2015: Part 10

Black Mass. Directed by Scott Cooper. In 1990, Johnny Depp made a film called Edward Scissorhands which obscured his “21 Jump Street” looks under extreme makeup, hair and costumes and, by extension, allowed Depp the freedom to perform in a purer way. The audience could see his abilities as an actor better than they could when he looked like a teen heartthrob, and the result was a classic that I consider one of the ten best films ever made. Twenty-five years later, in Black Mass, Depp covers himself up with aging makeup, distractingly blue-eyed contacts, rotting teeth and an exaggerated Boston accent, the combined effect of which leaves me hollow and indifferent. What happened?

Maybe my opinion is too clouded by the recent, nasty divorce proceedings going on between Depp and Amber Heard; maybe it’s just that I’m no longer impressed by Depp’s detached, possibly inebriated persona in every late-night interview I’ve seen him do for the last ten years. Whatever the reason is, while watching Black Mass I realized that I could not enjoy an iota of Johnny Depp’s performance. He snarls and shoots and occasionally strangles while playing gangster overlord James “Whitey” Bulger, but by the end I felt like so what? The only sympathetic characters in the film – Dakota Johnson as Bulger’s girlfriend, Julianne Nicholson as the fearful wife of an FBI agent who is also one of Bulger’s closest friends (Joel Edgerton), Juno Temple as a prostitute whose relationship with Bulger’s main right-hand man gets her in trouble – are either dropped from the film or meet with violence from Bulger and his cronies. I’m not saying that the film glorifies the bad guys, but the direction and screenplay bring nothing new to this depiction of sadistic criminality. I have seen the scenes in Black Mass many times in similar movies, and they were almost always done more successfully by other filmmakers.

The Boy Next Door. Directed by Rob Cohen. The Boy Next Door is one of those sexy-but-stupid thrillers that plays out exactly like you know it will if you’ve seen the trailer (or, really, even if you haven’t): an English teacher (Jennifer Lopez), recently separated from her husband (John Corbett, who in middle age now resembles John Heard) after he cheats on her with a co-worker, is surprised and pleased when a hunky young man (Ryan Guzman) moves in with his elderly uncle next door. Said young man proceeds to befriend Lopez’s nerdy teenage son (Ian Nelson), and also to charm J. Lo and flirt with her endlessly; when Corbett and Nelson go on a father-son camping trip and Lopez has a bad experience on a blind date, a night of drunken loneliness leads her to make the terrible mistake of allowing sweet, puppy-dog-ish Guzman to seduce her and have sex with her. Ah, but comes the dawn…

Lopez knows she has done a problematic thing. The issue isn’t Guzman’s age – the character is “almost twenty” (the actor was 26/27) – but rather the fact that he has just enrolled in Lopez’s English class (I don’t recall an explanation as to why he never finished high school), which means an unsettling conflict of interest. Naturally Guzman can’t take “no relationship” for an answer and he turns out to be an A-class psycho who stalks Lopez at home, at school and everywhere else, as well as turning teen son Nelson against Lopez and Corbett. (There’s also the issue of Lopez’s best friend, Kristin Chenoweth, who is the vice principal at the school – she senses right away that there’s something not quite right about Guzman, and of course she eventually pays the price for trying to help Lopez.) Long story short, there’s not much to recommend The Boy Next Door unless you’re incredibly bored and you have an hour and a half to waste, although the cinematography by David McFarland is occasionally quite striking and Ian Nelson, as Lopez and Corbett’s son, is a pretty good actor. He has a kind of young John Cusack quality to him, so perhaps he can capitalize on that someday.

The Intern. Directed by Nancy Meyers. Ah, yes, the typical Nancy Meyers quote-unquote “chick flick.” I must try not to say that too disparagingly (as a lady myself and therefore in the wished-for demographic), but there is something hopelessly discouraging in the idea that a blend of The Devil Wears Prada and Meyers’ own What Women Want (at least as far as the “woman trying to balance being the head of a company and having a love life” thing goes) would end up as anything other than sappy. Robert De Niro and Anne Hathaway, professionals that they are, do their utmost to keep the proceedings entertaining as the title intern and his overworked boss respectively and, when called upon to do it, they are emotionally engaging too. What weakens the film, however, is all of the melodrama Hathaway experiences both in and out of the office. Frustrated by too much paperwork! Looking for a new CEO! Dealing with a cheating husband! The Intern throws a lot at us. If anything, the film is most worth seeing for the charms of Rene Russo as De Niro’s love interest – in her early 60s, she is still effortlessly sexy – and for Anders Holm, who holds his own in dramatic scenes as Hathaway’s husband (you know he’s doing Important Acting since he has dyed-brown hair, a beard and glasses – but in all seriousness, he’s good in the film). (Also: Adam DeVine, Holm’s co-star on “Workaholics,” is also in The Intern but they don’t share any scenes.) You can guess where The Intern is going to go by seeing the trailer, or maybe even just from looking at the poster: De Niro always knows what to say in order to be helpful; he is probably one of the most feminist male characters of his age that you’re likely to see in a movie any time soon; ultimately he guides Hathaway to becoming a better, stronger person. You may cry at some of the touching sentimentality in The Intern, but it’s doubtful that you’ll laugh at the predictable, cheesy comedy.

No Manifesto: A Film About Manic Street Preachers. Directed by Elizabeth Marcus. I am of two minds regarding this documentary about Manic Street Preachers, the Welsh rock band I discovered five months ago and who have totally turned my world upside down with their brilliant music, lyrics, singing, glamour, politics, love of literature and so much more. Enjoying an hour and a half to absorb this fantastic band’s music and philosophy is divine, but the question is for whom the film is intended. If it was made primarily with fans in mind (viewers who, let’s face it, make up the majority of people who have seen/will see the film), then the film does not offer enough to appease superfans. (The most interesting bits – Nicky and Sean arguing about the longevity of music, James and music producer Dave Eringa having breakfast in an NYC diner – were left out of the finished film and appear as extras on the DVD.) If the film was made to introduce the Manics’ discography to prospective fans, then the film also falls short; director Elizabeth Marcus tries to make the film both a current (well, current at the time) look at the band recording their 2007 “comeback” album Send Away the Tigers and also a retrospective history of the band from 1986 to the present day. It is an impossible undertaking to attempt to chronicle every detail of the band’s oeuvre (so of course that doesn’t happen) and it feels like a failing on Marcus’s part that we see footage of the Manics being interviewed in the early 90s, yet there is no concert footage from between 1992 and 1994; we see the guys do “Stay Beautiful” in 1991, and the next chronological show clip is “A Design for Life” in 1996. This means that inexperienced viewers never see the band performing in their leopard-print Generation Terrorists get-ups (although we see the clothing in pieces of interviews), doing the more low-key thing in 1993 or performing in military regalia for The Holy Bible in 1994. The visuals are just as important as the sounds! And while it’s all well and good to see the trio doing “Motorcycle Emptiness,” “Sleepflower,” “Yes,” “Archives of Pain,” “Faster,” “Die in the Summertime,” and others circa 2006/2007, not hearing/seeing the songs from when they were originally made does a disservice to the film and to the band. It might be somewhat difficult for non-Manics fans to get a strong enough sense of why people get so obsessed with the band.

Oh, and how can you make a film about the Manics and not include one of their signature songs, “You Love Us”? I’m not sure I heard the phrase Everything Must Go uttered at all either, despite the time spent talking about “A Design for Life.” Strange.

Obviously it is fun, though, to spend 95 minutes in the presence of a band that has the power to change your life. It’s easy to see from the interviews with fans that the Manics have altered their lives permanently (and wonderfully). Watching Nicky jumping rope in a skirt, or playing with his dog Molly, or excitedly meeting Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson of Rush, is lovely; seeing James cook omelets is a delight; Sean’s enjoyment of sniper rifles and his time spent at a shooting range is a little scary. I just wish that the film had either spent more time focusing on the making of Send Away the Tigers (wouldn’t it have been nice to see/hear the creation of the major hit “Your Love Alone Is Not Enough”?) or else make a film concentrated more deeply on the band’s history. By trying to do both, the film unfortunately does not completely succeed.

P.S. When the DVD came in the mail, there was a thank-you note from director Elizabeth Marcus and producer/editor Kurt Engfehr. Very nice!

Suffragette. Directed by Sarah Gavron. A film so disappointing that I almost forgot that I watched it last week, Suffragette takes a fascinating topic and grinds it down into mediocrity with bland, dreary direction. The 1910s suffrage movement and the fight for women’s rights are topics that are still relevant today, but Sarah Gavron’s film dilutes its own potential impact by focusing its narrative on a composite character, Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan, a good performer as always), rather than on the real-life suffragette Emily Wilding Davison (played by Natalie Press in a supporting role). The melodramas of Maud’s family life take up quite a bit of the running time; while the issues of abuse at home and in the workplace are stories that should indeed have been told in the film, it might have been more effective if Abi Morgan’s screenplay was based on a real protagonist rather than a fictional one. That being said, Ben Whishaw did an excellent job at playing Carey Mulligan’s unsympathetic husband and I liked the performances by Helena Bonham Carter, Brendan Gleeson and Anne-Marie Duff as well. Meryl Streep overacts embarrassingly, but her performance as leading activist Emmeline Pankhurst is merely a cameo. Watch Suffragette if you like anyone in the cast, but don’t expect an accurate history lesson.

Indelible Film Images: Gods of the Plague

Gods of the Plague (1970) – dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Starring: Hanna Schygulla, Margarethe von Trotta, Harry Baer, Günther Kaufmann, Carla Egerer, Ingrid Caven, Jan George, Lilo Pempeit, Hannes Gromball, Lilith Ungerer

Cinematography: Dietrich Lohmann

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Friday Music Focus: 7/8/16

Since this will be my last “Friday Music Focus” post for a while – I will be on vacation starting next weekend – I hope I can make this one count. These ten entries form a small percentage of my musical intake. I am constantly listening to new albums, singles, live performances and random, weird stuff; the following list may introduce you to some exciting new sounds. Enjoy!

Glass Animals, “Life Itself” (single, 2016). My favorite new song that I heard on a BBC radio program this week: the first single released from British indie rock group Glass Animals’ upcoming second album, How to Be a Human Being (due out in August). I always like a song that tells a story.

We Are Scientists, “Buckle” (live on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” 2016; studio version appears on the album Helter Seltzer, 2016). Seen last week: a catchy song by a band that I have heard of (their first album came out ten years ago) but never listened to; the new album, Helter Seltzer, turned out to be disappointing, but this lead single is really good and I was impressed by what I saw in this TV performance.

Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Dark Necessities” (music video; studio version appears on the album The Getaway, 2016). Much less impressive than the previous number on the list is the first single from the new Red Hot Chili Peppers album, The Getaway. (Anthony Kiedis and Flea have been doing this music thing since 1983, so it’s a miracle that they aren’t fossils yet.) The music video was directed by actress Olivia Wilde, which is interesting since the skaters seen in the clip are all women – God knows the Peppers are not the world’s most feminist band, so I guess this is a step forward – and perhaps Wilde contributed some ideas to the concept. I cannot, however, get over the fact that Josh Klinghoffer, the guitarist who joined RHCP after longtime member John Frusciante’s departure in 2009, both plays and sings like Frusciante. Same guitar tone, same high-pitched background vocals. He even has a hairstyle similar to John Frusciante’s funky late 80s/early 90s ‘do. I wish Josh would carve out his own niche instead of being a replacement and a mimic.

Tacocat, “Talk” (music video; studio version appears on the album Lost Time, 2016). If you want to hear and see a real feminist rock band, try Tacocat.

Mick Harvey, “Deadly Tedium” (music video; studio version appears on the album Delirium Tremens, 2016). From Tacocat to a music video co-starring a cat. Mick’s translation/interpretation of this Serge Gainsbourg song has a jazzy, loungy cabaret quality and there is a delightful sense of humor, sort of like an oddball film noir in color, evident in the video.

Pi Ja Ma, “Radio Girl” (music video; studio version appears on the EP Radio Girl, 2016). Utilizing another pop-throwback type of sound, Pi Ja Ma (aka Dominique de Tarragon, a French musician/visual artist) offers a memorable beat and a ton of whimsy.

Meilyr Jones, “Strange/Emotional” (music video; studio version appears on the album 2013, 2016). There is something immensely charming about Meilyr Jones, whether in his music or in soft-spoken interviews. Reviewers have described his style as “chamber pop,” a categorization that aptly describes many of his slow, lushly orchestrated songs but which I think also applies to the more upbeat track “Strange/Emotional.”

The Anchoress feat. Paul Draper, “You and Only You” (music video; studio version appears on the album Confessions of a Romance Novelist, 2016). The Anchoress, aka Catherine Anne Davies (or “Catherine AD”), first appeared on my radar when I saw a review of her debut album in The Guardian this past January. But the Welsh singer-songwriter permanently earned a place in my heart when she wrote a guest column for Q magazine last month, detailing her lifelong obsession with her fellow countrymen, the Manic Street Preachers. One paragraph contains some of what I consider the best assessments anyone has ever made of the group: “…as a Manics ‘groupie’ (and I use the term very loosely here) you were more likely to end up with a PhD than an STD. This was a band that encouraged you to devour books and films and suck in culture; to open your mind, not your legs. They were a band that glamourised the idea of being intelligent – a notion that can be endlessly empowering for a young girl looking for a way to be valued in a world that seems only concerned with the value of appearances. As the working class kid who’d been taught that education is your only route to social mobility, and as that kid who’d been relentlessly bullied for being ‘smart,’ this was a revelation to me. You could be well-read and wear fake leopard print. You could have intellectual aspirations and be glamourous. The two were not mutually exclusive. Wow, I thought. This changes everything.” And now here she is as an artist in her own right, a pop-rocker with a PhD (literature and queer theory, University College London), opening for the Manics when they perform in Cornwall tomorrow.

James Dean Bradfield (of Manic Street Preachers), “Together Stronger (C’mon Wales)” (live on “The Andrew Marr Show,” 2016). Last Sunday, JDB made a solo acoustic appearance on BBC One to promote the Manics’ beloved Welsh football anthem for Euro 2016. Although the team lost to Portugal in their semi-finals match two days later, “Together Stronger” may yet become a chart-topper in the UK since there was a push for it to happen by both fans and footballers alike (star player Gareth Bale retweeted the Football Association of Wales’ post about getting the song to become a hit). Also on the couch with James, prior to the start of the song: Neil Kinnock, a Labour Party politician who is also from South Wales and apparently recognized the talent in the Manics when they were wee lads at Oakdale Comprehensive School.

Viola Beach, “Boys That Sing” (single, January 2016); Coldplay, “Boys That Sing” (live at the Glastonbury Festival, June 2016). Rather than play David Bowie’s “Heroes,” as has become a standard tribute in the last half-year, Chris Martin and company decided to honor the members of British band Viola Beach, all of whom died in a car crash in Sweden in February. (Their first – and sadly, their last – album, self-titled, will be released on July 29.) I can think of a couple of similar tragedies that befell young bands just starting out; the lead singer, bassist and tour manager of alternative rock band For Squirrels died in a crash right before the release of their major-label debut album in 1995 (which, ironically, had a minor radio hit with a song about the death of Kurt Cobain, “Mighty K.C.”) and three-fourths of the punk/power pop band The Exploding Hearts died in a car wreck only a few months after the release of their 2003 album Guitar Romantic (featuring the wonderful song “I’m a Pretender”). At least nowadays when such a horrible loss happens, the world can talk about it on social media and spread the love so that the band is not forgotten before they even had a chance to begin. The “alternate future” that Coldplay collectively create for Viola Beach by allowing them to “headline Glastonbury for a song” is a beautiful gesture.

Women-Directed/Photographed Films Coming to Theaters: July 2016

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Writer/director Sian Heder (center) with actresses Allison Janney (seated left) and Ellen Page (seated right) on the set of Tallulah, 2015.

Here is July’s list of fifteen new and upcoming theatrical releases for films directed/photographed by female directors and cinematographers. These works span many genres: a post-WWII period piece about nuns, a British spy thriller, documentaries about an American television pioneer and North Korean schoolchildren, a horror flick set in an all-girls boarding school, a dystopian sci-fi drama and more.

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JULY 1: The Innocents (dir. Anne Fontaine) (DP: Caroline Champetier)Music Box Films synopsis: “Warsaw, December 1945: the second World War is finally over and French Red Cross doctor Mathilde (Lou de Laâge) is treating the last of the French survivors of the German camps. When a panicked Benedictine nun appears at the clinic begging Mathilde to follow her back to the convent, what she finds there is shocking: a holy sister about to give birth and several more in advanced stages of pregnancy. A non-believer, Mathilde enters the sisters’ fiercely private world, dictated by the rituals of their order and the strict Rev. Mother (Agata Kulesza, Ida). Fearing the shame of exposure, the hostility of the occupying Soviet troops and local Polish communists and while facing an unprecedented crisis of faith, the nuns increasingly turn to Mathilde as their beliefs and traditions clash with harsh realities.”

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JULY 1: Our Kind of Traitor (dir. Susanna White)Brooklyn Academy of Music synopsis: “While on holiday in Marrakech, an ordinary English couple, Perry (Ewan McGregor) and Gail (Naomie Harris), befriend a flamboyant and charismatic Russian, Dima (Stellan Skarsgård), who unbeknownst to them is a kingpin money launderer for the Russian mafia. When Dima asks for their help to deliver classified information to the British Secret Services, Perry and Gail get caught in a dangerous world of dirty politics. This taut espionage thriller, adapted from a novel by John le Carré, follows this couple as they are propelled on a perilous journey through Paris and Bern, a safe house in the French Alps, to the murky corners of the City of London and an alliance with the British Government via a ruthless and determined MI6 agent.”

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JULY 6: Under the Sun (dir. Vitaly Mansky) (DP: Alexandra Ivanova)Icarus Films synopsis: “‘My father says that Korea is the most beautiful country… Korea is the land of the rising sun,’ says eight-year-old schoolgirl Zin-mi. Despite continuous interference by government handlers, director Vitaly Mansky still managed to document life in Pyongyang, North Korea in this fascinating portrait of one girl and her parents in the year as she prepares to join the Korean Children’s Union on the ‘Day of the Shining Star’ (Kim Jong-Il’s birthday). As the family receives instruction on how to be the ideal patriots, Mansky’s watchful camera capture details from comrades struggling to stay awake during an official event to Zin-mi’s tears at a particularly grueling dance lesson.”

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JULY 8: Indian Point (dir. Ivy Meeropol)Synopsis from the film’s official website: “Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant looms just 35 miles from Times Square. With over 50 million people living in close proximity to the aging facility, its continued operation has the support of the plant’s operators and the NRC — Nuclear Regulatory Commission — yet has stoked a great deal of controversy in the surrounding community, including a vocal anti-nuclear contingent concerned that what happened at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant could happen here. In the brewing fight for clean energy and the catastrophic possibilities of government complacency, director Ivy Meeropol presents a balanced argument about the issues surrounding nuclear energy and offers a startling reality check for our uncertain nuclear future.”

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JULY 8: Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You (dirs. Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady) (DPs: Ronan Killeen, Sam Levy and Jenna Rosher)IFC Center synopsis: “Arguably the most influential creator, writer, and producer in the history of television, Norman Lear brought primetime into step with the times. Using comedy and indelible characters, his legendary 1970s shows such as All In the Family, Maude, Good Times, and The Jeffersons, boldly cracked open dialogue and shifted the national consciousness, injecting enlightened humanism into sociopolitical debates on race, class, creed, and feminism.

Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You is the definitive chronicle of Mr. Lear’s life, work, and achievements, but it is so much more than an arm’s-length, past-tense biopic; at 93, Mr. Lear is as vital and engaged as he ever was. Top-notch cinéma vérité documentarians Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing (Jesus Camp, 12th & Delaware, DETROPIA) seize the opportunity to fashion a dynamic portrait that matches the spirit of their subject. Breaking down the fourth wall to create an evocative collage where past and present intermingle, they reveal a psychologically rich man whose extraordinary contributions emerge from both his personal story and a dialogue with the world.”

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JULY 13: Don’t Blink – Robert Frank (dir. Laura Israel) (DPs: Edward Lachman and Lisa Rinzler)Excerpt from a Slant Magazine film review: “What Robert Frank’s The Americans did for the nation, presenting the post-war United States with an X-ray of its soul, the free-form, intensely personal films he started making a few years later did for New York City. Watching a charismatic character in one of those movies in Don’t Blink: Robert Frank, the photographer-filmmaker says, ‘I don’t know people like them anymore.’ Maybe not, but he seems to have known just about every artist who passed through mid-century New York, and he distilled the rebelliously ragged genius of people like a young Allen Ginsberg and a skeletal William Burroughs in films like Pull My Daisy and One Hour. As a result, Laura Israel’s documentary is a portrait not just of the Swiss-born artist, but of his adopted city, especially during the Beat era that was his heyday.

In his recent profile of Frank for the New York Times Magazine, Nicholas Dawidoff described a ‘tough’ man with a lifelong habit of cultivating people, then deciding they aren’t so special after all and cutting them off. The Frank of Israel’s documentary can indeed be prickly, as when he critiques a question he considers obtuse during an interview instead of answering it. But Israel, who’s edited Frank’s films since the 1980s, has a privileged insider’s perspective that informs and warms her film. Openhearted and surprisingly funny, her friend Frank is delightful company, as emotionally transparent and offhandedly insightful in person as he is as his art.

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JULY 15: The Blackcoat’s Daughter (dir. Osgood “Oz” Perkins) (DP: Julie Kirkwood)From a Pop Matters review: “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.”

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JULY 15: Lucha Mexico (dirs. and DPs: Alex Hammond and Ian Markiewicz)Excerpt from the synopsis on the film’s official website: “In Mexico, the fight between good and evil has been waged every week for decades, thrilling generations of fans with the spectacle of Lucha Libre. Real-life superheroes and villains, these masked wrestlers put their lives on the line night after night to entertain the legions of fans. Gaining remarkable access to all the major Lucha promotions, Alex Hammond and Ian Markiewicz offer an entertaining, no holds barred look at some of the sport’s top performers, featuring the ‘1000% Guapo’ Shocker, Luchador heir Blue Demon Jr, the tragic hardcore wrestler El Hijo Del Perro Aguayo, and extreme American bodybuilder Jon ‘Strongman’ Andersen. Lucha Mexico goes behind the mask, on a journey into the heart of Mexico.”

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JULY 22: Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie (dir. Mandie Fletcher)Synopsis from the film’s official Facebook page: “Appropriate for their big screen debut, Edina and Patsy (Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley) are still oozing glitz and glamour, living the high life they are accustomed to; shopping, drinking and clubbing their way around London’s trendiest hotspots. Blamed for a major incident at an uber fashionable launch party, they become entangled in a media storm and are relentlessly pursued by the paparazzi. Fleeing penniless to the glamorous playground of the super-rich, the French Riviera, they hatch a plan to make their escape permanent and live the high life forever more!”

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JULY 22: Hooligan Sparrow (dir. and DP: Nanfu Wang)Indiewire synopsis: “The danger is palpable as intrepid young filmmaker Nanfu Wang follows maverick activist Ye Haiyan (a.k.a Hooligan Sparrow) and her band of colleagues to Hainan Province in southern China to protest the case of six elementary school girls who were sexually abused by their principal. Marked as enemies of the state, the activists are under constant government surveillance and face interrogation, harassment, and imprisonment. Sparrow, who gained notoriety with her advocacy work for sex workers’ rights, continues to champion girls’ and women’s rights and arms herself with the power and reach of social media.”

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JULY 22: Summertime (dir. Catherine Corsini) (DP: Jeanne Lapoirie)IFC Center synopsis: “In 1971, Delphine (Izïa Higelin) leaves her parents and their rural farm for Paris and a new, independent life. There, she meets Carole (Cécile de France), a sophisticated woman deeply involved in the heady, early days of the feminist movement. Despite Carole’s boyfriend, the women find themselves more and more attracted to each other, and they begin an affair that turns their lives upside down.”

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JULY 29: Equity (dir. Meera Menon)Excerpt from a Hollywood Reporter film review: “Making industry headlines before it even screened at the ongoing Sundance Film Festival when Sony Pictures Classics acquired it for distribution, Equity is a smart thriller set in the corporate world that disguises its modest budget with an intelligent script and good set of hooks. Promoting itself as ‘the first female-driven Wall Street movie,’ the film’s plot revolves mostly around female characters, while it’s also been directed (by Meera Menon), written (by Amy Fox) and produced (by co-stars Alysia Reiner and Sarah Megan Thomas) by women. And yet, perhaps the most winning thing about Equity it that it’s not some kind of worthy empowerment drama about sisters doing if for themselves. Instead, although sexism in the workplace is definitely addressed, it plays more like an old-school noir with the sexes casually reversed, featuring a deeply flawed protagonist (Breaking Bad‘s Anna Gunn), a seductive but duplicitous homme fatale (James Purefoy) and others navigating their way through a miasma of an ethically shady urban world.”

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JULY 29: Into the Forest (dir. Patricia Rozema)Synopsis from the film’s official website: “Set in the near future, this riveting and suspenseful apocalyptic drama follows two sisters, Nell (Ellen Page) and Eva (Evan Rachel Wood) who live in the Pacific Northwest with their kindly father, Robert. Nell is focused on her studies and Eva is training to be a dancer, but their peaceful lives are disrupted one day by what turns out to be a continent-wide blackout. Whereas at first the family bond together and try to make the most of their difficult circumstances, as time goes on, the challenges become more serious. In the wake of a shocking and violent confrontation that Robert has with a menacing passerby, the sisters must work together in order to survive in their increasingly treacherous new world.”

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JULY 29: Miss Sharon Jones! (dir. Barbara Kopple)IFC Center synopsis: “Two-time Academy Award-winner Barbara Kopple (Harlan County USA, Shut Up and Sing) follows Grammy-nominated R&B dynamo Sharon Jones during the most courageous year of her life.  Often compared to the legendary James Brown because of her powerful and energetic performances, Sharon Jones is no stranger to challenge. For years her music career struggled as she was kept in the wings by a music industry that branded her ‘too short, too black, too fat.’ After decades of working odd jobs, from a corrections officer to a wedding singer, Sharon had a middle-aged breakthrough after joining forces with Brooklyn R&B outfit The Dap Kings. In 2013, on the eve of the release of the much-anticipated album Give The People What They Want, Sharon was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness. Miss Sharon Jones! is a triumphant crowd-pleaser that captures an irrepressible human spirit as she battles back to where she belongs; center stage.”

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JULY 29: Tallulah (dir. Sian Heder) (DP: Paula Huidobro)From a Los Angeles Times article: “The story of Tallulah found its inspiration in a time in her career when [Sian] Heder worked as a nanny for hire, often at upscale L.A. hotels to look after the children of wealthy guests for a few hours. When one woman struck her as a particularly unfit and disinterested mother she wondered what would happen if she kept the baby for herself. Tallulah explores that possibility.

“The film has three powerful and nuanced performances at its core, weaving a delicate blend of comedy and drama, weight and whimsy. Ellen Page plays the title character, a vagabond scamp who rambles into New York City. She gets work as a temp nanny and after an encounter with wasted trophy wife Carolyn (Tammy Blanchard), Tallulah impulsively takes her baby.

“Unsure of what to do next, she goes to her erstwhile boyfriend’s mother, Margo (Allison Janney), whom she has never met, and passes the baby off as her own. These most unusual of circumstances push all three women toward unexpected junctures.”

Friday Music Focus: 7/1/16

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After Kanye West’s music video for his song “Famous” was released last week and caused a roaring hullabaloo on the Internet for depicting nude likenesses of celebrities sharing one huge bed, I began thinking about songs and videos which connect to ideas of fame, usually in negative, toxic connotations. Here are a few examples from yesteryear which still ring true.

(Pictured above: an ad for one of Nick Drake’s few live gigs, c. 1970.)

David Bowie, “Fame” (appears on the album Young Americans, 1975). David Bowie’s funk classic – his first #1 hit in America – remains the definitive statement on the ridiculousness of celebrity. Bowie was later quoted as saying: “I’d had very upsetting management problems and a lot of that was built into the song. I’ve left all that behind me, now… I think fame itself is not a rewarding thing. The most you can say is that it gets you a seat in restaurants.”

Genesis, “Land of Confusion”  (appears on the album Invisible Touch, 1986). The lyrics of “Land of Confusion” are not concerned with fame per se, but the music video is the closest approximation to Kanye’s “Famous” clip that I can think of, displaying puppet representations of politicians and celebrities which, frankly, are terrifying in their grotesqueness. The gathering of these self-obsessed, self-congratulating celebrities for a “We Are the World”-style singalong at the end further shows Genesis’s sense of satire while still rallying around the straightforward sociopolitical message in the band’s song.

Kirsty MacColl, “Fifteen Minutes” (appears on the album Kite, 1989). In three short minutes Kirsty pleasantly – because you can imagine her singing with a grin – takes down the extensive network of types who become famous without deserving it: “Then there’s always the cash/Selling your soul for some trash/Smiling at people that you cannot stand/You’re in demand/Your fifteen minutes start now…” Icing on the cake: the clarinet solo at the end, a spotlight on a decidedly not-pop instrument.

Note: the user who uploaded this video to YouTube accidentally included a photo of Ellie Goulding in the slideshow at the 0:55 mark; you could view this error as extra commentary, confusing one English singer-songwriter for another as though they were interchangeable.

Manic Street Preachers, “Kevin Carter” and “Small Black Flowers That Grow in the Sky” (both appear on the album Everything Must Go, 1996). The trappings of fame were often on the Manics’ minds in the early-to-mid-90s. “You Love Us” (Generation Terrorists, 1992), both in audio and video form, observes some of the glamorous yet absurd aspects of being a rock band with a major-label record contract and a presumption by the media that they’re only there to look good (all the while continuing to encourage true believers to maintain their obsessive love for the band); “Archives of Pain” (The Holy Bible, 1994), essentially a song speaking out against the glamorization of serial killers, aligns the band with those criminals by including “Manic Street Preachers” in the list of names sung in the second chorus. Two of the Manics’ most potent examinations of the effects of fame came later, though, in two sets of lyrics penned by Richey Edwards before his disappearance. “Kevin Carter” recounts the life and death of the photojournalist who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1994 for an image of a suffering Sudanese child with a vulture hovering nearby. Unable to live with the horror of what he had witnessed and the fame he had attained because of it, Carter committed suicide a few months later. The second song, “Small Black Flowers That Grow in the Sky,” is not explicitly about fame, but I think connections can be drawn between the tale it tells of caged animals and the oppressive nature of celebrity – gawkers looking in and watching your every move. The disturbing lyrics are perfectly offset by James Dean Bradfield’s voice, the delicate strums of his acoustic guitar and the beautiful swirls of the harp.

Britney Spears, “Lucky” (appears on the album Oops!…I Did It Again, 2000) and “Piece of Me” (appears on the album Blackout, 2007). You could look at the difference between these two songs about fame as Before Shave and After Shave since the moment when Britney Spears shaved her hair off in 2007 was probably the ultimate sign that she was no longer the sweet, carefree teen idol she was in 1999 and 2000. “Lucky” can be interpreted as an autobiographical account of Britney’s own life as a pop star, but even if it really is just a generic look at the hollowness of Hollywood success devoid of real love and happiness, it is still a story told effectively. “Piece of Me,” however, is specifically about Britney’s own struggles, told from her point of view. Released only half a year after the head-shaving incident, the song attacks at the destructive nature of tabloids and paparazzi while the video proves that Britney then in her mid-twenties, wasn’t washed up and could indeed rejuvenate her career. The pop queen lives on.

Nick Drake, “Fruit Tree” (appears on the album Five Leaves Left, 1969). I saved this Nick Drake song for the end because his career exists separate from of the usual progressions of fame and time; his mythic ascent to the ranks of the all-time great British singer-songwriters happened posthumously and “Fruit Tree” seems to foretell this. We hear a fragile-sounding man (then only twenty years old) mourning an artist being “forgotten while you’re here/remembered for a while/A much updated ruin/From a much outdated style” (indicating the lack of public interest in Drake’s low-key folk music) and explaining in the chorus that “Fame is but a fruit tree/So very unsound/It can never flourish/‘Til its stock is in the ground/So men of fame/Can never find a way/’Til time has flown/Far from their dying day.” Is it any surprise that happy-go-lucky hippies weren’t flocking to record stores to buy that song? (Although now that I think about it, perhaps the free-love generation wouldn’t have been a key demographic in London then, which I suppose was the only city selling anything by Nick Drake while he was alive.) As Drake sings the final verse – “Fruit tree, fruit tree/Open your eyes to another year/They’ll all know/That you were here when you’re gone” – the after-the-fact parallels with his own career are obvious. No one bought his albums between 1969 and 1974, but after a decade or so, his genius was realized by critics and musicians alike. Nowadays he is a legend. But evidently he knew on some level that that’s what would happen, didn’t he?

RE: Rolling Stone – 30 Other “Best” Songs of 2016

In response to Rolling Stone’s recently released list noting the “30 Best Songs of 2016 So Far,” I thought I would compile my own set of thirty, organized in alphabetical order. Some of these tracks have been mentioned in previous “Friday Music Focus” blog posts, but given how good the music is, I relish the opportunity to promote any and all of it again. (Given the abundance of tunes here, I minimized the accompanying text to one line for each entry.) In most cases I have included non-video clips so that you can focus on the music rather than on visuals, but a few examples called for music videos or live performances that I felt would enhance those experiences. Enjoy!

Argument City, “Spirit of ’58” – A barnstormer of an anthem from a young band that I expect to do more great things; the song was written to support the Welsh football team in this year’s Euro 2016 tournament.

Bat for Lashes, “Sunday Love” – Swirling synths mesmerize the listener in this tale from Natasha Khan (aka Bat for Lashes), a track from upcoming concept album The Bride.

Blossoms, “At Most a Kiss” – This indie group has been getting quite a bit of press in the UK, as well they should since this particular earworm is one of the catchiest singles of the year.

David Bowie, “Girl Loves Me” – Right up to the end, Bowie was weird, off-kilter, funny, spellbinding, totally his own creation.

DJ Shadow feat. Run the Jewels, “Nobody Speak” – You have three minutes to psych out your enemies… go!

Garbage, “Empty” – “Good things come to those that wait, or so they say,” sings Shirley Manson; I’m sure that Garbage fans agree after hearing this welcome return for the band.

Guy Garvey, “Open the Door” – Watching the music video for the new solo single by Elbow frontman Guy Garvey, performing with in-studio brass players, is as enjoyable as listening to it on the radio (it gets played quite a bit on BBC Radio 6 Music).

Margaret Glaspy, “You and I” – Her low-key style of singing, sense of humor and ear for guitar hooks remind me of a combination of Courtney Barnett and Elliott Smith.

HANA, “Underwater” – A somewhat eerie, somewhat Massive Attack-esque soundscape courtesy of Montana-bred singer-songwriter Hana Pestle.

Mick Harvey, “A Violent Poison (That’s What Love Is) [Un Poison Violent C’est Ça L’amour]” – Mick Harvey has done it all in the last four decades – guitarist and drummer for the Boys Next Door/the Birthday Party; pianist and drummer for Crime & the City Solution; drummer, guitarist, bassist, pianist/keyboardist/organist (and probably much more) for Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds; drummer on Rowland S. Howard’s two solo albums; co-producer of PJ Harvey’s Mercury Prize-winning albums Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea (2000) and Let England Shake (2011); all the while making solo albums for the last twenty years – and I’m happy to say he has returned with a third album of translated Serge Gainsbourg covers, Delirium Tremens (the previous two being Intoxicated Man (1995) and Pink Elephants (1997)).

PJ Harvey, “The Wheel” – A five-and-a-half-minute epic about the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe, a survey of victims who are stuck in a cycle of violence that people have done little or nothing to prevent (“Hey little children don’t disappear/I heard it was 28,000/Lost upon a revolving wheel/I heard it was 28,000…”).

Helen Love, “A Boy from Wales Called Gareth Bale” – Veteran Welsh indie group Helen Love released an absolutely delightful dance track in support of the nation’s star football player, a song complete with samples of sports commentary, lines from Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” quotations from St. David (patron saint of Wales) and all of it wrapped up in a music video that looks like it was made on a near-zero budget with the Windows Movie Maker computer program.

Meilyr Jones, “Return to Life” – Inspired by a number of life-changing events that happened three years ago (hence the name of his new album, 2013), the Welsh-born singer-songwriter has crafted a lovely song that ends with an on-the-street recording of a Japanese accordionist whom Jones often saw busking in Rome.

Alicia Keys, “Hallelujah” (live on “SNL”) – I chose this live version of Keys’ new single, rather than the studio recording, since this performance has a more impassioned vocal and a less abrupt ending (here Keys really draws the last notes out).

The Kills, “Heart of a Dog” – American vocalist Alison Mosshart and English guitarist Jamie Hince return after a five-year hiatus with their new album, Ash & Ice, and this excellent second single, which has attitude to burn.

The Last Shadow Puppets, “Aviation” (live on “The Late Late Show”) – The last time I played this track at a party it didn’t get much of a reception, but maybe that’s because the listeners didn’t have the advantage of watching Alex Turner doing his hip-shaking and hair-thrashing.

Lush, “Rosebud” – Twenty years after their split, Miki Berenyi and Lush (one of the seminal “alternative” British bands of the 90s) have returned, going back to the roots of their dreamy guitar sound with the addition of more mature singing and songwriting.

Massive Attack feat. Azekel, “Ritual Spirit” – Massive Attack has been making hypnotic, exhilarating music in collaboration with other artists for the last quarter-century, and this latest guitar-and-bass-driven song is no exception.

Declan McKenna, “Bethlehem” – Even though I wrote about how much I like this song just a few weeks ago, now that the music video has been released I thought I would include it here; if this kid is this good at age seventeen (don’t you just love that guitar tone that he uses throughout the song, especially in the chorus’s riff?), then how great will he be in a few years’ time?

Minor Victories, “Scattered Ashes (Song for Richard)” – Minor Victories, a supergroup made up of members of British bands Slowdive, Mogwai, Editors and film collective Hand Held Cine Club, have made what can best be described as an uptempo elegy.

Pet Shop Boys, “Twenty-something” – The titans of British synthpop have returned to take millennials to task for their technological obsessions and their short attention spans, among other irritants.

Primal Scream feat. Sky Ferreira, “Where the Light Gets In” – Brilliant dance-pop in a collaboration between a classic band constantly reinventing its sound and a young singer-songwriter who is beginning to make her mark on the music world.

Psychic Ills feat. Hope Sandoval,  “I Don’t Mind” – Hope Sandoval, perhaps best known as lead singer of the seminal 90s dream-pop band Mazzy Star, contributes beautifully feather-light vocals to this seemingly folk/blues/country-inspired song from New York City-based band Psychic Ills; I don’t know much about the group, but I like the atmosphere of the song and how pleasantly the two singers tell us of a destructive relationship that they can’t, and on some levels don’t, want to leave.

Rihanna, “Kiss It Better” – Since Rihanna released her eighth album, ANTI, most of the critical focus has been on her first single, “Work”; my favorite track, however, is “Kiss It Better,” a slow jam fueled by a guitar riff played by Nuno Bettencourt (if you remember the 80s/90s band Extreme, he was their lead guitarist).

Santigold, “Before the Fire” – This track has one of the best beats of the year; someone at ABC realized the same thing since the song was featured on an episode of “Quantico.”

Savages, “Adore” – The highly praised London post-punk band returned this year with a slow-burning masterpiece, a melody that wraps itself around you until finally it throttles you with its intensity.

Suede (aka The London Suede in the US), “I Can’t Give Her What She Wants” – On their seventh album, Night Thoughts (released in January), Brett Anderson & Co. set the bar for new music in 2016; here we have delicate baroque balladry that blooms into an even more strangely beautiful sound, louder yet still ethereal.

Tacocat, “Men Explain Things to Me” – Seattle pop-punk band Tacocat’s latest album, Lost Time, is full of short, to-the-point songs like this one: a tribute to all the men who try to oppress women in physical, verbal and any other ways.

“Vinyl” soundtrack: Alex Newell, Jess Glynne, DJ Cassidy and Nile Rodgers, “Kill the Lights” – After reading the unfortunate news that HBO series “Vinyl” has been canceled after only one season (I was hoping that at least a few of the many complicated plot strands would be resolved next year), I listened to the show’s terrific soundtrack again and remembered the greatness of “Kill the Lights” (intended to be an “authentic” early disco track circa 1973).

Zayn, “Drunk” – Former One Directioner Zayn Malik impressed me with his first solo effort, Mind of Mine, the highlight being “Drunk,” a fittingly intoxicating ode to summertime lust.

2015: Part 9

Legend. Directed by Brian Helgeland. I am impressed by the work put in by Tom Hardy in his double performances as identical twin gangsters Reggie and Ronnie Kray; the characterizations are so well done that it’s easy to appreciate the brothers as two separate creations by Hardy. The rest of Legend, however, is either so-so or outright disappointing. Guiding us through this British period piece set in the East End circa the early-to-mid-60s, Emily Browning does well as our narrator, Frances Shea (Reggie’s girlfriend, later his wife), but I constantly felt that she was holding back and that she could have had more to do; the character wasn’t completely one-dimensional, but there had to have been better dialogue or opportunities for more powerful outbursts of emotion that Browning could have been given. David Thewlis is wonderful in his scenes as the Krays’ often exasperated financial manager, and Chazz Palminteri makes the most of his small amount of screen time as American mafioso Angelo Bruno, but the rest of the cast is wasted in their too-small and/or underwritten roles. Taron Egerton (a promising young star in British cinema) has very little to do as Reggie’s boyfriend, Teddy, while Christopher Eccleston barely registers as the detective seeking to bring the brothers down (I blame the script rather than the actor, whom I’ve liked ever since his “Doctor Who” tenure) and perhaps the biggest crime of all is that Tara Fitzgerald didn’t have more scenes as Browning’s mother, a woman who knows that Reggie Kray will bring her daughter nothing but agony. With the exception of one bravura fight scene (around an hour into the film) that pits Tom Hardy against Tom Hardy, the action/drama in Legend is a letdown.

The Lobster. Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos. I was surprised by how crowded The Lobster’s theater was at BAM two weeks ago, even for a 7:00 pm showing on a Saturday; other BAM screenings that I have been to on the same weekday at the same time haven’t been nearly so jam-packed. Clearly The Lobster’s favorable reviews have been successful in drawing audiences in, at least in Brooklyn.

Considering the matter of the movie itself, however, I don’t know how I feel about it. I just can’t figure it out – meaning both the cinematic experience and my own opinion. Unlike the theatrical outing that immediately preceded Lobster, Mad Max: Fury Road (more on that later in this post), in which I knew very quickly that I loved the film and couldn’t wait to tell everyone, I am much more indecisive about The Lobster. I appreciate the challenges that writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos (Kinetta, Dogtooth, Alps) sets for his viewers, both for their intellects and for their gag reflexes, in telling a tale of the dystopian future as a zany comedy. The premise is fairly simple: at some unspecified point in the future, members of society have decided that the only way to be a part of normal civilization is to be in a couple, and all single people are sent to a seaside hotel where each person must find a mate within 45 days (to make the task even more daunting, the couple must share a defining trait, like having a limp or a lisp) or else the still-single person will be turned into an animal of their choosing. When we meet our protagonist, a short-sighted man named David (Colin Farrell), he has just been ejected from his marriage and home by his wife, who has taken up with another man. The Lobster spends the next two hours observing David’s attempts to find a suitable partner among his new comrades at the hotel and elsewhere, after the action has shifted to different locations.

Many of the performances in the film are effective. Despite what his early appearances in big-budget, mainstream action flicks suggested, Colin Farrell has matured into a fine actor, doing great work for the past decade in smaller, more complex indie films like In Bruges (2008) and Seven Psychopaths (2012). Farrell continues to grow with his work in The Lobster, which, despite not having much memorable dialogue for him, does give him an interesting character to play. I also liked the performances by Rachel Weisz, Ben Whishaw, John C. Reilly, Léa Seydoux, Ariane Labed, Ashley Jensen, Angeliki Papoulia, Garry Mountaine and Emma Edel O’Shea. There were far too few scenes for Olivia Colman, who plays the manager of the creepy hotel; almost every one of her lines was hilarious and she has one especially wonderful scene in which she and her partner (Garry Mountaine) duet on the song “Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart” (which I know best as a Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds cover from 1986) during a dance held at the hotel. (There is a more overt reference to the Bad Seeds later in the film when Colin Farrell sings part of Cave’s 1995 duet with Kylie Minogue, “Where the Wild Roses Grow,” while sitting on a riverbank. I don’t know if the Nick Cave connection to “Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart” was intentional, but both songs’ lyrics mention the word “scarlet” – which is, of course, the color we associate with lobsters, albeit ones that have been cooked. Just a thought.)

So here’s the problem. For all of The Lobster’s complicated strangeness and how hard it works at being extremely bizarre, I could not translate an appreciation of the weirdness into love for the film. I respect Yorgos Lanthimos’ desire to tell a story unlike practically anything we moviegoers have seen recently (or ever), but by the time the end credits rolled, I did not feel moved or pleased by what I had seen; I merely shrugged and wondered why I didn’t feel more, which is funny since that’s how the film starts – Colin Farrell’s character can’t understand why his split from his wife has not made him cry or do anything else openly emotional. Evidently that’s just the way it goes sometimes.

P.S. I recommend seeing The Lobster with a big crowd. Even if you don’t like the film, the experience is better when you’re surrounded by a lot of other people, just to hear their laughter and their uncomfortable gasps.

Mad Max: Fury Road. Directed by George Miller. Seen in all the glory of the Museum of the Moving Image’s wide screen and excellent sound system on May 27, a friend and I had a lovely Friday night out with Fury Road. (I really regret not seeing it in IMAX last year, but this was a top-notch alternative.) George Miller’s apocalyptic tale of a man and a group of women battling a sadistic tyrant’s dystopian civilization deserved all of the Oscar win and nominations at this year’s ceremony. Margaret Sixel’s editing is clearly an extraordinary feat of skill,, while John Seale’s cinematography, Jenny Beavan‘s costumes, the score by Junkie XL (Tom Holkenborg) and the work done by the makeup team, special effects artists and sound editors/mixers further makes the film seem like an extraordinary product of technical achievements. Tom Hardy doesn’t say a lot as Max, but he does wonders with a single raised eyebrow or a low rumble in the back of his throat, and Charlize Theron is beyond awesome as Imperator Furiosa. Nicholas Hoult is also worthy of commendations, running the gamut as Nux, an impassioned young man who starts out on the dark side but eventually helps Max, Furiosa and company. Most of the film’s creepiness comes from warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), the dictator against whom our heroes are fighting; it is also worth noting that with the exception of the Splendid Angharad (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), I don’t think we ever hear the names of Immortan Joe’s other wives/sex slaves, who are played by Zoë Kravitz (there’s a missed opportunity: “Toast the Knowing” is so fun to say!), Riley Keough, Abbey Lee and Courtney Eaton. Still, the roles for women in Fury Road were miles better than anything else I can remember seeing in any other recent action movies. I wonder at what point it will start to be discussed in undergraduate and graduate film classes since there are so many aspects of Fury Road that are worth analyzing and debating.

P.S. One question for those who have seen the film: how did Nux know how to drive the War Rig even though Furiosa never told him about that complicated set of instructions? Unless the setup was still in use from when Max first took over driving and therefore Nux didn’t need to change anything? I assumed that all the button-pushing needed to be done every time the motor was started. Hmmm.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Directed by Guy Ritchie. Neither as intelligent as Snatch. (2000), as much silly fun as the first Sherlock Holmes film (2009) or as unforgivably bad as RocknRolla (2008) and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011), Ritchie’s reboot of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. has pretty costumes designed by Joanna Johnston (most of these appealing outfits are worn by leading ladies Alicia Vikander and Elizabeth Debicki), nice locales, well-cut action scenes (thanks to editor James Herbert) but little in the way of substance. Armie Hammer does a better job than I expected as KGB envoy Illya Kuryakin, a Soviet super-spy who is paired with American agent Napoleon Solo (played by the extremely boring Henry Cavill) on a mission of international importance: working with a young German woman (Alicia Vikander) to bring down a crime syndicate headed by an Italian heiress (Elizabeth Debicki) who employs Vikander’s uncle (Sylvester Groth, a great German character actor who I last saw playing Joseph Goebbels in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds) and Vikander’s long-estranged father (Christian Berkel) in a secret nuclear-weapon-building factory. I enjoyed the sight of Debicki sinking her teeth into her villainess character and Groth’s scenes with Armie Hammer – threatening the Russian agent with Nazi-style torture – were excellent. Regrettably, there is remarkably little for Hugh Grant to do in his glorified cameo of a role as a British espionage liaison working alongside Cavill, Hammer and Vikander, and it is unfortunate that much-underrated character actor Jared Harris (playing Cavill’s CIA boss) has even less screen time than Grant. At least the disappointing action and lack of good character development are supplemented by the aforementioned visuals, a zippy, guitar-heavy score by Daniel Pemberton and the inclusion of a superb song in the end credits, Nina Simone’s 1965 recording of “Take Care of Business.”

Rain the Color of Blue with a Little Red in It. Directed by Christopher Kirkley. As unusual as it may seem, this film is a Nigerian update of the classic Prince film Purple Rain (1984) and it works really nicely. Similar to the source of its cinematic inspiration, we see the tale of a struggling musician yearning for acceptance from his harsh father and trying to win the love of a local woman, in addition to competing for success in face-offs against a rival performer, shown here as a vehicle for the Tuareg singer-songwriter/guitarist Mdou Moctar. (According to the director, this is the first movie ever to be made in the Tuareg language, and the odd English translation of the title is due to the fact that there is no equivalent word for “purple” in that dialect.) I had the good fortune to see the film on May 7 at Lincoln Center’s New York African Film Festival; obviously the timing of this festival screening was a sad coincidence given Prince’s passing just two weeks earlier, but perhaps because of that, the audience was extra warm towards Kirkley’s feature. It was great having both Kirkley and Mdou Moctar in person for both an introduction and a post-film Q&A (as well as sticking around afterward to talk to moviegoers in the lobby), discussing the music world in Agadez (where the story takes place) and how the narrative tries to bridge the gap between that area’s culture and Western audiences. It helps a lot that Moctar is such a naturally charismatic person, charming both on and off the screen as well as being an amazing musician. According to him, the film has opened doors for him all over the globe, and going by the music heard in the film (my favorite is “Adounia,” a title that means “Life”), that’s a great thing; Christopher Kirkley mentioned bittersweetly that he had hoped that one day Prince would be able to see the film – a dream that will not come true now – but at least Mdou Moctar will now be known to brand-new markets ready for his sound.