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” (live on the Purple Rain tour, 1985; the original 1982 music video has been removed from YouTube). 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. “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.

5. “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.

6. “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.

7. “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.

8. “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.

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.

Women-Directed Films Coming to Theaters in 2016 (Part 3)

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Filmmaker Meera Menon.

In recent months I have written posts about upcoming theatrical releases of feature films directed by women (here and here). Here are seventeen more titles to add to the list, some of which are already playing in theaters right now.

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Opened April 1 (no longer playing): Catching the Sun (dir. Shalini Kantayya). This documentary follows the expanding “clean energy” movement and three people in particular who are looking to lead the way in new, 21st-century ways of thinking regarding environmental awareness. Director Shalini Kantayya wrote the film and also worked as a producer and co-editor (with Michael Culyba and Tyler H. Walk), in addition to collaborating with producer Aarti Tandon and co-producer Sabine Hoffman (best known as a highly-regarded film editor).

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Opened April 1: Standing Tall (dir. Emmanuelle Bercot) – The opening night selection at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, Bercot’s drama won three César Awards (French Oscars) earlier this year for three of its performances: Best Actress (Catherine Deneuve), Best Supporting Actor (Benoît Magimel) and Most Promising Actor (then-teenage Rod Paradot). Paradot plays a juvenile delinquent who is given chances for redemption because of caring judge Deneuve. Director Bercot co-wrote the screenplay with Marcia Romano, while the costumes were designed by Pascaline Chavanne.

Standing Tall is playing at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.

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April 8: The Invitation (dir. Karyn Kusama) – Originally slated to open on March 25 but pushed forward. 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.

The Invitation is playing at the IFC Center.

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April 8: Look at Us Now, Mother! (dir. Gayle Kirschenbaum) – Released just one week after Chantal Akerman’s documentary about her relationship to her mother, No Home Movie, Kirschenbaum’s film is a touching, comic tribute that won awards at the Rhode Island International Film Festival and the Woods Hole Film Festival (Massachusetts). Kirschenbaum also wrote, produced and co-edited the film (with Alex Keipper); other women involved in the making of the film include story consultant and co-producer Melissa Jo Peltier, associate producer Kirsten Larvick and assistant editor Loulwa Khoury.

Look at Us Now, Mother! is playing at the Village East Cinema.

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April 15: Echo Park (dir. Amanda Marsalis) – Marsalis’s debut film, written by Catalina Aguilar Mastretta (herself a director), stars Mamie Gummer, Anthony Okungbowa, Gale Harold and Helen Slater as a group of Angelenos who find common ground despite differences in racial, ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Some of the women who also worked on Echo Park include executive producers Jacqueline Corbelli and Debi Shaw, associate producer Kelley Lee, editor Nina Lucia (who co-edited with Greg O’Bryant) and production designer Sonja Kroop.

Echo Park will be playing at the IFC Center.

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April 15: The Syndrome (dir. Meryl Goldsmith) – First-time director Goldsmith co-wrote and co-produced this documentary with her sister, Susan Goldsmith, to tackle the controversial subject of shaken baby syndrome. Meryl Goldsmith edited the film and was the music supervisor, working alongside more family members, Daniel Goldsmith (executive producer) and Lindsey Goldsmith (associate producer).

The Syndrome will be playing at Cinema Village.

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April 22: The Meddler (dir. Lorene Scafaria) – Perhaps revisiting the themes from last year’s dramedy about widowhood, I’ll See You in My Dreams, Scafaria’s The Meddler stars Susan Sarandon (also an executive producer on the film) as a woman looking to start a new chapter in her life after her husband passes away. The film co-stars Rose Byrne as Sarandon’s daughter, as well as including J.K. Simmons, Jerrod Carmichael, Michael McKean, Jason Ritter, Cecily Strong, Casey Wilson, Lucy Punch, Billy Magnussen, Randall Park, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Harry Hamlin, Shiri Appleby and Laura San Giacomo in the cast. The production side of the film involved producer Joy Gorman Wettels, co-producer Fiona Walsh, editor Kayla Emter, set decorator Karuna Karmarkar and costume designer Annie Bloom. Lorene Scafaria’s previous feature as a writer-director, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012), was an unusual and well-made combination of comedy, science fiction and romance, so I look forward to this next effort.

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April 22: Nina (dir. Cynthia Mort) – Although this biopic of Nina Simone has courted controversy for the usage of skin-darkening makeup and prosthetics on leading actress Zoe Saldana, it will be interesting to see how writer-director Mort’s film – which co-stars David Oyelowo, Mike Epps and Ronald Guttman – compares with Liz Garbus’s recent, Oscar-nominated documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?. Aigerim Jakisheva, Lauren Lloyd and Allison Sarofim executive-produced Nina, while Susan Littenberg co-edited the film (with Mark Helfrich and Josh Rifkin), Missy Stewart did the production design, Jan Pascale did set decoration and Magali Guidasci designed the costumes.

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May 25: Unlocking the Cage (dirs. Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker) – The husband-and-wife team of Hegedus and Pennebaker, who have been collaborating on documentaries since 1971, have now made a film concerned with animals’ rights. Hegedus photographed the film and was one of the two camera operators (her stepson, Jojo Pennebaker, was the other); other women who worked on it include producer Rosadel Varela, associate producer Julia McInnis and sound effects editor Andrea Bella.

Unlocking the Cage will be playing at the Film Forum.

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May 27: Chevalier (dir. Athina Rachel Tsangari) – Greek writer-director Athina Rachel Tsangari scored an indie hit with her previous feature, the drama Attenberg, which won two awards at the Venice Film Festival in 2010. Now she has returned with Chevalier, a comedy about six men who test the limits of their friendship and their masculinity on a yacht voyage. Tsangari co-wrote the film with Efthymis Filippou; other women involved in the film include Maria Hatzakou (producer), Anna Georgiadou (production design) and Vasileia Rozana (costume designer).

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June 22: Nuts! (dir. Penny Lane) – If it weren’t for the fact that the bizarre story of Dr. John Romulus Brinkley really did happen, you would assume it was dreamed up by some mad author. In the 1910s and 20s Brinkley claimed – in his guise as a physician, despite not having a medical degree – that he could cure male impotence with transplants from the glands of goat testicles. (Of course it didn’t work.) Brinkley’s strange tale is told in this new documentary, which was made with the help of producer-director Penny Lane (who also co-edited and co-photographed the film), producer Caitlin Mae Burke, co-producer Kara Janeczko, cinematographers Hallie Kohler and Angela Walley and sound designer Andrea Bella.

Nuts! will be playing at the Film Forum.

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July 13: Don’t Blink – Robert Frank (dir. Laura Israel) – Legendary photographer Robert Frank’s life is chronicled here in a documentary directed by Laura Israel, co-written and co-produced by Israel and Melinda Shopsin (also the post-production supervisor), photographed by Lisa Rinzler (with Edward Lachman) and edited by Alex Bingham (who was also in charge of art direction).

Don’t Blink – Robert Frank will be playing at the Film Forum.

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July 22: Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie (dir. Mandie Fletcher) – Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley hit the big screen in this extension of their long-running British sitcom of the same name, in which they play fame-obsessed friends Edina Monsoon and Patsy Stone. A who’s who of well-known personalities appear: Emma Bunton, Gwendoline Christie, Chris Colfer, Joan Collins, Cara Delevingne, Dawn French, Mo Gaffney, Jerry Hall, Jane Horrocks, Celia Imrie, Kim Kardashian, Lulu, Joanna Lumley, Kate Moss, Julia Sawalha, June Whitfield, Rebel Wilson. Working from a screenplay by Jennifer Saunders, the film also features art direction by Margaret Spohrer and Nikki Startup, set decoration by Laura Richardson and costume design by Rebecca Hale.

EQUITY, Anna Gunn, 2016.

July 29: Equity (dir. Meera Menon) – Marketed as “the first female-driven Wall Street” film, Menon’s drama (written by Amy Fox) stars Anna Gunn as an investment banker caught up in a dangerous scandal. The cast also includes James Purefoy, Craig Bierko, Tracie Thoms, Carrie Preston, Margaret Colin, Nate Corddry, Samuel Roukin, Alysia Reiner (also a producer) and Sarah Megan Thomas (ditto). Other women who worked behind the scenes: Susan J. Bevan, Barbara Byrne, Suzanne Ordas Curry, Salima Habib, Cecilia Herbert, Audrey McNiff, Linda Zwack Munger, Linnea Roberts and Christine Toretti (co-producers), Candy Straight (executive producer), Maegan Hayward (executive producer of post-production sound), Diane Lederman (production design), Roxy Martinez (set decoration) and Teresa Binder (costume design). Menon’s first feature, Farah Goes Bang (2013), was the first ever winner of the Nora Ephron Prize, an honor given to films made by women.

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August 10: An Art That Nature Makes: The Work of Rosamond Purcell (dir. Molly Bernstein) – Photographer Rosamond Purcell is the subject of this documentary, so brand-new that it doesn’t have an IMDb page yet. (More info on the film can be found here.)

An Art That Nature Makes: The Work of Rosamond Purcell will be playing at the Film Forum.

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August 17: When Two Worlds Collide (dirs. Heidi Brandenburg Sierralta and Mathew Orzel) – Sierralta and Orzel capture the plight of environmental activists who struggle against the destruction of the Amazon rainforest due to the major corporations that have invaded the land. Collide, which was edited by Carla Gutierrez, won the Special Jury Prize (World Cinema – Documentary) at the Sundance Film Festival. The film was honored as the Best Debut Feature because, in the words of the voting body, “this film impresses us because of the tenacity of the filmmakers in staying with the story of many years. This film was beautiful, raw and had incredible tension.”

When Two Worlds Collide will be playing at the Film Forum.

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August 31: The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger (dirs. Bartek Dziadosz, Colin MacCabe, Christopher Roth and Tilda Swinton) – English artist, critic and novelist John Berger is observed by four directors in this documentary; Swinton filmed the final segment, “Harvest,” which discusses children and parenthood, featuring appearances by Berger’s son, Yves, and Swinton’s twin sons, Xavier and Honor.

The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger will be playing at the Film Forum.

Friday Music Focus: 4/1/16

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Today we look at masculinity in rock and pop music: sex, gender, ambiguity, androgyny, iconography and iconoclasts.

Manic Street Preachers, “From Despair to Where” (live at the Reading Festival, 1997; studio version appears on the album Gold Against the Soul, 1993) and “Everything Must Go” (live at the Millennium Stadium, New Year’s Eve 1999; studio version appears on the album Everything Must Go, 1996). Yet again I return to the Manics. By the late 1990s, the trio no longer had a specific fashion aesthetic; where once the entire group had donned slogan-covered homemade t-shirts, glam leopard-print and white jeans (and, when the feeling arose, feather boas), a mixture of black/leather/Brat Pack chic, then military apparel, the post-Richey Edwards incarnation of the band no longer had couture guidelines. For a while in the mid-90s it might have looked like the band was settling for a minimalist, dressed-down approach, boring jeans and khakis becoming the comfortable clothing du jour (unless you also count the few times that James Dean Bradfield wore cat-eye glasses). (Incidentally, in Everything (A Book About Manic Street Preachers), Simon Price makes quite a good point about JDB circa 1993, compared to the music-press notoriety of Richey Edwards and Nicky Wire: “It is, certainly, extremely unusual for the lead singer to be only the third most recognizable member of the band.”) Luckily, any perceptible lack of fabric-based excitement didn’t last too long – this is where the two videos I have chosen come in.

There has always been an interesting push-pull between masculinity and femininity in the Manic Street Preachers’ music. Tom Hawking’s essay “This Mess of a Man: The Manics and Masculinity” is a pretty good assessment of how Wire’s and Edwards’ lyrics observe a wide array of perspectives on sex, gender and the discomforts of living in the body in which you are born. Instead I’m looking solely at the visual aesthetics of Nicky Wire’s penchant for cross-dressing, most admirably at Manics concerts. Inspired by one of my favorite snapshots of the Manics from 1993, Nicky Wire grinning under the heaps of “glamour” provided by movie-star sunglasses, a leopard headscarf, a red blazer and a dress and tights made in two different floral prints, I began to think about all the great moments in the band’s history when Nicky’s use of traditionally female clothing made for some truly fabulous images. (Would you expect anything less than stellar from a person once described by NME as “the bastard child of Sid Vicious and Dame Edna”?) Surely a man with less-appealing legs would look ridiculous in a skirt as short as the one Nicky wore at the Cardiff Castle show last June (and in leopard-print, no less), so kudos to him for still having both the looks and the guts.

In the two concert clips I’ve cherry-picked above, Nicky wears two of the most memorable outfits of his career: a sheer blue camouflage dress at the 1997 festival in Reading that was so thrilling to music journalists that two different photographers took virtually identical shots of him and placed them on the covers of NME and Melody Maker in the same week, and in the “Manic Millennium” concert at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium on December 31, 1999, a combination of pink skirt, leopard shirt-dress and a pink shirt bearing the legend “Culture Slut,” a reference to the band’s famous 1991 NME photoshoot. Unlike when other male musicians dressed in drag in the 90s – Nirvana comes to mind – I think that Nicky Wire’s feminized outfits can actually be taken seriously. They’re fashion for fashion’s sake, glorying in the fun and beauty of getting dressed up and wearing a ton of eye makeup and glitter, neither completely rejecting masculinity nor denying eyeshadowed-and-mascara’d femininity. (And apparently the camouflage dress is still kicking around; Nicky tweeted a photo of it last year.) There’s something inexplicably enjoyable about seeing Nicky Wire in his women’s wear contrasted with James Dean Bradfield and Sean Moore in their staunchly “normal” attire. And, of course, there are the feather boas. Those items so closely linked to the Manics of yore have never gone away. To this day they make appearances wrapped around Nicky’s microphone stand (as seen in the “Everything Must Go” clip) and they’re part of the culture of fans’ own dress codes. If you go to a Manics concert, boas will be welcome.

P.S. In honor of the Rolling Stones’ “historic” recent voyage to Cuba, let’s take a moment to note that the Manic Street Preachers played there in 2001 (leading to some amusing recent headlines by befuddled American publications, like the Chicago Sun-Times’ “Band challenges Rolling Stones’ ‘landmark’ gig in Cuba.”) For that other, less-well-remembered occasion, here is Nicky Wire photographed in his hotel room, and later describing the event: “The one dress that really suited me and the one which I probably looked better as a woman than any rock star that’s ever been was this Cuban white cotton dress. I had a bit of a fucking mental moment in Cuba when – how can I say it? – I felt oppressed. I didn’t want to go over there and just…dress like a boring Communist. And I was in the hotel lobby and there were these fantastic dresses. Everything just felt right…kinetic…serendipity. I brought it, went upstairs and just felt utterly liberated in one dress. I started putting loads of make-up on and Mitch, our photographer, came in. All these photographs have never really been seen, I’ve got them all locked up. There was this mad half-day in the hotel prancing around my room like a Cuban whore. My legs look amazing there.”

P.P.S. Here’s an adorable tiara!

Suede, “Animal Nitrate” (live at the Brit Awards, 1994; studio version appears on album Suede, 1993). It might not have taken much to shock the suits in the audience (just look at the sea of bemused patrons in the last few seconds!), but Brett Anderson & co. probably did. Despite some of the regrettably goofy dancing and very 90s haircuts displayed by guitarist Bernard Butler and bassist Mat Osman, the viewer’s eye cannot stop watching the mesmerizing singing and dancing of Brett Anderson, oozing as he is out of that lacy, open blouse. Anderson took a lot of cues from David Bowie in this early phase of Suede, both physically and musically (certainly in the quality of his voice), but you could almost forget all that just by watching the performance. Brett Anderson probably could have wailed names from the London directory and it would have been equally as entrancing as long as he cavorted around the stage in the same way.

David Bowie, “Let’s Spend the Night Together” (live at the Hammersmith Odeon, 1973; studio version appears on the album Aladdin Sane, 1973). Bowie is the ultimate glam rock icon, the gender-bender to end all (or bend all?) so it’s no surprise that when he covered the Rolling Stones’ bawdy hit from 1967, “Let’s Spend the Night Together” (for the D.A. Pennebaker-directed concert film Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars), he made it faster and possibly even cooler. Dedicated to Mick Jagger, the song takes on a proto-punk urgency driven by Mick ‘Woody’ Woodmansey on drums, Trevor Bolder on bass and Mick Ronson on guitar. Maybe it’s Bowie’s romper that really seals the deal, though it could just as easily have been his earrings. Whatever the case, in that moment, his androgynous Ziggy Stardust persona was a magnet.

P.S. Connection: David Bowie and Nicky Wire in similar shots in music videos, designed for maximum beauty.

Klaus Nomi, “Total Eclipse” (live in New York, 1981; studio version appears on the album Klaus Nomi, 1981). Back in January, after David Bowie passed away, I was considering writing about a few different figures from the glam rock and New Wave scenes and Nomi was one of them. (Jobriath, who was supposed to be the new, American Bowie, was another.) I didn’t even recall right away that Nomi had been one of Bowie’s backup singers on “SNL”; I just remembered that he was part of that fascinating 70s-through-early-80s atmosphere of artists who pushed the boundaries of sexual identity, and in Nomi’s case, earthliness. He was German, but thanks to his unique makeup, hair and high countertenor voice he also seemed like a delightfully bizarre alien who had dropped down to our planet with the intention of conquering it through sales pitches at Fiorucci’s, singing Saint-Saëns arias at Irving Plaza and wearing the most elegant costumes. If only Nomi hadn’t died in 1983 – an early victim of the AIDS epidemic – who knows what wonderful madness he might have continued to create?

There’s no doubt that Nomi was otherworldly.

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Brett Smiley, “Space Ace” (on album Breathlessly Brett, 1974). “So who’s Brett Smiley?” you might be asking. You would be forgiven for not knowing. In 1974, eighteen-year-old Smiley was supposed to be a new prince of glam rock, his androgynous beauty and delicate, youthful voice expected to woo all manner of fans (although he was being marketed exclusively in the UK, not in his native US). After his one single, “Va Va Voom,” went nowhere and his performance of “Space Ace” and subsequent interview on Russell Harty’s talk show proved disastrous, Smiley’s budding career as a pop star/rock god was over. His album, Breathlessly Brett (what a title!), was shelved and not released until 2004. Smiley dabbled in some film work, but for the most part he continued as a struggling singer-songwriter. (You can find clips from gigs on YouTube.) When he died in Brooklyn this past January, after years of living with HIV and hepatitis, his name might have stayed obscure if his passing had not coincided with David Bowie’s death two days later, prompting a New York Times piece titled “The Man Who Fell from Fame.” Smiley hardly even achieved a cult status, given that his debut album was released thirty years too late, but “Space Ace” deserves a listen. Now, to paraphrase the lyrics, we can catch a glimpse of Brett Smiley as a shooting star.

1933: Part 2

Baby Face. Directed by Alfred E. Green. What a winner! Barbara Stanwyck sizzles as Lily Powers, a man-eater who uses Nietzschean philosophy as the guiding principle behind her using men in order to get what she wants. The film is packed with interesting actors, including Theresa Harris as Lily’s pal Chico; it’s unusual to see the portrayal of a genuine friendship between white and black characters in a 1933 film – later in the film Chico assumes the role of Lily’s maid, partly out of convenience but also done for appearance’s sake because any other living arrangement probably would have been impossible in such an upper-class apartment house; Lily still treats Chico as a close confidante and gives Chico all the same kinds of clothes, furs and jewels that she wears herself. George Brent, Donald Cook, Alphonse Ethier, Henry Kolker (nicknamed “Fuzzy Wuzzy” in the film), Margaret Lindsay, a young John Wayne (baby-faced himself!) and Douglass Dumbrille also co-star as Stanwyck’s boy toys and/or adversaries. You will also catch sight of a few other recognizable faces in uncredited roles, chiefly the tragic former star James Murray (from King Vidor’s silent masterpiece The Crowd) as the train brakeman who is Lily’s first conquest, Nat Pendleton as a hunky, shirtless laborer drinking in Stanwyck’s father’s bar and Toby Wing as one of Stanwyck’s co-workers in one of the film’s first scenes set in the bank office (I believe it’s the scene right before Stanwyck and Dumbrille have their dalliance in the ladies’ room; Wing and another actress gossip among themselves about Stanwyck’s behavior around the office). Alfred E. Green’s smart direction and James Van Trees’ excellent cinematography add pizzazz to the picture, but it’s Stanwyck and the saucy pre-Code dialogue/actions that make the film as spicy now as it was over 80 years ago. Wow!

P.S. Thank goodness for TCM’s “Forbidden Hollywood” collection for making Baby Face available on DVD, but it goes without saying that you must watch the original, uncut film rather than the theatrical release, since both are included on the same disc. You need to experience Baby Face as it was intended.

42nd Street. Directed by Lloyd Bacon. “Sawyer, you’re going out a youngster but you’ve got to come back a star!” So says stage director Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter) to ingénue Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler) in the Busby Berkeley-choreographed spectacle that launched all the variation-on-a-theme backstage musicals that came after it. 42nd Street might not make use of all of its talented performers as well as two Berkeley pictures that came later, Gold Diggers of 1933 (see review below) and Footlight Parade, but Lloyd Bacon’s snappy direction keeps the whole thing moving at a great pace and the musical numbers are suitably entertaining. The title tune features Keeler in one of my favorite pre-Code costumes, worn as she tells the story of the neighborhood where “the underworld can meet the elite” – characters from all walks of life are welcome if they have dancing feet. To return to the cast, some of the other famous faces include Bebe Daniels (as the established leading lady who makes way for young Ruby), George Brent, Guy Kibbee, Una Merkel, Ginger Rogers, Ned Sparks, Dick Powell, Allen Jenkins and George E. Stone. Powell appears in my other favorite number in the film, “Young and Healthy,” with unbilled blonde chorine Toby Wing (previously mentioned for having appeared in Baby Face, Wing was an oft-seen cutie in the early 1930s, although she rarely received onscreen credit), advising then-17-year-old Toby that they ought to take advantage of their youthful vigor because “in a year or two or three, maybe we will be too old!” (Perhaps the final shot of Powell and Wing in that segment is supposed to be proof of that idea, their strained smiles and wrinkles an indication of the dermatological warping that comes with age.) Truer words could not have been said about the shelf lives of chorus girls, even though the same could not be said of Dick Powell, who remained a movie star for another two decades.

Gold Diggers of 1933. Directed by Mervyn LeRoy. Choreographer Busby Berkeley expanded upon his vision of the ultimate backstage musical by blending the romantic comedy elements of LeRoy’s film (adapted from an Avery Hopwood play) with the main characters’ concerns over being able to find jobs and put on shows at the height of the Great Depression. Gal pals Joan Blondell, Aline MacMahon and Ruby Keeler pursue different avenues for surviving the economic crisis: Blondell falls for millionaire Warren William (in one of his few pre-Code roles that didn’t require him to play a salacious seducer – in fact, quite the opposite), MacMahon makes time with rotund sugar daddy Guy Kibbee (complete with lookalike pooch) and Keeler pairs up with her most frequent cinematic partner, Dick Powell, a songwriter eager to make his mark on Broadway. Gold Diggers’ songs, written by lyricist Al Dubin and composer Harry Warren, include a hopeful dream of striking it rich (“We’re in the Money”), a surreal song-and-dance performed in darkness lit only by neon-glowing violins (“Shadow Waltz”), a risqué ode to friskiness in public (“Pettin’ in the Park”) and, in a most sobering conclusion to the film, the epic ballad “Remember My Forgotten Man,” a tribute to World War I’s soldiers (those died and also those who returned, neglected by society and the government). “Forgotten Man” gives a voice to the powerful contralto of African-American singer Etta Moten, as well as a dramatic showcase for Joan Blondell, a much underrated actress who was pegged as a comedienne in the pre-Code days yet was equally gifted when called on to be serious. It’s hard to forget the sight of Blondell surrounded by all the lost souls, a bleak yet necessary shot on which to end.

I Am Suzanne!. Directed by Rowland V. Lee. This odd but fascinating pre-Code film showed all week at the Museum of Modern Art in late January and early February 2015. As per usual, there were some weird patrons present in the audience at the screening I attended (the women sitting directly behind me were these thirtysomething hipsters who laughed very loudly and obnoxiously, or worse, chatting in response to everything) but the film was so enjoyable on the big screen that I didn’t mind too much. Lilian Harvey was divinely photogenic; she was a mixture of her contemporaries in some ways (a Garbo hairstyle, Dietrich eyebrows), but her long-legged dancing feels completely her own. It’s sure not like anything I’ve seen in any other 30s films. Her dramatic performance as danseuse Suzanne was quite good and both the acting and the dancing (both the footwork and the fashion of the outfit) felt markedly modern; I could see performers from today wearing the same. Gene Raymond is charmingly handsome as Tony, the puppeteer who is so in love with Suzanne that he creates a miniature puppet replica of her – only to fall for his wood-and-string creation even harder! Leslie Banks and Georgia Caine are also good as Harvey’s manipulative managers, but it’s the puppeteering, in both the literal and emotional senses, which forms the most interesting part of the film. Photographed by Lee Garmes and edited by Harold D. Schuster, the film captures not just the lyric beauty of Lilian Harvey but also a bizarre and captivating nightmare sequence involving Harvey being put on trial in a courtroom run by dozens of marionettes. Definitely check this film out if you have a chance.

The Story of Temple Drake. Directed by Stephen Roberts. One of the most notorious pre-Code films for its bluntly sexual and violent content, which led to condemnation from the Catholic Legion of Decency (then an institution with immense power), The Story of Temple Drake is a fascinating feature. It gave Miriam Hopkins – one of the most brilliant yet overlooked actresses of the 1930s – a terrific vehicle for her sweet Southern charms, spinning her dialogue with that slow, honey-glazed drawl of hers, and also for her dramatic abilities in harrowing situations involving harassment, rape (or, I should say, the implication of it as the scene fades out) and sexual slavery. Of equal merit here is Karl Struss’s cinematography, bathing sets in light and shadow as if the tale were proto-noir and giving Hopkins, William Gargan (her true, righteous love), Jack La Rue (the man who attacks Hopkins and forces her into prostitution) and Florence Eldridge (the woman who tends the shack where Hopkins experiences her abuse) some extraordinary extreme close-ups as they stare directly into the camera. Clearly the fact that the film runs only 70 minutes is due to how much footage was cut out thanks to the Legion and the Hays Office, but what remains is oftentimes shocking (even for the 1930-34 period of American cinema) and always compelling.

More Misconduct: Ten Memorable Pre-Code Actors

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Following my recent post about actresses who shone in Hollywood’s Pre-Code years (late 1920s through 1934), here is a selection of clips starring some talented male performers from the same era. Of course, these are not the only ten; there are many more men who did noteworthy work in this golden age – John Barrymore, Wallace Beery, George Brent, Gary Cooper, Leslie Howard, Walter Huston, Fredric March, Joel McCrea, Paul Muni, Lee Tracy, etc., etc. – but the following choices that I have highlighted below are among the very best. Like with my previous post, I have paired each scene with excerpts from the New York Times review of the film in question. Most of the critiques are appreciative of the actors’ skills but it’s interesting to see just how off-key a few of the evaluations are, given our eighty-plus years of hindsight.

James Cagney in The Public Enemy (1931, dir. William A. Wellman). Andre Sennwald, 1931: “It is just another gangster film at the Strand, weaker than most in its story, stronger than most in its acting, and, like most, maintaining a certain level of interest through the last burst of machine-gun fire … Edward Woods and James Cagney, as Matt and Tom respectively, give remarkably lifelike portraits of young hoodlums. The story follows their careers from boyhood, through the war period, and into the early days of prohibition, when the public thirst made their peculiar talents profitable. Slugging disloyal bartenders, shooting down rival beermen, slapping their women crudely across the face, strutting with a vast self-satisfaction through their little world, they contribute a hard and true picture of the unheroic gangster.”

Ricardo Cortez in The Maltese Falcon (1931, dir. Roy Del Ruth). Unknown reviewer, 1931: “The adventures of Sam Spade, private detective of the firm of Spade & Archer (that is, before Archer is waylaid in an alley and put out of the way), are here reported smoothly, fluidly, with cultivated humor and a keen intelligence, these qualities being manifest all the way along. Played with disarming ease and warmth by Ricardo Cortez, the character of Sam Spade is enormously unique and attractive … Bebe Daniels performs exceptionally well under Mr. Del Ruth’s knowing hand, and there is no flaw in the miming of such players as Dudley Digges, Una Merkel, Robert Elliott, Otto Matieson and the others. But it is Mr. Cortez’s film—and Mr. Del Ruth’s. And probably Mr. Hammett’s.”

Edward G. Robinson in Five Star Final (1931, dir. Mervyn LeRoy). Mordaunt Hall, 1931: “Edward G. Robinson, the gangster of ‘Little Caesar’ and the gambling barber of ‘Smart Money,’ gives another strong performance as the editor of a muck-raking tabloid in the pictorial translation of Louis Weitzenkorn’s play, ‘Five Star Final,’ which was offered for the first time last night at the Winter Garden … With a big cigar in the corner of his mouth most of the time, Edward G. Robinson, as Randall, the editor of The New York Gazette, makes the most of every line.”

Bela Lugosi in Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932, dir. Robert Florey). Andre Sennwald, 1932: “‘Murders in the Rue Morgue,’ which was offered at the Mayfair Theatre last night, represents a collaboration between Edgar Allan Poe, Tom Reed and Dale Van Every. Poe, it would seem, contributed the title and the Messrs. Reed and Van Every thought up a story to go with it. For this synthetic blood curdler, with its crazy scientist and its shadowy ape, is not in any important respect to be confused with Poe’s ratiocinative detective story … What it is that Bela Lugosi, who fills the rôle of Dr. Mirakle, is trying to prove with his blood tests remains to the end a matter of conjecture. The entire production suffers from an overzealous effort at terrorization, and the cast, inspired by the general hysteria, succumbs to the temptation to overact. Miss Sidney Fox and Leon Waycoff [note: aka Leon Ames] are the romantic leads and Bert Roach supplies some tepid comedy. The name of the actor who played the part of the ape is not divulged.” [Note: Dr. Mirakle’s victim in this scene, a “Woman of the Streets,” is played by Arlene Francis.]

Maurice Chevalier in Love Me Tonight (1932, dir. Rouben Mamoulian). Mordaunt Hall, 1932: “This new picture is a musical fantasy, in which Mr. Mamoulian never neglects an opportunity to conjure with, the microphone or make the most of the camera. There are episodes in this production that merited applause and the only reason the audience failed to clap their hands was because they evidently thought they might miss a few words of dialogue or one of the melodious bits of music. With all its frequent signs of precision and straining for effect, it has moments when it is elastic, when it is nicely spontaneous. M. Chevalier is as ingratiating as ever. Sometimes he appears in his familiar straw that, sometimes in a cap and sometimes bare-headed, and, except for a few moments of vexation or when singing of his heart’s desire, he smiles in his characteristically agreeable fashion.”

John Gilbert in Downstairs (1932, dir. Monta Bell). Mordaunt Hall, 1932: “In ‘Downstairs,’ the current film attraction at the Capitol, John Gilbert plays a chauffeur and Paul Lukas appears as his superior, a butler, in the household of an Austrian nobleman named Baron von Bergen. Mr. Gilbert is the author of this story, which he sold to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for no less than $1. The chief points of interest in it are Mr. Gilbert’s somewhat ingenuous attempt to impersonate a rascally automobile driver and Virginia Bruce’s charming presence.”

Herbert Marshall in Trouble in Paradise (1932, dir. Ernst Lubitsch). Mordaunt Hall, 1932: “Surely ‘Trouble in Paradise,’ a picture which was presented at the Rivoli yesterday, points no moral and the tale it tells is scant and innocuous, yet, because it was fashioned by the alert-minded Ernst Lubitsch, it is a shimmering, engaging piece of work. In virtually every scene the lively imagination of the German producer shines forth and it seems as though he were the only person in Hollywood who could have turned out such an effective entertainment from such a feathery story … This merry trifle, which was first spun as a play by Laszlo Aladar and arranged for a motion picture by Grover Jones and Samson Raphaelson, deals, if you please, with those light-fingered gentry who rob and pick pockets. Imagine the charming Miriam Hopkins impersonating an ingratiating, capable thief! Then try to visualize Herbert Marshall as a delightful scoundrel who might look upon Alias Jimmy Valentine as a posing blunderer! They are such an interesting pair of crooks that it is not altogether astonishing that the other characters find them companionable … Mr. Marshall is as smooth and easy as ever.”

Warren William in Employees’ Entrance (1933, dir. Roy Del Ruth). Mordaunt Hall, 1933: “In the Capitol’s screen offering, ‘Employees’ Entrance,’ Warren William gives quite an efficient portrait of a dictator of an important department store. Love affairs are not neglected in this chronicle, and although Mr. William as Kurt Anderson, whose intentions are always strictly dishonorable when it comes to a pretty girl, does well in these scenes, he is at his best in those wherein he reveals the department store manager’s ruthlessness in business and in dealing with the employees … Mr. William rather overacts at times, but there is no doubt that he supplies a definite characterization and one that is on the whole interesting.”

Jack La Rue in The Story of Temple Drake (1933, dir. Stephen Roberts). Mordaunt Hall, 1933 – describing La Rue’s part in the movie: “… It is at this point that the sinister-eyed Trigger (Mr. LaRue) enters the tale. He is a bootlegger who does not hesitate to use his pistol. He has terrified the persons in the squalid, filthy place where Toddy and Temple are forced by Trigger to take refuge. Here one finds Tommy, a weak-minded lad; Ruby Lemar, a pathetic example of white trash, and Lee Goodwin, who, big as he is, appreciates that a bullet is mightier than a fist. Trigger has a habit of showing the whites of his eyes, and never does a smile cross his forbidding countenance. His pistol is always ready. He kills Tommy as if he were a dog and then decides to force Temple to go with him to ‘the city.’ Lee is arrested for the murder of Tommy, and he prefers to take his chances of hanging rather than mention Trigger’s name.”

Clark Gable in It Happened One Night (1934, dir. Frank Capra). Mordaunt Hall, 1934: “There are few serious moments in “It Happened One Night,” a screen feast which awaits visitors to the Radio City, and if there is a welter of improbable incidents these hectic doings serve to generate plenty of laughter. The pseudo suspense is kept on the wing until a few seconds before the picture ends, but it is a foregone conclusion that the producers would never dare to have the characters acted by Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert separated when the curtain falls … Miss Colbert gives an engaging and lively performance. Mr. Gable is excellent in his rôle.”

Friday Music Focus: 3/18/16

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In today’s post we will take a look at what it means to be a woman in the bright and shiny world of pop music (hence the photo of Debbie Reynolds), but in March 2016 rather than in the past. All performances from the videos below were shown on TV this month.

Kelly Clarkson, “Piece by Piece” (live on “Ellen,” 2016; studio version appears on the album Piece by Piece, 2015). After fourteen years, Kelly Clarkson is still our American Idol; as the nation waves goodbye to the final season of the long-running TV competition, Clarkson remains an active part of our musical culture while so many other winners from later seasons have faded from view. The way that Clarkson performs the song “Piece by Piece” on TV is clearly inspired by the stripped-down ballad style of Adele, putting the voice front and center. When Clarkson sings about how her husband, who is the father of her young daughter and soon-to-be-born son, compares with her own neglectful father, Clarkson reminds us why she became a star: she has no affectations, no gimmicks. We the people voted her into the pop-rock stratosphere because she naturally had the talent for it.

Gwen Stefani, “Make Me Like You” (live on “The Late Late Show,” 2016). We all know that there is pressure in the pop industry for a woman to maintain certain ridiculous standards for physical appearance; in Gwen Stefani’s case, it is the necessity to look preternaturally youthful and glamorous, to have a face that betrays no signs of crows’ feet and a body that does not look like it belongs to a woman who has had three children. Stefani, who has been a part of the public consciousness for over twenty years, is in the position of being a 46-year-old pop personality. Her lips are as bright-red as ever, her trademark platinum-blonde hair pulled into a girlish ponytail that swings ’round as she performs for the adoring fans. “Make Me Like You” is an impossibly catchy song, but I can’t help longing for the days when Stefani was the rock ‘n’ roll phoenix frontwoman of No Doubt, particularly the brief moment when she was pink-haired in the year 2000.

Ariana Grande, “Tidal” skit + “Dangerous Woman” (live on “Saturday Night Live,” 2016). Ariana Grande, former teen star of the Nickelodeon show “Victorious” and currently planted in the role of pop princess (and, for comparison’s sake, approximately half of Gwen Stefani’s age), hosted “Saturday Night Live” this past weekend. Because Grande is well-known for being able to do impressions of other popular female singers, SNL requested her to reprise the impressions in a skit, playing Britney Spears, Shakira, Rihanna, Céline Dion and Whitney Houston – with the exception of Rihanna, they are the women of yesteryear. Later, the first of Grande’s two musical performances was of her new single, “Dangerous Woman.” It’s hard to imagine a less edgy-sounding title for a song that is undoubtedly supposed to usher in a new era of empowerment for her career (although I applaud her for trying), but to her credit, at least Grande isn’t wearing cutesy cat ears or being carried around.

Sia, “Bird Set Free” (live at South by Southwest, broadcast on “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” 2016; studio version appears on the album This Is Acting, 2016). Sia is probably the single most interesting figure in the pop world right now. I don’t say this because I’m a fan – I consider a lot of her songs bland – but the enigmatic nature of her stage presence is continually intriguing. The fact she refuses to show her face, instead hiding herself behind wigs or masks, forces people to concentrate on her voice and lyrics. Again, her songwriting is often generic and cliché-ridden, but she certainly does have a recognizable and gifted voice. It can’t be easy to be a 40-year-old woman in the music business, so the fact that she has become a pop superstar means that she is visible now like she never was when she was an indie singer-songwriter in the early-to-mid-2000s (except, I suppose, in her home country, Australia). We’re all so used to celebrities advertising their faces and bodies everywhere that the idea of a mainstream pop star wanting to shield herself in order to better deal with constant social media scrutiny initially comes off like some kind of weird performance art. (Sia explained in Interview magazine: “I’m trying to have some control over my image. And I’m allowed to maintain some modicum of privacy. But also I would like not to be picked apart or for people to observe when I put on ten pounds or take off ten pounds or I have a hair extension out of place or my fake tan is botched. Most people don’t have to be under that pressure, and I’d like to be one of them.”) People need only Google “Sia’s face” to find out what it looks like, but if obscuring her face now eases the burden of having to perform on bigger stages and on worldwide television, then it’s not really as weird a request as it might have initially seemed.

Demi Lovato, “Stone Cold” (live at “Natalie’s House” on “The Late Late Show,” 2016; studio version appears on the album Confident, 2015). Like Ariana Grande, Demi Lovato is a former teen TV star (Disney Channel’s movie Camp Rock and the series “Sonny with a Chance”) who is now in her early 20s and exploring ways to assert her maturity as a performer. This “Late Late Show” performance is unusual because the show celebrated its one-year anniversary by taping the special episode at a house belonging to a bunch of fans of the show. (Lucky for Lovato that the owners had a piano, right?) Because the setting is so intimate, Lovato’s performance – her humongous voice sounding even bigger in the small rooms – takes on an unusually reverential aura, being observed with such serious fascination by James Corden, Reggie Watts, Colin Farrell, Wanda Sykes, the “Late Late Show” crew and the house’s four civilians. And, like Kelly Clarkson, the song sounds like another attempt to capture the part of the market that loves Adele’s music so.

BONUS: Laurie Anderson performing a song for dogs (live on “The Late Show,” 2016). As an alternative to the pop lifestyle, you could be like Laurie Anderson and make music for canines rather than humans. Just a thought.