The Lens of Fears and Dreams: Michael Ballhaus

German cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, most famous for his collaborations with the auteurs Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Martin Scorsese, passed away today at age 81. Here are scenes from eleven films (because ten just aren’t enough!) photographed by Ballhaus, unforgettable moments that are forever imprinted in my mind.

Beware of a Holy Whore (1971, dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder). An unhappy actress is fired from a film project after making too many demands; we watch her departure in an extended take that Ballhaus shot inside the boat taking her away from the set. I love the blueness of the water and the soft, golden light on Magdalena Montezuma’s face as she drifts further and further away as an aria from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor plays on the soundtrack, before we are abruptly brought back to a scene of the film shoot. Perhaps Fassbinder’s choice of aria, “Il dolce suono,” which depicts the aftermath of Lucia stabbing her husband to death on their wedding night and subsequently fantasizing about marriage to a different man, is applied to Magdalena Montezuma’s farewell scene (trust me, she exhibited tremendous histrionics) by implying that after the bout of madness that destroyed her career opportunity, she can still dream of a brighter future, even if it’s one that probably won’t happen.

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972, dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder). In the first video, Michael Ballhaus discusses his work on Petra von Kant in an interview conducted by the Criterion Collection for a new DVD release of the film in 2015. In the second clip, we see a scene showing the beginning of the first romantic encounter between fashion designer Petra (Margit Carstensen) and a young protégée, Karin (Hanna Schygulla), who is willing and eager to sleep her way to the top of the modeling world. The ornate costumes were designed by Maja Lemcke, her only film credit according to the IMDb.

Martha (1974, dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder). One of Fassbinder’s greatest films was produced for TV, a melodrama in the style of Douglas Sirk titled Martha. Margit Carstensen plays the main character, a young woman whose father (Adrian Hoven) dies while they are on vacation in Italy; on the same fateful day, she falls in love with an older man (Karlheinz Böhm), whom she soon marries (with disastrous consequences for her). Fassbinder introduces Böhm’s character and shows the instant attraction in the pair’s first meeting thanks to Ballhaus’s cinematography. The camera rotates hypnotically around the man and woman, a dizzying vision of lust. You’ll also note that the scene ends on a shot of a voyeuristic interloper played by El Hedi ben Salem, who played the male lead opposite Brigitte Mira in Fassbinder’s All That Heaven Allows remake, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, that same year. Salem was Fassbinder’s on again, off again boyfriend in the 1970s and he eventually committed suicide in a French jail in 1977, having been arrested and convicted of stabbing three people in a bar fight.

Fox and His Friends (1975, dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder). Possibly Fassbinder’s greatest masterpiece, Fox and His Friends is the tragic tale of Franz, a working-class man (played by Fassbinder) whose naive, guileless affection for his wealthy boyfriend, Eugen (Peter Chatel), allows Eugen to manipulate and exploit him. In one memorable segment of the film, Eugen convinces Franz to go on a pleasure trip to Morocco, where the couple pick up a local “guide,” Salem (the aforementioned El Hedi ben Salem). The cinematography in the scene in which Franz and Eugen cruise the “Meeting Place of the Dead” is exquisite, decorating the landscape in bars of light from the wooden slats above the market.

Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven (1975, dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder). Although this clip does not have subtitles, all you need to know is that a cabaret’s emcee (Peter Kern) excitedly introduces a singer’s act (Ingrid Caven), while her new boyfriend (Gottfried John) and her embarrassed mother and brother (Brigitte Mira, Armin Meier) look on. The family considers the performance quite tasteless, given that the family’s patriarch has recently committed suicide; even in the face of personal tragedy, the daughter is too vain and hungry for fame to consider postponing her stage show. Fassbinder loved images of people experiencing shame, frustration and other variations of pain, and this scene is no exception.

Chinese Roulette (1976, dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder). Alexander Allerson and Margit Carstensen, playing an estranged husband and wife, embrace in a scene depicted magnificently in one long dolly shot revolving around the two actors. Without dialogue, we get an intense feeling of intimacy from the swirling motions of the camera and the images of the performers’ faces, especially the expressive Margit Carstensen (one of Fassbinder’s favorite leading ladies).

After Hours (1985, dir. Martin Scorsese). Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne), a word processor who works for a publishing firm in Manhattan, experiences the worst night of his life after he meets an unusual young woman, Marcy Franklin (Rosanna Arquette), in a diner. As the two talk in Marcy’s apartment, Ballhaus keeps the scene minimally lit, but he zooms in on Arquette’s face when she leaves the room, a typically Scorsesean shot which is my favorite in the entire film.

Broadcast News (1987, dir. James L. Brooks). Television producer Jane Craig (Holly Hunter) leads news anchor Tom Grunick (William Hurt) through his first live show, a relationship that relies on her ability to direct his “performance” – a role-reversal of the Svengali and Trilby archetypes. Michael Ballhaus nicely conveys the depth of the TV studio, showing the distance and shifting perspectives of characters in the control room and down on the set.

Goodfellas (1990, dir. Martin Scorsese). One of the most celebrated scenes in the history of Martin Scorsese’s career is the unedited shot of mobster Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) and soon-to-be wife Karen Friedman (Lorraine Bracco) entering the Copacabana nightclub by way of the kitchen, a handheld shot achieved with the use of a Steadicam. The scene was shot eight times; reportedly, the eighth take is what Scorsese put in the finished film.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992, dir. Francis Ford Coppola). Enjoy the lush visual atmosphere of Coppola’s Dracula set: the lighting by Michael Ballhaus, Gary Oldman’s dedicated performance as the title vampire and Winona Ryder’s underrated work as Dracula’s great love, Mina Murray. The beautiful score composed by Wojciech Kilar completes the picture.

Quiz Show (1994, dir. Robert Redford). One of my favorite moments in Quiz Show is the scene in which Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes) comes close to revealing to his father, Mark (Paul Scofield), that he has been cheating during his winning streak on the TV quiz show Twenty One. Charles cannot bring himself to admit the sordid truth, though, and the cinematography reflects the metaphorical darkness weighing on Charles’s mind by displaying Mark Van Doren’s private study drenched in shadows. Michael Ballhaus’s use of close-ups, especially as Charles dances on the edge of revealing his secret, draws you in closer to the drama, but I also love the wide shot that the scene ends on, explaining without words that the brief window of opportunity for Charles’s confession has passed.

Women-Directed/Photographed Films Coming to Theaters: April 2017

Director April Mullen and her all-female crew on the set of Below Her Mouth, 2015.

Here are thirteen new movies due to be released in theaters or via other viewing platforms this April, all of which have been directed and/or photographed by women. These titles are sure to intrigue cinephiles and also provoke meaningful discussions on the film world, as well as the world in general.

MARCH 31 (NYC), APRIL 7 (LA): Cézanne et Moi (dir. Danièle Thompson)Landmark Sunshine Cinema synopsis:Cézanne et Moi is the compelling and moving chronicle of the surprising lifelong love/hate relationship between two of the creative geniuses of the 19th century, post-impressionist painter Paul Cézanne (Guillaume Gallienne, Yves Saint Laurent) and novelist Émile Zola (Guillaume Canet, Tell No One). Zola came from a poor family and wrote proletarian novels, but eventually won fame and fortune; Cezanne, the rebellious son of a rich banker, had long years of poverty and struggle as an artist, rejecting society in pursuit of art. They met as schoolboys in Aix-en-Provence, both outcasts, and became best friends; both sought the bright lights of Paris as young men, living life to the fullest. Rebellion and curiosity, hopes and doubts, girls and dreams of glory—they shared it all; yet rivalry and hurt feelings drove them apart. This gorgeous production was shot in part on location in Provence around Montagne Saint-Victoire, memorialized in so many of Cezanne’s paintings. Written and directed by Danièle Thompson (Avenue Montaigne, Jet Lag), an Academy Award nominee for her Cousin Cousine screenplay.”

APRIL 7 (in theaters and on Video on Demand): Alive and Kicking (dir. Susan Glatzer)Synopsis from the film’s official website:Alive and Kicking is a feature-length documentary that takes an inside look into the culture of swing dancing and the characters who make it special. We explore the culture surrounding Swing dance from the emergence of the Lindy Hop to the modern day international phenomenon. The film follows the growth of Swing dance from its purely American roots as an art form, to countries all over the world. Alive and Kicking looks at the lives of the Swing dancers themselves to find their personal stories and why this dance fills them with joy.”

APRIL 7: Their Finest (dir. Lone Scherfig)Toronto International Film Festival synopsis: “Featuring a cast teeming with some of the UK’s most charismatic comedic actors, Bill Nighy and Richard E. Grant among them, Their Finest is about boosting morale in a period of national — and personal — crisis.

“Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) is a ‘slop’ scriptwriter, charged with bringing a female perspective to war films produced by the British Ministry of Information’s Film Division. Her current project is a feature inspired by stories of British civilians rescuing soldiers after the retreat at Dunkirk. Catrin’s artist husband looks down on her job, despite the fact that it’s paying the rent. At least lead scenarist Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) appreciates her efforts.

“While on location in Devon, Catrin begins to come into her own and earn the respect of her peers. She’s the only crewperson that Ambrose Hilliard (Nighy), a past-his-prime yet nonetheless pompous actor, will talk to.

“Based on the novel Their Finest Hour and a Half by Lissa Evans, the film pops with witty banter and flows with lovely period detail. The characters are uniformly textured and the performances nuanced. Nighy is perfectly cast in his endearingly withering role, and Jeremy Irons turns up for a delicious cameo. It is, however, Arterton’s show. She brings subtlety, intelligence, and a range of beautifully gauged emotions to Catrin, whose path to self-renewal is an inspiring example of a talented woman forging her place in the world.”

APRIL 12: Glory (dirs. Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov)Film Forum synopsis: “Frank Capra by way of Bulgaria. When a disheveled railroad worker discovers fistfuls of money on some rural train tracks, he turns over the dough to the police. The grateful authorities reward him with a televised ceremony and a new wristwatch to replace his old one (a family heirloom). But the glitzy new watch stops working and the smarmy, workaholic publicist for the Ministry of Transport can’t seem to find his old one. The man’s nonstop attempts to get his beloved old watch back wreak havoc on her efforts to use the heart-warming story of an honest good Samaritan to distract public attention from a burgeoning corruption scandal. A simple premise deepens into an incisive portrait of a bureaucracy riven with cynicism and a government happy to swallow its most idealistic citizens whole. From the directors, and starring the lead actors, of The Lesson, which Film Forum opened in 2015.”

APRIL 14: Maurizio Cattelan: Be Right Back (dir. Maura Axelrod)Synopsis from the film’s official website: “In the documentary feature Maurizio Cattelan: Be Right Back, filmmaker Maura Axelrod excavates Maurizio Cattelan’s disruptive and indelible career as the art world prankster of our time. Interviewing curators, collectors, art-world luminaries (and even his ex-girlfriends), to build a compelling picture of the conceptual artist and what makes him tick.

“Known best for his shocking photorealistic wax sculpture of Pope John Paul being felled by a meteorite, and of a child-size Hitler kneeling in prayer, Cattelan’s work is often wildly offensive – and yet incredibly popular – selling for tens of millions of dollars at auction.

“The film explores the origins of Cattelan’s work, and delves into the mythology of the famously elusive artist’s personal story as well. And like the best mysteries, viewers emerge from this dizzying journey knowing everything and nothing about a man who, from his professional inception, ushered us into a dazzling hall of mirrors that enchants and perplexes to this day. Maurizio Cattelan shook up the contemporary art world beginning in the late 1980s with a series of action-based installations including his first solo show in Milan, Torno Subito (Be Right Back), in which he padlocked an empty gallery – barring entrance to critics and spectators – and simply hung a sign on the door that read ‘Torno Subito’ or ‘Be Right Back.’

“Over his twenty-year career, Cattelan has continued to provoke and inspire, culminating in an all-encompassing installation and the proclamation of his retirement in 2011. His stunning final exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City features all of his works to date suspended – execution style, as sharper critics described it – from the ceiling of the world-famous museum’s rotunda, encapsulating a brief but meteoric career that Cattelan himself supposedly terminated at the height of his success.”

APRIL 14 (San Francisco), APRIL 21 (NYC and other cities): Tomorrow (dirs. Cyril Dion and Mélanie Laurent)Synopsis from the film’s official website: “Showing solutions, telling a feel-good story… this may be the best way to solve the ecological, economical and social crises that our countries are going through. After a special briefing for the journal Nature announced the possible extinction of a part of mankind before the end of the 21st century, Cyril Dion and Mélanie Laurent, together with a team of four people, carried out an investigation in ten different countries to figure out what may lead to this disaster and above all how to avoid it.

“During their journey, they met the pioneers who are re-inventing agriculture, energy, economy, democracy and education. Joining those concrete and positive actions which are already working, they began to figure out what could be tomorrow’s world…”

APRIL 21: Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent (dir. Lydia Tenaglia)Grub Street post by Sierra Tishgart: “Almost a year after debuting at film festivals, executive producer Anthony Bourdain and director Lydia Tenaglia’s documentary, Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent, will hit theaters next month — premiering in New York and Los Angeles on April 21.

“The film explores Tower’s successful yet mysterious career in cooking: He’s credited by many as a chef who revolutionized cooking in this country, yet his name remains unknown to many people outside the industry. He first made a name for himself at Chez Panisse in 1972, but left after a dispute with owner Alice Waters, eventually opening Stars Restaurant in San Francisco to international acclaim. But after a few years, he left Stars, too. More than two decades later, he returned to professional cooking for a stint at New York’s fabled Tavern on the Green.

“Tower may not get the same recognition as his contemporaries, but as Bourdain explains in the trailer, ‘We should know who changed the world — we should know their names.’ Interviews with Mario Batali, Ruth Reichl, and Martha Stewart reinforce Tower’s role as one of the founding fathers of American food.”

APRIL 21: Unforgettable (dir. Denise Di Novi)Warner Bros. synopsis: “Warner Bros. Pictures’ dramatic thriller Unforgettable is the first film in the director’s chair for veteran producer Denise Di Novi (Crazy Stupid Love, Focus). Katherine Heigl (27 Dresses, Knocked Up), Rosario Dawson (the Sin City films) and Geoff Stults (TV’s The Odd Couple) star in the film.

“Tessa Connover (Heigl) is barely coping with the end of her marriage when her ex-husband, David (Stults), becomes happily engaged to Julia Banks (Dawson)—not only bringing Julia into the home they once shared but also into the life of their daughter, Lily. Trying to settle into her new life, Julia believes she has finally met the man of her dreams, the man who can help her put her own troubled past behind her. But Tessa’s jealousy soon takes a pathological turn until she will stop at nothing to turn Julia’s dream into her ultimate nightmare.”

APRIL 26: Obit. (dir. Vanessa Gould)Film Forum synopsis: “When New York Times writer Bruce Weber comes into the office, the first thing he says is: ‘Who’s dead?’ Times editor William McDonald, Weber, Margalit Fox, William Grimes, Douglas Martin, Paul Vitello, and others appear on screen — very much alive — in Vanessa Gould’s witty, eye-opening inside account of the ‘dead beat’ – the Times’s obituaries desk. According to Grimes, ‘dull, dry, responsible’ copy was once the norm. Today, the paper’s obits are among the best-written, most-read articles, and an ever-fascinating showcase for notable lives and achievements, from Nobel Prize winners to the inventor of the Slinky. Gould lets us in on more than a few secrets: how subjects are ultimately chosen, who merits star placement, who has an ‘advance obit’ (there are 1700 on file, kept under lock and key), and how the Times maintains its vast archive. Sole morgue-keeper Jeff Roth gives us a breathless tour of the paper’s century-old trove of clippings and photographs.”

APRIL 28 (in theaters and on Video on Demand): Below Her Mouth (dir. April Mullen) (DP: Maya Bankovic)Toronto International Film Festival synopsis by Magali Simard: “One of the boldest and sexiest dramas of the year, April Mullen’s Below Her Mouth tells the story of an unexpected romance between two women whose passionate connection changes their lives forever.

“Jasmine (Natalie Krill) is a successful fashion editor living with her fiancé, Rile (Sebastian Pigott). On a night out in the city with her best friend, she meets Dallas (Erika Linder), a roofer recently out of a relationship. Jasmine is taken by surprise when Dallas confidently hits on her; she turns Dallas down, but can’t get her out of her head.

“Dallas continues her cool, self-assured advances. In a matter of days, Jasmine succumbs and the two women embark on a steamy affair. It feels like a fantasy world compared to Jasmine’s life and plans with Rile, but soon reality rears its head, and she will have to face the profound changes their sudden romance has wrought in her.

“Stephanie Fabrizi’s screenplay powerfully and honestly explores what happens when two women fall hard for each other, and Mullen brings the story to the screen with uninhibited flair and assurance, showing us how love can arise from some of the messiest times in our lives.

Below Her Mouth is a rarity in more than one way: it’s a fiction film shot with an entirely female crew, and it’s an uncommonly frank look at the all-encompassing nature of attraction — the good, the bad, the ugly, and the transcendendent.”

APRIL 28: Buster’s Mal Heart (dir. Sarah Adina Smith)Toronto International Film Festival synopsis by Colin Geddes: “An eccentric mountain man is on the run from the authorities, surviving the winter by breaking into empty vacation homes in a remote community. Regularly calling into radio talk shows — where he has acquired the nickname ‘Buster’ — to rant about the impending dangers of Y2K, he is haunted by visions of being lost at sea, and memories of his former life as a family man.

“Buster (Rami Malek) was once Jonah, a hard-working husband and father whose job as the night-shift concierge at a hotel took its toll on his mood and, consequently, his marriage to the sensitive and long-suffering Marty (Kate Lyn Sheil) — until a chance encounter with a conspiracy-obsessed drifter (DJ Qualls) changed the course of their lives forever. As the sad and solitary present-day Buster drifts from house to house and eludes the local sheriff at every turn, we gradually piece together the events that fractured his life and left him alone on top of a snowy mountain, or perhaps in a small rowboat in the middle of a vast ocean — or both.

“Following the found-footage genre twister The Midnight Swim, Sarah Adina Smith’s second feature puts her on another level as a writer and director. Beautiful, enigmatic and elliptical, Buster’s Mal Heart also features a powerful performance from Malek as the silent, broken protagonist. Taking his first big-screen leading role after his starring turn in the hit TV series Mr. Robot, Malek proves here that he’s more than capable of carrying the weight of a feature film.”

APRIL 28 (in theaters and streaming on Netflix): Casting JonBenét (dir. Kitty Green)Excerpts from The Hollywood Reporter’s Sundance Film Festival review by Leslie Felperin: “Building on an approach to nonfiction storytelling she first explored in the her award-winning short The Face of Ukraine: Casting Oksana Baiul, Australian filmmaker Kitty Green creates something powerful, provocative and dazzlingly original with her second feature documentary, Casting JonBenét. In essence, this sui generis work offers a kaleidoscopic array of personal reactions to the famous 1996 murder of six-year-old beauty pageant contestant JonBenét Ramsay.

“But the interviewees are not people who were directly involved in the case, although some had very tangential connections to the murder. Instead, they are all actors: a mix of professional and non-pro, from in and around Boulder, Colorado (where JonBenét lived and died), auditioning to play the murdered child’s now-deceased mother, Patsy, father, John, brother, Burke and, of course, JonBenét herself, among others.

“Over the course of the film, the participants share not just their own hunches and suspicions about what happened that morning after Christmas, but also personal revelations about themselves and why the case resonates with them so deeply 20 years on. Ultimately, this evolves into a layered meditation on many things — crime and guilt, the exploitation of children and acting itself, to name just a few.

“…The point, however — unlike many of the documentaries about the case over the years, some of which have prompted libel cases from the surviving Ramsey family members — is not to make a definitive argument that this or that person or persons, known or unknown, killed JonBenét. Rather, her tragic death becomes a prism through which the stories and feelings of the actors themselves, and of course our own, are refracted. A man shares how his performance changed between the time he was cast for this film and the time he was called in for the film’s grand finale, because in the intervening time he was diagnosed with cancer. One woman shares how she was sexually abused as a child when she was about JonBenét’s age, while another discusses how her own brother’s murder affects her perspective on the case and her need to bear witness through acting.

“…As did Andrew Jarecki’s Capturing the Friedmans and Clio Barnard’s The Arbor, Casting JonBenét expands the formal horizons of documentary, blurring the lines between fact and fiction, not to take a particular side, but to question how we can ever know what really happened. It may be about a murder that occurred more than 20 years ago, but on another level it’s a film that feels very much a product of these troubled, post-truth times.”

APRIL 28: Danger Close (dirs. David Salzberg and Christian Tureaud) (DP: Alex Quade)Cinema Village synopsis: “Directed by David Salzberg and Christian Tureaud, whose previous work includes the acclaimed military documentaries Citizen Soldier and The Hornet’s Nest. This riveting documentary follows Alex Quade, the only reporter and only female ever embedded long-term with U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) overseas on highly classified combat missions, as she embeds with elite SOF (including the U.S. Army Special Forces or Green Berets, Army Rangers, Navy Seals, and CIA clandestine operatives) to tell their stories from the front lines. Danger Close follows Alex as she lives alongside these highly trained forces on some of the most daring missions ever documented in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Friday Music Focus: 3/31/17

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Today we look at six songs connected to cinema and the power of storytelling. Dramatist and composer Neil Brand once described the effect of hearing music in films, which can be a thrilling experience from the moment the lights go down in a theater: “The darkness, the strangers, the anticipation, the warm comfortable embrace of the cinema seat. We’re ready to experience some big emotions, and the minute the music booms out, we are on board for the ride. Human beings are very good at interpreting sound. Right back to when our prehistoric selves will have heard a twig snap in a forest and thought ‘that’s it, I’m dead.’ We have a very deep understanding of what music is doing, and it’s very physical. We can feel it going into our ears via sound waves and it can produce all sorts of physical responses, including in the right circumstances an actual thud to the stomach.”

Francis Monkman, “Main Title” (from the score for the film The Long Good Friday, 1980, dir. John Mackenzie; subsequent scene from same film). Bob Hoskins’ breakout big-screen role was as Harold Shand, the kingpin of the London underworld in The Long Good Friday, director John Mackenzie’s cinematic retelling of Macbeth updated for the gritty early 80s. Regardless of whether you’re keen on the dated musical stylings of composer Francis Monkman, there is no denying that Harold’s introductory scene is the embodiment of cool. Bob Hoskins walks through the airport as though Harold’s theme music were playing in his head.

Jools Holland, “Morse Code” (appears on the album Jools Holland Meets Rock “A” Boogie Billy, 1984; subsequent scene from the film Near Dark, 1987, dir. Kathryn Bigelow). From an essay published by Bloody Disgusting: “Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, Near Dark is something of a companion piece to James Cameron’s Aliens, released one year prior. Granted, the films have nothing to do with one another, but what they do share is a few key cast members – Cameron and Bigelow were dating at the time, and when Aliens wrapped, three actors leapt from outer space to the southwest. Lance Henriksen and Jenette Goldstein, who played Bishop and Vasquez in Aliens, star in the horror-western, but the real star of the show was Bill Paxton, who absolutely stole said show as the vampire Severen.

“…In what is easily one of the horror genre’s very best scenes, our band of villainous antiheroes arrive at a local watering hole; Severen leads the charge as they proceed to make the establishment their own and lay waste to anyone who’s not down with that. Cracking wise, walking across the bar top and kicking ass, Paxton is at his scenery-chewing best in the infamous Near Dark bar sequence, displaying every bit of the screen presence that made him such a beloved entertainer.

“Revisiting the scene today, I realized that it sums up why Bill Paxton has always been one of my favorite actors. Whether he was playing a good guy or a bad guy, making you laugh, cry, or fear for your life, Paxton was always the most likable and charismatic actor in the room; Severen entering the bar and completely taking over is not unlike Paxton’s own screen dominance in the films he was in. In both Aliens and Near Dark, the ensemble casts are stacked from top to bottom with incredible actors, but it was Paxton who managed to shine the brightest – there’s a reason you remember his lines above all else. His was the best character in nearly every single movie he was in, bringing unmatched confidence, charm and personality to each of those roles.”

P.S. Fun fact: the last line in the scene above, which is one of the most famous quotes from Near Dark, was improvised by Bill Paxton.

The Cramps, “Fever” (appears on the album Songs the Lord Taught Us, 1980; subsequent scene from the film Near Dark, 1987, dir. Kathryn Bigelow). From an essay published by Digital Spy: “’Finger-lickin’ good!’ howls Severen as he struts and gluts, with [Bill] Paxton’s mesmerising energy perhaps explained by the B12 injection he took prior to shooting in an effort to quash a migraine. We might not see any elongated incisors in Near Dark, but the cast sure sink their teeth into the furniture during this boisterous scene.” (More on that migraine at the beginning of this video interview with Bill Paxton.)

Eddy Dixon, “Relentless” (appears on the soundtrack of the film The Loveless, 1981, dirs. Kathryn Bigelow and Monty Montgomery). Watching Near Dark reminded me of how much I love the theme song that plays throughout Kathryn Bigelow’s debut feature film, The Loveless. Listening to “Relentless” again right after Jools Holland and the Cramps, I realize just how much Bigelow must love rockabilly, especially since she gave one of the main acting roles in The Loveless to rockabilly icon Robert Gordon.

Sheryl Crow, “Tomorrow Never Dies” (opening credits sequence from the film Tomorrow Never Dies, 1997, dir. Roger Spottiswoode). Both the film Tomorrow Never Dies and its title theme song by Sheryl Crow have gotten flak over the years for supposedly being lesser offerings from the James Bond franchise. OK, so maybe the movie is mediocre by the series’ standards, but I quite like the tune. It more than meets the requirements for Bondian flair, although Crow’s song is closer in spirit to the laid-back vibe of Nancy Sinatra’s “You Only Live Twice” than to the Sturm und Drang sound of Adele’s “Skyfall.” And anyway, Tomorrow Never Dies (the film, not the song) isn’t totally without merit; I love the scene with Vincent Schiavelli as a German hitman straight out of a comic strip, and I also enjoy the creepy main villain played by Jonathan Pryce. Pryce’s media mogul, Elliot Carver, is a power-mad billionaire who thrives on the exploitation of the world’s failures, traumas and bloodshed. When the usual gory headlines aren’t enough to satisfy his thirst for tragedy, Carver has his henchmen carry out violent attacks that pit the militaries of several nations against one another. It’s not fake news; it’s real news of Carver’s own design. Do we see any current-day parallels and worrying future eventualities here?

The Passions, “I’m in Love with a German Film Star” (appears on the album Thirty Thousand Feet Over China, 1981). A great song draws you in by telling a compelling story with its lyrics and its music; a really great song hooks you by suggesting an intriguing scenario just by the title alone. Then, when you hear the song: do you muse on who the German film star is, whether he’s a real person? Does it even matter, when you can imagine up your own fantasy based on the dreamy guitar by Clive Timperley and the vocals by Barbara Gogan?

The Passions’ legacy is that of a one-hit wonder band because of “Film Star,” which was the only charting single (it hit #25) of their brief career (they released three albums in the consecutive years of 1980-1982; they disbanded in 1983). Many other post-punk and New Wave bands are better remembered, but few made songs with the timeless staying power of “I’m in Love with a German Film Star.” Listening to it is like being enveloped in the welcoming darkness of a movie theater, maybe a small one like the kind where you might find the German matinee idol’s films playing.

Friday Music Focus: 3/17/17

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While I was putting today’s list of five songs/compositions together, I came across this quote from Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan: “People make decisions that may have one intent and yet are somehow perverted into something else. And sometimes it’s because of design. Sometimes it’s because of happenstance. But very often, it’s mysterious to them.” Food for thought.

Bette Davis, “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy” (scene from the film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, 1962, dir. Robert Aldrich). Just in time for the new FX mini-series “Feud: Bette and Joan,” I watched What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, featuring Bette Davis’s virtuoso performance as a former child star who grew older but never grew up. Ernest Haller’s stark cinematography makes “Baby Jane” look like a frightening wax figurine of Mary Pickford or some other silent star, a face that seems to be melting under the tonnage of caked-on stage makeup and still-golden ringlets. Simultaneously, Victor Buono, playing Edwin Flagg (the accompanist), offers his own master class in reactions to Jane’s grotesque exhibition.

Billy Idol, “Eyes Without a Face” (appears on the album Rebel Yell, 1983). Heard last night while walking past a store on Sixth Avenue (the chorus’s “Les yeux sans visage…” line sung by Perri Lister, wafting dreamily out of a speaker); I haven’t thought about this song in ages. I like to think that Billy Idol decided on the title before writing the song, either because he appreciated the 1960 horror film by Georges Franju, or just because it sounded to Idol and co-songwriter Steve Stevens like a cool name for a song. The lyrics don’t exactly connect with the title, but should that matter if the melody is memorable?

Peter Haycock, Derek Holt and Paul Di Franco (film score composers) featuring Eric Gale (guitar), “Closing Credits” (from the end credits of the film One False Move, 1992, dir. Carl Franklin). The year is young, but One False Move is definitely one of the finest films I have seen in 2017. Set in Los Angeles, on the highways of the Southwest and in the small town of Star City, Arkansas, the story combines film noir and Western genre elements in a uniquely blended crime drama that provided Bill Paxton with an excellent leading role (a naive rube of a sheriff who eventually learns that real crime can be vicious and bloody; imagine Fargo, but with a male lead instead of Frances McDormand). The film also granted superb supporting roles to Billy Bob Thornton (who co-wrote the original screenplay), Cynda Williams (who married Billy Bob shortly after filming wrapped in 1990, though they divorced in 1992), Michael Beach (a solid supporting actor for the last thirty years) and Natalie Canerday (who worked with Billy Bob again in Sling Blade, and later played Michael Shannon’s mother in Shotgun Stories).

P.S. If you want an additional endorsement: Gene Siskel gave One False Move the #1 spot on his list of the top ten best films of 1992 (his explanation for his choice starts at the 16:40 mark in the linked video).

Leonard Cohen featuring Sharon Robinson, “Everybody Knows” (appears on the album I’m Your Man, 1988; subsequent scene from the film Exotica, 1994, dir. Atom Egoyan). “Everybody knows, everybody knows/That’s how it goes/Everybody knows.” The Exotica nightclub is where the lives of several Toronto citizens intersect: stripper Christina (Mia Kirshner), tax/revenue agent Francis (Bruce Greenwood), rare egg smuggler Thomas (Don McKellar) and club owner Zoe (Arsinée Khanjian), as well as other characters who don’t appear in this particular clip – Eric (Elias Koteas), the club emcee who is obsessed with dancer Christina; Francis’s brother Harold (Victor Garber) and niece Tracey (Sarah Polley); the unnamed customs official (Calvin Green) who has a one-night stand with Thomas, putting Thomas’s contraband operation in jeopardy. These characters have messy pasts that have left them damaged psychologically and, in one case, also physically.

Atom Egoyan’s Exotica is a potent cocktail of sensuality and fatalism.  And if one has to perform stripteases in order to make a living, as Christina must do every night for the Exotica clientele, then what better soundtrack for one to disrobe to than the soul-baring songbook of Leonard Cohen?

James Horner, “The Launch” (from the score composed for the film Apollo 13, 1995, dir. Ron Howard). While watching Apollo 13 again and listening to Ron Howard’s commentary track, I was struck by the dignity of James Horner’s score in the scene when the NASA spacecraft embarks on its “successful failure” of a lunar mission. The secret to Horner’s success was his ability to respectfully represent the power of ordinary people accomplishing extraordinary feats, especially when they are faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

Why Did I Just Watch Titanic? Or, Some Thoughts on Grief

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Why did I put myself through the emotional upheaval of watching Titanic last night? What compelled me to sit through 194 minutes of tragic romance (the love story) and romanticized tragedy (everything else happening with the sinking ship)? No one agrees to do such a thing in the year 2017 without knowing how the film ends – knowing that the ship is doomed, knowing how the tale of Jack and Rose concludes – yet I chose to watch anyway. Beginning to end, all the way through; I don’t know if I had ever actually done that, although I had certainly seen numerous famous scenes before, especially in the last third of the film.

For the last week and a half I’ve been doing a movie and TV marathon. I’m watching every project with Bill Paxton that I can find. That means Apollo 13, the new “Training Day” series on CBS, even the somewhat obscure thriller Trespass. (I also watched True Lies again, a movie that I don’t especially care for, what with all the sexism, racism and other stereotypes played for guffaws. Paxton’s performance is fabulous, though, playing a used car salesman so skeevy that it makes complete sense when we hear him blasting the Bee Gees’ “More Than a Woman” on his convertible’s stereo. Wonderful song, but it has the capacity to appear oddly sleazeball-friendly in the wrong context.) (Also, I linked to the video above in a post last week, but here it is again in case you missed it – and it’s funny enough to deserve repeat viewings.) When an actor or musician passes away – David Bowie last year, for example – it is a comfort to me if I am already familiar with a great deal of the person’s work. It makes a difference to have appreciated someone when he was around, you know? But when a performer dies and I wasn’t nearly as well-versed in his oeuvre as I feel I ought to have been, the sadness is exponentially more profound.

Considering the dozen or so times I’ve enjoyed Twister (as seen above) since childhood, it doesn’t make sense why I didn’t follow up with more than a handful of other Bill Paxton movies. Not Weird Science or A Simple Plan or Frailty, not even Aliens (despite how much I love its predecessor, Alien). There is always something so bittersweet about not really discovering an artist’s legacy until after the fact – now every cinematic experience, even silly old True Lies, is tinged with posthumous poignancy.

So again I ask myself: why watch Titanic? Why put myself through the wringer? It’s such a ridiculous, overrated film in many respects. I had forgotten how atrocious the dialogue is (“Jack!” “Rose!” “Where are you, Jack?” “I’m here, Rose!” “Oh, Jack!” etc.) and that many of the supporting actors don’t get enough screen time (even in a three-hour movie) because Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet so thoroughly dominate the story being told. But the point of watching Titanic wasn’t just to roll my eyes at the cheesiness. There is undeniable catharsis in watching a film that is guaranteed to produce buckets of tears, like you can feel OK about the overwhelming sorrow because millions of moviegoers felt it too.

Titanic is a great – or maybe I need to rephrase: important – experience, not because of the quality of the filmmaking but because of the scope of the piece. The masses have always loved disaster films (again: see my love for Twister) and this particular film is one of the most epic of its kind; it’s a spectacle on the grandest scale imaginable. Say what you will about the excessive CGI special effects, but 70s-tastic dramas like The Poseidon Adventure sure don’t come close to James Cameron’s vision of the mighty Titanic foundering at sea in 1912.

So just how does Bill Paxton fit into this discussion of Titanic anyway? He plays Brock Lovett, the treasure hunter whose search for the fabled “Heart of the Ocean” necklace, which was supposedly on board the ship when it sank, leads Old Rose (dear Gloria Stuart!) to him. Paxton has the first and last lines of the movie, a small details that I hadn’t remembered or realized. I also forgot/maybe never knew that his character flaunts a cringeworthy, dirty-blonde almost-mullet, a piratical earring which obviously James Cameron thought was another super cool sartorial choice back in 1997, and a sweater probably plucked from an L.L. Bean winter catalog. But even with that aesthetic hodgepodge, and as jerky as Paxton’s character is during the first twenty minutes, the actor was such a professional that he made me care about the performance. Paxton is barely in the film, but as his name flashed by in the end credits and Céline Dion’s trembling vocals murmured the early verses of “My Heart Will Go On,” I wept even more; the emotion of the film met the emotion of real life. In this type of situation, the rivers of tears are a help, or if not “help,” at least a way of dealing with the thought of the random cruelty of life. The song plays on.

When an actor’s death affects me so strongly, I don’t just think of him as a celebrity, reduced to an image on a screen. Actors are human beings – a radical revelation, I know – but ever since the age of movie-fan magazines in the 1920s and 30s, there has been a tendency for actors to be thought of as mythical, deified, existing on a separate plane from us commoners. It is impossible for me not to mourn the loss of Bill Paxton, an actor who so many people (whether they worked with him or met him for only a moment) agree was a “nice guy,” and who, in a just world, would still be here to play those strange and intriguing supporting roles that lie slightly outside the realm of glamorous stardom. When I watch “Training Day” each week, I remember what I wrote in my notes after trying the pilot episode (I often scribble stray observations during commercial breaks): “Bill Paxton narrates like he’s a world-weary private eye in a film noir. Or maybe his voice is the sound of an old pair of cowboy boots walking across hot sand. Either way, a protagonist who isn’t Brad Pitt, not bionic Tom Cruise – he’s a man who you could believe has arthritis.” This show, Titanic, and the rest of the marathon: they all form a part of my grieving process for an artist who I have only just begun to appreciate. Cause-and-effect in reverse, you might say.

Friday Music Focus: 3/3/17

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Today we look at six songs/score compositions that occasionally mix the political with the personal, sometimes because of the musical content and sometimes because of my own experiences and reflections.

Michael Shannon, “Russians” (performed on “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon,” 2/28/17; song originally performed by Sting on the album The Dream of the Blue Turtles, 1985). This is everything that a great cover version should aspire to be: funny, strange, substituting the word “chicken” in place of “children” in one line (because why not?). In this unpredictable, often unsettling world we live in, it’s good to know that one of America’s finest actors can also be crowned the king of karaoke.

Ryan Adams, “Outbound Train” (appears on the album Prisoner, 2017). What is it about this particular song that I like so much even though I have never cared for Ryan Adams’ music? Almost a week after first listening to his latest album, Prisoner, in its entirety, I’m still working on the answer.

Ride, “Charm Assault” (single, 2017). And now we have an unquestionably great new song, brought to you by a British band that charmed fans in the early-to-mid-90s with stellar tunes like “Dreams Burn Down,” “Twisterella” and “Black Nite Crash” before going on a twenty-year hiatus. 2016 and 2017 have been exciting times for British bands of yesteryear: The Stone Roses released two new singles, Lush briefly reunited twenty years after breaking up for a successful EP and tour in 2016 before disbanding again; Slowdive returned after two decades with the terrific single “Star Roving”; plus it looks like we’ll be welcoming Elastica back too.

Martini Ranch, “How Can the Labouring Man Find Time for Self-Culture?” (music video; studio version appears on the album Poor Cow, 1988) and New Order, “Touched by the Hand of God” (music video; song appears on the soundtrack of the film Salvation!, 1987, dir. Beth B). The late, great Bill Paxton made appearances in a number of music videos in the 1980s – anyone who adores Pat Benatar has probably seen the World War II-set video for “Shadows of the Night,” in which Paxton has a small role as a Nazi radio operator, and if you’re a Barnes & Barnes fan, you will undoubtedly recall the promos created for “Fish Heads” (which Paxton also directed) and “Soak It Up” (one of the duo’s more conventional-sounding songs) – but my two favorite appearances by Paxton are in a video for a song by his own band, Martini Ranch, and in the video for New Order’s “Touched by the Hand of God.” Both clips riff on pop culture; “Labouring Man” references the themes and visual style of the classic Fritz Lang sci-fi film Metropolis (1927), while “Touched” shows New Order’s band members mocking the hair, clothes, and general music-video-storytelling sensibilities during the hair metal era. You barely see Paxton in the New Order video, but there’s something deeply affecting in the way that director Kathryn Bigelow presents the mysterious “love story” involving him and Rae Dawn Chong. Whatever the details in this couple’s existence, the narrative is open to interpretation and imagination.

Most of all, I just really love New Order and “Touched by the Hand of God” is one of my favorite songs by them.

Edward & Alex Van Halen, “Respect the Wind” (plays over the end credits of the film Twister, 1996, dir. Jan de Bont; appears on the soundtrack album, same year). Every fan of American film and television from the last thirty years probably has a go-to Bill Paxton role, something that immediately sticks out as an iconic piece of work that no other actor could have done as well. There are so many characters to choose from in so many productions: The Terminator, Weird Science, Aliens, Near Dark, Predator 2, One False Move, the notoriously freaky cult classic known as Boxing Helena, Tombstone, Apollo 13, Titanic, A Simple Plan, Frailty (which Paxton also directed), the HBO series “Big Love,” the History Channel mini-series “Hatfields & McCoys,” Nightcrawler and the CBS drama “Training Day” (which began airing only a month ago), to name a few. For me, the clear winner is Twister, a film which I will watch whenever it’s on TV, much like another action classic that Jan de Bont also directed in the mid-90s, Speed. (I’d like to note that my second favorite Paxton role is as the fast-talking, pervy car salesman in True Lies, mainly because it was the first film of his that I can remember seeing, albeit in an edited-for-TV format.) Twister feeds my fascination for disaster films, a love that I can trace back to when I was first horrified by The Towering Inferno as a kid; at least with Twister there is a mostly happy resolution and a feeling that human beings understand nature and themselves better at the end than they did at the beginning.

“Bill Paxton fought Aliens and The Terminator, but he was always just a guy from Fort Worth,” according to one recent essay’s headline. Paxton was exactly the sort of actor who the industry – and all of us – take for granted, seeing him play numerous kinds of parts regardless of recognition (or the lack thereof, most often), never being typecast because of his ability to slip back and forth between extraordinarily different roles with ease. He has also been eulogized as an exceptionally nice guy by his family, friends, coworkers and even fans who met him for only a brief moment.

I remember the first time I saw Twister again after Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death, which made seeing his goofy, fun-loving character again both sweet and sad, but I remember especially how much more bittersweet the film’s end credits sequence was when I saw Hoffman’s name while the Van Halen brothers’ guitars wailed out “Respect the Wind.” On Wednesday night, I caught part of Twister on the channel Spike; after Bill Paxton’s untimely passing, the Van Halens’ song has accrued yet another layer of poignancy. No matter how much we like or take notice of performers, in many cases it is not until they have shuffled off this mortal coil that we fully appreciate their immense talents. In the pilot of Paxton’s new show “Training Day,” another actor has a line of dialogue that perfectly describes what Bill Paxton did with his own career: “We try to leave this world a little better than we found it.” Requiescat in pace, Bill.

Women-Directed/Photographed Films Coming to Theaters: March 2017

Actress/executive producer Jessica Chastain (left) and director Niki Caro (right) on the set of The Zookeeper’s Wife, 2015.

Here are nineteen new movies due to be released in theaters or via other viewing platforms this March, all of which have been directed and/or photographed by women. These titles are sure to intrigue cinephiles and also provoke meaningful discussions on the film world, as well as the world in general.

MARCH 3: Before I Fall (dir. Ry Russo-Young)Synopsis from the film’s official website: “What if you had only one day to change absolutely everything? Samantha Kingston (Zoey Deutch) has everything: the perfect friends, the perfect guy, and a seemingly perfect future. Then, everything changes. After one fateful night, Sam wakes up with no future at all. Trapped reliving the same day over and over, she begins to question just how perfect her life really was. As she begins to untangle the mystery of a life suddenly derailed, she must also unwind the secrets of the people closest to her, and discover the power of a single day to make a difference, not just in her own life, but in the lives of those around her–before she runs out of time for good.”

MARCH 3: Catfight (dir. Onur Tukel) (DP: Zoe White)Excerpt from a Vanity Fair’s Toronto International Film Festival review by Jordan Freeman: “What might be the most refreshing film of the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival feels like it could be the result of a drunken dare. Imagine a movie in which Anne Heche and Sandra Oh beat the ever-loving snot out of each other in drawn-out, bareknuckle brawls so ridiculously over-the-top they can shock an audience out of any desensitized-to-violence stupor. All that, plus a recurring character called the Fart Machine.

“Like Jules Dassin’s wrestling sequence in Night and the City or the ‘put on these glasses!’ battle in John Carpenter’s They Live, the absurdist use of fisticuffs in Onur Tukel’s extremely independent Catfight is unnerving, strangely hilarious—and, whether you accept it or not, meaningful. Catfight, which begins like any other urbane New York satire, quickly unravels into a surrealist nightmare, leaning into its low budget so hard that even a hastily decorated hospital-room set evokes a feverish symbolism. Catfight doesn’t take place in our world, which is how it ends up being more insightful about larger social issues than most movies you’ll see this year.

“Oh’s Veronica is a wine-loving, wealthy mom with a live-in housekeeper and a husband (Damian Young) who’s giddy that the president has announced a ‘new war.’ His company (debris disposal) has signed a Pentagon contract, so a new battlefront means a major infusion of cash. Then they attend a Manhattan party that just so happens to be catered by Lisa (Alicia Silverstone), whose girlfriend Ashley (Heche) is a brilliant but defiantly uncommercial painter. And as it turns out, Veronica and Ashley were pals in college before life choices (and Veronica’s homophobia?) tore them apart.

“What could have been a minor social hiccup at seeing someone who has fallen a few rungs on the social ladder quickly goes nuclear, and that’s when the pair have their first of many blow-out, bruising fights.”

MARCH 3 (theatrical release in Los Angeles), MARCH 7 (available on DVD and Video on Demand): Fair Haven (dir. Kerstin Karlhuber)Synopsis from the film’s official website:Fair Haven is an upcoming feature film from Silent Giant Productions and Trick Candle Productions.  It stars Tom Wopat (“Dukes of Hazzard,” Django Unchained) Michael Grant (“Secret Life of the American Teenager”) Josh Green (Alvin and the Chipmunks: Road Chip, in theaters now!) Gregory Harrison (“Reckless,” “Trapper John MD”) and Jennifer Taylor (“Two and a Half Men”). Fair Haven is directed by Kerstin Karlhuber, produced by Tom Malloy, and written by Jack Bryant.

“Synopsis: a young man returns to his family farm, after a long stay in ex-gay conversion therapy, and is torn between the expectations of his emotionally distant father, and the memories of a past, loving relationship he has tried to bury.”

MARCH 3: The Institute (dirs. James Franco and Pamela Romanowsky)Excerpts from IndieWire post by Liz Calvario: “The ever-busy James Franco has taken on a darker role in his latest film, The Institute. Co-directed by Franco and Pamela Romanowsky, the movie is a period psychological thriller set in 19th century Baltimore.

“…The Institute centers on Isabel Porter, a young woman (Allie Gallerani) who, after the untimely death of her parents, checks herself into the mental hospital Rosewood Institute. While there, she encounters Dr. Cairnes (Franco) who subjects her to unconventional bizarre, pseudo-scientific experiments in brainwashing and mind control.

“…The Institute also co-stars Josh Duhamel, Pamela Anderson, Topher Grace, Joe Pease, Scott Haze, Lori Singer and Tim Blake Nelson. Hailing from Rabbit Bandini Productions, the thriller is produced by Franco, Vince Jolivette, Jay Davis, Christa Campbell, Lati Grobman and Scott Reed.

“Romanowsky and Franco have previously worked together on The Adderall Diaries and the short film Tar.

MARCH 3: Kings, Queens & In-Betweens (dir. Gabrielle Burton)Cinema Village synopsis: “Through the compelling stories of 8 performers in the thriving drag scene of Columbus, Ohio, Kings, Queens & In-Betweens dives into the next frontier — the often misunderstood topic of ‘gender’ itself. With humor and pathos, KQIB makes a complex subject approachable for mainstream audiences — inviting viewers into a conversation about the distinct differences between gender, sex, and sexuality that has not been represented in film before. Notably, KQIB is the first film to include the entire gender performance range: drag kings, queens, trans performers, and in-betweeners. KQIB draws the viewer in to a crucial discussion in current events about human rights, experience — and ultimately about identity itself.”

MARCH 3: The Last Laugh (dir. Ferne Pearlstein) (DPs: Anne Etheridge and Ferne Pearlstein)The Film Collaborative synopsis: “Are we allowed to make jokes about the Holocaust? In this outrageously funny and thought-provoking film, director Ferne Pearlstein puts the question about comedy’s ultimate taboo to legends including Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Sarah Silverman, Gilbert Gottfried, Alan Zweibel, Harry Shearer, Jeff Ross, Judy Gold, Susie Essman, Larry Charles, Jake Ehrenreich, and many other critical thinkers, as well as Holocaust survivors themselves.

“These interviews are woven together with a vast array of material ranging from ‘The Producers’ and ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm,’ to clips of comics such as Louis CK, Joan Rivers, and Chris Rock, to newly discovered footage of Jerry Lewis’ never-released film Holocaust comedy The Day the Clown Cried, to rare footage of cabarets inside the concentration camps themselves. In so doing, The Last Laugh offers fresh insights into the Holocaust, our own psyches, and what else—9/11, AIDS, racism—is or isn’t off-limits in a society that prizes freedom of speech.

The Last Laugh also disproves the idea that there is nothing left to say about the Holocaust and opens a fresh avenue for approaching this epochal tragedy. Star-studded, provocative and thoroughly entertaining, The Last Laugh dares to ask uncomfortable questions about just how free speech can really be, with unexpected and hilarious results that will leave you both laughing and appreciating the importance of humor even in the face of events that make you want to cry.”

MARCH 3: Nakom (dirs. Kelly Daniela Norris and T.W. Pittman)Cinema Village synopsis:Set in present day Ghana, Nakom follows Iddrisu, a talented medical student who is summoned home by his sister after their father’s sudden death. Iddrisu reluctantly returns home to the village of Nakom, buries his father and temporarily assumes the head of the impoverished household and farm, inheriting not only the delicate task of planting a successful crop but also a debt left by the deceased patriarch that could destroy the family. Attempting to maintain part of his studies from the confines of a small hut, Iddrisu becomes increasingly frustrated with the incessant physical and emotional needs of those around him, the demanding toil of the land and lack of rain. A contentious relationship with his uncle Napolean, to whom the sizeable debt is owed, is further complicated by the unplanned pregnancy of Napolean’s granddaughter who was sent to live with Iddrisu’s family.

“As the new patriarch grapples with tradition and familial duty, he is met with varying shades of contempt by both family and villagers who compare him with his father expecting a resemblance. Iddrisu’s patience and wisdom are tempered by the strange paradox created by his faith in God and desire for control, the latter of which he cannot have so long as he stays in Nakom. As circumstances swell, Iddrisu suddenly begins to realize that no future for him exists in the place where he is needed the most, even despite an offer by the village Chieftain to remain in Nakom to become an elder and marry his daughter.

“A selection of the Museum of Modern Art and Film Society of Lincoln Center’s prestigious New Directors/New Films series, Nakom is a highly relatable story about traversing the line between family and self-preservation.”

MARCH 10: Badrinath Ki Dulhania (dir. Shashank Khaitan) (DP: Neha Parti Matiyani)IMDb synopsis: “Badrinath Bansal from Jhansi and Vaidehi Trivedi from Kota belong to small towns but have diametrically opposite opinions on everything.This leads to a clash of ideologies, despite both of them recognizing the goodness in each other.”

MARCH 10: Raw (dir. Julia Ducournau)Excerpt from The Guardian’s Toronto International Film Festival review by Peter Bradshaw: “Julia Ducournau is a 33-year-old first-time feature director who makes her worryingly brilliant debut with this saturnalia of arthouse horror. At the Toronto film festival, it had audiences dry-heaving and indeed wet-heaving in the aisles and the cinema lavatories. This is the sort of film which pundits are often keen to label ‘black comedy’ as a way of re-establishing their own sang-froid. In the same tongue-in-cheek spirit, it has been called coming-of-age drama. There is a grain of truth in both of these labels. It is a film about cannibalism, and has clearly been influenced by Jorge Michel Grau’s We Are What We Are, John Fawcett’s Ginger Snaps, and perhaps especially Marina de Van’s body shocker In My Skin – which incidentally featured a young Laurent Lucas, a veteran of extreme French cinema who also turns up here.

“While it isn’t exactly true to say that cannibalism is just a metaphor for something else, eating human flesh is appropriate for a drama about sexuality, identity, body image and conformity. It’s a film in which the lead character is briefly aware of becoming more attractive by losing weight – not so long after she had participated in a jokey student conversation about monkeys being sexually assaulted and then getting anorexia and having to see a therapist. And in a society where eating is somehow criminalised, cannibalism is an appropriate fantasy.

“Justine (Garance Marillier) is a teenager heading off to college to study veterinary science: her sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) is already there, doing the same course a year ahead, and it becomes clear that her doting, protective parents (played by Laurent Lucas and Joana Preiss) took their own degrees there many years before. Justine is a virgin, an idealistic person, a believer in animal rights and above all a vegetarian. So she is horrified by a student initiation ritual in which she has to eat a rabbit kidney. Yet meekly aware of the need to fit in, she does it; she suffers a reaction for which the doctor suggests fasting and all this somehow triggers a whole new yearning.

“What is very impressive about Raw is that absolutely everything about it is disquieting, not just the obvious moments of revulsion: there is no let up in the ambient background buzz of fear. The scenes showing the frat-type ‘hazing’ are extraordinary and very convincing – as if studying to be a vet is like joining the Foreign Legion. Students are brutally woken in the middle of the night: humiliated, bullied, assured that not to submit would be to wimp out and let everyone down. Going to university was an experience which Justine had probably thought would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to find herself, to express herself, to find her individuality and personality. Instead, college and adulthood seems more like a fascistic world of submission and staying in line – or even like some post-apocalyptic society in which these freaky cult rituals have grown up as part of survival.”

MARCH 15: Tickling Giants (dir. Sara Taksler)IFC Center synopsis: “In the midst of the Egyptian Arab Spring, Bassem Youssef makes a decision that’s every mother’s worst nightmare… He leaves his job as a heart surgeon to become a full-time comedian.

“Dubbed ‘The Egyptian Jon Stewart,’ Bassem creates the most viewed television program in the Middle East. He has 30 million viewers per episode compared to The Daily Show with Jon Stewart’s 2 million viewers. In a country where free speech is not settled law, Bassem comes up with creative ways to non-violently challenge abuses of power. He endures physical threats, protests, and legal action, all because of jokes.

“No unicorns or falafel were harmed in the making of this film.”

MARCH 17 (streaming on Netflix): Deidra & Laney Rob a Train (dir. Sydney Freeland) (DP: Quyen Tran)Salt Lake Tribune’s Sundance Film Festival review by Sean P. Means: “Sisters become a modern-day Butch and Sundance in Deidra & Laney Rob a Train, a smart comedy propelled by two winning young actors. Deidra (Ashleigh Murray) and her younger sister Laney (Rachel Crow) both have the same dream: To get out of the backwater Idaho town where they live, near the railroad tracks. Deidra’s way is to be valedictorian and get a scholarship to college. Laney’s is to sign up for the Miss Teen Idaho pageant — something she only did to keep her pageant-obsessed friend Claire (Brooke Markham) company. (Though the movie is set in Idaho, it was filmed in Utah — primarily around Ogden and at the Heber Valley Railroad.)

“Then their mother, Goldie (Danielle Nicolet) goes berserk in a home-electronics store and gets sent to jail. The girls have to figure out a way to earn money, keep the kitchen stocked and have some adult supervision around their little brother Jet (Lance Gray) so the child-welfare officer doesn’t split the kids apart. After watching a news report about cargo being stolen from a train, Deidra sees a solution. She devises a plan to hop on the train cars down the track, crack open a container box, throw a few loading boxes into their backyard, and sell the goods. Deidra pulls a reluctant Laney into the plan with her.

“Director Sydney Freeland (Drunktown’s Finest, SFF ’14) and first-time screenwriter Shelby Farrell find humor in the sisters’ dilemma, and even more laughs in the behavior of the ostensible grown-ups around them. (The cast includes Tim Blake Nelson as an overzealous railroad cop and ‘Saturday Night Live’s’ Sasheer Zamata as the school’s counselor.) It’s young Murray and Crow who give Deidra & Laney Rob a Train its spunk and its quicksilver emotional shifts, as the girls veer from criminal masterminds to argumentative siblings in no time flat.”

MARCH 21 (available on DVD and Video on Demand): Split (dir. Deborah Kampmeier) (DP: Alison Kelly)Excerpts from On Video post:Split tells the story of Inanna (Amy Ferguson, The Master, Inherent Vice, Garden State), a young actress working as a stripper, who becomes obsessed with a mask maker (Morgan Spector, The Drop, The Last Airbender, ‘Boardwalk Empire’) and sacrifices parts of herself, piece by piece, in order to win his love.  At the same time, the film depicts a mythic journey that blurs theater performance, dreams and real life, as Inanna connects with other women’s experiences of trauma and repressed sexuality. This provocative and powerful confrontation frees Inanna, and she’s able to claim her rage and rise to her own independence.

“Daring in its raw portrayal of female sexuality and traumas, Split, which captured ‘Best of Show’ and the 2016 Female Eye Film Festival, includes a significant amount of female (and male) nudity, masturbation and on-screen portrayal of mastectomy and genital mutilation scars. Split also features an intergenerational, multiracial cast with diverse body types – including several non-actors sharing personal stories – and is daring in its depiction of an older woman as the principal example of uninhibited rage and sexuality.

“Kampmeier considers Split as the last part of a trilogy, which include the controversial Sundance Grand Jury-nominated Hounddog (2007), in which a 12-year-old girl, played by Dakota Fanning, is raped; and the acclaimed and award-winning Virgin (2003), about a 17-year-old, played by Elisabeth Moss, struggling with spirituality and sexuality.  The filmmaker goes further with Split, which Indie Outlook called, ‘an arrestingly raw howl of fury at the global stigmatization of female sexuality…complete with startling imagery evocative of Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut.‘”

MARCH 22: A Woman, a Part (dir. Elisabeth Subrin)IFC Center synopsis: “Can you rewrite a life? Burnt out on her career, successful LA actress Anna (Maggie Siff of ‘Mad Men’ and ‘Billions’), abruptly walks off her mind-numbing, sexist network show. She runs away to New York, hoping to reconnect with two old friends, former theater collaborators she’d abandoned for Hollywood who now find themselves struggling to survive in the rapidly gentrifying city. As Anna’s arrival tears open old wounds, all three are forced to reckon with their pasts and their uncertain futures (with Cara Seymour, John Ortiz & Khandi Alexander).”

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MARCH 24: Prevenge (dir. Alice Lowe)IFC Center synopsis: “A pitch black, wryly British comedy from the mind of Alice Lowe (SightseersHot Fuzz, Paddington), Prevenge follows Ruth, a pregnant woman on a killing spree that’s as funny as it is vicious. It’s her misanthropic unborn baby dictating Ruth’s actions, holding society responsible for the absence of a father. The child speaks to Ruth from the womb, coaching her to lure and ultimately kill her unsuspecting victims. Struggling with her conscience, loneliness, and a strange strain of prepartum madness, Ruth must ultimately choose between redemption and destruction at the moment of motherhood.

Prevenge the directorial debut from Lowe, who is a true triple threat, writing, directing, and acting in the film during her own real-life pregnancy.”

MARCH 29: Karl Marx City (dirs. Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker)Film Forum synopsis: “Unsurprisingly, East Germany (aka the GDR/German Democratic Republic) boasts people who are experts in suicide notes. The Soviet satellite came to an ignoble end when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, leaving behind a lot of unanswered questions, among them Petra Epperlein’s suspicion that her father (a suicide) spied for the Stasi, the state police.  Now a New Yorker, Epperlein, and co-filmmaker Michael Tucker (Gunner Palace) return to her childhood home and, with wonderful graphic panache, investigate her family’s past as well as the life of a nation in which one out of three citizens spied on the other two. Making smart use of ‘jaw-dropping period material which includes some wildly creepy Stasi surveillance imagery’ (Manohla Dargis, The New York Times), it’s a Cold War mystery tale and a psycho-political look at how the larger world impacts our individual understanding of love, trust, and betrayal.”

MARCH 31 (in theaters and on Video on Demand; also available now on DirecTV): The Blackcoat’s Daughter (dir. Osgood “Oz” Perkins) (DP: Julie Kirkwood) [release date moved back from September 2016]Excerpt from Pop Matters’ Independent Film Festival Boston review by Valeriy Kolyadych: “A female-only boarding school is the setting of The Blackcoat’s Daughter. Covered, positively blanketed in snow, it’s isolated, the nights an unrelenting pitch black. Inside are two girls, Kat (Kiernan Shipka) and Rose (Lucy Boynton), both left behind during a February break, waiting for their parents. They wander through empty hallways, but the subtle noises—screeching creaks and low groans—betray the assumption that they’re alone here.

“At the same time, Joan (Emma Roberts), a girl with a cloudy past, wanders through a cold, snowy landscape, eventually hitching a ride with an unnamed couple whose strained dynamic hints at trouble unspoken. They share uncomfortable car rides to a town a few miles away, the husband assuming a strangely paternal role for Joan.

“Formerly titled February, The Blackcoat’s Daughter is a slow, moody, and thoroughly unnerving walk through an almost overwhelmingly oppressive atmosphere. Osgood Perkins, son of Psycho actor Anthony Perkins, demonstrates great skill in developing the film’s occult atmosphere. His jagged camera angles and the dark, discordant music combine with subdued performances—naturalistic with a small degree of slowly simmering insanity underneath them—to create a creeping mood that seems perfectly tailored to the film’s narrative.”

MARCH 31 (theatrical release), APRIL 4 (Internet release): Carrie Pilby (dir. Susan Johnson)Toronto International Film Festival synopsis by Jane Schoettle: “Awkward, isolated and disapproving of most of the people around her, a precocious 19-year-old genius is challenged to put her convictions to the test by venturing out on to the NYC dating scene, in this adaptation of Caren Lissner’s best-selling 2003 novel.

“Depending on your point of view, Carrie Pilby (Bel Powley) either has a problem or she is a problem. This very clever girl graduated Harvard at the age of 19 and lives in a small NYC apartment paid for by her London-based father. World on a string, right? On the contrary — Carrie has no job, no purpose, and no friends, because she actively dislikes just about everyone (rating them ‘morally and intellectually unacceptable’) as only a teenager can. Her one regular contact is her dad’s therapist friend, Dr. Petrov (Nathan Lane), who after a fruitless series of weekly visits finally sets Carrie some homework: a five-point plan to get her life together.

“Carrie grudgingly agrees to go through the list, but her execution leaves something to be desired. Item #3 (‘Go on a date — with someone you like!’) backfires particularly badly when her Craigslist mate search leads to a connection with Matt (Jason Ritter), a man who is engaged but ‘unsure.’ The results of that endeavour call for an emergency visit to Dr. Petrov. And when her father’s circumstances undergo a drastic change, Carrie begins to understand that reconciling with the past is the only way to tick those items off the to-do list.

“Adapted from Caren Lissner’s bestselling novel, Carrie Pilby is a winning comedy about the metropolitan life of privileged youth, but it’s also much more than that. As the source of Carrie’s misanthropy is gradually revealed, our empathy for her grows, even if we want to pull our hair out in frustration at her lack of life skills. You might just end up loving her, even if she hates you.”

MARCH 31: David Lynch: The Art Life (dir. Jon Nguyen with co-dirs. Rick Barnes and Olivia Neergaard-Holm)DOC NYC synopsis: “While known for his distinctive, dreamlike films like Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive, David Lynch began his creative explorations through art, originally training as a painter in Philadelphia. David Lynch: The Art Life grants viewers unparalleled, intimate access to the enigmatic auteur while he works in his painting studio. Early memories and reflections on his formative years through the triumph of Eraserhead reveal eerie connections to his body of work, making this portrait an indispensable look at an artist and his process.”

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MARCH 31: The Zookeeper’s Wife (dir. Niki Caro)Focus Features synopsis: “The real-life story of one working wife and mother who became a hero to hundreds during World War II. In 1939 Poland, Antonina Żabińska (portrayed by two-time Academy Award nominee Jessica Chastain) and her husband, Dr. Jan Żabiński (Johan Heldenbergh, a European Film Award nominee for the Academy Award-nominated The Broken Circle Breakdown), have the Warsaw Zoo flourishing under his stewardship and her care. When their country is invaded by the Germans, Jan and Antonina are stunned and forced to report to the Reich’s newly appointed chief zoologist, Lutz Heck (Golden Globe Award nominee Daniel Brühl of Captain America: Civil War). To fight back on their own terms, the Żabińskis covertly begin working with the Resistance and put into action plans to save lives out of what has become the Warsaw Ghetto, with Antonina putting herself and even her children at great risk.”