2015: Part 6

Carol. Directed by Todd Haynes. A superbly crafted film that continues Todd Haynes’ interest in tender, forbidden romances set in repressed 1950s America (see 2002’s Far from Heaven), Carol is one of the best films of 2015. It’s a shame that it did not get an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, or Best Director for Haynes, but that’s the way it happens with AMPAS sometimes; they don’t always give praise to the most deserving candidates, even the ones who are close in the running. (I’m guessing that Todd Haynes was 6th or 7th place in the Oscar group for directors, just barely missing the vote.) The film is so lushly photographed and designed, the former by Edward Lachman and the latter by Judy Becker, Heather Loeffler and Jesse Rosenthal, in addition to gorgeous costumes by Sandy Powell (I love the blue plaid jumper-dress that Rooney Mara wears the first time she visits Cate Blanchett’s house). Mara and Blanchett give exquisite performances, Mara in particular because her character – Therese, not Carol – is the one through whose eyes we see the film’s events unfold and Mara portrays Therese’s confusion and the slowly blossoming understanding about her sexuality quite delicately. The subtle screenplay by Phyllis Nagy (an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt) allows the protagonists’ feelings toward one another to simmer quietly (probably why so many moviegoers have described Carol as “slow,” “boring,” “cold,” etc.), but that’s what makes the inevitable display of passion so convincing – especially since it’s tastefully directed by Haynes, not at all exploitative or even explicit (a very 50s fade-out is employed before anything too sexually graphic can be shown). Other good supporting performances add further layers to the film – Kyle Chandler as Blanchett’s hurt, angry husband; Sarah Paulson as Blanchett’s best friend and ex-flame; Jake Lacy as Mara’s boyfriend; John Magaro (also seen recently in The Big Short) as a friend of Mara’s who has a crush on her – but what really ties the whole film together is the score by Carter Burwell, themes which strike the right balance between the laments of woodwinds and the hopeful strums of a harp. As happy as I am that Ennio Morricone will most likely win his long-overdue Oscar this year (for the score he composed for Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight), I think that Burwell’s score is the superior work.

P.S. I keep wondering what kind of film Douglas Sirk could have made out of Carol. If Lana Turner circa Imitation of Life (1959) met Gloria Talbott circa All That Heaven Allows (1955) … who knows?

Creed. Directed by Ryan Coogler. Both a crowd-pleaser and a fine addition to the Rocky franchise, Creed has a great lead performance by Michael B. Jordan as Adonis (Creed) Johnson, a child born out of wedlock when legendary boxer Apollo Creed (played by Carl Weathers back in the day) had an affair shortly before he died in Rocky IV (1985), and an exceptional (and probably Oscar-winning) supporting performance by Sylvester Stallone, adding more nuance and emotion to his four-decade-long life as Rocky Balboa. Jordan’s acting grows stronger with each film he makes; Fruitvale Station (2013) was a better film overall for Jordan and for writer/director Ryan Coogler, but Creed is an important step in both men’s careers in terms of national recognition and professional opportunities moving forward. The film runs a little long at 132 minutes; certain scenes could have been trimmed, generally the ones with the relationship between Jordan and Tessa Thompson (I guess it’s interesting that that her character’s hearing problems link up with Mickey Goldmill’s deafness in the early Rocky movies, but I think it hurt the film that there was so little development in her character considering how many scenes she was in and how long they all seemed to be) and also the one where Jordan sits outside the locked Front Street Gym. Creed wouldn’t be a true Rocky story without clichés about hard work and redemption, so there’s plenty of that to go around in Coogler’s film, and Phylicia Rashad’s extended cameo as Apollo Creed’s widow sometimes toes the line between touching and corny (mostly because of the dialogue, not the actress herself), but in the best scenes – probably every one of Stallone’s scenes and definitely all of the boxing matches – there is a vitality that gives the franchise a much-needed shot in the arm. Maryse Alberti’s cinematography is especially impactful, most of all in Tessa Thompson’s concert scene (from what I recall there was a focus on blue, purple and red lighting), in the one-take fight between Adonis and Leo “The Lion” Sporino (played by Gabe Rosado), which lasts for two rounds without any edits, and in the big match at the end between Adonis and “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew, a real-life champ with an amusingly not-ripped physique; which is to say, we’re not exactly talking Alexander Skarsgård and his Legend of Tarzan abs, which by comparison resemble a challah loaf), which is also well-executed. I can’t imagine why Alberti didn’t get a Best Cinematography Oscar nomination for her and her camera operators’ energy and striking use of Steadicam while Robert Richardson did receive one for his mostly unimaginative work on The Hateful Eight… that’s the Academy for you, though.

The Danish Girl. Directed by Tom Hooper. One thing is certain: Alicia Vikander gives an outstanding performance in The Danish Girl as Gerda Wegener, wife of Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe (one of the first people to undergo sex reassignment surgery), even if it makes zero sense for Vikander to be put in the Best Supporting Actress Oscar category since her character has just as much screen time as the character(s) played by Eddie Redmayne, and we are perhaps even more deeply involved in Vikander’s character’s mindset than we are in Redmayne’s. For his part, Eddie Redmayne tries to invest the two performances of Einar and Lili with some depth – you would hope for as much, given that The Danish Girl tells a groundbreaking story in the history of transgender transitions – but as A.O. Scott put it, Redmayne’s work here consists of “significant gestures, freighted glances and the kind of showiness that masquerades as subtlety.” There is something very interesting in the truth that Redmayne’s countenance, the pale and freckled landscape dotted with crow’s-feet and large dimples, doesn’t look complete until lipstick, eye shadow and mascara have been applied; makeup gives his face a strange but compelling beauty, which I think make Lili believable as her own person. The problem, however, is that excessive smiling, with Redmayne’s grin that reminds me of clowns, is not the same as understanding Einar’s/Lili’s viewpoint better. Because of the disappointing feeling that Redmayne’s performance isn’t enough to do justice to the story of Einar/Lili, The Danish Girl ends up feeling as much like manipulative Oscar bait as so many people have said. True, one cannot find too much fault in the costumes, the art direction/set decoration, most of the cinematography and other technical elements, and the three main supporting performances by Matthias Schoenaerts, kind-eyed Sebastian Koch and a surprisingly decent (given her track record) Amber Heard are also respectable. Unfortunately, Alexandre Desplat’s melodramatic score pervades every scene, drenching the proceedings (which already suffer from mediocre screenwriting) in sappiness, laying the sad sentimentality (or sentimental sadness?) on far too thickly. In small doses, Desplat’s score might be considered lovely (even if it sounds like a retread of his earlier work on Girl with a Pearl Earring mixed with the more tender sounds from Wojciech Kilar’s Dracula score), but hearing the same musical themes repeat over and over (and over) throughout the film is enough to drive any viewer batty. And, of course, there’s the problem of The Danish Girl missing or changing certain key facts, events and details from the lives of Einar/Lili and Gerda, which I could tell even from what I was seeing in the film, which sometimes seemed too obviously Hollywood-ized to make the story as easily comprehensible as possible for a two-hour running time.

Mississippi Grind. Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. Anyone who has seen Robert Altman’s California Split (1974) and John Dahl’s Rounders (1998) will see a kindred spirit in Boden & Fleck’s Mississippi Grind, a tale of male bonding over gambling that is entertaining and beautifully shot by cinematographer Andrij Parekh (most of all in Memphis: examples 1, 2, 3 and 4), even if the film never completely rises to all of the dramatic challenges it sets out to tackle. The usual hallmarks of gambling-addiction movies are there, chiefly the protagonist (Australian character actor Ben Mendelsohn in an ace – pun intended – lead performance) who never knows when it’s time to fold and call it quits, and the more extroverted, energetic pal (Ryan Reynolds, who does a surprisingly good job given how terrible he usually is in romantic comedies) who convinces him to delve deeper into the game. The nice thing is that the roles eventually reverse; Mendelsohn becomes even more reckless while Reynolds pulls back and realizes the life he is missing out on with on again, off again girlfriend Simone (Sienna Miller, an OK performance) by putting the journey down the Mississippi River to a legendary New Orleans poker game as his first priority instead. Mississippi Grind doesn’t feel fresh or innovative – although the blues-filled soundtrack (including Memphis Slim and Rosco Gordon) lends an authentic touch to the sense of Americana, besides the road-movie genre that the film can be placed in – but there is a terrific scene where Analeigh Tipton (who works with Sienna Miller in their prostitute/escort business) watches and listens to Mendelsohn playing Erik Satie’s “Gymnopédie No. 1” on an old, rickety piano. As the camera tightens to a close-up on her face, Tipton says in her whispery voice that she’s going to make it someday, succeed in a legitimate line of work. It’s in moments like that that Mississippi Grind does best: impressive acting meets solid camerawork.

True Story. Directed by Rupert Goold. I seem to recall True Story getting quite the critical drubbing when it was released to theaters last April. I wasn’t as disappointed as I expected to be; I actually found the film pretty compelling. I think people were so confounded by the idea that Jonah Hill and James Franco would co-star in a straightforward, no-frills drama that they didn’t know how to react to it. It’s true that Jonah Hill has not yet found his footing as a dramatic leading man, having spent so many years cutting his teeth on dumb comedies (or with smaller roles in dramedies, like his Oscar-nominated turn in Moneyball) that he probably needs to ease his way into more serious territory and get some more experience. But Hill does alright in the film, making his portrayal of disgraced New York Times journalist Mike Finkel believable as a guy hungry for a story that will redeem him. I also thought that James Franco was excellent as murder suspect Christian Longo; I don’t know why, but I was reminded of Franco’s role in “Freaks and Geeks,” Daniel Desario, from back in the days when he didn’t inundate anyone with anything – he was just a young, working actor, and he was damned good. Franco totally sells the role of Longo, his soft voice making the character seem potentially innocent before eventually turning the tables on Hill, the façade giving way to quietly horrific grotesquerie. As for the supporting cast, it’s good to see Robert John Burke, Gretchen Mol, Ethan Suplee and Maryann Plunkett, but most of all I’d like to shine a spotlight on Felicity Jones, who plays Hill’s partner, Jill Barker. At first I was afraid that Jones was playing a bland, stereotypically one-dimensional girlfriend role (not unlike her part as Jane, Stephen Hawking’s wife, in The Theory of Everything, if you ask me), but the scenes in which she talks to Franco on the phone and visits him in prison are effective in conveying the depth of her character’s fear and anger. Maybe my judgment is affected by the fact that I am almost always fascinated by true-crime stories, and perhaps the score by Marco Beltrami and the cinematography by Masanobu Takayanagi did even more to further sway my vote, but I was glad I watched True Story. It’s not the absolute best of 2015, but it deserves a look.

Women-Directed Films Coming to Theaters in 2016 (Part 2)

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March 30: I Don’t Belong Anywhere: The Cinema of Chantal Akerman (dir. Marianne Lambert) – Lambert, a colleague of Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman who knew her for many years, debuted this documentary shortly before Akerman committed suicide last October. The film covers Akerman’s forty-plus-year career and her constant search for identity both on- and off-camera. Screenings at the Film Forum will be free of charge, courtesy of the Ostrovsky Family Fund, which supports the Jerusalem Film Centre. Additionally, the Film Forum will show Akerman’s most famous film, Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), for a week-long run between April 1 and April 7, concurrent with I Don’t Belong Anywhere.

I Don’t Belong Anywhere: The Cinema of Chantal Akerman will be playing at the Film Forum.

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April 1: No Home Movie (dir. Chantal Akerman) – Opening two days after Marianne Lambert’s documentary, Chantal Akerman’s final film, No Home Movie, will open in American theaters. Akerman, who also produced, photographed and recorded sound for the film, examined her relationship with her mother, Natalia, a Polish-born survivor of Auschwitz who passed away in 2013. Claire Atherton, who edited No Home Movie, had worked with Akerman on ten other projects since 1993.

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April 6: Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt (dir. Ada Ushpiz) – Named for a phrase used by German-American political theorist Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) in her most famous book of philosophy, The Human Condition (1958), Vita Activa explains Arendt’s points of view in her own words thanks to rare documentary footage, as well as incorporating interviews with critics who both support and oppose her beliefs. The film was produced by director Ada Ushpiz and Ina Fichman and edited by Hadas Ayalon.

Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt will be playing at the Film Forum.

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April 15: Elvis & Nixon (dir. Liza Johnson) – Johnson, who previously directed the dramas Return (2011, starring Linda Cardellini, Michael Shannon and John Slattery) and Hateship Loveship (2013, starring Kristen Wiig, Guy Pearce, Hailee Steinfeld and Nick Nolte), returns with a story that is truly stranger than fiction. Elvis & Nixon is the comedic retelling of the meeting between U.S. President Richard Nixon (Kevin Spacey) and music megastar Elvis Presley (Michael Shannon). The cast also includes Colin Hanks, Evan Peters, Tate Donovan, Alex Pettyfer, Johnny Knoxville, Sky Ferreira, Tracy Letts and Dylan Penn (daughter of Sean Penn and Robin Wright). Other members of the crew include screenwriter Hanala Sagal (who co-wrote the script with Joey Sagal and Cary Elwes), producer Holly Wiersma, executive producers Laura Rister, Amy Rodrigue and Lisa Wolofsky, film editor Sabine Hoffman, production designer Mara LePere-Schloop and art director Kristin Lekki.

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April 22: Love Thy Nature (dir. Sylvie Rokab) – Rokab observes the links between nature and ideas of beauty in this documentary narrated by Liam Neeson. In addition to Sylvie Rokab, who also edited and co-photographed (with Eriberto Almeida, Jr. and Rohan Chitrakar) the film, some of the other women who contributed to the project are story writer Fernanda Rossi, script editor and co-producer Elaine Souda, co-producer Tamra Raven, associate producers Suzanne Gazda and Sheila A. Laffey, associate producer/line producer Jennifer Ingle, line producers Luciana Pereira Protasio, Kerri Thomas and Kristin Tieche (Tieche is also credited as an additional camera operator) and makeup artist Juliana Monteiro.

Love Thy Nature will be playing at Cinema Village.

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April 27: Eva Hesse (dir. Marcie Begleiter) – The life and work of German-American postminimalist sculptor Eva Hesse (1936-1970) provides the subject for this documentary by first-time director Marcie Begleiter, who has been a storyboard artist and art director/set decorator/production designer for the past thirty years. The film’s cinematography is by Nancy Schreiber, while Karen S. Shapiro (Vice President of the organization Partners for Progressive Israel) served as one of the producers.

Eva Hesse will be playing at the Film Forum.

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April 29: A Beautiful Planet (dir. Toni Myers) – Myers, a filmmaker who specializes in documentaries about outer space, has made one of her most ambitious projects to date with A Beautiful Planet. Produced by Walt Disney Studios, Myers’ movie, which studies what Earth looks like when seen from the vantage point of cameras hovering above the planet, will be shown on IMAX screens in the US, which must be exciting for Myers and everyone else concerned with the production.

A Beautiful Planet will be in theaters nationwide.

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April 29: Ratchet & Clank (dirs. Jericca Cleland and Kevin Munroe) – Directors Cleland and Munroe have crafted an animated feature film about the adventures of a bobcat-like animal and his robot pal, based on the video game series of the same name. Some of the actors who have lent their voices to the project are James Arnold Taylor (as Ratchet), David Kaye (as Clank), Sylvester Stallone, Paul Giamatti, John Goodman, Rosario Dawson and Bella Thorne. The production team includes producers Lorraine Cruden and Kylie Ellis and line producer Marcia Gwendolyn Jones.

Ratchet & Clank will be in theaters nationwide.

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May 13: Money Monster (dir. Jodie Foster) – Movie star Jodie Foster has established herself as a force behind the camera, directing the films Little Man Tate (1991), Home for the Holidays (1995) and The Beaver (2011) and episodes of “Tales from the Darkside,” “House of Cards” and “Orange Is the New Black.” Now Foster returns with a fast-paced thriller about a cable money-management show’s slick host (George Clooney), who is taken hostage by a desperate man who recently lost his life savings (Jack O’Connell). Julia Roberts plays the show’s producer, who must try to handle the situation as it unfolds on live television; the cast also features Catriona Balfe, Dominic West, Giancarlo Esposito, Greta Lee, Condola Rashad, Emily Meade, Dennis Boutsikaris, Chris Bauer and Lenny Venito. More women involved in the making of the film: producer Lara Alameddine, art director Deborah Jensen, set decorator Lydia Marks, costume designer Susan Lyall, boom operator Kira Smith and visual effects producer Charlotta Forssman.

Money Monster will be in theaters nationwide.

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May 20: Maggie’s Plan (dir. Rebecca Miller) – Miller, the daughter of playwright Arthur Miller, has directed four previous films, all focused on female protagonists: Angela (1995), Personal Velocity: Three Portraits (2002), The Ballad of Jack and Rose (2005) and The Private Lives of Pippa Lee (2009). Miller’s newest film, Maggie’s Plan, is a comedy concerning a love triangle between Greta Gerwig, Ethan Hawke and Julianne Moore. Supporting actors in the film include Bill Hader, Maya Rudolph, Travis Fimmel and Wallace Shawn. Women involved in the crew: Sabine Hoffman (editor), Jasmin Way (assistant editor), Alexandra Schaller (production designer) and Malgosia Turzanska (costume designer).

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May 20: Weiner (dirs. Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg) – The recipient of the Sundance Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize this year because it is “a fast paced vérité film that unfolds like a modern Shakespearean tragedy,” directors Kriegman and Steinberg tell the story of New York Congressman Anthony Weiner, whose 2011 sex scandal and 2013 bid for NYC mayor were major topics of national conversation. Julie Goldman and Carolyn Hepburn executive-produced the film (with Christopher Clements).

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June 3: Me Before You (dir. Thea Sharrock) – Emilia Clarke and Sam Claflin star in this big-screen adaptation of Jojo Moyes’ young-adult novel about a woman who falls in love with a paralyzed man she is helping to care for. The supporting cast includes Charles Dance, Janet McTeer, Jenna Coleman, Brendan Coyle, Matthew Lewis and Ben Lloyd-Hughes. Jojo Moyes co-wrote the screenplay (with Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, who wrote the screenplay for The Fault in Our Stars), while other women behind the camera included producers Sue Baden-Powell (who was also the unit production manager), Alison Owen and Karen Rosenfelt, line producer Joan Schneider, art director Rebecca Milton, set decorator Sara Wan, costume designer Jill Taylor and makeup artist Sally Crouch. I presume that the film is coming out in early June because that’s the same time when the aforementioned, similarly romantic weepie, The Fault in Our Stars, was released two years ago to tremendous box office results.

Me Before You will be in theaters nationwide.

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September 16: Bridget Jones’s Baby (dir. Sharon Maguire) – The new entry in the franchise created by Helen Fielding stars Renée Zellweger as title character Bridget (plus one, as per the title), Colin Firth and Patrick Dempsey as her two suitors, as well as Jim Broadbent, Celia Imrie, Gemma Jones, James Callis, Sally Phillips and Ed Sheeran. Among the crew are producer Debra Hayward, co-producer Jane Robertson, editor Melanie Oliver, set decorators Roya Fraser and Sara Wan, makeup designer Jan Sewell.

Bridget Jones’s Baby will be in theaters nationwide.

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September 30: Besties (dir. Kelly Fremon) – Hailee Steinfeld and Haley Lu Richardson play teenagers whose friendship is tested when one falls in love with the other girl’s brother (Blake Jenner). Woody Harrelson and Kyra Sedgwick also appear in the film; writer/director Fremon, whose first major success was when she wrote the screenplay for Post Grad (2009, directed by Vicky Jenson), also produced Besties with Julie Ansell; other women who worked on the film were associate producer Amy Brooks, editor Tracey Wadmore-Smith and set decorator Ide Foyle.

Besties will be in theaters nationwide.

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October 7: The Red Pill (dir. Cassie Jaye) – In recent years there has been a growing group of “men’s rights activists,” advocating for issues related to perceived persecution/abuse of men, in certain cases directly opposing the basic tenets of feminism (seeing women as “radical” and, therefore, enemies that threaten men). Cassie Jaye’s controversial documentary covers both sides of the story, interviewing those both in support of the concept of the movement and those who are against it. Jaye also edited her film and produced it with Nena Jaye (her mother) and Anna Laclergue.

The Red Pill will be playing at Cinema Village.

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Photo of many of the women and girls involved in the making of The Bye Bye Man.

October 14: The Bye Bye Man (dir. Stacy Title) – Director Stacy Title has been a part of the film industry since the early 1990s and has had three theatrically-released feature films, The Last Supper (1995), Let the Devil Wear Black (1999) and Hood of Horror (2006). Title’s latest film is a horror thriller, an adaptation of a short story by Robert Damon Schneck, “The Bridge to Body Island,” which appears in the collection The President’s Vampire: Strange-but-True Tales of the United States of America (2005). The film stars, among others, Doug Jones, Carrie-Anne Moss, Faye Dunaway, Cressida Bonas and Cleo King. Melinda Nishioka co-produced The Bye Bye Man, while Jennifer Spence was in charge of production design and Leah Butler designed the costumes.

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Kate Beckinsale on the set of Underworld 5.

October 21: Underworld 5 (dir. Anna Foerster) – Anna Foerster started out as a camera operator and second unit cinematographer, graduating to the role of primary cinematographer on the big-budget, Roland Emmerich-directed films Anonymous (2011) and White House Down (2013). Foerster later became a director in her own right, cutting her teeth on the TV shows “Criminal Minds,” “Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior,” “Unforgettable” “Army Wives,” “Outlander” and “Madam Secretary.” Now Foerster makes her feature film debut by joining the Underworld franchise. Kate Beckinsale reprises her role as Selene, a capital-v Vampire who hunts “Lycans” (aka werewolves), while Theo James returns as David, a fellow Vampire, and Charles Dance as David’s father, a Vampire Elder. The film was executive-produced by director Anna Foerster, while Jackie Shenoo was one of the producers, Bojana Nikitovic was a costume designer, Davina Lamont designed the makeup and prosthetics, Linda Eisenhamerova worked on makeup and hair and Clare Ramsey was the special effects makeup artist.

Underworld 5 will be in theaters nationwide.

Women-Directed Films Coming to Theaters in 2016 (Part 1)

Last Friday, two new movies directed by women were released in theaters. After reading the New York Times reviews for Kung Fu Panda 3 (directed by Alessandro Carloni and Jennifer Yuh Nelson), which is part of an animated franchise about the adventures of the title mammal, and Saala Khadoos (directed by Sudha Kongara Prasad), a drama from India about a female boxer trying to succeed in a grueling sport, I found myself wondering what other films directed by women are scheduled to be released in American theaters this year. The following is the first list that I have compiled, to be accompanied by a second one soon after. Wherever it is applicable, I have included information on which theaters (specifically in New York City) will be showing these films.

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February 5: All Roads Lead to Rome (dir. Ella Lemhagen) – For more than two decades, Swedish director Ella Lemhagen has made a name for herself in her home country with films such as the family dramedy Patrik, Age 1.5 (2008) and the drama The Crown Jewels (2011, starring Alicia Vikander). Now she has directed her first international feature, a comedy about a single mother (Sarah Jessica Parker) attempting to heal a fractured relationship with her teenage daughter (Rosie Day), a journey that brings them to Italy and allows Parker to reconnect with her first love (Raoul Bova), as well as involve his mother (Claudia Cardinale) in the wacky goings-on. The script was written by Lemhagen, Cindy Myers and Josh Appignanesi; additional behind-the-scenes work was done by producer Monika Bacardi, co-producer Viki Marras, assistant producer Gioia Libardoni, costume designer Moa Li Lemhagen Schalin (the director’s sister) and visual effects artist Evelina Åström.

All Roads Lead to Rome will be playing at Cinema Village.

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February 5: Southbound (dirs. Roxanne Benjamin, David Bruckner, Patrick Horvath and Radio Silence) – Roxanne Benjamin is one of four directors (although technically Radio Silence is a collective of four men) who worked on this anthology that ties five horror stories together into one feature-length film. Benjamin’s section of Southbound, titled “Siren,” concerns the three members of an all-female rock band (played by Fabianne Therese, Hannah Marks and Nathalie Love) who accept an offer to stay at an elderly husband and wife’s house after a gig; little do the women realize that the couple has inhospitable plans in store. “Siren” was shot by Tarin Anderson, one of the more notable women cinematographers working today. Anderson provided cinematography for another horror anthology, V/H/S/2 (2013), which Roxanne Benjamin co-produced with several other people.

Southbound will be playing at City Cinemas Village East Cinema.

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February 12: Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong (dir. Emily Ting) – A romantic comedy à la Before Sunrise by a writer-director who has been making short films and documentaries since 2002, Ting centers her feature film debut on Ruby (Jamie Chung), a Chinese-American woman who takes a trip to Hong Kong and falls in love with a friendly fellow American (Bryan Greenberg). Already also includes the involvement of other Asian-American women behind the camera: Sophia Shek and director Emily Ting were two of the producers, star Jamie Chung was one of the executive producers, Danielle Wang edited the film and Pinko Cheng was the makeup artist.

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February 12: Providence (dir. Sharon Wilharm) – Writer/director Sharon Wilharm and her husband, producer/cinematographer/film editor Fred Wilharm, have been telling old-fashioned love stories for a few years; their previous effort, The Good Book (2014), was a silent film, as is Providence. The Wilharms opt to use visuals to tell their stories, which are faith-based films.

Providence will be playing at AMC theaters in Atlanta, Charlotte, Los Angeles, New York City, Tulsa and the Florida cities of Destin and Jacksonville, according to this press release.

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February 26: King Georges (dir. Erika Frankel) – Philadelphia restaurateur Georges Perrier is profiled in this documentary about the closing of his famous eatery, Le Bec-Fin. King Georges was produced by its director, Erika Frankel, edited by Grace Kline, Amanda Larson and Karen Sim and some of the additional camerawork was done by Nadia Hallgren.

King Georges will be playing at the IFC Center.

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February 26: Marguerite and Julien (dir. Valérie Donzelli) – Valérie Donzelli has been an actress in French film and TV since the late 1990s, working with such directors as Gilles Marchand, Anne Fontaine, Benoît Jacquot, Bertrand Bonello and Joachim Lafosse. Donzelli has also been writing and directing films since 2008, the latest example being Marguerite and Julien, a romantic, historical drama nominated for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival last year. Donzelli’s cast includes Anaïs Demoustier, Jérémie Elkaïm, Sami Frey and Geraldine Chaplin. Other collaborators on the film are producer Alice Girard, co-producer Genevieve Lemal, cinematographer Céline Bozon, editor Pauline Gaillard and costume designer Elisabeth Mehu.

Marguerite and Julien will be playing at the IFC Center.

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March 2: Songs My Brothers Taught Me (dir. Chloé Zhao) – Chinese-American director Zhao’s debut drama was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, Golden Camera at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival and it is currently up for three awards at the 2016 Independent Spirit Awards: Best First Feature, Best Cinematography (Joshua James Richards) and the Someone to Watch Award (for Zhao). Native American actors Jashaun St. John and John Reddy star as a sister and brother dealing with the death of their father and how their mother (Irene Bedard, who also co-produced the film) handles the trauma. In addition to directing the film, Chloé Zhao also wrote it and was one of its producers; other women who contributed to Songs were producers Mollye Asher (who was also the unit production manager), Nina Yang Bongiovi and Angela C. Lee, co-producer Carolyn Otte O’Bryan, associate producer Erica Brady, executive producer Mary Regency Boies, assistant editor Lauren Minnerath, dialogue editor Marilyn McCoppen and sound mixer Laura Cunningham.

Songs My Brothers Taught Me will be playing at the Film Forum.

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March 4: Trapped (dir. Dawn Porter) – Porter’s documentary about the fight for women’s reproductive rights in the US recently won the Special Jury Prize at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, cited because it “highlights a critical issue through intimate and passionate storytelling.” The film was produced by Marilyn Ness, co-produced by Summer Damon, executive produced by Cindy Meehl, photographed by Nadia Hallgren (with Chris Hilleke) and edited by Katie Flint and Sari Gilman.

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March 9: Here Come the Videofreex (dirs. Jon Nealon and Jenny Raskin) – The formation, lifespan and legacy of a counterculture news-media collective from the late 1960s and 1970s, the Videofreex, are chronicled in this documentary that showed at Brooklyn’s BAMcinemaFest last June.

Here Come the Videofreex will be playing at the IFC Center.

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March 11: About Scout (dir. Laurie Weltz) – Eighteen years after her debut, Wrestling with Alligators (1998), director Laurie Weltz returns with a road movie about a girl traveling through Texas in search of her younger sister. The film, which was co-written by Weltz and India Ennenga, stars Ennenga (as Scout), James Frecheville, Nikki Reed, Shelley Hennig, Ellen Burstyn, Danny Glover, Jane Seymour, Tim Guinee and Onata Aprile (as little sister Lulu). About Scout was produced by Beverley Gordon (with others), the production designed by Megan Hutchison and the costumes designed by Meghan Anderson-Barker.

About Scout will be playing at Cinema Village.

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March 11: Certain Women (dir. Kelly Reichardt) – Reichardt has been working steadily in the independent film world for the last two decades, directing River of Grass (1994), Old Joy (2006), Wendy and Lucy (2008), Meek’s Cutoff (2010) and Night Moves (2013). Now Reichardt has written, directed and edited Certain Women, an adaptation of short stories by Maile Meloy. The film ties together the interwoven narratives of American women (Kristen Stewart, Michelle Williams [pictured above], Laura Dern, Lily Gladstone) living in the same Montana town. Certain Women has art direction by Kat Uhlmansiek, set decoration by Pamela Day and costume design by April Napier.

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March 11: City of Gold (dir. Laura Gabbert) – Gabbert and her crew follow restaurant critic Jonathan Gold around Los Angeles, partaking in the many gastronomic experiences that the city’s cuisine has to offer. This film, which was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize in the documentary category at last January’s Sundance Film Festival, was made possible with the help of producer Holly Becker, co-producer Andrea Lewis, consulting producer Lara Rabinovitch and sound mixer Nicole Zwiren.

City of Gold will be playing at the IFC Center.

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March 11: Lolo (dir. Julie Delpy) – Delpy’s sixth film as a director is a comedy with Oedipal overtones that she co-wrote with Eugénie Grandval, telling the story of a 40-year-old career woman in the high-pressure world of fashion (Delpy) whose unexpected romance with a computer nerd (played by Dany Boon) is thwarted by her jealous teenage son, Lolo (Vincent Lacoste). Other women who worked behind the scenes on Lolo are production designer Emmanuelle Duplay, set decorator Hélène Rey, editor Virginie Bruant, assistant editor Karine Prido, makeup artist Véronique Boumaza, title sequence designer Laura Sicouri and visual effects artists Sophie Denize and Eloïse Guigno.

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March 18: The Brainwashing of My Dad (dir. Jen Senko) – Senko, who specializes in documentary filmmaking, tells the story of her father, a World War II veteran whose lifelong stance as a Democrat was altered by the influence of talk radio, causing him to switch his allegiance to radical right-wing ideologies. Senko explores the effects that the expansion of mass media has had on American citizens, pop culture and our ways of living and communicating with each another. Some scenes are rendered in animation thanks to Maryam Hajouni and legendary cartoonist/filmmaker Bill Plympton; other technical elements are contributed by Rachael Levine (cinematography) and Kala Mandrake (editing). Some of the producers include Jodie Evans, Jennifer Schultz and director Senko, while three of the film’s four writers are women (Melodie Bryant, Kala Mandrake and Jen Senko).

The Brainwashing of My Dad will be playing at Cinema Village.

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March 18: Miracles from Heaven (dir. Patricia Riggen) – Jennifer Garner, Martin Henderson and Queen Latifah star in this religious drama about finding faith and renewed spirit in the face of extreme obstacles. Miracles’ editor, Emma E. Hickox, is the daughter of renowned editor Anne V. Coates, who cut such films as Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Murder on the Orient Express (1974), The Elephant Man (1980), Chaplin (1992), Out of Sight (1998) and last year’s Fifty Shades of Grey (2015). Hickox has an impressive résumé in her own right, including A Walk to Remember (2002), Blue Crush (2002), Honey (2003), Kinky Boots (2005), Pirate Radio (2009) and Rock of Ages (2012). Mexican director Riggen has had a busy year; just three months ago she had another mainstream release, The 33, a biopic based on the Chilean mining accident that starred Antonio Banderas, Juliette Binoche, Cote de Pablo, Rodrigo Santoro, Lou Diamond Phillips, James Brolin and Adriana Barraza.

Miracles from Heaven will be in theaters nationwide.

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March 25: The Invitation (dir. Karyn Kusama) – Karyn Kusama, a Japanese-American director born in Brooklyn, raised in St. Louis and now residing in Los Angeles, has worked in several film genres. Her first feature, Girlfight (2000), which she also wrote, stars Michelle Rodriguez as a boxer from Brooklyn; Æon Flux (2005) is a big-budget sci-fi/action movie starring Charlize Theron as the title character, along with co-stars Marton Csokas, Jonny Lee Miller, Sophie Okonedo, Frances McDormand and Pete Postlethwaite; Jennifer’s Body (2009) is a horror-comedy hybrid written by Diablo Cody (Juno, Young Adult, Ricki and the Flash) and starring Megan Fox and Amanda Seyfried; Kusama has also directed episodes of the TV shows “The L Word,” “Chicago Fire,” “Halt and Catch Fire” and “The Man in the High Castle.” Kusama’s new film, The Invitation, is a horror-thriller about a dinner party that goes terribly awry. The film stars Michel Huisman, Logan Marshall-Green, John Carroll Lynch, Tammy Blanchard, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Mike Doyle and Michelle Krusiec. Other women who worked on The Invitation: producer and post-production supervisor Martha Griffin, co-producer Lindsay Lanzillotta, executive producers Julie Parker Benello, Geralyn White Dreyfous, Wendy Ettinger and Mynette Louie, editor Plummy Tucker, assistant editors Emma Marie DuPell and Oona Flaherty, production designer Almitra Corey and costume designer Alysia Raycraft.

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March 25: Ron and Laura Take Back America (dirs. Mel England and Janice Markham) – The writing-directing team of Mel England and Janice Markham play the title characters in this mockumentary that satirizes politics, religion, health fads and other amusing American obsessions. Character actresses Irene Bedard (also a co-producer) and Sally Kirkland appear in the film too. More women involved in the making of Ron and Laura are producers Kassi Crews (also the post-production supervisor) and Jill Rothman (also the visual effects supervisor), co-producer Lilli Rubinstein, associate producers Joy Dabbs, Ghen Laraya, Rachelle Masters, Diane Mautner and Estella Sneider, executive producer Sue Vaccaro and editor Cindy Parisotto.

Ron and Laura Take Back America will be playing at Cinema Village.

2015: Part 5

The Big Short. Directed by Adam McKay. The Big Short is one of those movies I’m fine with seeing in the movie theater, but I don’t expect that I’ll want to see it again, at least not any time soon. It’s not as though it’s a poorly constructed film – it has excellent editing by Hank Corwin, a number of interesting performances (those given by Christian Bale, Jeremy Strong, Hamish Linklater, Finn Wittrock, John Magaro [who also pops up in this year’s Carol], Adepero Oduye, Tracy Letts and Billy Magnussen [also in Bridge of Spies]), as well as amusing uses of rock, hip-hop, rap and other forms of popular music on the soundtrack – but it’s also a long movie (130 min) filled with information that’s difficult to digest. Banking is not a witty topic, and the financial meltdown of 2008, which serves as the film’s subject, is hardly humorous even when the screenplay calls for jokes. No matter the aggressive cleverness of the screenplay, which is constantly being hurled at the audience, I couldn’t understand most of the terminology (does this bode ill for whenever I eventually have to deal with bills and banking?). Then there is the question of how much to attribute my poor review to three of the film’s major players in the Wall Street banking world: Steve Carell (OK but overwrought/histrionic at times), Brad Pitt (boring) and Ryan Gosling (super-smug, rarely as funny he’s supposed to be). These considerations could make or break how a viewer ultimately feels about the film, and I err on the side of not-so-great. There’s nothing criminally wrong with those three performances, but they’re not especially impressive. I expect more out of a big-time Oscar contender.

Danny Collins. Directed by Dan Fogelman. Just in time for the Golden Globes, I watched Al Pacino’s nominated lead role in Danny Collins on the Saturday night before the ceremony. The tale of an approximately 65-to-70-year-old pop singer who abandoned his singer-songwriter roots to take the easy way out as a commercial star, Danny Collins is not strictly “comedy,” nor does it have enough musical performances in it to qualify for the “musical” part of the award title, but overall the film is not as terrible as I thought it would be. The script is filled with clichés, but the acting by Pacino, Annette Bening, Bobby Cannavale and Christopher Plummer keeps the film afloat. (Jennifer Garner, however, is not given anything to do as Cannavale’s wife but look concerned and frown a lot.) They are the kinds of actors who can make even a mediocre, tired film idea something entertaining, and without doubt there is entertainment value in seeing Al Pacino bounce around a stage and warble a Neil Diamond/Barry Manilow-type song called “Hey, Baby Doll.” Danny Collins is not a movie that I plan on seeing again, but it was easy to digest, much like a pretty but forgettable pop tune. Besides, it wasn’t the absolute worst of 2015. I mean, it wasn’t Aloha. Nothing could be lower than that.

The End of the Tour. Directed by James Ponsoldt. As a 23-year-old woman who has read a couple of David Foster Wallace’s nonfiction essays but not Infinite Jest or any of his other prose works, I have a limited understanding of his writing talent. I am also aware that The End of the Tour is not supposed to be a biopic; it is a highly subjective view of Wallace based on his interactions with writer David Lipsky, a journalist who trailed after Wallace for the last week of his Infinite Jest book tour, writing a cover story about the events for Rolling Stone. Everything about Wallace is seen through Lipsky’s eyes, so who but Wallace’s closest family, friends and colleagues know whether the picture drawn by Ponsoldt – or by Lipsky in his interviewing and eventual writing – is accurate? What I do know is that Jason Segel’s performance as “pleasantly unpleasant” Wallace is very good, even if I never completely forgot that I was watching Segel play Wallace, and Eisenberg is decent as Lipsky (“unpleasantly pleasant,” to quote A.O. Scott’s reversal of one character’s description of Wallace), who cannot really come to terms with Wallace’s ideas about loneliness, personal interaction, art, pop culture/entertainment, celebrity, addictions and many other larger-than-life themes. (By the way, did you see the essay that Jesse Eisenberg wrote for The New Yorker in November? It’s hilarious, and by that I mean ridiculous.) I appreciate the work put into the film, in particular the dialogue in Donald Margulies’ screenplay and the casting of cameos for Joan Cusack as a chipper book-tour liaison and Becky Ann Baker (a “Freaks and Geeks” reunion!) as a Minneapolis bookstore owner, but I also don’t really feel much after having seen The End of the Tour. It is inessential filmmaking. If anything, it makes me curious about delving back into reading David Foster Wallace, but I think I probably would have eventually done that anyway, with or without this film. And I certainly didn’t need to be told that Jason Segel is a “good,” or perhaps I should say “serious,” actor; anyone who has seen “Freaks and Geeks” is well aware of that fact. Part of me thinks that even if David Foster Wallace would be horrified by the idea of his life being turned into a film of any kind, maybe he wouldn’t be quite so bothered by the casting of Jason Segel – his appeal is that he’s more of a regular guy than a Hollywood star – but that still doesn’t completely justify the making of the movie.

P.S. Unless I’m forgetting something, I don’t think it was mentioned either at the beginning or the end of the film that David Lipsky’s profile of David Foster Wallace was never actually published in Rolling Stone. Some viewers will know that already, though; I suppose we’re expected to infer from the early scene showing Lipsky pulling the boxes of tapes and tape recorders out of a closet that the interviews have been buried for a long time, but Ponsoldt doesn’t specify the fact that Rolling Stone rejected the piece and it could just mean that Lipsky hadn’t thought about the event in a while.

P.P.S. If you really want to read the best warts-and-all piece about David Foster Wallace that I know, spend some time on the New Yorker essay “The Unfinished” by D.T. Max, which was published in March 2009.

45 Years. Directed by Andrew Haigh. As a couple who receive devastating news about the husband’s former lover which tears their world apart on the eve of their 45th wedding anniversary, Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay give two of the finest performances of the year and reaffirm that impactful acting has no age limit or expiration date. Although the Academy Award nomination for Rampling (her first ever in a fifty-year career!) is a lovely honor, it is still fairly shocking to me that Rampling and Courtenay were overlooked by the BAFTAs, given the tremendous contributions of these two actors to this year in British film. On the strength of these two brilliant performers, and also because of some striking cinematography by Lol Crawley and a nice (though small-ish) supporting role for Geraldine James, 45 Years is a must-see. Acting that powerful should not be ignored. The only real issue I have with the film is the dialogue; some lines are so on the nose (there is a scene in which Rampling says, as though it is supposed to be quite a normal and casual thing to say in polite conversation with her husband, “Funny how we forget the things that make us happy.”) that they ring false, even when the sentiments make sense in the context of the character(s). Andrew Haigh could stand to watch some Bergman films and learn how to do that element well, because words are just as important as visuals – Rampling and Courtenay can convey so much with glances and little motions, but convincing dialogue means more.

The Hateful Eight. Directed by Quentin Tarantino. After all the effort I made in the last few months to see every Tarantino movie from Reservoir Dogs to Django Unchained (and in chronological order too), I’m glad I was able to see The Hateful Eight on the big screen, which includes the audience experience (laughter, so much laughter!) and the amazingly sinister original score by Ennio Morricone, the sound of which makes the opening credits extremely effective (although I wish the score had been used to a greater extent in the film; it only seemed to appear in outdoor scenes, of which there were too few). I should say at this point that, despite living in NYC, I didn’t see The Hateful Eight in 70mm; considering that most of the film takes place either in a stagecoach or in an equally claustrophobic cabin, though, I don’t feel like I missed too much. That being said, I was disappointed by The Hateful Eight. I’m not opposed to period pieces or Westerns – Tarantino succeeded at making an intriguing antebellum spaghetti Western out of Django Unchained three years ago – but the pacing is abysmal and the combination of confined spaces and very few characters makes the whole movie as stifling as a stage production with a minimum of sets. It helps slightly that there are some enjoyable performances accomplished by the small cast, particularly from Walton Goggins (a multilayered performance as a racist sheriff who somehow manages to win the audience over with his goofiness and many funny lines), Tim Roth (despite being very Christoph Waltz-lite), Michael Madsen (who can communicate so much with just a slow blink of his ice-blue eyes and a gruff sigh, like in his character’s first scene) and Bruce Dern (a living legend – how in the world has he never won an Oscar?), but also some performances that don’t work as well as I would have liked. I agree with A.O. Scott’s opinion that Tarantino didn’t completely know what to do with Samuel L. Jackson’s character, a bounty hunter whose narrative motivations are muddled; Kurt Russell toes the line between tolerable and annoying as the bounty hunter (it’s a popular profession for Tarantino) bringing murderess Jennifer Jason Leigh to justice; and Leigh herself (an actress I have never cared for) has some memorable glares of hatred as the wanted killer who is chained to Russell – at one point her face is coated in a mask of blood like Sissy Spacek in Carrie – but I never felt like I got enough from Leigh, either in dialogue or in character development. In general too much of The Hateful Eight is stagnant, weighted down by a sluggish story and lacking in either substantial background for the characters or motivations that make sufficient sense. By the time the film reaches its bloody climax, you’ll be exhausted but you won’t feel satisfied.

P.S. Why didn’t Tarantino include the complete cast list and character names in the end credits? Or was it just that so many people were standing up and blocking my view that I couldn’t see?

Indelible Film Images: Lola

I don’t know if I’ve shared this anecdote before, but my favorite memory from taking film production courses in my senior year of college is of the day our class learned how to use lighting equipment. Our professor was showing us how to use C-stands and the fabric or screen-like items that can be attached to the stands in order to alter light, shadows and shades of color coming from the light source being used. While trying out a silk that would change the tint of the classroom’s light, our professor mused aloud: “Red – like Fassbinder liked to do.” A pause. “Does anyone here know Fassbinder?” From the back of the room (where I liked to stay, ever cautious) I shouted, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul! None of my fellow students responded; there may have been a general murmur of recognition, but no other individual holler of fandom. The fun part of the story: one guy in the class, stricken with great bewilderment, asked in a mystified voice: “Fassbender? … Michael Fassbender has his own kind of lighting?” Truly a golden – or, more appropriately, scarlet – moment.

Lola (1981) – dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Starring: Barbara Sukowa, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Mario Adorf, Matthias Fuchs, Helga Feddersen, Karin Baal, Hark Bohm, Rosel Zech, Sonja Neudorfer, Günther Kaufmann

Cinematography: Xaver Schwarzenberger

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More Diegetic Music: Ten Movies, Ten Scenes

Inspired by my recent post about uses of diegetic music within the worlds of new movies I saw in 2015, I have come up with ten more examples of music performed or listened to by characters in other films I watched last year – except these are all films made before 2014/2015. Enjoy!

You Were Never Lovelier (1942, dir. William A. Seiter) – “The Shorty George” – In this romantic comedy set in Buenos Aires, the second pairing of Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth (the first being You’ll Never Get Rich in 1941), Astaire plays an entertainer wooing Hayworth, who is the daughter of a nightclub owner. Astaire works in the club along with famed bandleader Xavier Cugat and his orchestra, who are seen in the clip and provide the tuneage for this scene. The song itself, composed by Jerome Kern and written by Johnny Mercer, is a paean to jive and swing music popular in America at the time, in particular the “Shorty George” step attributed to African-American dancer George “Shorty” Snowden. Rita Hayworth’s singing was dubbed by Nan Wynn in this and other scenes in You Were Never Lovelier, but clearly Hayworth worked hard at being able to dance at Astaire’s level, making her one of his finest partners in the post-Ginger Rogers years.

Kiss Me Kate (1953, dir. George Sidney) – “Too Darn Hot” – Ann Miller and her backing orchestra perform a number that serves as Miller’s audition for the show-within-the-film, a Broadway musical also titled Kiss Me Kate. The number is one that that we never see performed again in the film, evidently cut from the finished production before opening night. But how could any subsequent staging possibly top this fabulous presentation? Miller is on fire, putting every corner of the cramped apartment space to use, which is even more fun when you see the film in 3D and her accessories fly out of the screen toward the viewer.

Chinese Roulette (1976, dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder) – Mahler’s Eighth Symphony – This scene is our introduction to Chinese Roulette; opening credits don’t appear until several minutes later. We don’t know who these characters played by Margit Carstensen (the woman) and Andrea Schober (the girl) are; we don’t learn that they are mother and daughter until later in the scene, after the doorbell rings. As always, Fassbinder composes his shots like paintings, arranging his frames very thoughtfully and considering details like costumes, set design and his actresses’ makeup with great care. The use of Mahler, in conjunction with the neatly constructed design of both the house and the outfit that Carstensen wears, has a lush grandeur that reminds me of Douglas Sirk, whose American films Fassbinder loved so much. (Fassbinder once wrote that “Sirk has made the tenderest films I know, they are the films of someone who loves people and doesn’t despise them as we do.”) I see an additional connection in Fassbinder’s incorporation of windows and mirrors here, elements which Sirk loved to focus on in his films. I don’t know about you, but when I first watched this opening scene from Chinese Roulette, I knew that I wanted to know more about what was going on, which I think is exactly what a film’s introduction should do.

Autumn Sonata (1978, dir. Ingmar Bergman) – Chopin, Prelude No. 2 in A Minor – World-renowned concert pianist Charlotte Andergast (Ingrid Bergman in her final film) visits her daughter Eva (Liv Ullmann) for a few days; they pretend for a while that they can be cordial to one another but we slowly begin to understand how much Eva has suffered, starting with feeling neglected and abandoned as a child when her mother went on her endless series of concert tours. Just prior to this scene, Eva plays the Chopin Prelude No. 2, filled with nervous mistakes. She tries so hard to be good enough at the piano (even in playing it as a hobby rather than as a profession) for her mother, but Charlotte – far from being impressed or even attempting to be motherly and kind – can only point out Eva’s errors, not only from a technical standpoint but in terms of the correct emotional interpretations (at least as far as Charlotte sees things). Charlotte may understand the “right” sentiments to apply to one’s mastery of the Chopin piece, but in this scene, we watch Eva and we know that she has more humanity and compassion inside her than Charlotte ever could contain. As a mother, Charlotte doesn’t know the first thing about how to behave. She has a connection to the music she plays, but she has no real, meaningful relationship with the daughter sitting next to her. We feel the weight of Eva’s silent years of bitter disappointment. She realizes she cannot play the piano like her mother, but more crucially, they cannot communicate. Worse yet, Eva’s loving husband Viktor (Halvar Björk) is there to witness the uncomfortable exchange, incapable of saying anything to ameliorate the situation.

Pretty in Pink (1986, dir. Howard Deutch) – “Try a Little Tenderness” – I always wonder if it was secretly the point of the films that John Hughes wrote (as in this case) and sometimes directed that the characters played by Molly Ringwald should always be so thoroughly unlikeable. This is certainly the case in Pretty in Pink; her character, Andie, is desperately in love with a rich kid and therefore cannot see that her best friend, eccentric Duckie (Jon Cryer) pines for her. Even in this over-the-top scene of lipsyncing to Otis Redding in the record store where Andie works (the boss, Iona, is played by Annie Potts), Andie is totally clueless and thinks Duckie is just an irrepressible goofball with a knack for doing odd stuff without any reason. Poor Duckman!

Before Sunrise (1995, dir. Richard Linklater) – “Come Here” – Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy had no way of knowing that this romantic drama was a seed that would blossom into a trilogy spanning eighteen years of their lives (Before Sunset was released in 2004 and Before Midnight in 2013). This first film has all the sweetness of two complete strangers falling in love in the course of one day. After sharing a brief chat on the train they took to Vienna, Jesse (Hawke) and Celine (Delpy) make the impulsive decision to continue their conversation by spending the rest of the day together in the city. In this scene, when they visit a record shop, Delpy recognizes the name of an obscure American singer-songwriter, Kath Bloom, whose music she has never heard but which has been recommended to her. Celine and Jesse go into a booth in the store, listen to the LP, and you see all the longing, tension and hope existing between the two people for what their potential future might hold – each wondering when the right moment will be for them to kiss for the first time.

From Dusk Till Dawn (1996, dir. Robert Rodriguez) – “After Dark” – Salma Hayek, playing a mysterious dancer named “Santanico Pandemonium,” makes her dramatic entrance in a film that starts out as a heist/hostage-taking flick but takes a turn for the weird when the main characters, brothers played by George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino (their hostages include Harvey Keitel and Juliette Lewis), flee to Mexico. Swaying to the beat of the song performed by Tito & Tarantula, the moments when Hayek sticks her foot in Tarantino’s mouth are definite highlights (not a surprise – he did write the screenplay, after all!), but my favorite part is the confused and disgusted look on Juliette Lewis’s face at the end.

Bread and Tulips (2000, dir. Silvio Soldini) – “Tu, solamente tu” (“You, Only You,” recorded by Tiola Silenzi in 1939) and “Franska Valsen” (accordion piece composed by Lars Hollmer) – A romantic comedy about taking chances, Licia Maglietta plays a housewife, Rosalba, who escapes her boring family (including a husband and a son) in the Italian countryside and takes an apartment in Venice, starting a new life for herself. This includes befriending Fernando (Bruno Ganz), a maître d’ who has begun to realize that he is in love with Rosalba as he listens to a Tiola Silenzi song on his hi-fi (hence the beginning and ending parts of the clip above), and also learning to play the accordion, a passion that Rosalba demonstrates for Grazia (Marina Massironi), a friend who lives in her building. Grazia, needless to say, is amazed by her neighbor’s newly discovered reserves of talent.

Hustle & Flow (2005, dir. Craig Brewer) – “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” – The winner of that year’s Academy Award for Best Original Song, this rap/sung collaboration is written by protagonist DJay (Terrence Howard), who is recording demos for what he hopes will be a successful breakthrough in the music world. The story he tells is his own, the grueling tale of a pimp who has to work hard to keep his personal life and his business in order on the streets of Memphis. One of the women who lives with and works for DJay, Shug (Taraji P. Henson), is given the opportunity to sing the chorus of the song, and hearing her voice played back for the first time is a kind of validation that she has never experienced before.

I Love You, Man (2009, dir. John Hamburg) – “Tom Sawyer” – Friendless, uptight Peter (Paul Rudd) meets weird, wild Sydney (Jason Segel), and because opposites can attract, the two end up becoming besties who spend more and more free time together, to the growing annoyance of Peter’s fiancée Zooey (Rashida Jones, who is nothing but supportive in this clip because it’s still early in the film). Their shared love of the rock band Rush, specifically the song “Tom Sawyer,” leads to them playing it in Sydney’s garage, which allows for director John Hamburg to include a montage of other shining moments from the newfound bromance.

Turn and Face the Strange: Remembering David Bowie

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(From The Man Who Fell to Earth, 1976, dir. Nicolas Roeg.)

David Bowie represented a lot of things to me. He wrote some of the best songs of the last half-century, covering so many themes I wouldn’t know where to begin, although I particularly like the songs related to outer space (either literally or metaphorically) and to the pressures of fame. He was an actor so weirdly gifted that he could play an alien (see GIFs above), a vampire (The Hunger) and Pontius Pilate (The Last Temptation of Christ) without anyone thinking twice about it. He was an artist who painted, sculpted and worked in different kinds of digital media. Whatever Bowie did, I always knew it would be worth my time.

It’s hard for me to put every emotion I have about David Bowie’s music into words. He recorded so much and I feel, at my young age, that I still know too little – about his career, about how to write a good piece of music criticism, about how to eulogize someone who means so much to you and passes away quite suddenly. So in some of the cases below, I won’t say anything (or very little) except to quote a passage from the lyrics. I’m sure that David Bowie’s own writing will ultimately do a better job at convincing you of his talent than I can. I picked sixteen musical selections – it’s 2016, so that was the first number that came to me – but if I had not set that limit for myself, the list could have gone on ad infinitum.

1. “Space Oddity” (on album Space Oddity, 1969) – “Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do…” What do you do with a song about an interstellar journey made by a character named Major Tom? Not to mention a song that has a Stylophone solo (starting at the 2:42 mark)? It’s amazing to me that this track successfully launched David Bowie’s career, rather than remaining a weird one-hit-wonder novelty song from the psychedelic era.

2. “Changes” (on album Hunky Dory, 1971) – “Turn and face the strange…” The opening track of one of the most important albums of my teenage years, Hunky Dory. This song can, and has been, interpreted as Bowie’s artistic manifesto.

3. “Oh! You Pretty Things” (on album Hunky Dory, 1971) (TV appearance on The Old Grey Whistle Test, 1972) – “You gotta make way for the Homo Superior…”

4. “Life on Mars?” (on album Hunky Dory, 1971) (music video from 1973) – “But the film is a saddening bore/For she’s lived it ten times or more…” On Bowie’s 69th birthday this past Friday, I was listening to this song most of all. I told whoever would listen to me that this was one of the greatest songs ever, no question. It is the high water mark of a career filled with numerous milestones, rule-breaking and boundary-pushing. Everyday human life is the most outrageous, unbelievable yet captivating spectacle out of all the entertainment forms in our world, and this song takes note of that truth quite eloquently. If you dare ask me to name the single best David Bowie song, this is the one I choose.

5. “Starman” (on album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, 1972) – “There’s a starman waiting in the sky/He’d like to come and meet us/But he thinks he’d blow our minds…” Just last month I was in a theater at the Museum of Modern Art, watching The Martian in 3D, and I was pleased to hear “Starman” pop up in the movie. After many years of loving the song when heard through headphones, it had an even more exciting resonance in the theater.

6. “Rebel Rebel” (on album Diamond Dogs, 1974) – “You’ve got your mother in a whirl/She’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl/Hey babe, your hair’s alright/Hey babe, let’s go out tonight…” One of the definitive examples of 70s glam rock, featuring an unforgettable guitar riff played by Bowie himself (as opposed to being recorded by any of the other musicians he often worked with, like Mick Ronson). A small anecdote: I once tried to convince a high school friend of mine to listen to “Rebel Rebel” and “Life on Mars?”; I don’t think she ever bothered with the former and when she finally got around to listening to the latter (it took about a month before she made time for it), she said that “it was alright.” (Swear to God.) Hey babe, your song’s alright!

7. “Always Crashing in the Same Car” (on album Low, 1977) – “Every chance, every chance that I take/I take it on the road/Those kilometres and the red lights/I was always looking left and right…” I once titled an essay written in a college creative writing class after this song.

8. “‘Heroes'” (on album “Heroes,” 1977) – “Though nothing will drive them away/We can beat them, just for one day/We can be heroes, just for one day…” Another of Bowie’s greatest songs. I think one of my primary associations with this song, even though it was years after I fell in love with it, was as the anthem for the UK athletes at the London Olympics in 2012.

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And now, moving forward into the 1980s…

9. “Ashes to Ashes” (on album Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), 1980) – “My mama said, ‘To get things done/You’d better not mess with Major Tom…'” Bowie plunges into the MTV era in style, saying goodbye to some of his old ways in order to experiment with new musical methods. I associate this song with the British show of the same name, much as I do with “Life on Mars?” and its counterpart show.

10. “Under Pressure” (David Bowie & Queen) (1981 single; on Queen album Hot Space, 1982) – “‘Cause love’s such an old-fashioned word/And love dares you to care for/The people on the edge of the night/And love dares you to change our way of/Caring about ourselves…” A collaboration for the ages.

11. “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” (Cat People soundtrack, 1982) (used in scene from film Inglourious Basterds, 2009, dir. Quentin Tarantino) – “Don’t you know my name/Well, you’ve been so long/And I’ve been putting out fire/With gasoline!” This Giorgio Moroder-produced, synthesizer-heavy pop-rock song was given new life when Tarantino used it in a significant scene in Inglourious Basterds. Mélanie Laurent’s character, who was forced to flee the scene of her family’s murder at the hands of Nazis, has relocated to Paris and, under her new alias, operates a movie theater in Paris. When a German soldier develops a crush on her, Laurent uses this new bond to her advantage and crafts a radical strategy for revenge: when her cinema is chosen as the venue for the red-carpet premiere of a Nazi propaganda film (with Hitler, Goebbels, and many other heads of the Third Reich in attendance), Laurent makes plans to blow her building to smithereens by setting hundreds of film cans’ worth of celluloid on fire. Even though the use of the David Bowie scene, when Laurent puts on her makeup (or, more accurately, her war paint) to prepare for the big show, is anachronistic, the lyrics and the mood of the song make perfect sense in Tarantino’s context.

12. “Let’s Dance” (on album Let’s Dance, 1983) – “Let’s sway under the moonlight, the serious moonlight…” Isn’t it terrific how Bowie could transform from persona to persona? I dig the suits from this era. Also, this song was a #1 hit in both the UK and the US, so that’s pretty cool.

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Speaking of “serious moonlight,” here is my sole David Bowie shirt, and it is a treasured possession. Originally bought and worn by my aunt, this tee has gone through some rough times – it once was covered in white paint after I accidentally collided with a wet wall – but little mishaps couldn’t ever keep a good shirt down. For a long time I have associated the article of clothing with good luck. Just two months ago, when I was getting ready to do a presentation in a graduate school class, I told two of my friends in that class that “everything is going to be OK because I’m wearing my lucky David Bowie shirt.” And indeed that day was blessed with a terrific teaching experience.

13. “Modern Love” (on album Let’s Dance, 1983) (used in scene from film Mauvais Sang, 1986, dir. Leos Carax) – “There’s no sign of life It’s just the power to charm I’m lying in the rain But I never wave bye-bye/But I try/I try…” The first Bowie song I can ever remember hearing, and I loved it immediately. In the clip from the French film Mauvais Sang, the “magic” of the radio gives Denis Lavant the opportunity to express his feelings for Juliette Binoche physically, turning his emotions into kinetic energy. When I saw the movie at the Film Forum in the summer of 2014, this scene was a standout because of how great it was to see Carax’s images paired with the sounds of “Modern Love” pouring from the theater’s speakers.

14. Guest appearance on British TV show “Extras” (2006) – “See his pug-nosed face/Pug, pug, pug, pug…” This ranks as one of my favorite television moments of the last decade. Ricky Gervais’s character, Andy Millman, has a chance encounter with David Bowie at a London pub and it does not go as well as Andy would have liked. The results: comic gold.

15. “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” (on album The Next Day, 2013) – “Stars are never sleeping/Dead ones and the living…” From what I recall, The Next Day was an album that came out of nowhere. It was David Bowie’s first since 2003, and after a decade I suppose most people thought he had retired. You can imagine how pleased I was that the songs were so good, particularly “Stars,” in which Bowie contemplates the poisonous nature of celebrity and media saturation. Plus Tilda Swinton co-starred in the music video, which led to this great photo of the two of them.

16. “Lazarus” (on album Blackstar, 2016) – “This way or no way/You know I’ll be free/Just like that bluebird/Now, ain’t that just like me?” I watched this music video last Friday, part of my annual ritual of listening to my favorite David Bowie albums and songs on his birthday. Like most people, I didn’t imagine that the video referred to Bowie’s actual state of health; I thought it was a fascinating artistic statement but not a representation of real sickness. (I figured he looked older and more worn because everyone ages, right?) As a reviewer wrote on iTunes, after having listened to previews of Blackstar in November: “Bowie will be a synonym of eternal change in music, a continuous hunt of proposals and new ways in sound.” I’m not entirely sure what “hunt of proposals” means, but I think the overall idea is the right one. He was defiant to the last, turning life into art and vice versa. And even when he was seriously ill, as we know now, he kept his off-kilter sense of humor. Vale, Starman.

I’ll close with one of my favorite photos of David Bowie (from back in the day) and two recent pictures – among the last ever taken of Bowie, I think – from a promotional photoshoot for Blackstar (photos by Jimmy King, courtesy of this Daily Mail article).

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