentativeness or empathy for anyone. Great choice for a Christmas story, right?

In a high-tech creepy version of the movie “Crazy, Stupid Love” meets the how-to manual “The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists”, we see Matthew, using earpieces and a surveillance camera, confidently guiding insecure guys on how to pick up young women. A voyeur with a sordid past, Matt’s cyber-dating service leads to unforeseen consequences.

The satirical writer Charlie Brooker, the extraordinary talent behind “Black Mirror”, raises questions of what we would do in a similar situation. Perhaps one of his most ingenious “karmic” devices is “blocking,” a sort of real-life, three-dimensional version of blocking someone on Facebook. Taken to an extreme, “blocking” renders the target a non-person, someone entirely alone, without community, locked inside their own heads. “Black Mirror” exacts creative solutions for wrongdoers commensurate with their karma. The outcome of each episode is unnerving if not downright terrifying.

Each episode, like “Twilight Zone”, has a separate story and a different cast. You can view the episodes in any order. More a short story collection than a novel, “Black Mirror” is less a dystopia than it is the dark side of life and the darkest regions of the mind.

[Order it on instant streaming through Netflix.]

“The Theory of Everything”—A Brief History of Love

Theory of Everything

This is a lyrical and magnificent film, adapted from a literary source (a memoir by Jane Hawking). Rich in character and dialogue, “The Theory of Everything” is primarily a romance wrapped around a chronicle of a brilliant and beautiful mind trapped in a malfunctioning body. This film is a narrative of heartbreak, marital and emotional distance, with jagged edges and torn souls portrayed with great subtlety and craft.

Focusing on the courtship and marriage of Jane (the riveting Felicity Jones) and Stephen Hawking (a tour-de-force performance by Eddie Redmayne from “My Week with Marilyn” and “Pillars of the Earth”), we see the two principals portray great humor, courage, and most of all, love for each other. “The Theory of Everything” covers a twenty-five year period from Stephen Hawking’s days as a PhD student at Cambridge (1965), to his best-selling treatise, A Brief History of Time (1988) and recognition as a Companion of Honour by the Queen (1989).

Jane is also a PhD student who is an aspiring scholar in French and Spanish, but sacrifices her own academic career in order to nurture a tender, defiant, and at times imperiled marriage. The decline of Stephen Hawking’s health seems to parallel the decline in the marriage between Stephen and Jane.

Using fireworks and cinematographic images of the star-filled sky to suggest Hawking’s brilliant astrophysics theories , the viewer is given a glimpse of his theoretical physics, a quest for a single elegant mathematical theorem to express the system of the universe in all its glory, from inception to black holes and the beginning of time. A very light touch is given to his theories on cosmology.

The poignancy and painful irony of observing a consummate mathematics genius, who theorizes about the infinity of space and time, crammed into a very confining capsule, wheelchair-bound, is portrayed without pity. As Hawking’s illness progresses and the muscles in his neck fail to hold his head, we see Redmayne appear to do the impossible: a physical performance imitating the paralysis and speechlessness of Hawking, cocking his head to the side, like a fragile bird whose neck is broken. As flaccid as a puppet, the actor nonetheless conveys humor, a confident understanding, and an unflinching empathy in a glance or a subtle postural change. There is an emotional and powerful transparency in Redmayne’s eyes that is at once complex and revealing. With only synthesized computer speech to communicate as his speech slowly curdles into incomprehensibility, Redmayne makes the inexpressible understandable.

Felicity Jones’ role as Jane Hawking is just as striking, conveying the vibrancy and heart-wrenching devotion for a man she admires, loves, and wants to make happy. Her understanding and compassion  make “The Theory of Everything” tremendously moving and inspirational, as well as being a testament to strength of character and human values.  This film should win Oscars!

 

“Peaky Blinders”—A View of Injustice

Peaky Blinders
Peaky Blinders

This BBC television drama series starring the amazing Cillian Murphy as Tommy Shelby, the leader of the Peaky Blinders gang, is Britain’s answer to “Boardwalk Empire”. Netflix released the first six episodes comprising Season One this past September and the next six of Season Two in November. Taking place immediately after the First World War, in Birmingham, England, the story focuses on making one’s way in the world of brutal street rivalries and competition for money through bars, gambling, and horse racing.

But this series is more family saga than criminal thriller, although it is that too. In the early 20th century, the IRA is beginning to rise up and the minorities (Italians, Jews, Irish, and Gypsies) are fighting fiercely for the territory no one else wants.   The Shelby family is led by the cunning Tommy who understands that alliances with other minorities will give them greater strength and power. Although the promise of alliance and cooperation are brilliantly conceived, the strategies inevitably have unexpected twists due to sibling rivalry, the mistrust of the other gangs, and the greed and corruption of the police and intelligence agencies (under the supervision of the malevolent Campbell, gloriously played by Sam Neill).

The plot is brilliantly realized and meticulously detailed, character development is insightful  and the acting is engrossing. Creation of the world of England on the brink of revolution by the IRA, filled with criticism of the privileged, and the difficulties of finding justice are vivid and unsparing. Crime is not glamorous and has high stakes and terrible consequences for family and friends alike. No one can be trusted. The deprivation of the slums is inescapable,…or almost. Injustice is viewed in all of its ugliness.

The odd name “Peaky Blinders” derives from the practice of sewing razor blades into the peaks of their caps. The first two episodes take patience as the plot moves very slowly and deliberately, to set up each character and some discipline in editing seems necessary to improve the pacing.

Last but not least, there are the strong, tough, and cunning women of the Shelby family and of Grace, whom Tommy becomes involved with.  Each is broken and wounded in ways more visible and understandable by the audience than their male cohort. All that is absent from their participation in the Peaky Blinders is the razor-brimmed cap.   Moreover, some of the more interesting character development in this series is the disruption women created as they assumed roles in post-war society that some of the men resented.

I can’t wait to see Season Three!

“Whiplash”—Marching to the Beat of a Different Drum

Whiplash
Whiplash

For lovers of jazz music and of stories dealing with young artists trying to find their way, this 2014 movie has it all.

A young drummer, Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) is accepted into Shaffer Conservatory, one of the best music schools in the country and yearns for the approval of Terence Fletcher, the school’s intimidating and legendary master (J. K. Simmons, in his best role since “Juno”). Fletcher is only interested in the best of the best students and hopes to find the next Charlie Parker, only to be continually disappointed.  

The sacrifices Andrew makes in order to please Fletcher exact a hefty price on his personal life.   He begins to practice maniacally in order to achieve his dream, not unlike the Hans Christian Anderson tale of the little dancer, in the “Red Shoes”. Fletcher turns Shaffer Conservatory into a hellish musical boot camp, cutthroat and ruthless, with resentment and bitter rivalries. One student is pitted against another as if in a percussionist’s coliseum.

J. K. Simmons/Miles Teller
J. K. Simmons/Miles Teller

 

The ferocious lead performances (Teller and Simmons) in “Whiplash” impute a mesmerizing power on the viewer, who witnesses a psychological struggle between teacher and pupil that is both unsettling and riveting. The parameters of artistic sacrifice in the face of a tyrannical teacher are questioned but not answered. Psychologically disturbing and thrilling all at once, we see a young prodigy become enslaved to his own ambition. These performances are not to be missed.

Keith Haring (1958-1990): The Political Line (November 8-February 16, 2015)

IMG_1552Many of the works in this comprehensive exhibit at the De Young Museum (San Francisco) are being publicly presented for the first time, several on loan from the Keith Haring Foundation, Brooklyn, New York, [In March 2012, a retrospective exhibit of Haring’s work, Keith Haring: 1978-1982, opened at the Brooklyn Museum in New York.  See my May 2012 review ]  The imagery of Haring remains vital to the universally recognized visual language of the late 20th century. His enduring vision and critique of global problems is as relevant today as it was almost a quarter of a century ago.

More than 130 works, including large-scale paintings on tarpaulins and canvases, sculptures, and a number of the artist’s subway drawings, totems, and masks yield an extraordinary display of Haring’s responses to nuclear proliferation, racism, violence, the excesses of capitalism, environmental degradation, computer ascendancy, and perhaps especially gay culture. The political is deeply personal.

Haring’s work has long been a part of San Francisco’s culture., including Untitled (Three Dancing Figures) (1989) displayed in front of the Moscone Convention Center, and The Life of Christ (1990) in the AIDS Chapel at Grace Cathedral. New York also provided Haring’s most vibrant venue for subway and mural art.

His career was brief, intense, and prolific. By the time of his death, at age 31, from AIDS he had achieved international fame and celebrity status. His last two years’ work seems to me to reflect a change: dripping paint and dots embedded like blemishes in the solid lines—ominous and heartbreaking.IMG_1583

In an informative video, more of a home movie, we see the artist as a young man literally painting himself into a corner as he spontaneously paints a dramatic and complex labyrinth of lines, angles, and human figures on a room-size canvas while moving on all fours. Using Japanese black sumi ink and without any drawn image as a guide, Haring paints furiously, rapidly, and confidently, never hesitating or going over previous lines no matter how complex or long. The humor is obvious, the anger also evident. His dictionary of symbols and icons is never overdone: lines and dots connecting at angles (influenced by Indonesian and Oceanic tribal art), barking dogs, cartoonish humans and babies, and penises. He also cared greatly about children’s well being, the fight against drug addiction, and bringing an end to the AIDS epidemic.

IMG_1555The collection includes the fiberglass Statue of Liberty, his car covered with his iconic figures and black lines, body parts both male and female, woodcuts, three-dimensional masks, and pages from sketch books and tarps. It’s almost impossible not to be swayed by the heartfelt ethos, political visualizations of injustice, and sexual identity.

See “The Political LIne” before it ends on February 16.