Pop Culture Musing for a Friday 2/20/15

best actor oscars 2015Let’s Hear it for the Boys: It says something about the depth of the male performances this Oscar season that a number of amazing portrayals could not be recognized by the Academy thanks to the five-nominee cap in the acting categories. There was justifiable uproar when David Oyelowo’s powerful reenactment of Martin Luther King in Selma was not included in the final cut for Best Actor, but he was in pretty good company, most significantly Ralph Fiennes, in his wry and wonderful turn as the concierge in Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel, as well as Timothy Spall’s iconoclastic depiction of the British landscape painter J.M.W. Turner in the beautifully shot period piece, Mr. Turner.

Personally, I found Bradley Cooper in American Sniper the weakest (though by no means undistinguished) link in a field that’s notable for a couple of performances — by Steve Carell and Michael Keaton — that go against the grain for the actors in question. An unrecognizable Carell, so familiar for his comedic talents in other venues, left me more than surprised by his haunting transformation into John du Pont in Foxcatcher, playing the troubled heir to an American fortune whose privileged life culminated in grisly tragedy. Michael Keaton was also an unexpected revelation as the washed-up, middle-aged actor seeking artistic validation in Birdman. It’s difficult to find humor in schizophrenia and desperation, but Keaton managed to balance the pathos with a deft sense of absurdity that verges on the transcendent.

The two Englishmen, Eddie Redmayne and Benedict Cumberbatch, who round out the list of Best Actor nominees, are also wonders to behold. In The Theory of Everything, Redmayne crafts a performance that is so inordinately difficult at its core: having to convey both wrenching physical disability as well as soul-stirring emotion through indelible facial expressions that serve as windows into the complex personality of the legendary physicist Stephen Hawking. And Cumberbatch, as the ingenuous computer scientist Alan Turing in The Imitation Game, brings a breathtaking intelligence to a role that, in lesser hands, may have proven distantly academic, but instead lingers by way of its human dimension.

jk simmonsAdd to this overcrowded list of brilliant male performances that of J.K. Simmons, left, nominated for Best Supporting Actor as the pathological music instructor in the stunning film, Whiplash. I don’t think there’s any doubt that Simmons was moved to the supporting category in order to ensure a win (though I’ll also issue a shout-out to Ethan Hawke in Boyhood, who probably would have won had it been any other year). There’s nothing “supporting” about Simmons’s performance, which is front and center and indescribably overpowering as a jazz professor whose idea of pushing (or shall we say, punishing) his students towards greatness leaves a lot to be desired. (And gosh, some remarkable — and not nominated — work as well by Miles Teller, as the main object of Simmons’s sadistic derision.)

So who will win on Sunday?  Doesn’t matter. There’s not a loser in this bunch.

Master of Light

JMW Turner Tower of LondonTake a guess as to when this watercolor was created. Take a guess as to its style. The time-frame could very easily be contemporary, and stylistically it could be called anything from Impressionistic to Abstract Expressionist or beyond.  But Fire at the Tower of London is actually 174 years old, and it preceded Impressionism by several decades.

The painter was the British artist best known for his amazing landscapes, J.M.W Turner (1775-1851), and he was radically ahead of his time. His life and work are now on view in director Mike Leigh’s critically acclaimed biopic, Mr. Turner, nominated for four Oscars in the categories of cinematography, production and costume design, and original score.

Turner Self-PortraitLet not the rather handsome self-portrait of Turner (shown left) influence you if you intend to see the film, in which case you’ll be in for a shock. I certainly was. Timothy Spall, in a remarkable performance that itself deserved an Academy Award nomination (he won the actor’s prize at the Cannes Film Festival last year) portrays the artist as practically porcine, borderline swinish in his physical characteristics and habits. You really have to suspend disbelief to see him as the creator of some of the most sublime masterworks in art history.

The film critic Kenneth Turan put it best when he recently described this depiction of Turner as “an elemental man with an ethereal talent.” It’s that dichotomy that makes this painstakingly crafted period piece more interesting than most. But if I had to express one disappointment after seeing the film, it would be the relative lack of insight I came away with as far as the artistic motivation — ethos, if you will — that drove Turner, especially in his explorations of color and light. One of his most striking quotes, for example, was “Light is therefore colour.” Sounds simple enough. But at its heart lies a complex puzzle that many an artist has wrestled with throughout the centuries.

The paintings shown here are ones I particularly admire, because they illustrate the last years of Turner’s artistic odyssey that culminated in the total annulment of the representational.  “Indistinctness is my forte,” he said at the time, laying the groundwork for the revolutionary Impressionist movement that began with Claude Monet and company in 1874.

It is also said that Turner’s last words before he died were, “The sun is God.” Immerse yourself in his resplendent works and you can’t help but grasp glimpses of divinity.

“Yacht Approaching the Coast” (1835)

A Sip of Art

picasso mouton rothschildThe iconic artworks that were created for Absolut Vodka by such artists as Andy Warhol and Keith Haring back in the ‘80s are more well-known, but the fascinating story of the legendary wine estate, Chateau Mouton Rothschild —  and its association with some of the giants of 20th-Century art — long preceded that famous advertising campaign.

miro wine labelConceived by the Baron Philippe de Rothschild (great-grandson of the founder of the French winery) as a way of commemorating both victory in WWII and the vintage of 1945, which is now considered the greatest of the century, the idea of engaging celebrated painters to grace Mouton Rothschild’s bottles with their work became a yearly tradition.

From 1945 onwards, contemporary artists were commissioned to create original pieces to f. bacon wine labelbe featured on the label. The reward for each was ten cases of wine, whose value was expected to grow over time. (That’s an understatement. A 12-bottle case of the Mouton Rothschild 1945 fetched a record $207,400 — or more than $17,000 a bottle — in 2010.)

The undertaking came to include such legends of the art world as Pablo Picasso (his contribution to the 1973 vintage is at top), Joan Miró (above left), and Francis Bacon (above). Warhol and Haring eventually added some wine alongside the vodka as well, with Lucian Freud and Jeff Koons joining the long list of luminaries into the 2000s.

balthus wine

The project has experienced some amusing controversy along the way. In 1993, a drawing by the French artist (and nymphet aficionado) Balthus was deemed too racy for use in the U.S., and the bottles were sold in America with a blank space where the image should have appeared. Both versions, shown above, are now highly sought after by collectors.

The Baroness Philippine de Rothschild, who carried on this creative side of her father’s legacy until her death in August of last year, once commented: “Is it art? Is it wine? What it is really is art put on bottles of wine, which happened to be art themselves.”

And what ambrosial canvasses they were.


hopeHope smiles from the threshold of the year to come, whispering,
‘It will be happier.’
Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Pop Culture Musing for a Thursday 12/18/14

broadband-dataWizards of Greed: Leave it to corporate cupidity (and I mean you, Comcast) to upset a perfectly nice weekend afternoon. This is nothing near an apocalyptic anecdote, just one of those minor aggravations that remind of the seeming inability to enjoy anything these days without some sort of money-grubbing on the part of those insatiable behemoths that control the telecommunications process.

To continue the story, we happened to check out Comcast’s “On Demand” movies on a recent Sunday and ran across The Wizard of Oz, which was listed as “Free.” With a catch, of course: no less than ten minutes into the film we’re bombarded with at least five minutes of commercials, most of them pitching Comcast’s Xfinity services. I figured it was maybe a one-time interruption, but several minutes later, same deal. (At that point, we said our goodbyes to Oz.) Then, to compound the displeasure, I saw movies like Miracle on 34th Street and Meet Me in St. Louis (old as the hills and which also happened to be broadcast elsewhere for free that day) being offered at $3.99 a pop.

content-blockedConsider this a roundabout introduction to some thoughts on the ongoing debate about “net neutrality,” and which pits that same avaricious offender, Comcast, along with other broadband giants like AT&T and Verizon, against believers in the concept that users of the Internet should have free and open access to high-speed service regardless of their usage.

Comcast is not happy with the fact that a large chunk of its resources is consumed by byte-intensive websites like Netflix and YouTube, and would prefer we pay extra for the privilege, freeing up their faster speed lanes for bigger-pocket, ostensibly business, subscribers. AT&T and the others apply the same idea in their tiered (non-Wi-Fi) data plans for mobile devices, where you are allowed a certain amount of high-speed data access and then are “throttled” down to lower speeds after you meet your cap. It’s a simplistic explanation of the issues involved, but you get the picture. Big business trying to wring that last penny out of all of us.

It will be up to the FCC to decide, but in the meantime, excuse me while I dig up that old video of Wizard of Oz. At least it’s commercial-free.


daddyMy father loved the sun. In an amazing conversation that we had when he was in the hospital a few weeks before he died, I was able to tell him that the overriding memory of him that had always stayed with me throughout my life was of he and I as a child at a beach, shortly after daybreak, my arms around his neck, in the still waters of the vast ocean. “Such peace,” he remembered.

It was one of many early mornings that we shared at that beach, and I always wondered why he liked to take me and my brothers there at the crack of dawn. Turns out his years as a rower had left the habit of arriving early to the shores for rowing practice, before the waters became too choppy to navigate.

Daddy had the strength and fortitude of a lion, qualities uncannily reflected in his name (yes, it really is “Leon de Leon,” we often had to clarify) and as if to really bring home the point, he was even born under the sun sign of Leo. What are the odds of that?

His magnetism was irresistible, his presence overpowering. Movie-star handsome, with formidable intellectual faculties that never failed to result in an illuminating perception or two. Most importantly, he was a steadfast husband and father who provided such a comforting continuity to our lives.

That strength that lay so essentially at the core of his being was never more evident than in the valiant fight that he waged in his last years, inspiring every one of us with the courage so typical of how he always approached life.

We’ll miss you so very much, Daddy. The vibrant sun of your good heart will shine on us eternally. And please know that I will remain, forever — and gratefully — “tu bebita.”

Review: ‘Being Mortal’ by Atul Gawande

beingmortalimage2I was surprised to see Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End near the top of the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list – not because it’s not an excellent book (which it is), but because the subject matter is not, shall we say, easily approachable. (Discussions about death and dying rarely are.)

Then I thought of the number of Baby Boomers now struggling for answers as they deal with aging and incapacitated parents, looking for pathways to follow as they wrestle with an issue deeply affecting their own lives, and it’s no wonder Being Mortal strikes such a major chord.
Read the full review at Blogcritics.org

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