Friday Music Focus: 5/27/16

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Today’s post is a concentrated look at the last week in music and pop culture, at least as far as I was concerned. (I would have also included Courtney Barnett performing my favorite song from last year, “Pedestrian at Best,” in her appearance on “Saturday Night Live,” but NBC doesn’t allow their clips to be shared on WordPress.) Friends, get ready for a good time.

February 1/May 20: Primal Scream featuring Sky Ferreira, “Where the Light Gets In” (music video; studio version appears on the album Chaosmosis, 2016) + BBC Radio 6 Music show (hosted by Bobby Gillespie, filling in for Iggy Pop). Primal Scream is a band that defies description; they’ve done dreamy indie pop (“Love You,” one of the finest songs of 1987), acid house-inspired dance-rock (“Loaded,” which owes a lot to the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil”), more overtly Stones-esque rock ‘n’ roll (“Rocks”) and a lot of other stuff that I have yet to listen to but which I would probably like as much as the songs I already know. Their latest single, “Where the Light Gets In,” doesn’t seem to have made a dent on the UK charts, but it’s one of the catchiest pop songs of the year. And it’s so good to know that Bobby Gillespie still has the best hair in rock music after 30+ years in the game.

I might not have even realized there was a new Primal Scream album, though, if I hadn’t been listening to BBC Radio 6 Music online last week (I had tuned into the Radcliffe and Maconie show, though they don’t factor into this story) and noticed a link to Iggy Pop’s Friday night program. Iggy is on tour at the moment, so for the last few weeks Bobby Gillespie has been filling in as host. I listened to his two-hour selection of songs and was blown away. There were songs I have loved for years, brilliant things I was introduced to and, of course, Bobby’s guiding voice. (The first bit of commentary starts about four minutes in; I also enjoy the mileage that his Scottish accent gets out of the phrase “it was very, very interesting” during the discussions of the Pop Group and James Brown at 1:22:44.) The widget I have posted here on the blog doesn’t seem to offer the option of rewinding – sorry about that! – although fast-forwarding works as long as you’re careful about not overshooting the mark, and you can always refresh the page and try to get to the right place again. This particular show’s playlist can be read on the official BBC website, where you can also listen to the program with rewind and fast-forward capabilities, but there are only 23 days left before the ability to listen to that specific broadcast expires.

May 22: PJ Harvey, interview and performance of “The Community of Hope” (live on the “The Andrew Marr Show” on BBC One; studio version appears on the album The Hope Six Demolition Project, 2016). It’s pretty amazing that English singer-songwriter PJ Harvey scored a #1 album in the UK with her newest album; the work is absolutely deserving of such success, but it’s a little surprising since she’s been around for so long (her first solo album, Dry, came out in 1992) and many of the albums that have topped the charts in the UK in 2016 are from younger and/or more commercial acts: Adele, Beyoncé, Drake, Zayn, Coldplay, the 1975, the Last Shadow Puppets, the Lumineers. I also assume that PJ has a lower profile than most media-saturated superstars these days, but despite this her fans evidently thought it was a big enough deal that she had new music out that the sales were raised to such a high degree. That’s why it is especially inspiring to hear her talk about the sociopolitical issues that fueled the making of her album, and why it’s so interesting that she describes herself as a writer and a journalist as much as a singer. Even though this stripped-down version of “The Community of Hope” doesn’t have the drums and other instruments that the album recording contains, all Polly Jean needs are her voice and her guitar to get her point across.

May 23: Garbage, “Empty” (music video; studio version will appear on the upcoming album Strange Little Birds, to be released 6/10/16). I must admit somewhat ruefully that I’m not familiar with most of Garbage’s oeuvre, although I love Shirley Manson’s voice and I know some of the band’s classics, like 1995’s “Stupid Girl,” the title song from The World Is Not Enough (1999), which I consider one of the top five best themes in the history of the James Bond franchise, as well as the single that Garbage released on Record Store Day last year, “The Chemicals” (a duet with Brian Aubert, frontman of Silversun Pickups). Now, with “Empty,” pink-haired Shirley and the rest of the gang have made a song that’s catchier and lyrically/emotionally deeper than most of what’s being done by performers half their age (the members of Garbage range from 49 to 65 years old).

May 23/May 16: Nicky Wire interviewed by Edith Bowman (live on Virgin Radio UK) + Manic Street Preachers, “A Design for Life” (live at the Royal Albert Hall, 2016). For the ultra-obsessed: all the best Manics fans surely listened to Nicky Wire’s interview on the radio this past Monday, in which he discussed (with the delightful Edith Bowman, who has a great way of laughing) topics including skirts, hair, long-lasting friendships, parenthood, recent music by Bill Ryder-Jones and Cate Le Bon, sports, children’s movies, politics and “lyrical integrity,” the last of which connects back to PJ Harvey and having “something to say.” You can see how much the working-class anthem “A Design for Life” (being performed on the twentieth-anniversary tour of the Everything Must Go album) still means to the audience in 2016 as the stage’s overhead screens flash images and messages from the song’s 1996 music video: “Hope Lies in the Proles,” “Tomorrow Is Too Late,” “Make Your Choice,” etc. As Nicky shouts during the solo break: “This is working-class empowerment!” (In the same breath he also gets in a dig at the Britpop album Parklife by Blur.)

May 25: Argument City, “Spirit of 58” (music video; written for the Wales football team competing in Euro 2016). The Manics recorded the official single for Welsh footballers but the up-and-coming band Argument City released their song, which is another we-can-do-it sing-along, first. Now that the accompanying music video has been uploaded to YouTube, I’m pleased to see that the band is having just as much fun as the audio had suggested. Plus those schoolkids are adorable!

May 25: James McAvoy interviewed by Stephen Colbert (on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” 2016). What could be cooler or more rock ‘n’ roll than wanting all kids to have access to an education in the arts? James McAvoy’s statements on the matter are articulate, persuasive and obviously heartfelt.

Cool Stuff to Check Out in NYC: June 2016

For all you dedicated cinephiles out there, here are some upcoming film screenings and retrospectives that are sure to excite you this June in New York City. Information regarding the theaters and dates/times can be found by clicking the links provided at the beginning of each series or event’s entry.

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Danger lurks behind every corner for Nancy Allen in Dressed to Kill (1980).

“Brian De Palma” at the Metrograph (Wed. June 1 – Thurs. June 30): The new arthouse cinema on Ludlow Street (Lower East Side) will be hosting this look back at director Brian De Palma’s half-century-long career as a master teller of Hitchcockian tales filled with sex and violence, as well as a maker of more commercial, action-oriented fare like The Untouchables and Mission: Impossible. With the exception of Murder à la Mod (1968), Metrograph will be showing Brian De Palma’s entire history of feature films. If you’ve never experienced Sisters, Carrie, Dressed to Kill or the crazy, extravagant mess known as The Black Dahlia, here is your chance to do so.

The Series IncludesThe Wedding Party (released in 1969 but shot in 1963), Greetings (1968), Dionysus in ’69 (1970), Hi, Mom! (1970), Get to Know Your Rabbit (1972), Sisters (1973), Phantom of the Paradise (1974), Obsession (1976), Carrie (1976), The Fury (1978), Home Movies (1980), Dressed to Kill (1980), Blow Out (1981), Scarface (1983), Body Double (1984), Wise Guys (1986), The Untouchables (1987), Casualties of War (1989), The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990), Raising Cain (1992), Carlito’s Way (1993), Mission: Impossible (1996), Snake Eyes (1998), Mission to Mars (2000), Femme Fatale (2002), The Black Dahlia (2006), Redacted (2007), Passion (2012)

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The skydiving sequence in Point Break (1991, dir. Kathryn Bigelow).

“Genre Is a Woman” at Film Forum (Fri. June 3 – Thurs. June 16): This is the series I am most excited about this June. The retrospective will be looking at films made by nineteen women directors (spanning the early silent era to the present day), none of whom were or are restricted by the usual stereotyped boundaries (e.g., “chick flick” romantic comedies). You will see teen comedies, fast-paced action flicks, sci-fi thrillers, biopics, sexploitation dramas and much more. My personal recommendations among the selections here are Dorothy Arzner’s Dance, Girl, Dance (1940), Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker (1953), Doris Wishman’s Bad Girls Go to Hell (1965), Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) and Kathryn Bigelow’s The Loveless (1981) and Point Break (1991), so you should definitely make time for those.

The Series Includes Films ByAlice Guy Blaché (silent short films including Babies from Cabbages; The Detective’s Dog; The Pit and the Pendulum), Dorothy Arzner (Dance, Girl, Dance), Ida Lupino (Not Wanted; The Hitch-Hiker; two episodes of “Thriller”), Doris Wishman (Nude on the Moon; Bad Girls Go to Hell; Let Me Die a Woman; A Night to Dismember), Barbara Loden (Wanda), Stephanie Rothman (The Student Nurse; Group Marriage), Barbara Peeters (Bury Me an Angel), Kathryn Bigelow (The Loveless; Near Dark; Blue Steel; Point Break; Strange Days), Amy Heckerling (Fast Times at Ridgemont High), Amy Holden Jones (The Slumber Party Massacre), Penelope Spheeris (Suburbia), Mary Lambert (Pet Sematary), Katt Shea (Stripped to Kill II: Live Girls; Dance of the Damned; Streets; Poison Ivy), Sondra Locke (Impulse), Cindy Sherman (Office Killer), Mary Harron (American Psycho; The Notorious Bettie Page), Kelly Reichardt (Meek’s Cutoff; Night Moves), Ami Canaan Mann (Texas Killing Fields) and Ana Lily Amirpour (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night)

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Kamikaze ’89 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (Fri. June 3 – Thurs. June 9): BAM is showing the final film starring the incomparable German auteur/artiste Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Kamikaze ’89 (1982, dir. Wolf Gremm), for a week in early June. This rarely-screened thriller is set in a dystopian future society and R.W.F. plays a detective; the cast includes roles for Fassbinder’s frequent collaborators Günther Kaufmann (Whity (1971), In a Year with 13 Moons (1978), the miniseries “Berlin Alexanderplatz” (1980)), Brigitte Mira (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1973), Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven (1975), Chinese Roulette (1976)), and Juliane Lorenz (Fassbinder’s editor for films and TV, as well as his girlfriend, from the late 70s until his death in 1982), as well as an appearance by international star Franco Nero. Kamikaze ’89 cinematographer Xaver Schwarzenberger also worked with Fassbinder on his own projects, photographing “Berlin Alexanderplatz” (1980), Lili Marleen (1981), Lola (1981), Veronika Voss (1982) and Querelle (1982).

Trivia: Fassbinder was buried in the leopard-print suit he wore in Kamikaze ’89.

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Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Maggie Cheung share a quiet, contemplative moment during a rendezvous in In the Mood for Love (2000, dir. Wong Kar Wai).

“Luminosity: The Art of Cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-Bing” at the Museum of Modern Art (Thurs. June 16 – Thurs. June 30): MoMA pays tribute to one of the most talented cinematographers in Asian and European cinema. One of the must-sees is the romantic drama In the Mood for Love, Wong Kar Wai’s take on Brief Encounter set in Hong Kong in 1962.

The Series Includes Films By: Hou Hsiao-Hsien (Dust in the Wind; The Puppetmaker; Flowers of Shanghai; The Assassin), Wang Tung (Strawman), Ann Hui (Eighteen Springs), Tran Anh Hung (The Vertical Ray of the Sun; Norwegian Wood), Wong Kar Wai (In the Mood for Love), Tian Zhuangzhuang (Springtime in a Small Town), Ivy Ho (Claustrophobia), Chiang Hsiu-Chiung and Kwan Pun-Leung (Let the Wind Carry Me), Gilles Bourdos (Renoir), Jay Chou (The Rooftop), Yang Chao (Crosscurrent)

Are You the Person You Always Thought You Would Be?

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Sometimes I look at singers in their current-day incarnations and wonder what their younger selves would think of the directions that their careers have taken. I wonder how often those artists allow themselves to look back, or if such a thing is too detrimental to consider. When they were children and teenagers – as in the cases of those pictured above: Cyndi Lauper (c. 1970s), James Dean Bradfield (c. mid-to-late 1970s), Gwen Stefani (c. mid-to-late 1980s) – could they ever have dreamed of who they would be in their 20s, 30s and 40s? Is it too strange that I would imagine them imagining those ideas or memories?

Music is all about imagination. The artists have to have it and so do I. Jumping around through the decades, here are six singers or bands who have inspired (past) and do inspire (presently). Ups and downs have been noted.

Cyndi Lauper, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” (music video; studio version appears on the album She’s So Unusual, 1983) and “Girls Just Want Equal Funds” (live on “The Late Late Show with James Corden,” 2016). We start with one unassailable truth: Cyndi Lauper was, is, and shall always be great. No matter how many decades pass, she will always be perfectly iconic, perfectly weird, perfectly herself.

P.S. Please check out Cyndi’s new album of country covers, Detour. Her version of Skeeter Davis’s “The End of the World” is beautiful.

No Doubt, “Just a Girl” (music video; studio version appears on the album Tragic Kingdom, 1995) and Gwen Stefani, “Misery” (live on SNL, 2016; studio version appears on the album This Is What the Truth Feels Like, 2016). In 1995, Gwen Stefani hated the way the world infantilized women and too often compelled them to become, essentially, men’s property; these days she sings of begging to be with a man (Blake Shelton, I assume) because she can’t imagine anything more dismal than being alone. (To paraphrase “Just a Girl”: what she has succumbed to – bad pop – has made her numb.) Sure, you could fine-tune the explanation by clarifying that Stefani is talking about one specific man, not all men in general, and that maybe she’d be fine on her own if only she were not in love with this particular guy… but isn’t it still so disappointing to think that the source of her feminine suffering is the country music judge from “The Voice”?

Lush, “Sweetness and Light” (music video; studio version appears on the EP Sweetness and Light and the compilation album Gala, both 1990), “Ladykillers” (music video; studio version appears on the album Lovelife, 1996) and “Rosebud” (studio version appears on the EP Blind Spot, 2016). Lush has two genre legacies: one is shoegazing and the other is Britpop. The dreaminess of “Sweetness and Light” is the sound that I most often associate with Lush, although my favorite 90s-era song by the band is “Ladykillers,” an uptempo rocker that features different, yet still terrific, vocals from frontwoman Miki Berenyi. After drummer Chris Acland’s suicide in 1996, Lush went on hiatus, but their reformation last year has led to a new set of recordings titled Blind Spot. My favorite among the songs is “Rosebud,” a melancholy melody paired with poignant lyrics about love and loss. It’s so good to have Lush back.

The Stone Roses, “I Wanna Be Adored” (music video; studio version appears on the album The Stone Roses, 1989) and “All for One” (single, 2016). Few bands have had the success that the Stone Roses had with their self-titled debut album in 1989, earning the kind of critical reputation that can put groups in the “legends” category. “I Wanna Be Adored” is a brilliant way for them to open their album. What a statement to make about stardom! Anyway, long story short: the Roses were delayed in releasing their less “indie,” more bluesy follow-up album, Second Coming, an effort which was booed by all but the die-hard fans in 1994. Twenty-two years later, after numerous break-ups and reunions, the band has finally released new material. If almost any other band had recorded “All for One,” an inoffensive pop-rock tune that is easy to sing along to, I might consider it wonderful; because it comes courtesy of the Stone Roses, I’m slightly frustrated. I know it’s not right for me to have hoped for “I Wanna Be Adored, Part II,” but the glory days were so particularly, well, glorious for them that it is nigh impossible not to feel let down by Ian Brown and company.

Manic Street Preachers, interview and “Motown Junk” (“live” (lip-synched) on Snub TV, 1991), “Land of My Fathers/You Love Us” (live at Cardiff Castle, 2015; studio version of “You Love Us” appears on the album Generation Terrorists, 1992) and “Together Stronger (C’mon Wales)” (music video, 2016; promotional single for Euro 2016). You kind of have to enjoy the unflinching determination visible in the Manic Street Preachers in the early days: steely-eyed Richey Edwards stating that “youth is the ultimate product” and that the Manics were “the most original band of the last 15 years just ’cause we don’t wanna do anything that’s been done before”; Nicky Wire asserting that “we will never write a love song, ever, full stop” (five years later he wrote “Further Away”); James Dean Bradfield saying that “we’d rather be sensationalized than be just another NME band and get easy critical respect.” Strong words coming from guys who wanted to rule the world. They didn’t realize how difficult that would be.

Cut to 2015/2016: after a quarter of a century, the Manics are obviously a different band. I can’t begrudge them the patriotic tendencies they discovered twenty years ago; there was undoubtedly a time when they never would have believed that anyone would ask them to record the official song for Wales’ football team, yet that is exactly what they’ve done for the Euro 2016 tournament. They once joked about being “national treasures,” but I think these underdogs finally have become exactly that. And yeah, “Together Stronger” is a cheesy song, full of clichés and platitudes, but the band is so thoroughly earnest about the entire affair that it’s tough not to cheer the song on regardless. (Sean Moore, wearing his ever-present drumming gloves, retains total integrity by doing his job, doing it well and looking good while doing it.) The Manics have had their unfair share of sorrow in their thirty-year history, and no matter how they appeared to the public while in the midst of vitriolic youth, they earned the right to become who they are now. So they can perform the Welsh national anthem and then do their old ’91 classic “You Love Us” in the same breath at Cardiff Castle and not think twice; Nicky Wire famously once said that “we reserve the right to contradict ourselves,” and that is something the band continues to do all the time – which keeps us fans on our toes.

And as much as some things change, one thing always stays: the Manics’ relationship to photography and media representation. Or maybe I’m thinking specifically of Nicky Wire’s relationship to images. The Manics have always promoted themselves as much as their music. It seems to me that there is no difference between the photos taken of Nicky at music video photoshoots or in shiny NME spreads back in 1991-92 and the shots he posts on the Manics’ Twitter feed in 2016; only the method of disseminating the pictures has changed and now the artist himself has control. This week, highlights have included the usual post-gig selfie (as part of the Everything Must Go 20th anniversary tour) and, to the probable delight of every devoted Manics enthusiast, a selfie displaying Nicky’s everlasting affection for his favorite type of animal-print miniskirt. Whether at 22 or 47, the love of leopard never leaves a true believer.

Radiohead, “Just” (music video; studio version appears on the album The Bends, 1995) and “Burn the Witch” (music video; studio version appears on the album A Moon Shaped Pool, 2016). To many people, “Creep” may be the defining moment from Radiohead’s early days, but I have always had a particular affection for “Just,” which I used to listen to a lot when I was a teenager. (I also often connect it to the memory of seeing the music video played on VH1 Classic a couple of years ago; has it really been so long since 1995?) “Just” is one of their finest songs and people will likely be trying until the end of time to decipher what words are said at the end of the video. I guess what I liked best about the song and video as a teenager was that Radiohead seemed to have made them the way they wanted to, not the way a record company would want.

(A brief interlude Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood interviewed by Jonathan Ross in 2003. It’s a really amusing clip.)

This month, Radiohead resurfaced after years of speculation about an upcoming album. (The new opus, A Moon Shaped Pool, was released online on May 8.) After wiping their Twitter and Facebook pages clean of all previously posted information, the band started anew by sending out a music video for a brand-new single, “Burn the Witch.” For an industry already curious as to what Radiohead was up to after their apparent disappearance from social media, the song was a perfect choice for a rebirth. The fact that the video retells the story of The Wicker Man in the form of stop-motion animation somehow makes perfect sense for a song about the many dangers facing our societies today: people jumping the gun on which groups should be blamed for whichever problems, the pitfalls of mass media and social media, the pesky phenomenon of groupthink, etc. I guess Radiohead have held onto their principles, and Thom Yorke is the kind of lead singer whose dignity remains intact since he tends not to do things for the benefit of easy public consumption. A Moon Shaped Pool isn’t the kind of album that’s made by a band looking for number one hits. I admire such dedication to originality and purity.

2013: Part 7

Before Midnight. Directed by Richard Linklater. In many ways I think this is the most emotional film in Linklater’s “Before” trilogy since each sequel contains less fantasy and more hard truth than the film before it. After the loveliness of Before Sunrise (1995), in which two strangers, Jesse and Celine, meet and fall in love during one magical day spent in Vienna, and then Before Sunset (2004), which catches the pair in a surprise encounter in Paris that forces them to confront the consequences of their 24-hour fling from nine years earlier, Before Midnight is about the realities of what it means to actually be in a relationship and have children together. (The setting, Athens, is a place itself defined by history and the passage of time.) These struggles are reflected in Ethan Hawke’s and Julie Delpy’s characters and in how the actors wrote the script with Richard Linklater. It’s great to see the evolution of each character; while some traits have stayed the same, others have changed with the passage of time. I’m tempted to say that Before Sunset is my favorite film in the trilogy since it provides a good balance of the romantic hope and bitter revelations expressed in Sunrise and Midnight, but I cried much more in Midnight because I guess I care more about Jesse and Celine than I initially thought.

P.S. The tribute to Amy Lehrhaupt in the end credits is a bittersweet touch.

Fruitvale Station. Directed by Ryan Coogler. As much as watching the Rocky sequels was part of my preparation for Creed in late 2015/early 2016, so too was my viewing of the debut feature film by Ryan Coogler and his first pairing with star Michael B. Jordan, who reteamed for Creed. Jordan as main character Oscar Grant (an African-American man from Oakland, CA, who was fatally shot by a police officer on New Year’s Day 2009), Melonie Diaz as Oscar’s girlfriend Sophina and Octavia Spencer as Wanda (Oscar’s mother), who do a terrific collective job of bringing Oscar’s story to life, in addition to Rachel Morrison’s cinematography, which captures movement with natural light and handheld camerawork. I understand that many moviegoers felt that the film was “manipulative,” particularly because of the scene with the pit bull, but I find the film to be an effective and moving interpretation of Oscar’s last day on Earth. He is not painted as a saint; he made mistakes, for sure, and Coogler portrays the balance between Oscar’s flaws and his attempts to change, looking forward to a new year. Oscar Grant was so young when he died, and his life was not an extraordinary one; Coogler shows how painfully normal and mundane most of the actions on his last day alive were, as well as the cruelty of a tragic death that was the result of police brutality perpetuated by racism and fear.

Hateship Loveship. Directed by Liza Johnson. Like Linda Cardellini in Liza Johnson’s first feature, Return (2011), Kristen Wiig is given a good showcase for her abilities as a dramatic actress. The story is too ridiculous to take seriously – Wiig plays a caretaker so intensely introverted (quiet nearly to the point of being nonverbal) that it’s hard to believe that the object of her obsessive affection, a cocaine-addicted, pathologically lying louse of a single father (Guy Pearce), would see the light and fall in love with her. Wiig’s interactions with her employer, Pearce’s crusty father-in-law (Nick Nolte, undisputed king of crust), and the surly teenager she is charged with taking care of, Pearce’s daughter/Nolte’s granddaughter (Hailee Steinfeld), are fraught with tension because it seems as though Wiig has no idea how to talk to people. The strength of Wiig’s performance holds the flimsy Cinderella retelling together, although the film also picks up whenever there are brief but entertaining appearances by Christine Lahti (as Nolte’s love interest) and Jennifer Jason Leigh (Pearce’s similarly addicted on-again, off-again girlfriend). I don’t find the film particularly endearing since it’s so difficult to buy into the plot, but I appreciated the opportunity to see Kristen Wiig doing something other than wacky, unsubtle comedy.

Man of Steel. Directed by Zack Snyder. In another case of preparing myself for an upcoming sequel – this time, the behemoth Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which I saw last month – I watched the 2013 reboot of the Superman franchise, Man of Steel, starring dimple-chinned Henry Cavill as everyone’s favorite Kansan by way of Krypton. From what I can tell, Cavill is not much of an actor (he actually makes me miss “Smallville’s” Tom Welling, which is downright shocking since Welling wasn’t exactly Shakespearean in his abilities), and I find Cavill’s overly-muscled physique distracting, like he’s a hirsute Ken doll chiseled for the viewer’s enjoyment rather than looking like a real person. (Or are there guys out there who actually look like that without putting in endless hours with a personal trainer?) I’m biased in preferring Man of Steel’s villain, Michael Shannon, though; as General Zod, a Kryptonian warlord with a Caesar haircut of Supreme Evilness, Shannon brings his bug-eyed flair for craziness, imposing 6′ 4″ physique and incredibly hammy line readings (“I was bred to be a warrior, Kal. Trained my entire life to master my senses. Where did you train? ON A FARM???”) to his embrace of such an over-the-top role. It’s a pity that Shannon seems to be the only actor who really sinks his teeth into Man of Steel; I had hoped that Amy Adams would provide some fun and pluck as Lois Lane, particularly because she appears to be adventurous at the beginning of the film, but the character is quickly turned into a stereotypical damsel in distress, constantly getting into scrapes that require Superman to save her. (The worst scene: when Lois is aboard Zod’s ship and, despite being in control of her own faculties, she needs the ghost of Supes’ dad, Jor-El – played by Russell Crowe in phone-it-in mode – to tell her each direction she needs to turn in to shoot her space-gun at advancing foes.) Maybe if Zack Snyder’s film had incorporated more humor than it has (which is to say, almost none), I might have forgiven Man of Steel for some of its misgivings – primarily the lack of exciting dialogue and the by-the-numbers retelling of the Superman story, although the worst part is Snyder’s overuse of crash zooms to take us even closer to the action, a real headache-inducer that I’m glad I avoided seeing in IMAX – but perhaps the cruelest blow for the viewer is a Superman-Lois romance with zero chemistry between Henry Cavill and Amy Adams. Maybe someone should have sent them copies of “Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex” and told them to lighten up a little and welcome the weirdness.

P.S. I didn’t mention Diane Lane and Kevin Costner at all, but they were both pretty good as Martha and Jonathan Kent, Superman’s (or, I should say, Clark’s) Earth-bound parents. It must be strange for Lane to have had to play a woman visibly older than herself when, at the time of filming, she was only 46 and usually looked like this. That’s Hollywood for you.

The Wolf of Wall Street. Directed by Martin Scorsese. A three-hour exercise in excess and indulgence, The Wolf of Wall Street tells the story of former stockbroker/scam artist Jordan Belfort and it is a sorry excuse for a Scorsese movie. Only one part of it, the scenes in which Leonardo DiCaprio slowly crawls across a country club floor (and into his car) while high out of his mind on expired Quaaludes, is truly well-executed and enjoyable; you get a feeling that you’re back in the hands of the old Scorsese. Everything else, however, is unfunny and, with few exceptions, displayed in subpar performances; going by this film alone, it’s hard to understand what anyone sees in Margot Robbie as an actress (unless people mistake “daring to do nudity/sex scenes” for “comedic/dramatic ability”). Scorsese stuffs Wolf to the gills with song after song, including Billy Joel, Cypress Hill, “What Power Art Thou” from the opera King Arthur (which I know best as Klaus Nomi’s “The Cold Song”), a Dap-Kings cover of “Goldfinger,” Sir Mix-a-Lot, Foo Fighters, the original Italian-language version of “Gloria” by Umberto Tozzi, Plastic Bertrand, The Lemonheads (my favorite cover of “Mrs. Robinson”) and Matthew McConaughey’s advice from the beginning of the film turned into “The Money Chant.” But what does all the music matter when the story isn’t interesting? I presume that Scorsese must have enjoyed filming all the sexual content (there are so many scenes involving it that I have no idea what the exact number is), but what some people may view as bold or fun is just a glitzy distraction trying to hide the problems of the narrative. It’s like nobody dared tell Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker what to cut out; the result is that many scenes run on far too long, and what’s worse, they don’t help move the story along or deepen our sense of character development. There is little to no depth in any of the characters – you see/get exactly what you would imagine – and the only performances worthy of any merit are only notable because of the actors playing the characters and attempting to rise above the material (Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner, Jon Bernthal, Jean Dujardin, Cristin Milioti). Unless you are a Scorsese fanboy or fangirl, or you love Leonardo DiCaprio so desperately that you are willing to forgive obvious issues with filmmaking, you should avoid The Wolf of Wall Street. You are not missing anything special or profound.

P.S. I’m glad that director Meera Menon and screenwriter Amy Fox have made Equity (in theaters this July), which is a drama about women working on Wall Street. That’s a story I’d like to see told. Throughout Wolf, I kept wondering: what about the women who work in Jordan Belfort’s office? How do they deal with this boys’ club? Why do they subject themselves to this lifestyle? Are they more “human” than the male characters? (The story about Kimmie Belzer makes it seem so.) Etc., etc.

Nothing Compares 2 Him (A Second Retrospective)

Whom would I be kidding if I said I had cared about anyone’s music but Prince’s for the last week and a half? I have found myself thinking constantly about how Prince intersected with pop culture and how the world around him inspired him. So, after my last post, which counted twelve of his finest moments, I return with a dozen more.

1. “The Beautiful Ones” (scene from Purple Rain, 1984). When I went with a friend to see Purple Rain at the AMC Empire 25 in Times Square last Tuesday, “The Beautiful Ones” stood out as one of the highlights of the film. To be clear, even though I know the Purple Rain soundtrack inside out, I had never actually seen the entire film, or if I had, it was many years ago and probably in a television-friendly cut on MTV or VH1. So it was a revelation when I saw the way that Purple Rain uses this particular song, which has quite possibly the best vocal on the album. As rising star “The Kid,” Prince pleads with Apollonia (same name for both actress and character) to choose between his love and the ill-gotten gains of stardom as a pop tart in the employ of antagonist Morris Day (again, same actor/character name). In an essay written for Rolling Stone on April 22, Tim Grierson wrote that “[Prince’s] finest movie moment jettisons acting all together and delves purely into the art form he mastered. Watch Prince’s performance of ‘The Beautiful Ones’ in Purple Rain, which — in a mere five minutes — embodies everything he did so incredibly: emotion, passion, sensuality, poignancy, combustible sex appeal, can’t-take-your-eyes-off-him star power.” True, true, true.

2. “Darling Nikki” (scene from Purple Rain, 1984). Oh, “Darling Nikki.” Yes, this is the song that spurred Tipper Gore to create the “Filthy Fifteen” list of songs that she felt were destroying vulnerable young ears and should be kept at a distance from the youth of America. Prince is therefore single-handedly responsible for the creation of the Parental Advisory label on CDs, which were the result of the war waged by Gore. As if it could have been done any other way, the song’s inclusion in Purple Rain is a memorable one; bathed in brilliantly red stage lighting, “The Kid” taunts Apollonia (still torn between having her pop-star career and being with him), which is quite a feat considering her own big number in the film, the ridiculously cheesy “Sex Shooter.” Next to that, “Darling Nikki,” with its slow-burning buildup and almost ominous blares of keyboard from Revolution member Lisa Coleman, is one of the seven wonders of the world. The link between Prince’s music and sexuality is best described by Dodai Stewart in her essay “On Prince, Blackness, and Sexuality”: “Prince leaves us, as part of his legacy, a wholly unique case study for a black American male pop star. He didn’t have the put-upon polish or narrow repertoire of the smooth, seductive, quiet storm R&B guys. He wasn’t all braggadocio and brawn like the rappers. He had little in common with the slutty, sloppy, noisy rock gods. His sexuality funneled his feelings—emotional, spiritual, and intellectual—into a quest for physical connection, one twin’s craving to find, touch, and melt into his other half, which would then, finally, finally, make him whole. Two bodies coming together so that the minds and souls could follow. His sexuality was not monolithic; he was insistent and reticent, fragile and strong, curious, exploratory, experimental, horny. Not the typical American sex symbol. Not tall, not brawny. But deeply interested in the topography of pleasure: Discovering its limits, giving it, taking his own, finding someone else’s. ‘Sexuality is all you’ll ever need,’ he sang in 1981’s ‘Sexuality.’ ‘Sexuality, let your body be free.'”

More succinctly, I’m also reminded of what music critic Robert Christgau wrote about Prince in 1980: “Mick Jagger should fold up his penis and go home.”

3. “I Would Die 4 U” (scene from Purple Rain, 1984). Following the film’s apex, Prince’s performance of the title power ballad, there is joyous liberation in the exuberance of “I Would Die 4 U.” The audience (both in the film and the viewers watching on the other side of the screen) knows that this is going to be something different because after all the Sturm und Drang of the previous ten or so minutes, “The Kid” returns to the stage with a grin, totally aware that he now has complete possession of the adoring crowd. What follows is the stuff that Internet dreams are made of, given that people have made GIFs out of every single second, from the gliding movements of Prince’s high-heeled boots to this slick move to the slow-motion shuffle-slide across the floor. Maybe even more than by those specific images, you could sum up Prince’s magnetism with the first lines of the song: “I’m not a woman/I’m not a man/I am something that you’ll never understand.” Whatever their reasons for loving Prince, everyone at the Times Square screening (myself included) was cheering, clapping and stomping along to the beat.

4. Prince (with Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman) accepting the Oscar for “Best Original Song Score” for Purple Rain (Academy Awards, 1985). It’s easy to forget that Purple Rain is an Oscar-winning movie since the “Song Score” category has not been awarded to any films since Prince won the prize. (You can read a bit more about that here.) I’m glad that Wendy & Lisa, Prince’s collaborators in his band The Revolution, were also on hand to accept the gold since they contributed so much to the impact of the film/album’s nine songs. One also must wonder how many boys and girls were watching the telecast and were mesmerized by sight of the Purple One draped in a glitter-covered caftan, looking kind of like a sparkly nun.

5. “When Doves Cry” (live from the Lovesexy tour, 1988). I can’t be certain where I would have seen this clip when I was younger since it couldn’t possibly have been on YouTube, but I have a definite memory of seeing it at some point during either high school or college because in those days I had a habit of passing time in any math or science class by scrawling stuff about music all over my notebook margins, and whenever it was that I saw this live video of “When Doves Cry,” I remember writing something the next day along the lines of “1988: Prince as a cover model from a Harlequin romance about pirates.” Who wouldn’t want that?

6. Sinéad O’Connor, “Nothing Compares 2 U” (music video; studio version appears on the album I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, 1990) and Prince featuring Rosie Gaines, “Nothing Compares 2 U” (from the concert film Rave Un2 the Year 2000, 1999). “Nothing Compares 2 U” has to be the most famous Prince song that he didn’t make famous himself. Originally penned by him in 1985 for one of his side projects, The Family, the cover by Sinéad O’Connor in 1990 went #1 around the world, was ranked by Rolling Stone as one of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (#162) and has a music video which is considered iconic. O’Connor’s version influenced by the memories of her mother’s death in a car accident in 1985 is the definitive rendition but both expressions of the song are beautiful.

7. “Muppets Tonight” (guest host gig (as “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince”), 1997). Let it never be said that Prince didn’t have a sense of humor. Bless him, in the “Hoo-Haw” farmer segments, there are a couple of moments when he sounds like Dorothy Michaels from Tootsie.

8. “Purple Rain” (live at the Super Bowl XLI halftime show, 2007). Fittingly it rained during this epic presentation, which was seen by 140 million TV viewers. Watch and be amazed.

9. “Creep” (live at Coachella, 2008). Anyone who has ever heard Radiohead’s “Creep,” the 1993 single that launched them into the stratosphere of alt-rock deification, must recognize that it’s a song that takes on new life when covered by other artists. The song means one thing when performed by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, but it’s totally different when you hear it done by Macy Gray, an African-American woman who was in her mid-40s when she included it in her album Covered in 2012. Prince’s interpretation is also interesting; he changes up the lyrics but makes the guitar sound even more unsettling than I’ve heard previously. I like to think that Radiohead’s recent decision to remove themselves entirely from their social media websites is a strange little tribute to Prince, whose well-documented battles with the Internet are the stuff of legend.

10. “New Girl” episode “Prince” (2014). Did Prince share the same pastimes as us regular, boring people who watch sitcoms? Evidently, since he was apparently a fan of the FOX comedy “New Girl” and agreed to do a guest spot two years ago. He acts as a spiritual advisor to Jess (Zooey Deschanel), who needs some help in the crucial step of being able to say “I love you” to new boyfriend Nick (Jake Johnson). Pancakes, ping pong and butterflies are all involved in Prince’s magical process. And one of the absolute best parts? Jess’s makeover is set to the energetic sound of Prince’s “When You Were Mine” (from his 1980 album Dirty Mind).

11. Interview with Arsenio Hall and fan questions (2014). I hadn’t seen this interview before last week. Arsenio gets some good answers out of Prince, and the fan Q&A part has some pretty nice moments.

12. “Baltimore” (feat. Eryn Allen Kane) (lyrics video; studio version appears on the album Hit n Run Phase Two, 2015). In an interview with Rolling Stone in 1990, Prince commented on an unreleased work, The Black Album (1987), by saying that “I was very angry a lot of the time back then and that was reflected in that album. I suddenly realized that we can die at any moment, and we’d be judged by the last thing we left behind. I didn’t want that angry, bitter thing to be the last thing. I learned from that album, but I don’t want to go back.” Since Hit n Run Phase Two is the last Prince album released in his lifetime, I think it means even more that he wrote and recorded a deeply political song concerned with Freddie Gray and the Black Lives Matter movement. For a long time – most of his career, I guess – Prince avoided covering overtly political topics in his songs, but he was obviously so moved by this cause that he had to speak out. If he were still here, he would undoubtedly hold more concerts like the “Rally 4 Peace” in Baltimore last May.

A last word: D’Angelo featuring Princess, “Sometimes It Snows in April” (performed live on “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon,” 2016). I don’t usually cry over celebrity deaths. It’s simply a fact of my emotional makeup; I can weep at the drop of a hat while watching a movie, but when a singer or actor dies, the reality/finality of it is usually numbing more than anything else. Days passed after Prince’s death, and I listened to his music obsessively, but I didn’t cry. Not until this past Wednesday morning, that is. I was on an Amtrak train to Boston, exhausted because I hadn’t slept at all that night so that I would be ready to leave my house at 4:45 and board the 6:55 train. As I sat in my window seat I watched the video of D’Angelo performing on “The Tonight Show” on Tuesday night, which I had missed because I had been busy getting ready for my trip. Backed by Princess, a Prince cover duo made up of Maya Rudolph and Gretchen Lieberum, D’Angelo delivers a moving performance of “Sometimes It Snows in April,” the last song in Prince’s film Under the Cherry Moon (1986) and also the last track on the Prince and the Revolution album Parade (1986). Obviously the song has taken on a new, tragic meaning given Prince’s passing on April 21 and you can hear the heartbreak in D’Angelo’s voice as he gives the song his all. It had me quietly shedding more than a few tears in the bright morning sunlight.

I was crying not just because of how sad I was, but also because I was so angry. I was confronted with this overwhelming feeling that Prince’s death wasn’t right, that it should not have happened in a compassionate universe. He should still be writing and recording songs with powerful messages, songs that could open people’s eyes to the injustices of the world (but maybe also continue to make the slow jams that everyone loves). I used to read his Twitter page, marveling at the fact that he actually wanted to have a presence on social media, and the fact that he referred to his Instagram account as “Princestagram,” a name he would write out in capital letters and often with several exclamation points. (The man certainly popularized what we now think of as text-speak, “U” and “B” and “2,” etc.) I realize I’ve hit upon what distresses me the most; for so long Prince was this enigmatic, larger-than-life figure, but in recent years he had become more knowable, connecting with his fans in a way he never had before. Now we won’t get the chance to know him any better, or at least not in his own voice. We might get glimpses of the man in archival material released from his fabled Paisley Park vaults, but it won’t be the same as his existing in real time and telling us himself. We had a conversation going – one that still felt like it was only just beginning – and now it has ended. That’s what hurts the most.

Friday Music Focus: 4/22/16

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Today I pay homage to the music/pop culture icon known as Prince. He had the look, the voice, the soul, the rock, the funk, the pop perfection, the guitar chops and so much more that combine to make a person into a legend. Given Prince’s famous aversion to websites like YouTube, it’s anyone’s guess how long the videos I have been lucky enough to find will remain online before being removed by his estate and/or record execs so for now please listen, watch and enjoy.

1. “Controversy” (music video; studio version appears on the album Controversy, 1981). I’m pretty sure that my aunt had a copy of Prince’s Controversy album on CD, so that’s where I first heard the title track, years before iTunes or music-sharing websites. It might be considered Prince’s ultimate anthem: who is he? Do we know? How many things can this one artist represent? How well do sex and religion – the two most potentially taboo subjects on the planet – mix? And why should any prospective “controversies” matter (or they might still matter, but not in a career-destroying way) as long as the music has meaning(s)? The man had an appeal that transcended every label or barrier imaginable.

Regarding Prince’s religious conversion as a Jehovah’s Witness, a cause for which he was known to go door to door in Minneapolis, one fan wrote (and could not reiterate enough) in a forum online: “It’s Prince! I’d invite Prince in my home to discuss the Dewey decimal system. It’s Prince!”

2. “Little Red Corvette” (music video; studio version appears on the album 1999, 1982). Like “Controversy,” I first heard “Little Red Corvette” on CD, as part of the compilation The Very Best of Prince (2001) if I recall correctly. Put simply: it’s a flawless pop song. In the paragraph that accompanies its ranking as one of Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (at #109), the tune is described as “an almost perfect erotic fusion of rock and funk that builds slowly until exploding into a guitar solo. Fittingly, Prince wrote the lyrics in the back seat of a car, but not a red Corvette: It was a bright-pink Ford Edsel belonging to Revolution keyboardist Lisa Coleman.”

3. “When Doves Cry” (music video; studio version appears on the soundtrack album Purple Rain, 1984). This is definitely the first Prince song that I have any memory of hearing. Even without the amazing guitar solo that ends the album version of the song, the music video is as exciting as it was for me when I was a kid. True to the name of Prince’s backing band, The Revolution, there seemed something so rebellious and thrilling in the imagery that opens the clip: Prince in the bathtub, then crawling across the floor. Did men in the pop world do such things? (As I imagine ten-year-old me asking myself.) Wasn’t it always the women – Madonna, Janet Jackson, Cher – who were tasked with providing sensuality for the viewers? Was this the moment, the little click in my brain, when I understood the power of male sexuality in popular music?

4. “Kiss” (music video; studio version appears on the album Parade, 1986). I think I actually knew the 1988 cover of “Kiss” by Tom Jones/Art of Noise before I heard Prince’s recording, but once I heard the original song, it instantaneously became the only version that mattered. If anyone else had made this music video, the dance moves and outfits (or lack thereof) probably would have looked completely ridiculous, but Prince could do it.

5. “The Cross” (live from the Lovesexy tour, 1988; studio version appears on the album Sign o’ the Times, 1987). A guitar-and-sitar sermon intended to sear your skin off with sheer rock-and-roll strength. Great to see Sheila E. on the drums as well.

6. “Electric Chair” (live on “Saturday Night Live,” 1989; studio version appears on the soundtrack album Batman, 1989). A weekend update: SNL’s Prince tribute show on April 23 featured this funky gem.

7. “Summertime” (live during a soundcheck before a concert in Japan, 1990). During a rehearsal for a show in Osaka, Prince improvises some impressive piano licks on this cover of the Gershwin jazz classic.

8. “Purple Rain” (live on TV; studio version appears on the soundtrack album Purple Rain, 1984). In a way my recollection of “Purple Rain” is of not hearing it rather than hearing it; on the night of the 2004 Grammys, when I was 11 years old, I went to my aunt and uncle’s house with my parents – probably a normal dinner get-together – and when I got there I was met by the two girls who lived next door, raving about some performance that had opened the Grammy show. It was the biggest thing possible, Prince and Beyoncé duetting on “Purple Rain” and other songs in a medley, and I was too late to have experienced it. When you listen to the lyrics, it makes sense: “Purple Rain” as a theme to missing out, wanting something you almost had but have now lost, even though you have hope that one day you’ll finally be able to attain it.

9. “Gett Off” (live at the MTV Video Music Awards, 1991; studio version appears on the album Diamonds and Pearls, 1991). I think my favorite assessment of this VMAs performance comes from a YouTube comment: “Everyone thought 2004 Janet Jackson and Justine Timberlake’s nipplegate halftime show at Superbowl XXIII was raunchy, huh…think again. This was a Sodom and Gomorra Whorehouse on stage and in 1991.” Orgy aside, “Gett Off” might not be as great a song as another definitive Prince track from the early 90s, “Sexy MF” – the music video for which I got a kick out of seeing on VH1 Classic at 6:00 pm on Saturday, when any susceptible child (or adult!) might see it – but as far as MTV showmanship goes, he deserved all the points for creative costuming.

10. “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (live at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 2004). At the same ceremony in which he was himself inducted into the hallowed music organization, Prince performed with a who’s who of rock musicians in tribute to inductee George Harrison, who had passed away in 2001. Tom Petty, Steve Winwood, Jeff Lynne and Dhani Harrison (George’s son) lead the pack, but when Prince’s electric guitar solo kicks in at the 3:27 mark, it’s like the theater has only just come alive. Has there ever been a cooler sight or sound? And while we’re at it, where on Earth did that magical guitar go at the end after it was tossed up to the heavens?

11. “Black Sweat” (music video; studio version appears on the album 3121, 2006). I remember when this video came out ten years ago and it was a pretty excellent feeling, knowing that Prince was so effortlessly modern. Although I couldn’t be sure that everyone who had already loved Prince for years would necessarily dig the song (perhaps contingent upon the genres you prefer – it’s not a magnet for the rock crowd), I figured it would undoubtedly draw younger generations. If ever the term dope jam could be applied, this would be the place.

12. “Fury” (live on “Saturday Night Live,” 2006; studio version appears on the album 3121, 2006). This, ladies and gentlemen, is the zenith.

Every weeknight from Monday to Thursday, Comedy Central broadcasts reruns of “Saturday Night Live,” and some time ago – a few weeks ago, I would say – the channel showed the episode from February 2006 which featured Steve Martin as the host and Prince as the musical guest. Prince’s rendition of “Fury” became an immediate classic for me when I first saw it ten years ago, so when Comedy Central showed it I knew I had to see it again and I knew the performance would be 100% as superb as I remembered it. Wailing with a voice full of passion, shredding the guitar like Jimi Hendrix reborn. When Prince bounces off the stage at the end, the reverberations of his guitar still echoing through the space, you know that you’ve just witnessed something special. It’s hard to process the fact that he’s gone when the fire of that show still burns so bright.

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With the digital universe continuously crying out for our exponentially divided attention, we are living in hyperbolic times. So it’s good to be reminded what The Best Thing Ever truly looks, sounds, shimmies, shakes and shrieks like.

That would be Prince.

– Chris Richards, Washington Post (2015)

2015: Part 8

Brooklyn. Directed by John Crowley. A very nice movie that unfortunately lacks the sense of development that exists in Colm Tóibín’s novel of the same name, Brooklyn does a good job at synthesizing the book’s stories and subplots into a coherent, watchable film and making the mostly passive protagonist, Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan in an Oscar-nominated performance), into an interesting character to stick with and watch grow as she makes the journey from Ireland to America and learns to love her new job, friends and (eventually) boyfriend in Brooklyn. Ronan portrays the uncertainty of young Eilis with grace and delicacy, aided in part by her cornflower blue eyes and the costumes designed by Odile Dicks-Mireaux. I also appreciate the screenplay by Nick Hornby, adapting a larger and more complex story into something satisfactory for the 111-minute running time, and the casting of Julie Walters as Ronan’s landlady on Clinton Street, Mrs. Keogh, as well as rising star Domhnall Gleeson as Jim Farrell, a tall, pleasant, flame-haired fellow who is a romantic prospect for Eilis back home in Enniscorthy. My main problems with the casting in Brooklyn are with Jim Broadbent as Father Flood, whose round, benevolent face does not fit the image I had of the character when I read the novel (speaking of the Gleeson family, I pictured Domhnall’s father, Brendan, in the role), and Emory Cohen as Ronan’s Italian-American, Brooklyn-accented boyfriend, Tony. Cohen is a good actor (even if he is clearly copying the mannerisms of Marlon Brando circa On the Waterfront, and Hornby’s screenplay removes the intermittent stirrings of melancholy seen in the novel’s rendering of the character), but it’s mainly the fault of director John Crowley and the casting department for wanting a dark-haired actor who looks nothing like how the character is described in the novel (blonde and blue-eyed, setting him apart from the looks of the rest of his family), which I found distracting given how I envisioned the character based on the literary experience; by making the Tony look and sound more like the expected Italian stereotype, the characterization is less effective than it should be. Brooklyn is a good film, one which will cause you to shed quite a few tears, but I encourage viewers to try the novel for a more complete, nuanced picture of the life of Eilis Lacey, particularly the things she thinks and is never able to say.

Cinderella. Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Worth watching primarily for Sandy Powell’s Oscar-nominated costume designs (the blue ball gown is an absolute dream!), Cinderella is probably best left to the kiddies. It’s hard for me to get too worked up about CGI mice or a Prince Charming (Richard Madden) who is the definition of boring. I wasn’t too crazy about Lily James as the title character either; she’s pleasant but hardly a revelation in the drama department. Of much greater interest to me is Derek Jacobi, that most wonderful Shakespearean actor who plays the prince’s father, an ailing king whose twinkling eyes and kind smile work with his subtle performance so beautifully. I’d watch him in any production, any time. For those who watch the film with hopes of Cate Blanchett being the Evil Stepmother Supreme, though, they’ll probably be a bit let down; there’s campiness to be sure, but Blanchett needed to have the dial turned way up for her performance to be more fun. Instead, most of the enjoyable detail is found in her exquisite outfits, not her acting. And while any Helena Bonham Carter at all is a welcome addition to a film, her role as Fairy Godmother is so small that it feels rather disappointing that we cannot see her guiding Cinderella more. That said, I still cried quite a few tears toward the story’s end. Formulaic Disney filmmaking can work its magic on me given the right occasion.

Fifty Shades of Grey. Directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson. Having finally arrived at the realization that I will never bother to make time to read Fifty Shades of Grey or any other title in the supposedly-titillating trilogy of novels penned by E.L. James, I decided to watch the big-screen adaptation of the first Christian Grey-Anastasia Steele saga. Knowing nothing about the books other than that they are drowning in references to Anastasia’s “inner goddess” (which Taylor-Johnson’s films avoids – kudos to her for not including voiceover narration), I feel better able to judge Fifty Shades solely on its cinematic merits. And where do I even begin? James’s story seeks to shock, trading on the oohs and aahs of bad boy billionaire Christian’s (Jamie Dornan) obsessions with sadism and wanting to dominate clueless, virginal college student Anastasia (Dakota Johnson). The sexual manipulation is one thing, but what about the psychological torture that Anastasia undergoes as a result of Christian’s ridiculous needs? Mental cruelty isn’t particularly sexy, and neither is requiring is your prospective partner to fill out a lengthy contract stipulating consent to any and every possible sex act – hasn’t Christian ever heard of normal human communication? Of course it turns out that slick Mr. Grey has a secret childhood history of horrors, one of which is that his birth mother was, in his words, a “crack addict and a prostitute” (a line reading which Jamie Dornan, an actor so wooden you can practically see the branches and roots weighing him down, makes infinitely funnier than it ought to be); should we feel sorry for him now? Luckily Anastasia escapes Christian’s stocks-and-bondage lair at the movie’s end, but I presume she will return to her overlord since there are two sequels in the works. As long as those films have good soundtracks – Taylor-Johnson’s film features Annie Lennox’s cover of “I Put a Spell on You,” “Love Me Like You Do” by Ellie Goulding, Beyoncé’s slowed-down update of “Crazy in Love” and the Oscar-nominated “Earned It” by The Weeknd – I’ll probably see those too.

P.S. The funniest part of Fifty Shades of Grey: Christian Grey’s version of the post-coital cigarette is him playing the piano very sadly (it happens twice). When in doubt, get into the brood mood with some amateur Chopin.

Focus. Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa. I’ll say this about Focus: the cinematography by Xavier Grobet is excellent. Not since Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Lola (1981), which I saw in January, have I enjoyed such attention to detail in bright colors and lighting (Grobet’s purples and lime greens look especially vibrant). As for the film’s story, it’s nothing special; comedy meets romance meets heist thriller, telling the tale of longtime swindler Nicky (Will Smith), who meets young, sexy thief Jess (Margot Robbie) and agrees to teach her the tricks of his trade. After pulling off a huge gamble that cheats a weird, wealthy guy (BD Wong, practically twirling his Fu Manchu mustache) out of millions of dollars, Smith realizes his involvement with protégée Robbie has gotten too serious for his liking and he splits. Fast-forwarding three years, the story picks up in Buenos Aires, where Smith is preparing for a new con game. Running into Robbie, who has matured into a gorgeous femme fatale, Smith’s feelings for her threaten to ruin his operation (involving a cardboard-cutout bad guy played by Rodrigo Santoro) and put them both in harm’s way. If this narrative sounds familiar to you, it’s because there is nothing fresh or original in either the plotting of the story’s beats or the actors’ performances. The only two aspects that will really keep you watching are the aforementioned cinematography, which allows many scenes to glow in neon tones, and the soundtrack, which includes songs by the Rolling Stones, the Stooges (one of Iggy Pop’s all-time best, “Gimme Danger”), It’s a Beautiful Day, Barbara Lewis and Ray Conniff & the Singers.

Standing Tall. Directed by Emmanuelle Bercot. Having never seen anything else directed by Emmanuelle Bercot, I don’t know if Standing Tall is indicative of a particular aesthetic sensibility, or rather, since I didn’t love the movie, the lack thereof. This story, a French drama concerning a juvenile delinquent (Rod Paradot in his film debut) with serious anger management issues and a violent streak that puts everyone around him in danger, has a lot of shouting and not much in the way of character development. Certain circumstances soften Paradot’s character, Malony, by the film’s end but I wish that Bercot and her co-screenwriter, Marcia Romano, had created a more gradual sense of change and growth in Malony rather than having his maturity happen only really in the last few minutes. Maybe that kind of sudden shift is realistic, appearing as bluntly as any of Malony’s vicious outbursts, but such a depiction lacks subtlety. Almost nothing about Standing Tall is subtle, although I give Paradot (a former carpentry apprentice who was discovered by Bercot) credit for making Malony feel like a real, believably troubled teen. Catherine Deneuve is also very good as the children’s services judge who wearily does her best to help Malony over a ten-year period, and there are also some fine performances by Sara Forestier as Malony’s mother (a woman who had her children too young and never properly understood how to take care of them) and Benoît Magimel as the court-appointed counselor assigned to guide Malony on his difficult journey through detention centers and rehabilitative jobs. Malony’s girlfriend Tess (Diane Rouxel), however, is woefully underwritten, considering that she’s one of the major factors involved in turning Malony’s life around. It’s a pity that Bercot and Romano couldn’t see fit to give this important female character as much of a cinematic presence as their male lead.

P.S. It was really odd that Bercot chose to use Schubert’s Trio in E Flat (Op. 100) as a repeated motif throughout Standing Tall since it was used so memorably in an earlier (and better) Catherine Deneuve film, The Hunger (1983). The piece was also used twice, to great effect, in the recent TV miniseries “American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson,” although the timing of that program with the American theatrical release of Bercot’s film is coincidental.