Friday Music Focus: 2/17/17

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Here we are in 2017… seven songs for a new edition of Friday Music Focus. Whether you’re like “Duckie” (Jon Cryer) in Pretty in Pink (1986) and you have a history with these songs, or you are a newcomer to any of these artists, there will be melodic food for thought.

Katy Perry featuring Skip Marley, “Chained to the Rhythm” (performed live at the Grammy Awards, 2017; single version released in 2017). Katy Perry has said that she hopes to inspire her listeners with “purposeful pop” records. If “Chained” is any indication, her new album will be able to achieve what few pop artists are able to do these days: create catchy music for the masses that is fun to listen to and also explores social and political dilemmas. Add to that the “Persist” armband and Planned Parenthood pin that she wore on her outfit at the Grammys, and the pop-activist look is complete. Let’s hope that the message can strike a deep chord.

Manic Street Preachers, “Slash ‘N’ Burn” (performed live at the Glastonbury Festival, 1994; studio version appears on the album Generation Terrorists, 1992). This February marks the one-year anniversary of my entry into the universe of Manic Street Preachers, and it is also the twenty-fifth anniversary of their infamous double-album debut, Generation Terrorists. If Katy Perry is the new purveyor of “purposeful pop,” then the Manics are the once and future kings of purposeful rock. Their show at Glastonbury in 1994 needs to be seen to be believed: every instrument plugged in and turned up to 11, James Dean Bradfield’s guitar strings threatening to pop off in the frenzy of his playing, and every song bursting with messages about our strange and often dangerous world. “Slash ‘N’ Burn” (lyrics here) is only one example of the band’s genius for deconstructing the entwined realities of pop culture, consumerism, celebrity and our planet’s violent history, but the song’s first four lines say it all: “You need your stars, even killers have prestige/Access to a living you will not see/24 boredom, I’m convicted instantly/Gorgeous poverty of created needs.”

The Smiths, “What Difference Does It Make?” (music video; studio version appears on the album The Smiths, 1984) and “Bigmouth Strikes Again” (performed live on “The Old Grey Whistle Test,” 1986; studio version appears on the album The Queen Is Dead, 1986). Two weeks ago, Marc Spitz, a unique talent in music criticism/journalism who had also published novels and plays, passed away at age 47. Author Chuck Klosterman distilled the essence of Spitz in two sentences written for Spin: “Spitz aspired to be Byronic. He believed life was better if people tried to be interesting, so he tried to be as interesting as possible.” Salon’s Erin Keane recalled in her tribute: “I don’t trust music writers who aren’t sentimental (if you’re not actively engaged in a love affair with the work, try investment banking instead), and I trusted Marc implicitly. As Alan Light, former editor-in-chief at Spin, where Marc made a great name for himself and won many of us over as readers and fans, said in his moving eulogy in Billboard yesterday, ‘I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who believed in rock & roll as much as Marc Spitz did. The grand gesture, the adolescent romanticism, the infinite possibilities of identity and sexuality — he bought it all, loved it, needed it.'” One of the most poignant compliments I have seen comes from a guest comment on Keane’s article: “I remember reading his piece on ‘The Boys of Summer.’ I was moved. [Don] Henley may not be one of the greats, but that song sure is! I’ll think of Marc every time I hear it now, for the rest of my days.” I probably will, too.

Marc Spitz was well known for his love of the Smiths, so much so that he wrote a novel titled How Soon Is Never? (2003), in which the protagonist attempts to get the broken-up group back together. In Marc’s honor, the clips embedded above are of two of the band’s best songs. Here’s to those who have a way with words – to answer the question posed by Morrissey and Johnny Marr, it makes a hell of a difference.

Johnny Marr, “New Town Velocity” (performed live at KCRW’s Apogee Sessions, 2013; studio version appears on the album The Messenger, 2013). “Here comes our poetry,” indeed. The former lead guitarist and co-songwriter of the Smiths has continued to make excellent music in the three decades since the band’s dissolution, and “New Town Velocity” is a high point in his solo career. The hook built on Marr’s iconic guitar sound is mesmerizing, winding its way around your brain so deftly that you never want the song to end and you have no choice but to click repeat.

Suede, “The Wild Ones” (appears on the album Dog Man Star, 1994). If the glam rock swagger of Suede’s self-titled debut album from 1993 made anyone wonder whether the band was merely a carbon copy of the equally decadent stylists (David Bowie and Marc Bolan in particular) who came decades before, then Suede’s follow-up, Dog Man Star, assured the quartet’s place in the pantheon of just plain great music. The lyrics of the “The Wild Ones” plead with their subject, “oh, if you stay…” – which is exactly what the band did. I don’t know about you, but I find it heartening that Brett Anderson and co. are still out there, still 100% brilliant.

Associates/Billy Mackenzie, “The Crying Game” (live at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club (London), 1984). After rewatching Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game this past week, I thought about Billy Mackenzie’s version of the title song. Mackenzie, who was once the subject of a Smiths song, was the lead singer of the Scottish band Associates. He was born sixty years ago this March, and the twenty-year anniversary of his death was marked this past January. If only he hadn’t had to suffer through depression; if only he could have known that his music would continue to mean something to people for years to come. The Internet gave me the opportunity to discover the Associates; their/Billy’s music affected me deeply when I was a teenager and it still does today. Sitting through lonely lunches in my high school’s cafeteria was so much easier when I could listen to “Party Fears Two” on my iPod, and a few years ago I recall waking up from a dream in which “No” played in the background, the faint echo of it lingering as I opened my eyes. But maybe Billy’s covers were his finest moments; when I see and hear him perform “Gloomy Sunday” (sadly portentous since Billy committed suicide in 1997), “Amazing Grace,” “You Only Live Twice,” “Wild Is the Wind” (a heartbreaking interpretation) and the clip that I am highlighting now, the Dave Berry song “The Crying Game,” an undeniable magic takes place that transforms and transports me. There were entire worlds in Billy Mackenzie’s heavenly voice, and Earth is poorer for no longer being able to hear it in person. If there is an afterlife, I hope he’s wearing one of his favorite berets.

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

Director Amma Asante with cast and crew on the set of A United Kingdom, 2016.

Here are fifteen new movies due to be released in theaters or via other viewing platforms this February, 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.

FEBRUARY 1: The Lure (dir. Agnieszka Smoczynska)Consequence of Sound post by Dominick Suzanne-Mayer: “Last year’s Sundance Film Festival offered a wealth of quality films, but of those that left a lasting impression, few were as bold as The Lure, Agnieszka Smoczynska’s striking feature-length debut about a pair of bloodthirsty mermaids who find indulgence and tragedy in modern-day Poland. Oh, and it’s also a musical. More of a new wave rock opera, really.

“The premise alone should be enough to get your attention, but Smoczynska’s film offers far more than just a gimmick; rather, as we discovered at Sundance (one of a legion of festivals the film hit last year), ‘The Lure somehow manages to seamlessly assemble a film equal parts hilarious, affecting, and grisly while trading and warping aesthetics and tones by the scene.’ It’s a wild piece of filmmaking, and the perfect antidote for the jaded moviegoer who thinks they’ve seen it all. Trust us, you haven’t seen anything quite like this before, and the film’s first trailer gives a pretty good taste of what audiences can expect, while holding back on some of the best stuff.

The Lure will debut at New York’s IFC Center on February 1st, and will hopefully appear elsewhere as the year goes on. In the meantime, a bit more about the film: ‘In this bold, genre-defying horror-musical mashup — the playful and confident debut of Polish director Agnieszka Smoczynska — a pair of carnivorous mermaid sisters are drawn ashore in an alternate ’80s Poland to explore the wonders and temptations of life on land. Their tantalizing siren songs and otherworldly aura make them overnight sensations as nightclub singers in the half-glam, half-decrepit fantasy world of Smoczynska’s imagining. In a visceral twist on Hans Christian Andersen’s original Little Mermaid tale, one sister falls for a human, and as the bonds of sisterhood are tested, the lines between love and survival get blurred. A savage coming-of-age fairytale with a catchy new-wave soundtrack, lavishly grimy sets, and outrageous musical numbers, The Lure explores its themes of sexuality, exploitation, and the compromises of adulthood with energy and originality.'”

FEBRUARY 3: Dark Night (dir. Tim Sutton) (DP: Hélène Louvart)Excerpts from Collider review by Chris Cabin: “It’s understandable and yet slightly misleading that there has been a direct connection between the Aurora massacre of 2013 and Dark Night, Tim Sutton‘s new film about a Florida community where one resident is planning a similar attack. Footage of the trial of James Holmes, the young man who shot 10 people dead in Aurora while they watched The Dark Knight Rises, is seen within 10 minutes of the film’s opening and is discussed, fleetingly, by those watching it. Images of a young man coloring his buzzed hair the same tint of fiery orange and red as Holmes show up throughout the film, as the man skateboards and hangs out with friends. The final, devastating shot features a gunman sneaking into a theater through the back door, just as Holmes did.

“These fragmented nods and allusions toward what happened in Aurora are unmistakable for those who followed the case but Dark Night, smartly and thankfully, doesn’t attempt to recreate the events leading up to Holmes’ massacring of innocents. One would be hard-pressed to simply explain Dark Night‘s narrative progression as there isn’t an easy way to describe the narrative itself. Sutton, the director behind 2014’s exquisite Memphis, offers what amounts to an abstraction of everyday life in the unnamed Florida neighborhood, which could essentially double for any sunny place in the United States. A woman exercises and takes a selfie with her morning smoothie; a pair of teens stay glued to their glowing cellphones; a veteran watches his nurse wife walk out on him for good; a boy plays with his pet snake, alone in his bedroom. Elsewhere, one young man imagines walking into a fury of photographers and journalists asking for his motives, and another trudges through his neighborhood with an assault rifle.

Dark Night is not particularly interested in conveying the horror of Aurora or any similar event, though Sutton works up a consistent sense of dread that consistently infiltrates his images and the impressionistic flow of the editing. Rather, Sutton’s film at once questions and embraces the idea of symbolic acts and images. The young man who walks into a cadre of reporters and angry protestors could be imagining that encounter, but he could also be remembering it. Is one to assume the clearly frustrated and angry veteran may be a shooter because of his training? There’s at least one scene where we see his proficiency at taking apart and cleaning his gun but Sutton’s depiction of this exercise is more similar to a mechanic taking apart part of an engine than anything malevolent. This is less true of the man with the assault rifle.

“…The first image of the film is of a young woman’s eyes roaming around as sequenced colored light bounces off her face. It might take you a few seconds before you realize that she’s not watching a screen but cop cars, ambulances, and fire engines in the parking lot outside the theater. Other moments – kids swimming in pools, a college student getting an academic warning behind closed doors, etc. – similarly feel plain but Sutton’s sobriety doesn’t hull out the film’s powerful emotional core. His eye for detail and modernity, such as when he fills the screen with an online street-view app, is sober and exacting but he also finds potent moments of fury and caring. In fact, Sutton consistently returns to an interview he’s doing with the young man who imagined the reporters.

“In fact, Sutton consistently returns to an interview he’s doing with the young man who imagined the reporters and his mother, who has nothing but loving and supporting things to say about her son; he also has a best friend who he talks to nonstop while they play online video games. The director is asking us to look as much at what makes people get along in life as the visual indicators of a violent act, to see the elements that support this admittedly docile, boring, and often superficial existence and cultivate the more heartening and genuinely good moments in your life.

“Even as the filmmaker heads towards yet another terrifying assault, Dark Night is as much about gloom as it is astonishment, to see the power of an act or an image to either turn someone into a killer or to inspire them toward empathy. Aside from his interview with the young man and his mother, Sutton only comes out from behind the camera one more time, to speak with the gunman about his movie-star look. One is left wondering if he’s speaking about the fame that this movie might bring him or the all-too-familiar infamy that comes with national tragedies.”

FEBRUARY 3: This Is Everything: Gigi Gorgeous (dir. Barbara Kopple)RogerEbert.com review by Matt Fagerholm: “They stare directly at you and invite you to be a part of their conversation. They reveal intimate details about their lives in order to normalize what certain parts of society still consider taboo. They tell us that we needn’t be anything other than ourselves, and how can we resist liking them for that? That is the power a person has when they post a video on YouTube. The bond that viewers forge with an Internet celebrity is stronger than has ever been achieved in any other medium. For people who have trouble relating to others, watching these video confessionals can serve as a half-step toward human connection. We’ve already entered the age of Fahrenheit 451, where “friends” primarily exist on screens that take up the majority of our attention. Yet the best YouTubers are the ones who encourage their viewers to turn their attention inward and engage with the world existing outside of their laptops. When Alexis G. Zall comes out by saying she “likes girls,” or when Brad Jones opens up about surviving a suicide attempt, they aren’t just providing a diversion, they are changing lives through the empowerment of truth.

This Is Everything: Gigi Gorgeous, the latest work from master documentarian Barbara Kopple (available on YouTube Red starting February 8th), focuses on the truth of one particular YouTuber whose sense of self is only strengthened online. Born Gregory Lazzarato in 1994, he excelled at diving throughout his childhood, winning a national championship at age 15. Yet in home video footage of the young boy, his face has the sort of uneasy expression any viewer of TLC’s ‘I Am Jazz’ will immediately recognize. There’s no question he feels uncomfortable in his skin, and is much more interested in filming makeup tutorials than he is with stereotypical male activities. The videos he posts as ‘Gregory Gorgeous’ gain a greater following once he identifies himself as gay, and at 100,000 subscribers, his channel attracts the attention of manager Scott Fisher, who understands the profitability of vloggers. Fisher explains to Kopple how sites like YouTube have enabled talent to maintain unprecedented control over their content, while earning the lion’s share of the revenue, something that could’ve never happened a mere handful of years ago.

“In many ways, this film is a fitting follow-up to Kopple’s Miss Sharon Jones!, a rousing portrait of the titular soul singer who passed away last year. Just as Jones triumphantly forged ahead in her life and career in the aftermath of her cancer diagnosis, earning a Grammy nomination in the process, Gregory comes to a pivotal realization after his loving mother succumbs to cancer in 2012. Faced with the fragility of life and the limited time afforded to each of us on Earth, the young man decides to finally act on his inner-most desire, and that is to live the rest of his life as a woman. The ‘he’ of her past is officially no more. Though her brothers are entirely in support of her transition, the news is more difficult for her father, David, to accept. In an emotional interview with Kopple, he affirms that it is a father’s duty to love his children even if he doesn’t understand them. Renaming herself as Gigi Lazzarato, she smuggles her camera into a visit with her dad, where she tells him of her plans to undergo facial feminization surgery, a procedure that will cost $14,000. When he asks her if she has that kind of money, Gigi informs him that she’s already paid for it. Though David still occasionally uses male pronouns while addressing Gigi, there is no doubt in his mind that his child knows exactly what she wants. He accompanies her to appointments with the physician, and later with the Beverly Hills doctor that will give her breast implants. In a lingering shot, the camera regards from a wide angle the tender image of David gently tucking his daughter into bed in their hotel room as she recovers from her latest surgery.

“It is in observant, delicately nuanced moments like these where Kopple’s genius shines the brightest. She has crafted so many unforgettable films about inspirational life forces, from the courageous wives of coal miners in Harlan County, U.S.A. to the politically outspoken Dixie Chicks in Shut Up & Sing, and this is one of her best. Gigi’s exuberant presence makes the picture a complete joy from beginning to end, as Kopple seamlessly weaves her own documentation of her subject’s journey with footage from Gigi’s videos, where she guides viewers along every step of her external transformation. There’s an especially intriguing video that depicts Gigi having a conversation with her male persona, and her macho posturing comes off as all the more artificial when directly contrasted with her feminine self. Fisher notes that whereas Gregory yearned to stand out from the crowd, Gigi’s goal is to blend in, finding acceptance from others on her own terms. Yet aside from the testosterone blockers and estrogen, Gigi believes that the transition undergone by a transgender person is more mental than anything else, and doesn’t necessarily require a change of genitalia. As Gigi sits in a car, calm and confident in her body, Kopple brilliantly juxtaposes her footage with the voice of Gregory, encouraging his viewers to be themselves. This one scene conveys the unchanging nature of identity regardless of one’s physical state with more clarity and impact than the entirety of Cloud Atlas. Though the film culminates with Gigi’s participation in New York Fashion Week, where she struts the runway looking like Lady Liberty, an even more satisfying highpoint occurs at David’s wedding to his second wife. It’s the first time much of Gigi’s extended family has seen her post-operation, and when she walks down the aisle, her elation radiates through the screen.

“One of the questions raised by Kopple’s film is whether Gigi will choose to take the advice of her new manager and alter her image in order to attract more sponsors. I doubt it. While actors in Hollywood often have to compromise their own identities in order to be more commercially viable, YouTubers like Gigi make a fortune by being true to themselves. She embodies the wisdom of a young generation infinitely more accepting of gender fluidity than their predecessors. There’s a chilling resonance to the moment where Gigi reflects on the legacy of German physician Magnus Hirschfeld, and the Nazis that attempted to silence his groundbreaking advocacy for gay and transgender rights. If current events have proven anything, it’s that the threat of such intolerance remains frighteningly real. Yet sometimes, all one has to do is look a person in the eye in order to change their heart. That is how a revolution begins.”

FEBRUARY 7: Almost Adults (dir. Sarah Rotella) [available on iTunes]Synopsis from the film’s official website: “This comedy feature follows two best friends in their final year of college while they transition into adulthood. One embraces her sexuality and tries to catch up on everything she has missed during her teenage years, while the other ends a long term relationship with her boyfriend and discovers her life isn’t going as planned. Both struggle to keep their friendship together as they begin growing apart.”

FEBRUARY 10 [delayed from previous January release date]: Kedi (dir. Ceyda Torun)Synopsis from the film’s official website: “Hundreds of thousands of Turkish cats roam the metropolis of Istanbul freely. For thousands of years they’ve wandered in and out of people’s lives, becoming an essential part of the communities that make the city so rich. Claiming no owners, the cats of Istanbul live between two worlds, neither wild nor tame — and they bring joy and purpose to those people they choose to adopt. In Istanbul, cats are the mirrors to the people, allowing them to reflect on their lives in ways nothing else could.

“Critics and internet cats agree — this cat documentary will charm its way into your heart and home as you fall in love with the cats in Istanbul.”

FEBRUARY 10: Land of Mine [Current Oscar Nominee: Best Foreign Language Film] (dir. Martin Zandvliet) (DP: Camilla Hjelm Knudsen)Excerpts from Screen Daily review by David D’Arcy: “Denmark’s mistreatment of German prisoners after World War II, a little-known chapter of post-war history, is a powerful j’accuse in Land of Mine, which may surprise all but specialised historians. The film revisits the Allies’ practice of using captured Germans to clear land mines on the Danish coast that would blow many of them to bits. There’s also humanity here in the bond that forms between a stern Danish sergeant (Roland Moller) and the adolescent POWs in his charge.

“…At war’s end, some 1.5 million mines placed by the Nazis remained on Denmark’s west coast. Defusing them was a national urgency. Rather than use Danes who had sacrificed so much during the Nazi occupation, British liberators proposed that the Danish government deploy thousands of Wehrmacht POWs on Danish territory for the job. At least half of them died at that task from May to October 1945.

Land of Mine isn’t the first account that suggests that the Danes committed a war crime. Nor is it the first examination of brutality against defeated Germans in 1945. What’s new is that those charges of Danish misdeeds are being brought to a wide audience in the language of epic cinema. Zandvliet (A Funny Man, 2011, Applause, 2009) picks up the story as a vengeful Danish officer assigns a stern sergeant (Moller) to manage a brigade of boy prisoners conscripted late in the war. Moller’s ox-like character makes that severity look a lot like sadism, until the cruelty of his British and Danish superiors and the deadliness of the job draw out his protective instincts.

“…The tension builds on the impressive composure of German and Swiss teenage actors (many of them already television veterans), including the endearing twins Emil and Oskar Belton – still not yet 16 – who play brothers who are captured in Germany’s dying days. With some adroit promotion, the young cast could be a strong selling point in German-speaking countries and beyond.

“The sand dunes of Denmark’s Skallingen peninsula (finally declared mine-free in 2012) are a huge canvas for cinematographer Camilla Hjelm Knudsen, the director’s wife, who evokes a desert-like vastness reminiscent of a David Lean landscape for boys forced into a labour of futility. The motif of teenagers marching into those expanses drives home the grim truth that wars don’t end when the belligerent commanders declare the fighting to be over.”

FEBRUARY 10: One Night (dir. Minhal Baig)The Austin Chronicle’s Austin Film Fest review by Sarah Marloff: “Dabbling in magical realism, Minhal Baig’s One Night toys with the theme of traveling back in time. The idea that the past is simultaneously more simple and more magical is both questioned and contemplated throughout the film, which follows two couples over the course of prom night.

“Within the walls of a Los Angeles hotel, the debut feature from writer/director Baig weaves a compelling story and honest look at love and relationships – from falling in to falling apart. High school seniors Bea (Isabelle Fuhrman) and Andy (Kyle Allen) are accidentally thrown together when their prom ends and the afterparty begins. Elizabeth (Anna Camp of Pitch Perfect) and Drew (Justin Chatwin), on the other hand, are young adults who seem to have mistakenly chosen the hotel hosting that same prom to rehash (or repair?) their failing marriage.

“The juxtaposition of watching two people becoming a couple – the enchantment of being 17 and completely awed by another human – with the cold realities of a struggling long-term relationship offers viewers a glimpse at relationship reality. Hollywood is forever obsessed with the happily ever after ending, but life and love are far too complex to allow for a simple skipping off into the sunset – or sunrise – as the case may be. One Night doesn’t hold back from this. Relationships are hard work and sometimes love simply cannot overcome the mundane difficulties of life.

“Though very beautifully weaved, at times the film’s dialogue seems unsure of itself, specifically between Elizabeth and Drew. Are they actors acting like they’re acting or are they two adults trying to play make believe? At first it’s hard to tell, perhaps because Baig wasn’t entirely sure either. But as the story unravels, the actors and the script find their footing. Bea and Andy, however, never falter in convincing the audience of their 17-year-old, smart-ass naivete. Together they manage to steal the show and infuse the film with hope. In the warm light of day, One Night is an endearing look at what makes and what keeps a relationship alive.”

FEBRUARY 10: Sex Doll (dir. Sylvie Verheyde)IFC Films synopsis: “A high-priced call girl navigates the shadowy world of London’s sex trade underground in this provocative, erotic thriller. Virginie (César Award winner Hafsia Herzi) goes about her work as a prostitute with a cool detachment, trading sex with wealthy businessmen for money, but never getting emotionally involved. That all changes when she meets Rupert (Ash Stymest), an enigmatic stranger with unclear intentions. Risking everything, Virginie plunges into a dangerous affair that tears her between a ruthless madame who forbids romantic attachments and a dark, sexy man who could be her savior or her downfall.”

FEBRUARY 10: Speed Sisters (dir./DP: Amber Fares)Cinema Village synopsis: “The Speed Sisters are the first all-woman race car driving team in the Middle East. Grabbing headlines and turning heads at improvised tracks across the West Bank, these five women have sped their way into the heart of the gritty, male-dominated Palestinian street car-racing scene. Weaving together their lives on and off the track, Speed Sisters takes you on a surprising journey into the drive to go further and faster than anyone thought you could.”

FEBRUARY 10: A United Kingdom (dir. Amma Asante)Excerpts from The Guardian review by Mark Kermode: “…Eye in the Sky screenwriter Guy Hibbert’s screenplay (from Susan Williams’s 2006 book Colour Bar) revisits an often forgotten chapter of postwar history that might be filed under ‘stranger than fiction.’ Rosamund Pike is Ruth Williams, a clerk from Blackheath, south London, working in Lloyds of London in 1947, who is swept off her feet by handsome law student Seretse Khama (Oyelowo). Ruth doesn’t know that Seretse is an African king in waiting, leader-to-be of the Bamangwato people of Bechuanaland (later Botswana), the British protectorate to which he is due to return on completion of his studies.

“When Seretse proposes, having duly explained his true identity, Ruth imagines a new life away from the misty drizzle of London, a life that, she assures her fiance, will be taken ‘moment by moment – together.’ But when the news of this high-profile black-and-white union reaches neighbouring South Africa, whose National party is busy enshrining apartheid in law, the cash-strapped British authorities move first to forbid and then to undermine the marriage, scared of alienating their supplier of cheap gold and uranium. Seretse’s regent uncle, Tshekedi Khama (Vusi Kunene), also refuses to countenance a white queen and a rift develops that threatens to tear apart more than just love.

“Handsomely shot on locations in the UK and Botswana by Sam McCurdy, A United Kingdom contrasts sweeping exteriors with fusty interiors, breathing rich visual life into the battle between an entrenched establishment and an emerging republic. Production designer Simon Bowles and composer Patrick Doyle clearly relish the broad canvas opportunities of the narrative, while Asante cites Richard Attenborough and David Lean as her guiding lights.

“For all the film’s vibrant grandeur, though, our attention is kept tightly focused on the central couple’s romance, even when they are separated by geography, economics and politics. Much is made of the world-turned-upside-down absurdity of Labour prime minister Clement Attlee’s obsequious loyalty to South Africa while the Conservative Churchill appears to be an ally of Khama’s progressive cause (although pragmatism soon overrides opposition promises), but it’s the wholly believable and tangible bond between Oyelowo’s Seretse and Pike’s Ruth that delivers the real emotional punch.

“…’I want to make pieces of entertainment and art that mean something,’ Asante recently told the BBC while musing upon her forthcoming film, Where Hands Touch, a longstanding passion project about a relationship between a bi-racial girl and a Hitler Youth boy in 1930s Berlin. ‘I want to make movies that leave some kind of mark on you.’ With A United Kingdom she has done just that.”

FEBRUARY 17: American Fable (dir. Anne Hamilton)Variety’s SXSW review by Andrew Barker: “If imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery, then writer-director Anne Hamilton’s American Fable registers as an eloquently constructed valentine to Guillermo del Toro, whose Pan’s Labyrinth provides her film with its haunting backbone. Gorgeously shot, and helmed with a sense of daring and verve that belies Hamilton’s greenness to feature filmmaking, this is a debut of obvious promise, although its story never quite rises to the level of its craft. Premiering in the experimental Visions program at SXSW, this tale of farmland intrigue as seen through the eyes of a dreamy 11-year-old has just as much arthouse potential as many of the supposedly more commercial entries in the narrative competition, though it may ultimately function best as a passport to bigger things for its gifted young director.

“Hamilton’s introduction to filmmaking came via an internship with Terrence Malick on the set of The Tree of Life, and the director’s tendrils are visible from the very first shot, a dramatically swooning overhead view of a young girl chasing a chicken through monstrous expanses of corn stalks. The girl is Gitty (Peyton Kennedy, excellent), an imaginative, friendless grade schooler growing up in the farmlands of Wisconsin. The year is 1982, and overheard Ronald Reagan speeches place us right in at the beginning of the farm crisis, its gravity underscored by passing mentions of the rash of suicides in town.

“Gitty adores her father, the salty Abe (Kip Pardue), who does everything he can to distract her from the fact that they’re in dire danger of losing their farm. Her factory-worker mother (Marci Miller) is pregnant with a third child, and Gitty’s older brother, Martin (Gavin MacIntosh), is a study in unhinged, unmodulated malevolence.

“Wandering the farmlands on her bike, she makes a startling discovery: Locked inside her family’s unused silo is a dirty yet expensively dressed man calling himself Jonathan (Richard Schiff) who claims to have gone days without food. Though he’s short on details, Jonathan is a developer who’s been buying up farms in the area, and it doesn’t take long for Gilly to intuit that her own family has played some part in this kidnapping. As she begins bringing him food and books, the two develop a bond, with Gitty rappelling down through a small hole in the silo roof for chess lessons and reading sessions.

“Meanwhile, Gitty’s father conducts some mysterious business with a Mephistophelean woman named Vera (Zuleikha Robinson), and Gitty begins to experience visions of a black-clad, horned woman striding through the countryside on horseback. These hesitant forays into the mythological realm — reaching a feverish peak with a flashy dream sequence — feel oddly underdeveloped, alternating between inscrutable and needlessly obvious, with a long montage accompanying a recitation of Yeats’ ‘The Second Coming’ a prime example of the latter.

“One of the strongest cues Hamilton takes from Pan’s Labyrinth, however, is the decision to allow Gitty’s own loyalties and misunderstandings to dictate the film’s p.o.v., and Kennedy ably carries the film on her back, radiating self-confidence while retaining an essential naivete and vulnerability; her many scenes of peering through doorways at conversations she doesn’t quite understand are beautifully played. Yet even accounting for this, the intrigue at the film’s center never makes total sense, and Gitty’s ultimate ethical dilemma — whether to leave Jonathan to his fate or put her own family at risk — never arrives with the right urgency. The shoehorned introduction of a few too many extraneous elements, especially a Marge Gunderson-esque retired police officer (Rusty Schwimmer), doesn’t help.

“Working with d.p. Wyatt Garfield, Hamilton shoots the rural landscape with a transformative eye. These farmlands aren’t dusty expanses but rather humid, almost primordial jungles; individual frames from nighttime scenes in the family barn could easily be oil paintings of the Nativity. More than just cataloguing pretty shots, Hamilton builds an arresting aura of wonder and terror, of which Gingger Shankar’s haunting, teasing score is very much a piece.”

FEBRUARY 17: Everybody Loves Somebody (dir. Catalina Aguilar Mastretta)The Hollywood Reporter’s Palm Springs International Film Festival review by Stephen Farber: “One of the crowd-pleasing world premiere films shown this year in Palm Springs is a bilingual romantic comedy, Everybody Loves Somebody, which doesn’t break any new ground thematically but still manages to make an appealing addition to the rom-com genre. Pantelion Films will release it in the U.S. and should find a sympathetic audience, especially if the picture is shrewdly marketed in parts of the country with sizable Latino populations.

“Clara (Karla Souza) is a successful doctor in Los Angeles but not so successful in her love life. All her dissatisfactions come to the surface when her parents, who live in Baja, decide to get married after 40 years of cohabiting without a license. Writer-director Catalina Aguilar Mastretta commented after the PSIFF screening that this part of the story was inspired by her own family background. The other details may be less autobiographical. Clara is something of a self-destructive mess, often trying to undermine the relationships of other people in her life, including her own patients. She is prone to one-night stands but seems to have an almost pathological fear of commitment.

“We find out why when she attends the family shindig in Mexico and reconnects with an old flame, Daniel (Jose Maria Yazpik), who apparently broke her heart years ago when he took off on a series of globe-trotting adventures. There is clearly still a spark between the two of them, but Clara is also tentatively exploring a relationship with a resident in her medical office, Asher (Ben O’Toole), an Aussie who seems far more grounded than either Clara or Daniel.

“Anyone expecting an incisive exploration of human psychology or cross-cultural conflicts will find the script pretty superficial and overly reliant on self-help bromides. Yet we get caught up in the movie all the same. Everybody may lack depth, but it often compensates with raucous humor. There’s also the novelty value of seeing a movie in which most of the characters flip easily and gracefully between conversing in Spanish and English. The inviting Baja seaside settings are another enticement.

“But the main reason for the movie’s success is its irresistible cast. Souza manages to make us care about Clara even when she’s behaving atrociously. Her sassy spirit has us rooting for her to escape her downward spiral, but there’s no sentimentality in her portrayal. All the other attractive castmembers bring charm and energy to their performances. Patricia Bernal as Clara’s wacky but loving mother and Tiare Scanda as her more conventional sister both make strong impressions. O’Toole is especially winning as the wise but wounded Aussie. He manages to make a convincing case for stability without ever seeming too good to be true.

“The true test of a winning romantic comedy is whether it makes the audience root for the clinch between the mismatched lovers. Despite its superficiality, the film succeeds in meeting that primary goal of the genre, so it leaves the audience in a cheerful mood.”

FEBRUARY 17: Lovesong (dir. So Yong Kim) (DPs: Guy Godfree and Kat Westergaard)Variety’s Sundance Film Festival review by Justin Chang: “Conceived in the same delicate minor key as her earlier films (In Between Days, Treeless Mountain and For Ellen), So Yong Kim’s fourth feature dances nervously but gracefully around a love that not only dares not speak its name, but can barely even figure itself out. Anchored by Riley Keough’s lovely, wistful performance as a mom in her 20s who gets back in touch with an old childhood bestie (a sharp Jena Malone), Lovesong makes a virtue of restraint as it traces a complex emotional history in two parts, and innumerable (and sometimes quite literal) shades of gray. The result may not significantly broaden the audience for Kim’s subdued, perceptive work but nevertheless stands as her most accessible feature to date, and deserves a listen from discerning arthouse distributors.

“…What’s left in the end, and it’s significant, is a sudden rush of tenderness that testifies to the depth of feeling that has transpired between Sarah and Mindy, even if they may lack the words or the inclination to define it. While some may dismiss Lovesong as retrograde for not adhering to the happy-ending expectations of a 21st-century queer romance (or a mid-1950s queer romance, on the evidence of Carol), the film is not, in the end, a narrative of the closet … there’s a remarkable truthfulness to the film’s acknowledgment that people often make enormous decisions rooted not in fear so much as uncertainty, even laziness, as well as a comfort with their lives as they’ve lived them until the present juncture.

“Malone, with her knack for playing strong-willed, hard-edged young women, is perfectly cast as the brash, impulsive, needy and inconsiderate friend who has come to rely deeply on Sarah. And Keough makes entirely clear why Sarah invites her friend’s trust: Bearing an uncanny resemblance to Kristen Stewart at her most expressively withdrawn, the actress (soon to be seen on Starz’s ‘The Girlfriend Experience’) projects a soulful integrity that keeps the character from seeming too passive. She may not seem to be doing much at any given moment, but her every silent, darting glance makes clear that she’s both a natural caretaker — of her friend, of her daughter — and also someone with an eye on a potentially new horizon.

“Lensers Kat Westergaard and Guy Godfree keep their gently handheld cameras close to the primary actors but occasionally pull back to take in the cool, calming beauty of their natural surroundings. The soundscape balances occasional soft-rock tunes and a mistily subdued score by the multitalented composer Johann Johansson (Sicario, The Theory of Everything).”

FEBRUARY 17: XX (dirs. Roxanne Benjamin, Karyn Kusama, St. Vincent (Annie Clark) and Jovanka Vuckovic) (DPs: Ian Anderson, Tarin Anderson and Patrick Cady) (animated segments created by Sofia Carrillo)Excerpts from The Hollywood Reporter’s Sundance Film Festival review by David Rooney: “Following on the heels of recent horror anthologies like Southbound and the V/H/S franchise, XX strings together four shorts written and directed by women, including Karyn Kusama, Roxanne Benjamin, Jovanka Vuckovic and Annie Clark, aka indie rock musician St. Vincent. Beyond the chromosomal title, the twisted take on motherhood shared by three installments, and the macabre wraparound and interstitial sequences by Mexican stop-motion animator Sofia Carrillo, there’s no binding thread here. The package mixes existential creepiness with black comedy, demonic carnage and a Satan’s spawn scenario, and while it’s uneven — as these combos invariably are — genre enthusiasts looking for a female spin will want to check it out.

“Arguably the most startling breakout among women in horror lately has been Australian Jennifer Kent’s wickedly effective The Babadook. Echoes of that film’s terror of maternal failure resurface here, plus there’s a vague kinship between the darker visual flourishes of Kent’s fairy-tale nightmare and Carrillo’s playful segments — dollhouse interludes that suggest a Tim Burton Toy Story. In terms of style and tone, however, the four shorts have little in common.

“…The best thing about this project is that in the genre realm of the final girl, each story features a female protagonist facing unique fears beyond scream-and-die victimhood, in one case becoming the vessel of carnage herself.”

FEBRUARY 24 (LA), MARCH 1 (NYC): Kiki (dir. Sara Jordenö) (DP: Naiti Gámez)Synopsis from film’s official website: “In New York City, LGBTQ youth-of-color gather out on the Christopher Street Pier, practicing a performance-based artform, Ballroom, which was made famous in the early 1990s by Madonna’s music video ‘Vogue’ and the documentary Paris Is Burning. Twenty-five years after these cultural touchstones, a new and very different generation of LGBTQ youth have formed an artistic activist subculture, named the Kiki Scene.

Kiki follows seven characters from the Kiki community over the course of four years, using their preparations and spectacular performances at events known as Kiki balls as a framing device while delving into their battles with homelessness, illness and prejudice as well as their gains towards political influence and the conquering of affirming gender-expressions. In Kiki we meet Twiggy Pucci Garçon, the founder and gatekeeper for the Haus of Pucci, Chi Chi, Gia, Chris, Divo, Symba and Zariya. Each of these remarkable young people represents a unique and powerful personal story, illuminating the Kiki scene in particular, as well as queer life in the U.S. for LGBTQ youth-of-color as a whole.

“The spectacular Kiki balls, a consistent component of the Kiki subculture, offer performers a safe and empowered space to enact various modes of gender expression, including a stylized femininity that, if executed in the communities in which they grew up in, could provoke ridicule and violence. Kiki scene-members range in age from young teens to 20’s, and many have been thrown out of their homes by their families or otherwise find themselves on the streets. As LGBTQ people-of-color, they constitute a minority within a minority. An alarming 50% of these young people are HIV positive. The Kiki scene was created within the LGBTQ youth-of- color community as a peer-led group offering alternative family systems (‘houses’), HIV awareness teaching and testing, and performances geared towards self-agency. The scene has evolved into an important (and ever-growing) organization with governing rules, leaders and teams, now numbering hundreds of members in New York and across the U.S and Canada. Run by LGBTQ youth for LGBTQ youth, it draws strategies from the Civil Rights, Gay Rights and Black Power movements.

“In this film collaboration between Kiki gatekeeper, Twiggy Pucci Garçon, and Swedish filmmaker Sara Jordenö, viewers are granted exclusive access into this high-stakes world, where fierce Ballroom competitions serve as a gateway into conversations surrounding Black-and Trans-Lives Matter movements. This new generation of Ballroom youth use the motto, ‘Not About Us Without Us,’ and Kiki in kind has been made with extensive support and trust from the community, including an exhilarating score by renowned Ballroom and Voguing Producer Collective Qween Beat. Twiggy and Sara’s insider-outsider approach to their stories breathes fresh life into the representation of a marginalized community who demand visibility and real political power.”

Indelible Film Images: Angel (Danny Boy)

Angel (aka Danny Boy) (1982) – dir. Neil Jordan

Starring: Stephen Rea, Honor Heffernan, Marie Kean, Ray McAnally, Donal McCann, Veronica Quilligan, Peter Caffrey, Sorcha Cusack, Lise Ann McLaughlin, Macrea Clarke

Cinematography: Chris Menges

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Wonders Never Cease

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I am currently working my way through Neil Jordan’s filmography, as I often like to do with directors in order to get a sense of the bigger picture, studying the arcs that their careers travel. Two weeks ago I watched one of Jordan’s most famous films, The Crying Game (1992), for the first time.

(Warning: spoilers ahead. Proceed at your own risk if you have not seen the film.)

The Crying Game is a film that challenges our perceptions of masculinity and femininity, how first impressions and assumptions based on conventional thinking can shift and adapt in unexpected ways. Jordan implores us to look beyond the surfaces of characters and reach deeper understandings about human nature, the possibilities of emotional maturity and our capacity to express love despite obstacles both tangible and intangible. I am going to take a closer look at a few scenes from the film – not everything, of course, but just some sequences that inspire me.

I love the film’s opening credits. Line by line, the lyrics of Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman” fit the narrative perfectly. The opening scenes also establish the cross-section of major themes in the film: politics/national identity, race relations and sexuality. The kidnapping of British soldier Jody (Forest Whitaker) by an IRA faction headed by Fergus (Stephen Rea) and Jude (Miranda Richardson) sets up a series of parallels for the main characters (and us, the viewers) to question – Northern Irish vs. English, white vs. black, and eventually, when sexual identity becomes a focal point, straight/cisgender vs. not-straight/transgender (and other variations on the LGBT spectrum) – and how the complexities of these relationships transform the characters. Above all, The Crying Game is about how the two main characters achieve harmony within their individual minds and bodies, then how the passion they feel for one another blossoms into a lasting attachment.

One of the key moments at the beginning of The Crying Game, after Jody has been abducted and he is held for ransom, is when he befriends Fergus, the kindest of the captors. This scene, in which Fergus shows Jody the small kindness of allowing him to eat, is one of the first moments when the viewer realizes that the film is more than a thriller; on that genre level of the narrative, the fact that Jody has seen Fergus’s face represents a threat to the IRA group’s activities, but the idea that Jody remembers Fergus as “the handsome one,” having catalogued the details of his “killer smile” and other physical attributes, is an indication (not the first, but a strong one) that these characters are not who they initially seem to be. Every phrase – including “my pleasure” – is charged with meaning.

When Fergus removes Jody’s hood, it is as important a reveal as the famous “twist” that happens midway through the film. (More on that soon.) Neil Jordan prolongs the moment in a shot of Fergus that is filmed almost in slow motion, giving a simple action the appearance of something more, even though we don’t know exactly what yet.

Continuing in that same scene, Jody shows Fergus a photograph of his girlfriend Dil (Jaye Davidson), which prompts Fergus to make the comment that Dil would be “anybody’s type.” (When Fergus leans down to Jody, the camera tilts slightly to create a canted angle, an oft-used technique in the film to suggest that the bonds between men and women, as well as among men, are off-kilter.) The universality of Fergus’s claim will later test his preconceived notions about his relationship to sexuality, romance and love when, after Jody is killed by in a government raid on the hideout, Fergus escapes to London and tracks Dil down, bound to a promise he made to Jody that Dil would be looked after.

The first scene with Dil, when Fergus visits the hair salon where she works, establishes instant chemistry between the two characters. You know from Fergus’s first glance at Dil in real life that he is hooked, completely infatuated. This scene contains possibly my favorite image in the film: identity, sensuality and, considering the scissors, a violent act that destroys and then transforms a person into someone else – all in one shot of Jaye Davidson cutting Stephen Rea’s hair.

The shining, sparkling highlight of the film is when Dil – wearing a gold dress designed by Sandy Powell – lipsyncs to a cover of “The Crying Game,” the song that inspired the film’s title. The lyrics’ story is told by a narrator who is tired of relationships that initially seem like wonderful romances but are eventually revealed to be built on lies; in The Crying Game, the main characters’ secrets and lies are a constant source of conflict.

I especially love the way Neil Jordan wrote Dil’s singing scene in the screenplay: “Fergus looks up. Close-up of Dil’s hand, as music begins, making movements to the music. We see Dil, standing on a stage, swaying slightly. She seems a little drunk. She mimes to the song. She mouths the words so perfectly and the voice on the song is so feminine that there is no way of knowing who is doing the singing. She does all sorts of strange movements, as if she is drawing moonbeams with her hands.”

If The Crying Game is a film about people who continually push their (and others’) limits, then a perfect example is the scene in which Fergus and Dil share their first kiss. As the poster at the top of this page says, “desire is a danger zone”; when Fergus and Dil kiss, there is a kind of suspense as you wait to see what will happen next.

Soon afterwards, Fergus discovers a truth about Dil which is often described as “the twist” or “the secret” of the film: she has a penis. Back in 1992, many viewers were surprised by this revelation, so convincing was Jaye Davidson in the role. Dil is often mistakenly referred to as a transvestite, but if you have seen the film, you would agree that she is a transgender woman; she wears clothing not for preference but for necessity. She lives her life as a woman and dresses according to her gender, not her biological sex. That Fergus initially reacts with horror and revulsion when viewing Dil’s genitalia makes sense when one considers his background; for a man from in Northern Ireland, long before the comparatively modern climate of the early 90s, his belief in heteronormativity must have been ingrained in his upbringing. In this crucial encounter between Fergus and Dil, the presence of a penis seems to negate her status as a woman because that is the only way he can process the information in the moment. (My assumption was that Dil had not had sex reassignment surgery because she didn’t have much money, and that if she could afford it, she would do it – the film puts emphasis on her wish to embody womanliness physically as well as in spirit.) What matters even more in the film is that Fergus does not ultimately stop loving Dil; as the plot progresses, he kisses her again, he touches her body again. The connection between the two transcends everything he thought he knew about himself and about human sexuality.

(Incidentally: it should be noted that the “twist” was ruined for some people by the fact that Jaye Davidson was nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar at the 1993 ceremony.)

Fergus’s former associate, Jude, follows him to London and blackmails him into helping her with another act of political violence. Again there is a canted angle and there is a twist on male-female interaction: Jude is the aggressor and Fergus is the unwilling object of affection. Like Fergus, Jude has also altered her hairstyle, but instead of shedding layers, she has switched to a ‘do that makes her look like a femme fatale from a film noir.

The last scene that I want to discuss is the moment when Fergus, in a role reversal, cuts Dil’s hair. As Neil Jordan asks throughout the film: what does it mean to lead a double life? In Fergus’s case, he has his recent past as Fergus, the terrorist accomplice, and his current life as “Jimmy,” the construction worker with no political ties; Dil is psychologically female and she dresses as a woman but she has male genitalia; Jody revealed himself to be smarter, funnier and more complicated than the man we thought we knew in the film’s first scenes. In this specific scene, Fergus cuts Dil’s hair because he plans on disguising her as a man in order to more effectively hide her from Jude; Dil does not know why Fergus is changing her appearance, however, nor does she know that Fergus was responsible for Jody’s death. The relationship is still weighed down by lies and omitted truths.

Another fascinating part of Fergus’s certainty that Dil’s survival depends on her presenting herself in public as a man is linked to his memories of Jody. In a way, Fergus is just as obsessed with Jody as he is with Dil. Throughout the film, we see Fergus visualize Jody wearing his cricket-playing outfit in happier times; you could say that The Crying Game is a story about a love triangle, even though one leg of the triangle is a ghost. Fergus redesigns Dil’s looks based on Jody’s appearance, so much so that the final touch is Dil wearing Jody’s old cricket uniform. Where does Fergus’s guilt end and his genuine feelings for Dil begin? As the film hurtles towards its conclusion, you see the ramifications of Fergus’s, Dil’s and Jude’s dangerous decisions. And in the end, you see that the real “twist” in The Crying Game isn’t the “shocking” nudity shown in the middle of the film: it’s that this couple’s tale actually has a happy ending, albeit an unusual one.

Two other films that I have seen in the past week also fit the theme of this post. Guinevere (1999, dir. Audrey Wells) puts Stephen Rea in the positions of observer and sort-of-predator once again, catching the eye of a beautiful woman (Sarah Polley) and convincing her of her own value; the difference here is that Rea is the seducer rather than the seduced. Kenneth Turan summed up the introduction to Rea’s character neatly in the Los Angeles Times review of Guinevere: “Though he’s working today as the wedding photographer, Connie, as everyone calls him, proves to be exactly what his appearance advertises: the grand artiste with the looks and the loft to complete the package. Unshaven, with unruly hair and a white scarf knotted casually around his neck, he is Mr. Irish Bedroom Eyes, and when we find out that he drinks whiskey straight and listens to cool jazz far into the night, it merely completes the picture.” None of this is to say that Guinevere compares favorably to The Crying Game, but I do wonder if Stephen Rea ever would have had a career as a romantic leading man if not for Neil Jordan’s massively successful film.

(By the way, I’ve noticed that the white scarf is a recurring motif for Rea: he wore a similar one in the 1994 film Angie and also when he received an award from the Irish Film & Television Academy for the mini-series “The Honourable Woman” in 2015.)

The second film that deserves mention is Stargate (1994), but before I write about it, I have to put the film in context with this interview of Jaye Davidson from 1993. He rejected the allure of fame and the notoriety that went with it. He acted in only one other feature film, the sci-fi adventure Stargate, reportedly because he asked for a million-dollar paycheck to play the villain, Ra. Nowadays, when so many young stars take advantage of social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook,  Tumblr and Snapchat to connect with family, friends, fans and the press, it would probably be considered unthinkable for an overnight sensation to avoid the limelight. Times certainly have changed in 25 years.

So, then, we get to Stargate. Is it fair to compare Jaye Davidson’s performance as a one-dimensional alien antagonist with his work as Dil in The Crying Game? Without delving too deep into Stargate’s plot: a bunch of humans travel to another galaxy and they have to save an extraterrestrial civilization from its evil overlord, Ra (Davidson), who introduces himself to the group of earthlings only after shedding a gigantic mask, perhaps in a sort of homage to his role in The Crying Game. The New York Times film critic Caryn James wrote that Davidson makes “a suitably divine entrance. Mr. Davidson’s hair is in a long braid, and his costumes include a golden breastplate and flowing robes. His voice is electronically enhanced to give it a godlike rumble and on occasion the whites of his eyes are enhanced, too. There isn’t much acting involved. Mr. Davidson may not have wide-ranging career possibilities, but he makes the perfect Ra mannequin.” James’s review made me think twice about Davidson’s abilities as an actor, but only for about a second. Yes, physical appearance and appeal account for something, but they’re not everything. I don’t believe that anyone would care about his performance in The Crying Game if he hadn’t been more than a pretty face; it’s because he did a fantastic job as an actor that his work in that film still matters and why Stargate can’t be discredited either.

Ra’s series of threats against the film’s hero, Egyptologist/linguist Daniel (James Spader), provide us with my other favorite scene with Davidson in Stargate. Again, you could argue that the bulk of his acting in this film stems from sneering, but it’s enjoyable all the same.

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Right after I watched Stargate, I found Digital Spy article about Jaye Davidson that was written mere hours earlier. Proving that every story can have a twist when you least expect it, Davidson has apparently joined Twitter as of early January (I wonder if it was a New Year’s resolution?). Obviously social media has developed in ways that no one could have imagined a quarter-century ago, and you figure that the Jaye Davidson of 1992-1994 would have laughed hysterically at the concept of Twitter, but it’s interesting that after making the choice to abandon a life of celebrity and subsequently experience total anonymity for decades, Jaye Davidson has evidently come to terms with his brief but incredible history as an actor and he has joined the world of selfie-sharing to which so many of us now belong. Wonders never cease, do they?

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

Director Ceyda Torun with some of the stars of her new documentary, Kedi.

Here are nine new movies due to be released in theaters this January, 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.

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JANUARY 6: Underworld: Blood Wars (dir. Anna Foerster)Sony Pictures synopsis: “The next installment in the blockbuster franchise, Underworld: Blood Wars follows Vampire death dealer, Selene (Kate Beckinsale) as she fends off brutal attacks from both the Lycan clan and the Vampire faction that betrayed her. With her only allies, David (Theo James) and his father Thomas (Charles Dance), she must stop the eternal war between Lycans and Vampires, even if it means she has to make the ultimate sacrifice.”

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JANUARY 11: Everybody Knows… Elizabeth Murray (dir. Kristi Zea)Film Forum synopsis: “Kristi Zea brings to her debut, Everybody Knows… Elizabeth Murray, all the visual smarts she developed as a costume designer and award-winning production designer for Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme, among others. A friend of Murray’s since the 1980s, the filmmaker captures the vivacious artist’s flair for color and shape. Murray’s zany, fractured canvases feature paeans to domesticity (crying children, coffee cups) as they fairly burst with the remarkable good humor and energy the artist herself exhibited even in the final days of her life. Murray’s journals are read by Meryl Streep and art world luminaries Roberta Smith, Paula Cooper, Jennifer Bartlett, and Vija Celmins testify to both her life and work. An exhibition of Murray’s work, curated by Carroll Dunham & Dan Nadel, is on view through January 29 at CANADA (333 Broome Street, NYC).”

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JANUARY 13: The Bye Bye Man (dir. Stacy Title)Coming Soon synopsis: “People commit unthinkable acts every day. Time and again, we grapple to understand what drives a person to do such terrible things. But what if all of the questions we’re asking are wrong? What if the cause of all evil is not a matter of what… but who?

“From the producer of Oculus and The Strangers comes The Bye Bye Man, a chilling horror-thriller that exposes the evil behind the most unspeakable acts committed by man. When three college friends stumble upon the horrific origins of the Bye Bye Man, they discover that there is only one way to avoid his curse: don’t think it, don’t say it. But once the Bye Bye Man gets inside your head, he takes control. Is there a way to survive his possession?

“Debuting on Friday, January 13th, this film redefines the horror that iconic date represents—stretching our comprehension of the terror this day holds beyond our wildest nightmares.”

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JANUARY 13: Claire in Motion (dirs. Annie J. Howell and Lisa Robinson)Synopsis from the film’s official website:Claire in Motion is the second feature film from filmmaking team Lisa Robinson and Annie J. Howell. Exploring a short period of time inside one woman’s life-altering crisis, the story begins three weeks after math professor Claire Hunger’s (Betsy Brandt) husband has mysteriously disappeared, the police have ended their investigation and her son is beginning to grieve. The only person who hasn’t given up is Claire. Soon she discovers his troubling secrets, including an alluring yet manipulative graduate student with whom he had formed a close bond. As she digs deeper, Claire begins to lose her grip on how well she truly knew her husband and questions her own identity in the process. Claire in Motion twists the missing person thriller into an emotional take on uncertainty and loss.”

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JANUARY 13: MA (dir. Celia Rowlson-Hall)IFC Center synopsis: “In this modern-day vision of Mother Mary’s pilgrimage, a woman crosses the scorched landscape of the American Southwest. Reinvented and told entirely through movement, the film playfully deconstructs the role of this woman, who encounters a world full of bold characters that are alternately terrifying and sublime. MA is a journey into the visceral and the surreal, interweaving ritual, performance, and the body as sculpture. The absence of dialogue stirs the senses, and leads us to imagine a new ending to this familiar journey. The virgin mother gives birth to our savior, but is also challenged to save herself.”

JANUARY 13: Vince Giordano: There’s a Future in the Past (dirs. Dave Davidson and Amber Edwards)Cinema Village synopsis: “What does it take to keep Jazz Age music going strong in the 21st century? Two words: Vince Giordano — a bandleader, musician, historian, scholar, collector, and NYC institution. For nearly 40 years, Vince Giordano and The Nighthawks have brought the joyful syncopation of the 1920s and ‘30s to life with their virtuosity, vintage musical instruments, and more than 60,000 period band arrangements. This beautifully crafted documentary offers an intimate and energetic portrait of a truly devoted musician and preservationist, taking us behind the scenes of the recording of HBO’s Grammy award-winning ‘Boardwalk Empire’ soundtrack, and alongside Giordano as he shares his passion for hot jazz with a new generation of music and swing-dance fans.”

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JANUARY 20: Kedi (dir. Ceyda Torun)Synopsis from the film’s official website: “Hundreds of thousands of Turkish cats roam the metropolis of Istanbul freely. For thousands of years they’ve wandered in and out of people’s lives, becoming an essential part of the communities that make the city so rich. Claiming no owners, the cats of Istanbul live between two worlds, neither wild nor tame — and they bring joy and purpose to those people they choose to adopt. In Istanbul, cats are the mirrors to the people, allowing them to reflect on their lives in ways nothing else could.

“Critics and internet cats agree — this cat documentary will charm its way into your heart and home as you fall in love with the cats in Istanbul.”

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JANUARY 20: Staying Vertical (dir. Alain Guiraudie) (DP: Claire Mathon)Film Society of Lincoln Center synopsis: “Léo (Damien Bonnard), a blocked filmmaker seeking inspiration in the French countryside for an overdue script, begins an affair with a shepherdess (India Hair), with whom he almost immediately has a child. Combining the formal control of his 2013 breakthrough Stranger by the Lake with the shapeshifting fabulism of his earlier work, Alain Guiraudie’s new film is a sidelong look at the human cycle of birth, procreation, and death, as well as his boldest riff yet on his signature subjects of freedom and desire. The title has the ring of both a rallying cry and a dirty joke—fitting for a film that is, above all else, a rumination on what it means to be a human being, a vertical animal.”

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JANUARY 27: Sophie and the Rising Sun (dir. Maggie Greenwald)Monterey Media synopsis: “Set in the autumn of 1941 in Salty Creek, a fishing village in South Carolina, the film tells the dramatic story of interracial lovers swept up in the tides of history. As World War II rages in Europe a wounded Asian stranger, Mr. Ohta (Takashi Yamaguchi), appears in the town under mysterious circumstances. Sophie (Julianne Nicholson), a native of Salty Creek, quickly becomes transfixed by Mr. Ohta and a friendship born of their mutual love of art blossoms into a delicate and forbidden courtship. As their secret relationship evolves the war escalates tragically. When Pearl Harbor is bombed, a surge of misguided patriotism, bigotry and violence sweeps through the town, threatening Mr. Ohta’s life. A trio of women, each with her own secrets – Sophie, along with the town matriarch (Diane Ladd) and her housekeeper (Lorraine Toussaint) – rejects law and propriety, risking their lives with their actions.”

365 Day Movie Challenge: 2016

Another year, another list of movies that I have seen. I am thrilled to report that I saw 385 films in 2016, titles that I had either never seen or had not seen in a long enough time that viewing with a fresh perspective was in order. In choosing representative images and GIFs from some of these films, I thought about light, shadow, mirrors, faces, bodies, motion, uses of cinematic space, examples of typography and ruminations on the nature of moviegoing – many of the reasons why we, the happy spectators, keep our eyes open and pay attention.

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1915-1919: The Tong Man

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1925-1929: Bulldog Drummond; Diary of a Lost Girl; Pandora’s Box; The Plastic Age; Rio Rita; Sally; The Show Off; The Unholy Three; Weary River; The Wild Party

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1930-1934: The Beast of the City; Beauty and the Boss; Chandu the Magician; Ex-Lady; The Girl from Missouri; God’s Gift to Women; The Hatchet Man; Heroes for Sale; The Invisible Man; Is My Face Red?; Little Man, What Now?; Love Is a Racket; Make Me a Star; Murders in the Zoo; Mystery of the Wax Museum; Paid; Prix de Beauté (Miss Europe); Rafter Romance; Remote Control; Safe in Hell; Seed; Skyscraper Souls; State’s Attorney; The Story of Temple Drake; Under 18; What Every Woman Knows; Wild Boys of the Road

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1935-1939: Alibi Ike; The Big Broadcast of 1938; The Cat and the Canary; College Swing; Cowboy from Brooklyn; Curly Top; Drôle de Drame; Fit for a King; Four’s a Crowd; The General Died at Dawn; The Girl from 10th Avenue; Give Me a Sailor; Go Into Your Dance; Gold Diggers of 1937; The Great Garrick; Hard to Get; I Live My Life; Jamaica Inn; Letter of Introduction; Mr. Wong, Detective; Mystery of Edwin Drood; Peter Ibbetson; Pigskin Parade; The Return of Doctor X; The Right to Live; Romance in Manhattan; Shadows of the Orient; Sing, Baby, Sing; Varsity Show; The Wrong Road

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1940-1944: Blues in the Night; The Climax; The Fallen Sparrow; First Comes Courage; Frenchman’s Creek; The Hard Way; Hold Back the Dawn; I Walked with a Zombie; Joan of Paris; Murder, My Sweet; My Favorite Blonde; My Love Came Back; Once Upon a Honeymoon; Presenting Lily Mars; Princess O’Rourke; Remorques (aka Stormy Waters); Reunion in France; So Ends Our Night; The Son of Monte Cristo; Springtime in the Rockies; They Died with Their Boots On; Tomorrow, the World!; When Ladies Meet

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1945-1949: Bodyguard; The Body Snatcher; Born to Kill; The Bribe; Cover Up; Crack-Up; The Dark Corner; Devotion; Fear in the Night; The Girl from Jones Beach; The Harvey Girls; I’ll Be Yours; Leave Her to Heaven; The Long Night; Merton of the Movies; Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House; Murder, He Says; My Name Is Julia Ross; The Razor’s Edge; Road House; Scene of the Crime; The Sin of Harold Diddlebock; Sleep, My Love; The Unfaithful; The Woman on the Beach

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1950-1954: Affair in Trinidad; Best of the Badmen; Beware, My Lovely; The Black Castle; Code Two; Drive a Crooked Road; Duffy of San Quentin; The Golden Blade; House of Wax; Jeopardy; The Las Vegas Story; Lovely to Look At; Man in the Dark; My Blue Heaven; The Strange Door; Summer Stock; There’s No Business Like Show Business; To Please a Lady; Walk Softly, Stranger

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1955-1959: The Ambassador’s Daughter; Artists and Models; Back from Eternity; Damn Yankees; Diane; Hollywood or Bust; Imitation General; It’s Always Fair Weather; The Law and Jake Wade; Les Girls; Libel; Nightfall; Patterns; Screaming Mimi; Simon and Laura; The 39 Steps; Three for the Show; Warlock

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1960-1964: The Absent-Minded Professor; The Balcony; The Bellboy; Blaze Starr Goes Nudist; Cinderfella; The City of the Dead (aka Horror Hotel); Dear Heart; The Errand Boy; The Fall of the Roman Empire; Gunfight at Comanche Creek; The Intruder; Late Autumn; Nude on the Moon; Saturday Night and Sunday Morning; Sex and the Single Girl; Twilight of Honor; Who’s Minding the Store?

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1965-1969: The April Fools; Arabesque; Goodbye, Columbus; Hercules in New York; Hour of the Wolf; Incubus; Katzelmacher; Night of the Living Dead; Pierrot le Fou

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1970-1974: The American Soldier; Beware of a Holy Whore; Blood for Dracula (aka Andy Warhol’s Dracula); The Boy Friend; Dr. Phibes Rises Again; Effi Briest; The Exorcist; Gods of the Plague; Murders in the Rue Morgue; The Nickel Ride; Whity; Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?

1975-1979: Burnt Offerings; The Devil’s Rain; Jaws 2; The Marriage of Maria Braun; Nickelodeon; The Sentinel; Star Trek: The Motion Picture

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1980-1984: The Being; The Changeling; The Evil Dead; Jaws 3-D; Johnny Dangerously; Lola; Maria’s Lovers; Possession; The Postman Always Rings Twice; Purple Rain; Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan; Star Trek III: The Search for Spock; Venom; Veronika Voss

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1985-1989: After Hours; The Bedroom Window; Cobra; Crawlspace; Evil Dead II; The Great Outdoors; Jaws: The Revenge; Maniac Cop; Murphy’s Romance; RoboCop; Satisfaction; Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home; Star Trek V: The Final Frontier; Streetwalkin’; Top Gun; Under the Cherry Moon

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1990-1994: Army of Darkness; Batman Returns; Body of Evidence; Demolition Man; Falling Down; Johnny Suede; Maniac Cop 2; Miller’s Crossing; The Shawshank Redemption; Showdown in Little Tokyo; Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

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1995-1999: A Civil Action; Fargo; Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai; Happy Together; Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream People Call Human Life; Jackie Brown; Kiss the Girls; The Last Days of Disco; Mad Love; Michael; Scream 2; She’s All That

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2000-2004: Ali; Along Came a Spider; An American Rhapsody; Autumn in New York; Basic; Boiler Room; Bridget Jones’s Diary; Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason; Donnie Darko; Disco Pigs; Ghost World; The Girl Next Door; Hearts in Atlantis; Keeping the Faith; Kill Bill: Vol. 1; Kill Bill: Vol. 2; Mission to Mars; National Treasure; The Notebook; O Brother, Where Art Thou?; The Others; Snatch.; Swimming Pool; 28 Days Later…; Wimbledon

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2005-2009: Alpha Dog; Breakfast on Pluto; Burn After Reading; Cairo Time; Friends with Money; Gone Baby Gone; Inglourious Basterds; Into the Wild; The PianoTuner of EarthQuakes; Red Eye; Sabah; Shotgun Stories; Snakes on a Plane; Snow Cake; Star Trek; Sunshine; Sunshine Cleaning; Take the Lead; This Is It; 2 Days in Paris; Watching the Detectives

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2010-2014: The Beaver; Bobby Fischer Against the World; The Conjuring; Diplomacy; Django Unchained; Do I Sound Gay?; Hateship Loveship; Inescapable; In Time; Leap Year; Lucy; Man of Steel; Meet the Patels; Mud; Now You See Me; October Gale; Peacock; Pina; The Pretty One; Red Lights; Seymour: An Introduction; Star Trek Into Darkness; This Is Where I Leave You; Two Night Stand; The Wolf of Wall Street; X-Men: Days of Future Past

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2015-2016: Anthropoid; Arrival; Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice; The Big Short; Black Mass; The Boy Next Door; Brooklyn; Captain America: Civil War; Captain Fantastic; Carol; Chicken People; Cinderella; City of Gold; Creed; The Danish Girl; Danny Collins; Dark Places; Deadpool; The Dressmaker; Eddie the Eagle; The End of the Tour; Fifty Shades of Grey; The Fits; Florence Foster Jenkins; Focus; 45 Years; Ghostbusters; Hail, Caesar!; The Hateful Eight; Hello, My Name Is Doris; How to Be Single; I’ll See You in My Dreams; The Intern; In the Heart of the Sea; Jackie;  Joy; Keanu; Legend; Lion; The Lobster; The Longest Ride; Loving; Mad Max: Fury Road; The Man from U.N.C.L.E.; Marathon: The Patriots Day Bombing; Meadowland; Midnight Special; Mississippi Grind; Money Monster; No Manifesto: A Film About Manic Street Preachers; One More Time with Feeling; Rain the Color of Blue with a Little Red in It (aka Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai); Sisters; Snowden; Spotlight; Standing Tall; Star Trek Beyond; Suffragette; Triple 9; True Story; Weiner; X-Men: Apocalypse

2016 in Movies: GIF Edition

In tribute to the glory of the moving images we call motion pictures, today I celebrate twenty-eight of the films I saw in 2016 with this set of GIFs. Enjoy them, I insist.

Anthropoid (dir. Sean Ellis)

Arrival (dir. Denis Villeneuve)

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (dir. Zack Snyder)

Captain America: Civil War (dirs. Anthony Russo and Joe Russo)

Captain Fantastic (dir. Matt Ross)

Chicken People (dir. Nicole Lucas Haimes)

Deadpool (dir. Tim Miller)

The Dressmaker (dir. Jocelyn Moorhouse)

Eddie the Eagle (dir. Dexter Fletcher)

The Fits (dir. Anna Rose Holmer)

Florence Foster Jenkins (dir. Stephen Frears)

Ghostbusters (dir. Paul Feig)

Hail, Caesar! (dirs. Joel Coen and Ethan Coen)

Hello, My Name Is Doris (dir. Michael Showalter)

How to Be Single (dir. Christian Ditter)

Jackie (dir. Pablo Larraín)

Keanu (dir. Peter Atencio)

Lion (dir. Garth Davis)

The Lobster (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)

Loving (dir. Jeff Nichols)

Midnight Special (dir. Jeff Nichols)

Money Monster (dir. Jodie Foster)

One More Time with Feeling (dir. Andrew Dominik)

Snowden (dir. Oliver Stone)

Star Trek Beyond (dir. Justin Lin)

Triple 9 (dir. John Hillcoat)

Weiner (2016, dirs. Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg)

X-Men: Apocalypse (dir. Bryan Singer)