Saturday, December 31, 2016

Movies: The Year 2016 - A View Into The Rear-View Mirror

(Drivebycuriosity) - 2016 was a relatively weak year in the world of cinema. Not many movies animated me to spend money on them. But - as always - there were some exceptions. I saw 4 films which will linger in my mind for a while.

Park Chan-wook - who created masterpieces like "Old Boy" & "Stoker" - delivered another cinematic milestone: The Handmaiden" (imdb). The Korean director showed again that he belongs to the magicians of cinema. This time he used the novel "Fingersmith" by Sarah Waters and transferred the plot from the Victorian England into Korea under the Japanese occupation in the 1930s. A young woman gets a job as a handmaiden for a wealthy young lady as part of a scheme (this is a spoiler free blog).

I was fascinated by the twists & surprises of the plot and cared a lot about the characters. But what makes the movie really outstanding is its intoxicating visual power. In my opinion Park belongs into a league of visual masters like Kubrick, Lars von Trier & Paul Thomas Anderson. He - and his cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung - drove the intensity of Asian cinema to a new peak and cast a spell on the audience by a mesmerizing kaleidoscope of pictures. The film is highly erotic & esthetic.

Tom Ford, fashion designer, successful entrepreneur & Oscar awarded movie director, also delivered an outstanding film: "Nocturnal Animals" (imdb). There are two intermingled story lines: One track focuses on Susan, an ambitious owner of an upmarket art gallery in Los Angeles. This tale is mixed with the plot of a book, which Susan`s ex-husband had written and send to her, a horror novel set in Texas. So the movie connects two separate & very different worlds.

I got mesmerized by very sharp & frequent contrasts: Scenes with obnoxious ugliness are followed by sheer beauty, utter terror is replaced by classy leisure live, raw nature changes with impressions of the ritzy art world, repulsion mixes with awe, aesthetic with filth and so on. Ford creates a high tension which keeps the audience on the hook. The film certainly represents the director´ s sophisticated tastes & talents which he had cultivated as a fashion designer. You can spot amazing art works by Jeff Koons, John Currin,  Alexander Calder and others, which are partly owned by Ford himself (townandcountrymag). And even the rough landscape of Texas, where he grew up, fits well to the stylish looks of Susan`s sleek & artsy world.

Director Robert Eggert delivered a mesmerizing debut:  "The Witch" (imdb). The film allows a glance into a very different and dark world ruled by poverty, irrationality and superstition. The movie captures the myths and legends about the "evil witch in the wood". The plot is set in New England in the 17th century. A family of puritans got evicted from their village and starts a new life in a remote place in the wilderness where they get into trouble with a witch. Even that the film is just fantasy it looks almost authentic. The audience shares virtually the daily travails and fears of some involuntary eremites in an almost prehistoric world.  The plot develops very slowly, horror & gore effects - and some erotic scenes - are set economically. The director is more interested in creating a mysterious and gloomy atmosphere than in cheap effects.

"The Witch" is strongly influenced by the Brothers Grimm´s fairy tales, which are sinister, violent and gory. The film also could be seen as an allegory for the religious hysteria & fanaticism of some American pioneers and a reminder to the fact that America was partly founded by religious mavericks who sought there freedom for their believes.

Director Denis Villeneuve  - and screen writer Eric Heisserer - proved that Hollywood can turn ambitious hard science fiction into films for the mass market. Their movie "The Arrival" is based on a short story by Ted Chiang (imdb). The Chinese-American writer translates science into interesting stories in the tradition of Heinlein, Clark & Asimov (Chiang).  Here a scientist, a female linguist, is communicating with aliens in order to find out what they want from us.  The original story doesn´t have much action and focuses on the science of language & communication. The movie makers stayed close to the original. Both, story & movie have an important fictional & speculative implication (which I don´t spoil here). But neither Chiang nor the movie makers went too far into fairy tale land.

The aliens were plausible visualized. I believe that an encounter like this that could really happen sometimes in the future. The communication - which is the pivotal part of the plot - was done by writing, because the very different anatomies made acoustical understanding impossible. The movie makers invested a lot of money, energy & talent into the visualization of this communication (businessinsider). They consulted university scientists and employed artists & software developers to construct beautiful & elegant symbols which carried the alien`s messages  (no images here to avoid spoilers). So they created some highly intense & fascinating scenes comparable to the highlights of Kubrick`s "2001: A Space Odyssey".

What happened else?

Woody Allen delivered with "CafĂ© Society" one of his best movies (imdb). His philosophical comedy reflects the insights the director & screen writer has been collecting over the decades. The movie - set in the 1930s - tells the story of "Bobby", a young man who comes to Hollywood to get there a job with the help of his uncle, who is one of the great deal makers in the movie industry. Allen makes fun of the movie industry & Hollywood's glamour, of Jewish family relations, organized crime and more. Like in many other "Woody Allen flicks" the characters are complicated and trapped in  bitter/sweet romance.

Isabelle Huppert appeared on the big screen again. Even beyond 60 she`s still sexy and belongs to the best actresses of the world. The eclectic movie director Paul Verhoeven (RoboCop, Basic Instinct, Total Recall & Turkish Delight) focused his new movie "Elle" on this great actress (imdb). Even that I adored her performance I had mixed feelings watching the film. "Elle" is a freak show, containing a horror movie, a thriller, a comedy, a family drama, a mystery, a social study and much more. Some of the characters & events are way too demented to be believable.  But still fascinating, thanks to its surprises, how ridiculous they may be. And the film is a must for Huppert fans.

The movie "The Girl on the Train" - based on the same named bestseller - wasn´t as strong as the book ( imdb driveby ). The film focuses on Rachel, a heavy alcoholic, who has huge problems with her memory - thanks to the alcohol. Rachel gets obsessed with the fate of Megan, a young woman, whom she doesn`t know but had frequently spotted by looking out of a commuter train window. Megan had disappeared and Rachel believes that she knows something about that, but she is spooked by her memory problems, which leads to .....(no spoilers). I think director Tate Taylor translated the dark mystery and the psychological thrills of the book nicely into a big Hollywood movie. The combination of suspense, Rachel´s mental issues and (some) action was well done. As in many Hollywood movies, "The Girl" benefits form the actors. I believe that Emily Blunt will earn an Oscar nomination for incarnating the troubled Rachel. Cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen translated the story into images which looked like a piece of art.

The "Jason Bourne" franchise had another incarnation (number five), just named "Jason Bourne" (imdb). Again the leading character, a former assassin for the CIA,  had to survive the pursuit of his former employers and their hired professional killers. Director Paul Greengrass, who also made "Bourne Supremacy" & "Bourne Ultimatum",  and his co-script writers created again a staccato of furious action scenes. Still cutting edge action cinema, fun to watch and shortening the waiting time for the next James Bond flick.

Stay tuned!

PS On top of this post you can see Edward Hopper`s "New York Movie" from 1939.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Economy: Should We Be Afraid Of Trump` s Trade War?

(Drivebycuriosity) - Will President Trump start a global trade war? He made a lot of threats against China, Mexico and other foreign countries and announced high tariffs to "protect" the American economy.  History shows that trade wars often escalate. In the year 1930 the US implied high tariffs on over 20,000 imported goods (Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act) which provoked countermeasures by England & France. As a result global trade imploded and the recession became the Great Depression (smoot-hawley).

I think that Trump could cause a lot of damage by implementing high tariffs and other anti-trade measures, but a return of the Great Depression has a very low probability. Today`s global economy is much more robust than in the 1930s because it stands on more pillars: US, European Union, UK, Japan, China, India & many more emerging markets. Today the rest of the world is much stronger - and better connected - than it was in the 1930s and it depends much less on the American economy.

I believe a trade war will harm the US most, especially low income groups. Americans would have to pay much higher prices for many goods. Low income families would have a lower standard of living because they would have to spend much more for apparel, hardware, toys and multiple other imported goods and could therefore purchase less other goods & services. A trade war would also reduce competition on the US markets. If American companies don´t have to compete with foreign companies they gain monopoly power. Then they could hike their prices further and reduce the quality of their products & services because their customers cannot change to foreign products.

China and other countries would certainly respond to new American trade barriers and would restrict their American imports as well. They did it before. Not long after Barack Obama took office, US trade and commerce authorities announced a 35% import tariff on Chinese tires. In response, China took retaliatory steps of imposing tariffs on US chicken and automotive products. Both China and the US suffered losses as a result. From then on, the Obama administration waged no trade war against China.

If Trump goes into a full fledged trade war, American companies could lose their oversea markets. Beijing could replace Boeing orders by Airbus, halt purchases of US cars and iPhones and reduce the massive imports of US pork, corn, soybean & maize. According to Bloomberg US multinational corporations - including Starbucks & McDonald`s - have more than $228 billion invested in China (bloomberg).  Many US companies & farmers would lose customers and would be forced to fire employees. Many Americans would lose jobs, income & purchasing power.

I assume that China, Trump`s main enemy, would be hurt much less.  China with about 1.3 billion people is much stronger than Europe was in the 1930s. The United States absorbs only 16% of Chinese exports (nytimes). The huge country is already transforming into a modern economy. China is reducing her dependence on exports & manufacturing and is becoming a modern society which is based on domestic demand and services like the US. Chinese retail sales are already growing 10.8% and will so compensate a part of missing exports at least. Alibaba (E-Commerce), Xiaomi (electronics)  and other companies, who cater the domestic market, are rising fast. A trade war would accelerate this transformation process. Beijing can compensate at least some shrinking US demand by stimulating domestic demand through reducing taxes & less regulation, lower interest rates and by pumping more money into the domestic economy (infrastructure investments).

If Trump really starts a global trade war the rest of the world could respond by reducing existing tariffs & other trade barriers and could trade more with each other. No country is a free trader. China could compensate reduced exports to the US by selling more to the rest of Asia, to Europe & to Latin America. Beijing is already talking with Japan & South Korea about a trade pact (reuters). A trade war inflicted by Trump could foster these attempts and Australia, European Union, UK, Mexico and other Latin American countries might join.

If Trump would start a trade war he certainly would throw a lot of sand into the gearing of the global economy. He certainly would dampen global growth. But the diminished global relevance of the US would limit the damage. And the rest of world could even limit the damage by trading more freely with each other, for instance by creating an European-Asian free trade area. America would lose this trade war, would weaken her economy, impoverish low income groups and get insulated.  Does Trump really intend to ruin America´s economy which would certainly cost him a second presidency?

PS On top of this post you can see an image by the American artist Richard Prince called: "Cowboy".

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Contemporary Art: Best Of New York`s Gallery Shows 2016

(Drivebycuriosity) - 2016 was a good year in the world of contemporary art. New York City, which has hundreds of art galleries, presented a flood of impressive art shows. It was so much fun to discover different styles and ideas and I was impressed by the variety of concepts, styles and techniques. Many exhibitions happened of course in the classy galleries of the Chelsea district, but the rapidly gentrifying Lower East Side is getting more and more a strong contender. I display here  my favorites from New York´s gallery shows 2015, as usual a very subjective selection.

                                                The Sheer Beauty Of Raw Power

The two girls on top of this post are inspecting an installation made of salt by new work by Meg Webster  ("Mother Mound Salt"), part of an exhibition at Paula Cooper Gallery (paulacooper). I also was fascinated by Richard Serra`s new works  @  Gagosian (gagosian). They displayed these monumental steel constructions at 2 locations in New York`s district Chelsea, where you could see see the sheer beauty of raw power.

The Gladstone Gallery (gladstone) showed works by another outstanding artist: Anish Kapor (wikipedia). The show was called "Today You Will Be In Paradise". The girl above is inspecting his monumental earth and resin sculpture on a marble pedestal.

There was at least another amazing show @ Gagosian. On 21st Street they displayed works by the German artist Georg Baseltiz (wikipedia).

David Zwirner presented a Sigmar Polke retrospective, named "Eine Winter Reise/ A Winter Journey". The German artist, who lived from 1941–2010, was one of the most voraciously experimental artists of the 20th century (here my post about the Polke show @ New York´s MoMa  driveby).

                                                               Discovery Of The Year

The discovery of the year were works by Nicole Eisenman which I spotted @ Anton Kern Gallery (antonkern).

I also fell for some modern expressionist paintings @ gallery Artifact in New York´s Lower East Side (artifact). The art dealer presented works by Sarah Mitchell Munro ( facebook).The artist from New Zealand spealizes on figurative paintings with an abstract touch (sarahmitchellmunro  .contemporaryartcurator). Her works remind me of the "Bay Area Figuartive Movement"and painters like Richard Diebenkorn & Elmer Bischoff  (wikipedia). This style is also called "Abstract Expressionism". There also might be influences by surrealism and psychedelic art.

I spotted some fine photorealist paintings @ gallery Stricoff Fine Art (stricoff). Above works by Debra Goertz .

Stricoff Fine Art also had some nice surrealist work by Ryan Reynold.

The midtown gallery Nahmad Contemporary (nahmad) exhibited elegant abstracts by some super stars of the genre: On top of this paragraph you can see Andy Warhol`s "Knives" followed by Wade Guyton´s "Untitled #(X)"; another "Untitled" by Christopher Wool & Warhol`s "Shadow Red".

I saw more fancy abstracts of course. The CRG Gallery exhibited new works by Los Angeles-based artist Tom LaDuke which reminded of some spectacular science fiction movies (artnet).

Parasols Project Gallery, a pop-up gallery space in New York´s trendy Lower East Side showed works by Fabricio Suarez (fabriciosuarez). The exhibition was called "Nuevo Mundo: Colonozation of the Americas Through Abstract Landscapes".

Causey Contemporary had an exhibition with works by Hyunju Park, called "Ethereal/Real". The Korean artist uses "Sumi ink, hair, nails on panel" (causey).

Gallery Artifact showed abstracts by Kim Percy - image on top of this paragraph (kimpercy). The Australian artists describes herself as " a visual a artist working mainly in photographic based artwork". They also displayed paintings by Michael Lam. I indulged into his elegant compositions. According to this website (agora-gallery) the artist was influenced by a hand-illustrated Chines herbal medicine book he saw as a child.

Galerie Richard, the American branch of a Parisian (galerierichard), paintings by the Japanese artist Kiyoshi Nakagami.

Another French art dealer, Richard Taittinger, heir of the same named French champagne empire (richardtaittinger), had a show called "Ballett Me Canique". "D-11 Scale Model 2.0" by Wim Delvoye (2008. Laser-cut stainless steel).