Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Netflix: Binge Watching Peaky Blinders

(Drivebycuriosity) - In the recent days I have been binge watching Peaky Blinders (imdb). The Netflix original series, which has 4 seasons (season 5 is announced for 2019), is an history drama set in a fictional England short after World War I. Peaky Blinders, produced by the BBC, is an ambitious project. The series follows a family-led gang, the "Peaky Blinders", who controls Birmingham. The plot focuses on the ambitious gang leader Tommy Shelby, the head of the family played by Cillian Murphy. The testosterone driven show has a lot of violence but integrated that into an intelligent plot and touches many other aspects which make the series more interesting than the usual crime show.

Peaky Blinders shows the evolution & rise of a small group of outlaws who are adapting to manifold challenges, including conflicts with government, police, rivaling gangs & more. They are driven by ambitions & greed but also benefit from the intelligence & communicative strengths of their leader. Tommy and others are still traumatized by the horrors they experienced as soldiers in the trenches which influences their behavior. "Peaky" outshines other historical crime dramas because there is much room for the political & economic background and the series deals with England`s social conflicts in the early 20th century and the rise of England´s Communist Party encouraged by the Russian Revolution. Part of the fun is the participation of a fictional Winston Churchill.

I enjoyed watching the splendid cast, especially Cillian Murphy as a cool criminal mind & Tom Hardy as the jocular leader of a Jewish gang. Unfortunately women have only a subdued role but they were not so much into the bloody gang business. "Peaky Blinders" benefits a lot from the convincing cinematography and shows a dreary & poor England. Birmingham is presented as an industrial hell. The series could be called dystopian if it would not be set in the past. And I really indulged into the soundtrack, mostly rough alternative contemporary rock songs which fit perfectly.

Well done BBC & Netflix!

Monday, January 29, 2018

Finance: Are Stocks Really Too Risky?

(Drivebycuriosity) - The stock market is on an all-time high but a lot people missed the rally. Many people don`t own stocks. Many claim that stocks are "too risky". Are they? Yes, an individual company can go bankrupt and her investors can lose all their money. But this risk will be avoided by diversification. Don´t put all eggs in one basket.

You can buy the US stock market, represented by the S&P 500 index, in one piece by purchasing index funds or ETFs (Exchange Traded Funds) on the S&P 500. These funds have very low costs because they don`t need a fund manager, they don´t have research and they don´t speculate with their customer´s money. These investments follow exactly the up-and-downs of the stock market. Yes there will be corrections (a loss of 10%+), bear markets (a loss of at least 20%) and crashes. But all these losses are temporary and they all got erased over the time as the recent all-time highs show.

The graphic below shows that the US stock market, represented by the S&P 500, grew on average annually 6.7% since 1950, even that dividends are not included (annually 2-3%). Investors who reinvested their dividends got an even higher return. The University New York calculated that since 1928 the US stock market (S&P 500) created an average return of about 10% p.a (stock market gains plus dividends reinvested investopedia). So an investment into the stock market doubled its value every eight years, thanks to the interest compound effect (compound). That makes 4-times after 16 years and 8-times after 24 years. Even a small investment can grow into a fortune over decades, good for retirement.

I also found a historical chart which displays stock prices since the 15th century! (history). The chart shows that stock prices have been going up over the time and their fluctuations (crashes & bear markets) got smoother. I think this is a result of a general learning process, humans - including economic policy - got smarter and made fewer mistakes (I have explained that here driveby )

Even you if you had invested in the year 2007 at the stock market peak before the huge downturn you would have doubled your investment by today, in spite of recession & stock market crash of 2008 (chart below). And: Since 1950 the S&P 500 has NEVER suffered a loss in a 20-year period (nasdaq).

Anyway, everybody should put some money back for retirement. If your retirement is 10 years away or more than the risk of losing money till then is extremely lows and the reward is high. But it seems that many people have a biased perception on risks. Many take high risks by smoking, drinking to much alcohol, driving too fast, climbing on mountains, skiing, jumping into shallow ponds and many other activities. These activities all can all harm and even kill, stock market losses - which are just temporary for investors with patience and a time horizon of 10 years and more -  are much less harmful.

I agree that sitting out a correction or even a bear market needs patience and stamina  - but the rewards are high.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Contemporary Art: Power Play - Judy Chicago @ Salon 94 New York

(Drivebycuriosity) - It seems that Judy Chicago is fascinated by power. Gallery Salon 94 on New York´s trendy Bowery shows works by the artist with the title: Power Play: A Prediction (salon94). Many paintings I did not like, but some I found interesting. I display here my "favorites" from the exhibition, a very subjective selection as usual.

Above you can see "Driving the World to Destruction" (1985, Sprayed acrylic and oil on Belgian Linen) followed by "Crippled by the Need to Control/Blind Individuality" (1983, Sprayed acrylic and oil on Belgian Linen) & "Donald (Woodman) as Woeman" (1986, Sprayed acrylic and oil on canvas).

Above: "Malehead 9" (1983, Sprayed acrylic and oil on Belgian linen) & "Disfigured by Power 5" (1984, Sprayed acrylic and oil on Belgian Linen).

Stay tuned.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Contemporary Art: To Have And Have Not @ Michael Rosenfeld Gallery New York

(Drivebycuriosity) -  Michael Rosenfeld Gallery belongs to the ambitious art dealers in New York`s Chelsea district  ( 100 Eleventh Av  michaelrosenfeld). They have frequently interesting exhibitions. Recently I saw their group show "Figuratively Speaking". I present here my favorites from this exhibition, a very subjective selection as usual.

Above you can see "To Have and Have Not" by Irving Norman (and details of it, 1980, oil on canvas). A clear message and realized in a funny way.

Above another work by Irving Norman: "Supreme Justice" (1974, oil on canvas).

Above "Circle Study #22 (1973, oil on linen with painted fabric, collage) by Benny Andrews.

Above Alfonso Ossorio`s "T.R. Russell E/M 2nd Class (1943, watercolor, gouache and ink on paper mounted to paperboard).

Stay tuned.

New York City: Sunshine Cinema Theater R.I.P

(Drivebycuriosity) - Last weekend the Sunshine Cinema Theater on Manhattan`s Houston Street closed for good. The movie house will be replaced by a nine-story glass tower that boasts 65,000 square-feet of commercial office space and ground-floor retail (boweryboogie).

What a shame. South Manhattan lost an important cultural center. The place was one of New York`s best cinema theaters with modern technology and stadium city and had focused on independent & foreign fims. The building is an architectural jewel, soon it will be gone.

My wife and I have watched there some remarkable movies. Recently we enjoyed "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" & "A Ghost Story". We attended there an Q&A with  Park Chan-Wook. The maybe most important movie maker in the uprising Korean cinema introduced his film "Stoker"  and director Jim Jarmusch presented there his vampire movie "Only Lovers left Alive".

Sunshine Cinema Theater R.I.P

Monday, January 22, 2018

Contemporary Art: Impressions From The Hole, New York

(Drivebycuriosity) - Some galleries have funny names. "The Hole" on Manhattan`s Bowery (312 Bowery, New York  theholenyc) seems to specialize in experimental art. Currently they have 2 interesting exhibitions, which get a lot attention:

Above some impressions from the show: Katsu: "Memory Foam". The press release explains, the "new media artist KATSU has created a lot of street art and shared a lot of subversive computer work; this is his second exhibition with us under the name.  Using drone paintings, wallpaper, AI criminal portraits and a new VR piece in this exhibition, KATSU looks deeper at how machine learning is outstripping emotional intelligence "(more here katsu).

Above an impression from Ben Jones: Road Trip II, which is a single immersive video piece. The press release says: "The work is based on early front-scrolling driving games like Out Run or Pole Position and is a video-mapped composition covering three walls and the gallery floor. Viewers can walk into the piece and into the world Jones creates with 8-bit sound and imagery" (Ben Jones).

Stay tuned.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Economics: Bitcoin - The Madness Of The Crowds

(Drivebycuriosity) - Bitcoin gets a lot of attention these day. After an explosive rally which catapulted bitcoin from 30 Cents (2011) to almost $20,000 its price suddenly crashed and bitcoin dropped almost 50% by last Wednesday. But at the end of the week bitcoin rallied again and gained  about 11% ( worldcoinindex).

I think the bitcoin turbulence is another proof for the madness of the crowds. Yes, I don`t believe in the popular term "wisdom of the crowd". I rather agree with the Scottish journalist Charles Mackay who published already in 1841 his book "Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds" - an early study of crowd psychology (wikipedia). Mackay named phenomena like the Dutch tulip mania, alchemy, crusades, duels, economic bubbles, fortune-telling & haunted houses. Makay noticed that  crowds behave unpredictable, irrational and often dangerous. Sometimes they panic and cause a deadly stampede. Modern times examples include the stock market crash in 1987 (minus 22% overnight), tripling oil prices 2007/08 & the stock market meltdown 2008/09.

Bitcoins got fast popular because they are scarce. According to Wikipedia new bitcoins are created at an ever-decreasing rate (wikipedia). The total number of bitcoins is capped at 21 million by its creators. And its anonymity can be used for illegal transactions and money laundering. The bitcoin price started to rise because speculators made bets on rising prices which worked as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Other responded and jumped onto the bandwagon guided by the hope on further price gains, the so-called momentum players, which created a snowball effect. Recently bitcoin holders got irritated by reports on possible government crackdowns and regulation (reuters). Some sold, causing a correction, which induced also some momentum players to take profits. Falling prices induced more sales because many bitcoin holders feared more losses.

The bitcoin yo-yo is driven by herding behavior. People often behave like herds, they are following others, depending their decisions on the behavior of the group. Often they move in the same direction which can intensify into a panic. On financial markets occur sometimes buying panics - when a large crowd believes to miss easy gains - and selling panics, when the crowd wants to get out. These phenomena are called stampedes. They are known from cattle which sometimes panic all together and trample everything down which is in their way.  Unfortunately, humans behave sometimes in the same way. On December 31, 2014, a deadly stampede occurred in Shanghai, where around 300,000 people had gathered for the new year celebration (wikipedia). In July 2010 at least 18 people died at the Love Parade music festival in Germany when they were crushed inside a tunnel during a stampede caused by panic (theguardian).

"We find that whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one object, and go mad in its pursuit; that millions of people become simultaneously impressed with one delusion, and run after it, till their attention is caught by some new folly more captivating than the first" wrote Charles Mackay.

As I said, crowds behave unpredictable and so will the price of bitcoin.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Literature: Remarkable Books I Read In 2017

(Drivebycuriosity) - I enjoy reading, there is so much to learn, books are often entertaining and they offer an escape from the daily treadmill. Last year I enjoyed some interesting books - covering history, exotic, alternate futures, economics & more - which I want to share with you (but without spoilers):


My book of the year was "Hunters in the Dark" by Lawrence Osborne. The novel takes the reader onto a journey into the dark sides of South East Asia. The plot follows Robert, a young Englishman and gambler "who had the aura of poverty about him". He visits Cambodia, described as a "tough Paradise", an exotic & dangerous country with a still fresh sinister history.  Robert is a somewhat naive and innocent guy and driven by curiosity & by chance - a character which reminds me faintly of the German fairy tale "Hans im Glück (Hans in Luck)". His purity & carelessness lead him onto quicksand. It`s partly a travel novel, a crime story, a romance and maybe a fairy tale. Osborne combines the sharp psychological & analytical skills of Vladimir Nabokov with Joseph Conrad`s intense descriptions of tropical adventures. The author is a great stylist and immerses the reader deep into the steamy & lush environment of Cambodia. I indulged into sentences like  "the long puddles brightened for a moment then grew dim, and the electricity which rippled through the air drew the eye upward to the slow motion mushroom cloud and its impending crisis, which would not arrive for hours, maybe not even till the next day". I almost could sense what the characters saw, felt, & tasted. Osborne also describes in an amusing way how an undiscerning Westerner flounders with an unknown culture & the Cambodian way of thinking.

"The Lady Matador`s Hotel" by Christina Garcia is a short novel (228 pages ) set in an unnamed Central American capital. The author interwove six separate story lines about very different people who all stay in the same hotel: A Japanese-Mexican-American matadora (female bullfighter); an ex-guerrilla now working as a waitress in the hotel coffee shop; a Korean manufacturer with an underage mistress; an international adoption lawyer ; a colonel who committed atrocities during his country’s long civil war; and an ex-Cuban poet who had arrived with his American wife to adopt a local infant. Garcia invented funny & hilarious scenes but also tragic & violent episodes. I indulged into Garcia´s elegant but sarcastic style & enjoyed her sharp & humorous observations. The author combines sharp analytical skills like Vladimir Nabokov with sensual descriptions à la Anaïs Nin.

"Wolf on a String" by Benjamin Black is set in wintry cold Prague around the year 1600. The city was the capital of Bohemia and the seat of the court of Rudolf II, the emperor of Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, the center of the Western world. The story is told in first person by a young intellectual, who had just arrived from Würzburg (Germany). The protagonist gets drawn into a vortex of murder and intrigues at the imperial court. The novel combines history with a whodunit story. Black puts the reader on a trip back in time and immerses him into a bleak, cold & precarious world. Life was very fragile & hazardous then and the protagonist´s fate depends on the arbitrariness of the more powerful. The novel would be the perfect dystopian novel if it wouldn´t be set in the past, our real history. I indulged into Black`s style, his amusing descriptions of the Emperor, who was a troubled leader, the various persons at his court and his portrait of Prague. The author´s sharp psychological & analytical insights and his sarcastic remarks about sex, architecture, politics & more remind me of Vladimir Nabokov.

 "The Year`s Best Science Fiction: Thirty-Fourth Annual Collection“ edited by Gardner Dozois. These compilations have been the market leader for 3 decades and offer a kaleidoscope of plots, ideas and styles. Dozois caters to a lot of different tastes and shows the state of art in science fiction. This edition harvests the science fiction year 2016 ( 704 pages). As usual Dozois started with a lengthy summation of important events, trends and publications in the world of science of fiction in 2016. For each story the author wrote an introduction where he outlines the background and most important works of the presented author. The collection of 39 stories by different authors has something for almost everyone. A lot stories deal with AIs, for me the most important science fiction topic today. My favorite is "Mika Model" by Paolo Bacigalupi. A female sex robot turns herself in. She had murdered her owner, how should the cops deal with that? I also enjoyed "They Have All One Breath" by Karl Bunker. The world is more and more managed by benevolent AIs who seem to have best intention. They use nano technology and other technologies to make everything better, or don´t they? Derek Künsken`s "Flight From the Ages"  is a weird & psychedelic story about AIs, spaceship wormholes & more - post cyber-punk? The rest of the stories may cater different tastes.

"Best of Gregory Benford", edited by the late David Hartford (amazon). Gregory Benford belongs to my favorite authors. He writes hard science fiction in the tradition of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke and mingles fascinating tales with sciences like physics, logic, evolution, biology, chemistry & information technology. The logical, analytical and scientific style of his novels & short stories shows that the author also has a career as astrophysicist on the faculty of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of California, Irvine The anthology again proves Benford´s outstanding talents as a story teller & science interpreter. The content - 38 stories - is sorted in a chronological order. So you also can observe the evolution of a remarkable science fiction writer. The collection covers a spectrum of sub-genres like space opera, first alien contact, time travel, wormholes,  genetic engineering, bio-terrorism, artificial intelligence (AI) and many more. Benford created strange & exotic worlds based on logic and evolution:"thought experiments beyond the real and into the possible". But he not only writes as a scientist, he also has a taste for language and literary ambitions. A visit of India starts with "the ripe, fleshy aroma of a continent enfolded him, swarming up his nostrils and soaking his lungs with sullen spice". Contrary to the usually prudish genre - often written for young adults - his stories also have some well expressed erotic parts. There are a lot stories I plan to reread sometimes, especially the novella "Matters End" (1989), set in a near future India and combines quantum physics with philosophy; "A Desperate Calculus" (1995) a near future thriller set in the tropics about environmentalists; "A Dance to strange Music" (1998) scientists are exploring a strange planet, lots of plausible physics, chemistry & evolution science. T

"Anomaly" by Peter Cawdron is set in contemporary New York which is confronted with a strange phenomena  - the anomaly. The novel is speculative but based on logic and on physics, chemistry, biology, evolution & other sciences. In the beginning it reads like a young adult novel because the plot focuses on an elementary school teacher who is explaining the observed phenomena to scientists & the media. But this idea gives the author the tools to describe what´s happening in an almost scientific way - and he does really a good job with that. Even though many strange things are happening the plot stays very plausible. I enjoyed Cawdron`s clear style, the dramatic & thrilling events and a developing romance.

"Grain of Truth" by the Polish author Zygmunt Miloszewski is set in Poland and describes a murder investigations conducted by the prosecutor "Szacki". The author follows the tradition of Scandinavian thrillers which combine political & social issues with thrilling plots, often very sinister, but Miloszewski has an unique approach. It is a who-dunnit-story with an elaborate & pivoting plot which reminded me of the British classics. The novel is spiced with psychological insights &  sarcastic remarks about society, sex, history, architecture, politics & more - entertaining, intelligent & intellectual satisfying.

I reread "Dr. No".  This novel was used for the first of the James Bond movies sand established the brand. The plot is set on Jamaica, where Fleming owned a mansion, and on a nearby island. "Dr. No" is a tropical adventure story and an exotic thriller with a grain of erotics.  Ian Fleming is an underrated writer. He was an analytical observer of the world and spiced his stories with humor and intelligent & analytical musings. The novel reminds a bit of Joseph Conrad´s tropical adventures. Fleming immerses the reader into a lush Caribbean setting which is alluring but also dangerous. I enjoyed his style and the descriptions of the environment & scenery. The action scenes are intense and meticulously developed and he spiced the novel with geographic knowledge, a bit economics & biology.


My nonfiction book of the year was the autobiography "Margaret Thatcher: Downing Street Years" (832 pages). The book contains almost no personal information (except some mentions about teeth pain) instead she presents her insights about the political & economical developments during her a decade long reign. Europe´s many crises - and the  exit of UK (Brexit) -  show that she was right in many points. The Thatcher revolution,  the overhaul of the U.K. economy, is still a role model. I enjoyed her precise, clear and economical style. The former UK prime minister possessed a strong analytical mind and an impressive understanding about economics. Her remarks focus on two main topics: The British economy & the  European Community. When she took Britain`s steering wheel she was confronted with a lot of economic challenges. UK`s economy was in a mess: Inflation was speeding up, unemployment was climbing, public sector pay was "out of control", public spending was rising as revenues fell, and the domestic problems were aggravated by rising oil prices which drove the world into a recession. Thatcher implemented a series of reforms to brake the vicious spiral and implemented tax cuts & deregulation. But she also had to curb the power of the trade unions which had a tradition to coerce economy & politics by many strikes.
A large part of the books describes her struggle against the European centralism. Over her whole regency she fought against a "standardized Europe"and insisted "that the institutions of the European Community are managed so that they increase the liberty of the individuals throughout the continent". She criticized the tendency in the community to be  "interventionist, protectionist, and ultimately federalist" and she condemned the protectionist policy to impede imports with high taxes and regulations.

What did I learn from the biography "Churchill: A Life" by Martin Gilbert (1077 pages)?  Winston Churchill was not only an outstanding statesman - he also was a writer (who received the Nobel Price in Literature in 1953), painter, adventurer, innovator, warrior and much more. Churchill was certainly privileged as the son of a Lord who was a high ranking politician and member of an aristocratic family with plenty of money and connections to the highest places. But he could have wasted it all, as many other privileged did. Instead he dealt well with his birth advantages and made even much more of his assets, as this biography shows. Churchill had a lot contemporary admirers, but enemies, enviers & skeptics as well.  One of his political colleagues - and skeptics -, UK Prime minister Stanley Baldwin, said "that when Winston was born lots of fairies swooped down on his cradle with gifts - imagination, eloquence, industry, ability - and then came a fairy who said ´No one person has a right to so many gifts`, picked him up and gave him such a shake and twist that with all these gifts he was denied judgement and wisdom. And that is why while we delight to listen to him in this House we do not take his advice". Churchill himself said once: "We are all worms, but I do believe I am a glow-worm".  Churchill was a dare devil and took high risks in war & in peace times. He started a career in the Conservative Party (Tories) following the traditions of his family and class but he criticized the party leaders for the brutality of the British army in the war against the South African opponents (Buers) and their negligence of the the extreme poverty in the country. He was also a proponent for social reforms including unemployment insurance and State-aided pensions for widows and orphans. Churchill "defended the economic merits of Free Trade and open competition in the commercial markets of the world". Churchill said, "I would look to improvements in scientific and technical education, to light taxation, to pacific policy and to a stable and orderly state of society as the best means of stimulating the commercial prosperity of our country".

I gained also from another biography "The Wright Brothers" by David McCullough who tells painstakingly why the brothers did succeed while others had failed. He draws a portrait of scientific explorers who had stubbornly strong beliefs into themselves and who benefited from a solid intellectual education. He describes the various challenges they met, how they had to struggle with nature, technical issues and an ignorant & skeptical social environment. The books portraits a milestone of history and it helps to understand how the US evolved into the largest economy of the world.

"The Path Between the Seas - The Creation of the Panama Canal 1870-1914", again by David McCullogh reports painstakingly over more than 600 pages how this feat was done . The author also characterized the people who participated and described their fate. He tried “to present the problems they faced as they saw them, to perceive what they did not know as well as what they did know at given time”. Surprisingly the project wasn´t started by the Americans, who benefit most from the canal, but by the French. French citizens initiated, planned, organized & financed the canal and they tried to build it, with the help of hired foreigners, mostly blacks from the Caribbean. It is very impressive how optimistic the canal organizers and investors had been. They showed a strong believe into the future, many were apparently influenced by the science fiction pioneer Jules Verne, who created positive visions. The canal investors took high risks and put their money onto a project which didn`t promise any profit for the near term, quite opposite to the behavior these days, when hedge funds and others demand instant gratification. McCullogh describes also the technical details and the accomplishments in engineering necessary for constructing the canal and the locks. He summarizes that the expenditures since 1904 totaled $352 million (including $10 million paid to Panama and the $40 million paid to the French company) this was more than four times what the Suez canal had cost. Taken together, the French and American expenditures came to about $639 million. According to hospital record, the canal also cost 5,609  lives from disease and accidents since 1904. He concludes “If the deaths incurred during the French era are included, the total price in human life may have been as high as twenty-five thousand, or five hundred lives for every mile of the canal” .

P.S. For illustration I chose an image of Trinity College Library, Dublin, build 1732

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Contemporary Art: 25th Anniversary @ David Zwirner New York

(Drivebycuriosity) -  David Zwirner belongs to the global art gallery empires ( davidzwirner). The  art dealer has 2 spaces in New York`s Chelsea district (519, 525 & 533 West 19th Street & 537 West 20th Street). Now they are celebrating heir 25th anniversary. On this occasion, the gallery presents a special exhibition celebrating the artists who have shaped the gallery’s program since its founding in 1993.

I enjoyed the show and I liked the displayed variety of ideas & styles. I present here my favorites from the exhibition, a very subjective selection as usual. Not all art work was tagged but I could recognize most of the artists.

Above this paragraph a painting by the German artist Neo Rauch, who easily can be identified because of his idiosyncratic style. DZ had a Neo Rauch exhibition in 2014 (here my report)

Above a work by Lisa Yuskavage who also has an unique style. DZ had a Yuskavage show in 2015 (driveby ).

I believe this bird was created by Jeff Koons who is also represented by David Zwirner. New York`s Whitney Museum had a large Koons retrospective in 2014 (here my report).

I think the painting above is by the late German artist Sigmar Polke.

Above two portraits by Marlene Dumas.

This abstract is painted by Oscar Murillo.

Above a work by Lucas Arruda. They had to saw a crack into the wall for this.

                                                                   Riots In London

Above a fascinating photography by Stan Douglas. It looks like Hamburg after the G20 riots, but the photo is a staged image of riots in London in 2011: "Douglas acquired footage from Sky News and selected frames he wanted to recreate. Then he took a helicopter over the exact locations and spent four months digitally rendering the resulting images in a process that included making rudimentary 3D models of all the people in the scene so that they would cast shadows, and superimposing historical buildings in place of the newly built shop fronts" ( theguardian).

Above photographs by William Eggleston & Thomas Ruff.

Stay tuned.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Cinema: Movie Year 2017 - Saved By The Oscar Season

(Drivebycuriosity) - The movie year 2017 had looked disappointing. There were so many weak films. But at the end of the year Hollywood send their prospective Oscar contenders onto the screens to keep them fresh in the memories for the competition. Two latecomers - timed for the Oscar season - saved the movie year: Phantom Thread & Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

Phantom Thread - which started at Christmas -  tells the story of Reynold and Alma in England in the 1950s. Reynold is a fashion designer, a maker of awesome and very exclusive dresses, an artist - and he is very willful & abrasive. Alma is a waitress. They become a couple and the film focuses on a love story between two very different characters, a very special version of the beauty and the beast and a little bit like George Bernard Shaw’s "Pygmalion". "Phantom" is a meditation about fashion, art, craftsmanship, perfectionism, luxury, food & devotion. Every shot was painstakingly crafted like the exquisite creations of the dressmaker. Director Paul Thomas Anderson, who also wrote the script, gave the pair witty dialogues spiced with a sharp humor. It is remarkable that Anderson did also the cinematography, not even Stanley Kubrick & Alfred Hitchcock did that. He delivered a feast for the eyes. I watched the 70 mm version in New York´s AMC Loews Lincoln Square theater and got enchanted by the film`s visual magic (image below).

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri also started in December. A grieving mother blames the local cops for not solving the case of her daughter who got abducted, raped & murdered. She rents three billboards, to shame them and to revive the interest in her daughters case which starts a series of events. "Three Billboards" belongs to the black comedy`s which cast a light on America´s hinterland, filled with peculiar characters. The film is about grief, persistence, revenge & punishment but also about forgiveness and mixes violence with humor. There were two outstanding performances: Frances McDormand as the grieving but tough as granite mother and Sam Rockwell as an aggressive moronic and insecure province cop. Ben Davis`s superb cinematography magnified the film`s strengths.

Earlier last year I saw 2 movies which fascinated me as well:

 I enjoyed Blade Runner 2049: Set 30 years later than the original the new film follows again a Los Angeles Cop, who is hunting & killing humanoid robots. The film is set again in an alternate world with a broken down economy & environment combined with an advanced technology. The plot touches again philosophical questions about identity and the reliability of memories. I  indulged into the outstanding esthetics. Director Villeneuve, cinematographer Roger Deakins and their crews created a work of fine art. Their visions are filled with tableaux & images which reminded me of the works by Richard Serra, Anselm Kiefer, Anish Kapoor, Gerhard Richter & other contemporary artists (image on top of this post).

I was also fascinated by A Ghost Story - an interesting take on the afterlife topic. A man got killed and exists furthermore as a ghost, watching how the world around him is changing. The film is very slow and the audience has time to observe the ghost. In the begin I was a bit irritated because the ghost was just someone covered with a white sheet - with two black holes for eyes - like a ghost in a children`s theater. But I got fast used to that and then it made sense. More and more I could see the world with the ghost`s eyes. 

                                     Camouflaged Tales Of Sex & Violence

The movie year 2017 had some films which weren`t as strong as the above mentioned but quite enjoyable:

The Beguiled.  Sophia Coppola shot a remake of a Southern Gothic psycho drama from 1971. During the American Civil War a wounded & deserted soldier got shelter in a girl´s school deep in enemy country. The place is very isolated, there are just the females and the young man, which sets off a chain of natural and unfortunate events created a kind of fairy-tale world. Some scenes reminded me faintly of Brothers Grimm`s original fairy tales,  like "Cinderella", "Little Red Riding Hood" & "The Wolf and the Seven Young Goats", which often are camouflaged tales of sex & violence. Are there fairies & witches? Cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd intensified these impressions with blurred & misty images which created a somewhat spooky scenery.

A Ghost in the Shell is a solid science fiction action movie, based on a Japanese manga and a remake of an animated Japanese film from 1995. "Ghost" is set in the near future where the line between humans and robots is becoming blurred, the plot follows a woman who has her brain placed in a cyborg body to become the perfect soldier, and who yearns to learn of her past. "Ghost" touches a lot of topics which may soon be relevant for our lives: How technology will be integrated with the human body (cyborgs), robots, hacking, high-tech weapons and more. The film impressed me with an amazing aesthetics and showed stunning visions and pictures full of magic. (image above).

Atomic Blonde is a spy film set in Berlin in 1989, when the Berlin Wall was crumbling, the last days of the Cold War. A female British agent (MI6) reports about her recent mission in Berlin which went messy. The frequent very rough but aesthetically choreographed fight scenes reminded me of Chan-wook Park`s masterpiece "Oldboy", but they were even more brutal & explosive. The glances on Berlin`s rapid & peaceful transformation gave the film a special quality. I was fascinated by Charlize Theron who combined beauty with fierce violence. In some scenes she acted like Kali, the Hindu goddess of destruction.

Alien Covenant was not as strong as the first three Alien movies but watchable. The animated predatory creatures moved extremely swift and hyper-aggressive. That caused intense horror/action scenes, the strength of the movie. The film was partly set in an awesome landscape. I liked Michael Fassbender who had an interesting double role, but I missed Sigourney Weaver`s character Ripley badly.

I, Tonya  tells the story of Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding who got in the 
 year 1994 a live-long suspension from her sports because of an alleged attack on her rival & Olympic team mate Nancy Kerrigan. The comedy-drama looks like a TV show with a lot staged interviews and flashbacks. I cared about Tony, a redneck girl, who got drilled & bred by a white trash and hyper-ambitious mother and chose an abusive boyfriend & husband with dubious friends. The reckless & moronic behavior of some characters reminded me of the movie "Fargo" even though the story lines are very different. Allison Janney as the hyper-tough  mother will linger in my memory for a while.

                                              The Most Overrated Film Of The Year

Unfortunately I also saw the most overrated film of the year: The Shape of Water. The movie has a ridiculous plot: A woman, who works as a cleaner in a classified government facility, starts a romance with a human shaped amphibian creature, which is captured there. Director Guillermo del Toro tried too many things, making a funny, romantic & erotic horror comedy musical and he wanted to cater the PC crowd by overstuffing the plot with too much empathy. "The Shapw" is kitschy, inconsistent and the special effects are pedestrian. The leading amphibian figure, played by an actor covered with a ridiculous mask, looked pathetic & ridiculous, like a character in Punch-and-Judy show for little children. A waste of time & money.

Stay tuned!