Why Did I Just Watch Titanic? Or, Some Thoughts on Grief

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Why did I put myself through the emotional upheaval of watching Titanic last night? What compelled me to sit through 194 minutes of tragic romance (the love story) and romanticized tragedy (everything else happening with the sinking ship)? No one agrees to do such a thing in the year 2017 without knowing how the film ends – knowing that the ship is doomed, knowing how the tale of Jack and Rose concludes – yet I chose to watch anyway. Beginning to end, all the way through; I don’t know if I had ever actually done that, although I had certainly seen numerous famous scenes before, especially in the last third of the film.

For the last week and a half I’ve been doing a movie and TV marathon. I’m watching every project with Bill Paxton that I can find. That means Apollo 13, the new “Training Day” series on CBS, even the somewhat obscure thriller Trespass. (I also watched True Lies again, a movie that I don’t especially care for, what with all the sexism, racism and other stereotypes played for guffaws. Paxton’s performance is fabulous, though, playing a used car salesman so skeevy that it makes complete sense when we hear him blasting the Bee Gees’ “More Than a Woman” on his convertible’s stereo. Wonderful song, but it has the capacity to appear oddly sleazeball-friendly in the wrong context.) (Also, I linked to the video above in a post last week, but here it is again in case you missed it – and it’s funny enough to deserve repeat viewings.) When an actor or musician passes away – David Bowie last year, for example – it is a comfort to me if I am already familiar with a great deal of the person’s work. It makes a difference to have appreciated someone when he was around, you know? But when a performer dies and I wasn’t nearly as well-versed in his oeuvre as I feel I ought to have been, the sadness is exponentially more profound.

Considering the dozen or so times I’ve enjoyed Twister (as seen above) since childhood, it doesn’t make sense why I didn’t follow up with more than a handful of other Bill Paxton movies. Not Weird Science or A Simple Plan or Frailty, not even Aliens (despite how much I love its predecessor, Alien). There is always something so bittersweet about not really discovering an artist’s legacy until after the fact – now every cinematic experience, even silly old True Lies, is tinged with posthumous poignancy.

So again I ask myself: why watch Titanic? Why put myself through the wringer? It’s such a ridiculous, overrated film in many respects. I had forgotten how atrocious the dialogue is (“Jack!” “Rose!” “Where are you, Jack?” “I’m here, Rose!” “Oh, Jack!” etc.) and that many of the supporting actors don’t get enough screen time (even in a three-hour movie) because Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet so thoroughly dominate the story being told. But the point of watching Titanic wasn’t just to roll my eyes at the cheesiness. There is undeniable catharsis in watching a film that is guaranteed to produce buckets of tears, like you can feel OK about the overwhelming sorrow because millions of moviegoers felt it too.

Titanic is a great – or maybe I need to rephrase: important – experience, not because of the quality of the filmmaking but because of the scope of the piece. The masses have always loved disaster films (again: see my love for Twister) and this particular film is one of the most epic of its kind; it’s a spectacle on the grandest scale imaginable. Say what you will about the excessive CGI special effects, but 70s-tastic dramas like The Poseidon Adventure sure don’t come close to James Cameron’s vision of the mighty Titanic foundering at sea in 1912.

So just how does Bill Paxton fit into this discussion of Titanic anyway? He plays Brock Lovett, the treasure hunter whose search for the fabled “Heart of the Ocean” necklace, which was supposedly on board the ship when it sank, leads Old Rose (dear Gloria Stuart!) to him. Paxton has the first and last lines of the movie, a small details that I hadn’t remembered or realized. I also forgot/maybe never knew that his character flaunts a cringeworthy, dirty-blonde almost-mullet, a piratical earring which obviously James Cameron thought was another super cool sartorial choice back in 1997, and a sweater probably plucked from an L.L. Bean winter catalog. But even with that aesthetic hodgepodge, and as jerky as Paxton’s character is during the first twenty minutes, the actor was such a professional that he made me care about the performance. Paxton is barely in the film, but as his name flashed by in the end credits and Céline Dion’s trembling vocals murmured the early verses of “My Heart Will Go On,” I wept even more; the emotion of the film met the emotion of real life. In this type of situation, the rivers of tears are a help, or if not “help,” at least a way of dealing with the thought of the random cruelty of life. The song plays on.

When an actor’s death affects me so strongly, I don’t just think of him as a celebrity, reduced to an image on a screen. Actors are human beings – a radical revelation, I know – but ever since the age of movie-fan magazines in the 1920s and 30s, there has been a tendency for actors to be thought of as mythical, deified, existing on a separate plane from us commoners. It is impossible for me not to mourn the loss of Bill Paxton, an actor who so many people (whether they worked with him or met him for only a moment) agree was a “nice guy,” and who, in a just world, would still be here to play those strange and intriguing supporting roles that lie slightly outside the realm of glamorous stardom. When I watch “Training Day” each week, I remember what I wrote in my notes after trying the pilot episode (I often scribble stray observations during commercial breaks): “Bill Paxton narrates like he’s a world-weary private eye in a film noir. Or maybe his voice is the sound of an old pair of cowboy boots walking across hot sand. Either way, a protagonist who isn’t Brad Pitt, not bionic Tom Cruise – he’s a man who you could believe has arthritis.” This show, Titanic, and the rest of the marathon: they all form a part of my grieving process for an artist who I have only just begun to appreciate. Cause-and-effect in reverse, you might say.

Friday Music Focus: 3/3/17

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Today we look at six songs/score compositions that occasionally mix the political with the personal, sometimes because of the musical content and sometimes because of my own experiences and reflections.

Michael Shannon, “Russians” (performed on “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon,” 2/28/17; song originally performed by Sting on the album The Dream of the Blue Turtles, 1985). This is everything that a great cover version should aspire to be: funny, strange, substituting the word “chicken” in place of “children” in one line (because why not?). In this unpredictable, often unsettling world we live in, it’s good to know that one of America’s finest actors can also be crowned the king of karaoke.

Ryan Adams, “Outbound Train” (appears on the album Prisoner, 2017). What is it about this particular song that I like so much even though I have never cared for Ryan Adams’ music? Almost a week after first listening to his latest album, Prisoner, in its entirety, I’m still working on the answer.

Ride, “Charm Assault” (single, 2017). And now we have an unquestionably great new song, brought to you by a British band that charmed fans in the early-to-mid-90s with stellar tunes like “Dreams Burn Down,” “Twisterella” and “Black Nite Crash” before going on a twenty-year hiatus. 2016 and 2017 have been exciting times for British bands of yesteryear: The Stone Roses released two new singles, Lush briefly reunited twenty years after breaking up for a successful EP and tour in 2016 before disbanding again; Slowdive returned after two decades with the terrific single “Star Roving”; plus it looks like we’ll be welcoming Elastica back too.

Martini Ranch, “How Can the Labouring Man Find Time for Self-Culture?” (music video; studio version appears on the album Poor Cow, 1988) and New Order, “Touched by the Hand of God” (music video; song appears on the soundtrack of the film Salvation!, 1987, dir. Beth B). The late, great Bill Paxton made appearances in a number of music videos in the 1980s – anyone who adores Pat Benatar has probably seen the World War II-set video for “Shadows of the Night,” in which Paxton has a small role as a Nazi radio operator, and if you’re a Barnes & Barnes fan, you will undoubtedly recall the promos created for “Fish Heads” (which Paxton also directed) and “Soak It Up” (one of the duo’s more conventional-sounding songs) – but my two favorite appearances by Paxton are in a video for a song by his own band, Martini Ranch, and in the video for New Order’s “Touched by the Hand of God.” Both clips riff on pop culture; “Labouring Man” references the themes and visual style of the classic Fritz Lang sci-fi film Metropolis (1927), while “Touched” shows New Order’s band members mocking the hair, clothes, and general music-video-storytelling sensibilities during the hair metal era. You barely see Paxton in the New Order video, but there’s something deeply affecting in the way that director Kathryn Bigelow presents the mysterious “love story” involving him and Rae Dawn Chong. Whatever the details in this couple’s existence, the narrative is open to interpretation and imagination.

Most of all, I just really love New Order and “Touched by the Hand of God” is one of my favorite songs by them.

Edward & Alex Van Halen, “Respect the Wind” (plays over the end credits of the film Twister, 1996, dir. Jan de Bont; appears on the soundtrack album, same year). Every fan of American film and television from the last thirty years probably has a go-to Bill Paxton role, something that immediately sticks out as an iconic piece of work that no other actor could have done as well. There are so many characters to choose from in so many productions: The Terminator, Weird Science, Aliens, Near Dark, Predator 2, One False Move, the notoriously freaky cult classic known as Boxing Helena, Tombstone, Apollo 13, Titanic, A Simple Plan, Frailty (which Paxton also directed), the HBO series “Big Love,” the History Channel mini-series “Hatfields & McCoys,” Nightcrawler and the CBS drama “Training Day” (which began airing only a month ago), to name a few. For me, the clear winner is Twister, a film which I will watch whenever it’s on TV, much like another action classic that Jan de Bont also directed in the mid-90s, Speed. (I’d like to note that my second favorite Paxton role is as the fast-talking, pervy car salesman in True Lies, mainly because it was the first film of his that I can remember seeing, albeit in an edited-for-TV format.) Twister feeds my fascination for disaster films, a love that I can trace back to when I was first horrified by The Towering Inferno as a kid; at least with Twister there is a mostly happy resolution and a feeling that human beings understand nature and themselves better at the end than they did at the beginning.

“Bill Paxton fought Aliens and The Terminator, but he was always just a guy from Fort Worth,” according to one recent essay’s headline. Paxton was exactly the sort of actor who the industry – and all of us – take for granted, seeing him play numerous kinds of parts regardless of recognition (or the lack thereof, most often), never being typecast because of his ability to slip back and forth between extraordinarily different roles with ease. He has also been eulogized as an exceptionally nice guy by his family, friends, coworkers and even fans who met him for only a brief moment.

I remember the first time I saw Twister again after Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death, which made seeing his goofy, fun-loving character again both sweet and sad, but I remember especially how much more bittersweet the film’s end credits sequence was when I saw Hoffman’s name while the Van Halen brothers’ guitars wailed out “Respect the Wind.” On Wednesday night, I caught part of Twister on the channel Spike; after Bill Paxton’s untimely passing, the Van Halens’ song has accrued yet another layer of poignancy. No matter how much we like or take notice of performers, in many cases it is not until they have shuffled off this mortal coil that we fully appreciate their immense talents. In the pilot of Paxton’s new show “Training Day,” another actor has a line of dialogue that perfectly describes what Bill Paxton did with his own career: “We try to leave this world a little better than we found it.” Requiescat in pace, Bill.

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

Actress/executive producer Jessica Chastain (left) and director Niki Caro (right) on the set of The Zookeeper’s Wife, 2015.

Here are nineteen new movies due to be released in theaters or via other viewing platforms this March, all of which have been directed and/or photographed by women. These titles are sure to intrigue cinephiles and also provoke meaningful discussions on the film world, as well as the world in general.

MARCH 3: Before I Fall (dir. Ry Russo-Young)Synopsis from the film’s official website: “What if you had only one day to change absolutely everything? Samantha Kingston (Zoey Deutch) has everything: the perfect friends, the perfect guy, and a seemingly perfect future. Then, everything changes. After one fateful night, Sam wakes up with no future at all. Trapped reliving the same day over and over, she begins to question just how perfect her life really was. As she begins to untangle the mystery of a life suddenly derailed, she must also unwind the secrets of the people closest to her, and discover the power of a single day to make a difference, not just in her own life, but in the lives of those around her–before she runs out of time for good.”

MARCH 3: Catfight (dir. Onur Tukel) (DP: Zoe White)Excerpt from a Vanity Fair’s Toronto International Film Festival review by Jordan Freeman: “What might be the most refreshing film of the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival feels like it could be the result of a drunken dare. Imagine a movie in which Anne Heche and Sandra Oh beat the ever-loving snot out of each other in drawn-out, bareknuckle brawls so ridiculously over-the-top they can shock an audience out of any desensitized-to-violence stupor. All that, plus a recurring character called the Fart Machine.

“Like Jules Dassin’s wrestling sequence in Night and the City or the ‘put on these glasses!’ battle in John Carpenter’s They Live, the absurdist use of fisticuffs in Onur Tukel’s extremely independent Catfight is unnerving, strangely hilarious—and, whether you accept it or not, meaningful. Catfight, which begins like any other urbane New York satire, quickly unravels into a surrealist nightmare, leaning into its low budget so hard that even a hastily decorated hospital-room set evokes a feverish symbolism. Catfight doesn’t take place in our world, which is how it ends up being more insightful about larger social issues than most movies you’ll see this year.

“Oh’s Veronica is a wine-loving, wealthy mom with a live-in housekeeper and a husband (Damian Young) who’s giddy that the president has announced a ‘new war.’ His company (debris disposal) has signed a Pentagon contract, so a new battlefront means a major infusion of cash. Then they attend a Manhattan party that just so happens to be catered by Lisa (Alicia Silverstone), whose girlfriend Ashley (Heche) is a brilliant but defiantly uncommercial painter. And as it turns out, Veronica and Ashley were pals in college before life choices (and Veronica’s homophobia?) tore them apart.

“What could have been a minor social hiccup at seeing someone who has fallen a few rungs on the social ladder quickly goes nuclear, and that’s when the pair have their first of many blow-out, bruising fights.”

MARCH 3 (theatrical release in Los Angeles), MARCH 7 (available on DVD and Video on Demand): Fair Haven (dir. Kerstin Karlhuber)Synopsis from the film’s official website:Fair Haven is an upcoming feature film from Silent Giant Productions and Trick Candle Productions.  It stars Tom Wopat (“Dukes of Hazzard,” Django Unchained) Michael Grant (“Secret Life of the American Teenager”) Josh Green (Alvin and the Chipmunks: Road Chip, in theaters now!) Gregory Harrison (“Reckless,” “Trapper John MD”) and Jennifer Taylor (“Two and a Half Men”). Fair Haven is directed by Kerstin Karlhuber, produced by Tom Malloy, and written by Jack Bryant.

“Synopsis: a young man returns to his family farm, after a long stay in ex-gay conversion therapy, and is torn between the expectations of his emotionally distant father, and the memories of a past, loving relationship he has tried to bury.”

MARCH 3: The Institute (dirs. James Franco and Pamela Romanowsky)Excerpts from IndieWire post by Liz Calvario: “The ever-busy James Franco has taken on a darker role in his latest film, The Institute. Co-directed by Franco and Pamela Romanowsky, the movie is a period psychological thriller set in 19th century Baltimore.

“…The Institute centers on Isabel Porter, a young woman (Allie Gallerani) who, after the untimely death of her parents, checks herself into the mental hospital Rosewood Institute. While there, she encounters Dr. Cairnes (Franco) who subjects her to unconventional bizarre, pseudo-scientific experiments in brainwashing and mind control.

“…The Institute also co-stars Josh Duhamel, Pamela Anderson, Topher Grace, Joe Pease, Scott Haze, Lori Singer and Tim Blake Nelson. Hailing from Rabbit Bandini Productions, the thriller is produced by Franco, Vince Jolivette, Jay Davis, Christa Campbell, Lati Grobman and Scott Reed.

“Romanowsky and Franco have previously worked together on The Adderall Diaries and the short film Tar.

MARCH 3: Kings, Queens & In-Betweens (dir. Gabrielle Burton)Cinema Village synopsis: “Through the compelling stories of 8 performers in the thriving drag scene of Columbus, Ohio, Kings, Queens & In-Betweens dives into the next frontier — the often misunderstood topic of ‘gender’ itself. With humor and pathos, KQIB makes a complex subject approachable for mainstream audiences — inviting viewers into a conversation about the distinct differences between gender, sex, and sexuality that has not been represented in film before. Notably, KQIB is the first film to include the entire gender performance range: drag kings, queens, trans performers, and in-betweeners. KQIB draws the viewer in to a crucial discussion in current events about human rights, experience — and ultimately about identity itself.”

MARCH 3: The Last Laugh (dir. Ferne Pearlstein) (DPs: Anne Etheridge and Ferne Pearlstein)The Film Collaborative synopsis: “Are we allowed to make jokes about the Holocaust? In this outrageously funny and thought-provoking film, director Ferne Pearlstein puts the question about comedy’s ultimate taboo to legends including Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Sarah Silverman, Gilbert Gottfried, Alan Zweibel, Harry Shearer, Jeff Ross, Judy Gold, Susie Essman, Larry Charles, Jake Ehrenreich, and many other critical thinkers, as well as Holocaust survivors themselves.

“These interviews are woven together with a vast array of material ranging from ‘The Producers’ and ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm,’ to clips of comics such as Louis CK, Joan Rivers, and Chris Rock, to newly discovered footage of Jerry Lewis’ never-released film Holocaust comedy The Day the Clown Cried, to rare footage of cabarets inside the concentration camps themselves. In so doing, The Last Laugh offers fresh insights into the Holocaust, our own psyches, and what else—9/11, AIDS, racism—is or isn’t off-limits in a society that prizes freedom of speech.

The Last Laugh also disproves the idea that there is nothing left to say about the Holocaust and opens a fresh avenue for approaching this epochal tragedy. Star-studded, provocative and thoroughly entertaining, The Last Laugh dares to ask uncomfortable questions about just how free speech can really be, with unexpected and hilarious results that will leave you both laughing and appreciating the importance of humor even in the face of events that make you want to cry.”

MARCH 3: Nakom (dirs. Kelly Daniela Norris and T.W. Pittman)Cinema Village synopsis:Set in present day Ghana, Nakom follows Iddrisu, a talented medical student who is summoned home by his sister after their father’s sudden death. Iddrisu reluctantly returns home to the village of Nakom, buries his father and temporarily assumes the head of the impoverished household and farm, inheriting not only the delicate task of planting a successful crop but also a debt left by the deceased patriarch that could destroy the family. Attempting to maintain part of his studies from the confines of a small hut, Iddrisu becomes increasingly frustrated with the incessant physical and emotional needs of those around him, the demanding toil of the land and lack of rain. A contentious relationship with his uncle Napolean, to whom the sizeable debt is owed, is further complicated by the unplanned pregnancy of Napolean’s granddaughter who was sent to live with Iddrisu’s family.

“As the new patriarch grapples with tradition and familial duty, he is met with varying shades of contempt by both family and villagers who compare him with his father expecting a resemblance. Iddrisu’s patience and wisdom are tempered by the strange paradox created by his faith in God and desire for control, the latter of which he cannot have so long as he stays in Nakom. As circumstances swell, Iddrisu suddenly begins to realize that no future for him exists in the place where he is needed the most, even despite an offer by the village Chieftain to remain in Nakom to become an elder and marry his daughter.

“A selection of the Museum of Modern Art and Film Society of Lincoln Center’s prestigious New Directors/New Films series, Nakom is a highly relatable story about traversing the line between family and self-preservation.”

MARCH 10: Badrinath Ki Dulhania (dir. Shashank Khaitan) (DP: Neha Parti Matiyani)IMDb synopsis: “Badrinath Bansal from Jhansi and Vaidehi Trivedi from Kota belong to small towns but have diametrically opposite opinions on everything.This leads to a clash of ideologies, despite both of them recognizing the goodness in each other.”

MARCH 10: Raw (dir. Julia Ducournau)Excerpt from The Guardian’s Toronto International Film Festival review by Peter Bradshaw: “Julia Ducournau is a 33-year-old first-time feature director who makes her worryingly brilliant debut with this saturnalia of arthouse horror. At the Toronto film festival, it had audiences dry-heaving and indeed wet-heaving in the aisles and the cinema lavatories. This is the sort of film which pundits are often keen to label ‘black comedy’ as a way of re-establishing their own sang-froid. In the same tongue-in-cheek spirit, it has been called coming-of-age drama. There is a grain of truth in both of these labels. It is a film about cannibalism, and has clearly been influenced by Jorge Michel Grau’s We Are What We Are, John Fawcett’s Ginger Snaps, and perhaps especially Marina de Van’s body shocker In My Skin – which incidentally featured a young Laurent Lucas, a veteran of extreme French cinema who also turns up here.

“While it isn’t exactly true to say that cannibalism is just a metaphor for something else, eating human flesh is appropriate for a drama about sexuality, identity, body image and conformity. It’s a film in which the lead character is briefly aware of becoming more attractive by losing weight – not so long after she had participated in a jokey student conversation about monkeys being sexually assaulted and then getting anorexia and having to see a therapist. And in a society where eating is somehow criminalised, cannibalism is an appropriate fantasy.

“Justine (Garance Marillier) is a teenager heading off to college to study veterinary science: her sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) is already there, doing the same course a year ahead, and it becomes clear that her doting, protective parents (played by Laurent Lucas and Joana Preiss) took their own degrees there many years before. Justine is a virgin, an idealistic person, a believer in animal rights and above all a vegetarian. So she is horrified by a student initiation ritual in which she has to eat a rabbit kidney. Yet meekly aware of the need to fit in, she does it; she suffers a reaction for which the doctor suggests fasting and all this somehow triggers a whole new yearning.

“What is very impressive about Raw is that absolutely everything about it is disquieting, not just the obvious moments of revulsion: there is no let up in the ambient background buzz of fear. The scenes showing the frat-type ‘hazing’ are extraordinary and very convincing – as if studying to be a vet is like joining the Foreign Legion. Students are brutally woken in the middle of the night: humiliated, bullied, assured that not to submit would be to wimp out and let everyone down. Going to university was an experience which Justine had probably thought would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to find herself, to express herself, to find her individuality and personality. Instead, college and adulthood seems more like a fascistic world of submission and staying in line – or even like some post-apocalyptic society in which these freaky cult rituals have grown up as part of survival.”

MARCH 15: Tickling Giants (dir. Sara Taksler)IFC Center synopsis: “In the midst of the Egyptian Arab Spring, Bassem Youssef makes a decision that’s every mother’s worst nightmare… He leaves his job as a heart surgeon to become a full-time comedian.

“Dubbed ‘The Egyptian Jon Stewart,’ Bassem creates the most viewed television program in the Middle East. He has 30 million viewers per episode compared to The Daily Show with Jon Stewart’s 2 million viewers. In a country where free speech is not settled law, Bassem comes up with creative ways to non-violently challenge abuses of power. He endures physical threats, protests, and legal action, all because of jokes.

“No unicorns or falafel were harmed in the making of this film.”

MARCH 17 (streaming on Netflix): Deidra & Laney Rob a Train (dir. Sydney Freeland) (DP: Quyen Tran)Salt Lake Tribune’s Sundance Film Festival review by Sean P. Means: “Sisters become a modern-day Butch and Sundance in Deidra & Laney Rob a Train, a smart comedy propelled by two winning young actors. Deidra (Ashleigh Murray) and her younger sister Laney (Rachel Crow) both have the same dream: To get out of the backwater Idaho town where they live, near the railroad tracks. Deidra’s way is to be valedictorian and get a scholarship to college. Laney’s is to sign up for the Miss Teen Idaho pageant — something she only did to keep her pageant-obsessed friend Claire (Brooke Markham) company. (Though the movie is set in Idaho, it was filmed in Utah — primarily around Ogden and at the Heber Valley Railroad.)

“Then their mother, Goldie (Danielle Nicolet) goes berserk in a home-electronics store and gets sent to jail. The girls have to figure out a way to earn money, keep the kitchen stocked and have some adult supervision around their little brother Jet (Lance Gray) so the child-welfare officer doesn’t split the kids apart. After watching a news report about cargo being stolen from a train, Deidra sees a solution. She devises a plan to hop on the train cars down the track, crack open a container box, throw a few loading boxes into their backyard, and sell the goods. Deidra pulls a reluctant Laney into the plan with her.

“Director Sydney Freeland (Drunktown’s Finest, SFF ’14) and first-time screenwriter Shelby Farrell find humor in the sisters’ dilemma, and even more laughs in the behavior of the ostensible grown-ups around them. (The cast includes Tim Blake Nelson as an overzealous railroad cop and ‘Saturday Night Live’s’ Sasheer Zamata as the school’s counselor.) It’s young Murray and Crow who give Deidra & Laney Rob a Train its spunk and its quicksilver emotional shifts, as the girls veer from criminal masterminds to argumentative siblings in no time flat.”

MARCH 21 (available on DVD and Video on Demand): Split (dir. Deborah Kampmeier) (DP: Alison Kelly)Excerpts from On Video post:Split tells the story of Inanna (Amy Ferguson, The Master, Inherent Vice, Garden State), a young actress working as a stripper, who becomes obsessed with a mask maker (Morgan Spector, The Drop, The Last Airbender, ‘Boardwalk Empire’) and sacrifices parts of herself, piece by piece, in order to win his love.  At the same time, the film depicts a mythic journey that blurs theater performance, dreams and real life, as Inanna connects with other women’s experiences of trauma and repressed sexuality. This provocative and powerful confrontation frees Inanna, and she’s able to claim her rage and rise to her own independence.

“Daring in its raw portrayal of female sexuality and traumas, Split, which captured ‘Best of Show’ and the 2016 Female Eye Film Festival, includes a significant amount of female (and male) nudity, masturbation and on-screen portrayal of mastectomy and genital mutilation scars. Split also features an intergenerational, multiracial cast with diverse body types – including several non-actors sharing personal stories – and is daring in its depiction of an older woman as the principal example of uninhibited rage and sexuality.

“Kampmeier considers Split as the last part of a trilogy, which include the controversial Sundance Grand Jury-nominated Hounddog (2007), in which a 12-year-old girl, played by Dakota Fanning, is raped; and the acclaimed and award-winning Virgin (2003), about a 17-year-old, played by Elisabeth Moss, struggling with spirituality and sexuality.  The filmmaker goes further with Split, which Indie Outlook called, ‘an arrestingly raw howl of fury at the global stigmatization of female sexuality…complete with startling imagery evocative of Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut.‘”

MARCH 22: A Woman, a Part (dir. Elisabeth Subrin)IFC Center synopsis: “Can you rewrite a life? Burnt out on her career, successful LA actress Anna (Maggie Siff of ‘Mad Men’ and ‘Billions’), abruptly walks off her mind-numbing, sexist network show. She runs away to New York, hoping to reconnect with two old friends, former theater collaborators she’d abandoned for Hollywood who now find themselves struggling to survive in the rapidly gentrifying city. As Anna’s arrival tears open old wounds, all three are forced to reckon with their pasts and their uncertain futures (with Cara Seymour, John Ortiz & Khandi Alexander).”

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MARCH 24: Prevenge (dir. Alice Lowe)IFC Center synopsis: “A pitch black, wryly British comedy from the mind of Alice Lowe (SightseersHot Fuzz, Paddington), Prevenge follows Ruth, a pregnant woman on a killing spree that’s as funny as it is vicious. It’s her misanthropic unborn baby dictating Ruth’s actions, holding society responsible for the absence of a father. The child speaks to Ruth from the womb, coaching her to lure and ultimately kill her unsuspecting victims. Struggling with her conscience, loneliness, and a strange strain of prepartum madness, Ruth must ultimately choose between redemption and destruction at the moment of motherhood.

Prevenge the directorial debut from Lowe, who is a true triple threat, writing, directing, and acting in the film during her own real-life pregnancy.”

MARCH 29: Karl Marx City (dirs. Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker)Film Forum synopsis: “Unsurprisingly, East Germany (aka the GDR/German Democratic Republic) boasts people who are experts in suicide notes. The Soviet satellite came to an ignoble end when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, leaving behind a lot of unanswered questions, among them Petra Epperlein’s suspicion that her father (a suicide) spied for the Stasi, the state police.  Now a New Yorker, Epperlein, and co-filmmaker Michael Tucker (Gunner Palace) return to her childhood home and, with wonderful graphic panache, investigate her family’s past as well as the life of a nation in which one out of three citizens spied on the other two. Making smart use of ‘jaw-dropping period material which includes some wildly creepy Stasi surveillance imagery’ (Manohla Dargis, The New York Times), it’s a Cold War mystery tale and a psycho-political look at how the larger world impacts our individual understanding of love, trust, and betrayal.”

MARCH 31 (in theaters and on Video on Demand; also available now on DirecTV): The Blackcoat’s Daughter (dir. Osgood “Oz” Perkins) (DP: Julie Kirkwood) [release date moved back from September 2016]Excerpt from Pop Matters’ Independent Film Festival Boston review by Valeriy Kolyadych: “A female-only boarding school is the setting of The Blackcoat’s Daughter. Covered, positively blanketed in snow, it’s isolated, the nights an unrelenting pitch black. Inside are two girls, Kat (Kiernan Shipka) and Rose (Lucy Boynton), both left behind during a February break, waiting for their parents. They wander through empty hallways, but the subtle noises—screeching creaks and low groans—betray the assumption that they’re alone here.

“At the same time, Joan (Emma Roberts), a girl with a cloudy past, wanders through a cold, snowy landscape, eventually hitching a ride with an unnamed couple whose strained dynamic hints at trouble unspoken. They share uncomfortable car rides to a town a few miles away, the husband assuming a strangely paternal role for Joan.

“Formerly titled February, The Blackcoat’s Daughter is a slow, moody, and thoroughly unnerving walk through an almost overwhelmingly oppressive atmosphere. Osgood Perkins, son of Psycho actor Anthony Perkins, demonstrates great skill in developing the film’s occult atmosphere. His jagged camera angles and the dark, discordant music combine with subdued performances—naturalistic with a small degree of slowly simmering insanity underneath them—to create a creeping mood that seems perfectly tailored to the film’s narrative.”

MARCH 31 (theatrical release), APRIL 4 (Internet release): Carrie Pilby (dir. Susan Johnson)Toronto International Film Festival synopsis by Jane Schoettle: “Awkward, isolated and disapproving of most of the people around her, a precocious 19-year-old genius is challenged to put her convictions to the test by venturing out on to the NYC dating scene, in this adaptation of Caren Lissner’s best-selling 2003 novel.

“Depending on your point of view, Carrie Pilby (Bel Powley) either has a problem or she is a problem. This very clever girl graduated Harvard at the age of 19 and lives in a small NYC apartment paid for by her London-based father. World on a string, right? On the contrary — Carrie has no job, no purpose, and no friends, because she actively dislikes just about everyone (rating them ‘morally and intellectually unacceptable’) as only a teenager can. Her one regular contact is her dad’s therapist friend, Dr. Petrov (Nathan Lane), who after a fruitless series of weekly visits finally sets Carrie some homework: a five-point plan to get her life together.

“Carrie grudgingly agrees to go through the list, but her execution leaves something to be desired. Item #3 (‘Go on a date — with someone you like!’) backfires particularly badly when her Craigslist mate search leads to a connection with Matt (Jason Ritter), a man who is engaged but ‘unsure.’ The results of that endeavour call for an emergency visit to Dr. Petrov. And when her father’s circumstances undergo a drastic change, Carrie begins to understand that reconciling with the past is the only way to tick those items off the to-do list.

“Adapted from Caren Lissner’s bestselling novel, Carrie Pilby is a winning comedy about the metropolitan life of privileged youth, but it’s also much more than that. As the source of Carrie’s misanthropy is gradually revealed, our empathy for her grows, even if we want to pull our hair out in frustration at her lack of life skills. You might just end up loving her, even if she hates you.”

MARCH 31: David Lynch: The Art Life (dir. Jon Nguyen with co-dirs. Rick Barnes and Olivia Neergaard-Holm)DOC NYC synopsis: “While known for his distinctive, dreamlike films like Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive, David Lynch began his creative explorations through art, originally training as a painter in Philadelphia. David Lynch: The Art Life grants viewers unparalleled, intimate access to the enigmatic auteur while he works in his painting studio. Early memories and reflections on his formative years through the triumph of Eraserhead reveal eerie connections to his body of work, making this portrait an indispensable look at an artist and his process.”

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MARCH 31: The Zookeeper’s Wife (dir. Niki Caro)Focus Features synopsis: “The real-life story of one working wife and mother who became a hero to hundreds during World War II. In 1939 Poland, Antonina Żabińska (portrayed by two-time Academy Award nominee Jessica Chastain) and her husband, Dr. Jan Żabiński (Johan Heldenbergh, a European Film Award nominee for the Academy Award-nominated The Broken Circle Breakdown), have the Warsaw Zoo flourishing under his stewardship and her care. When their country is invaded by the Germans, Jan and Antonina are stunned and forced to report to the Reich’s newly appointed chief zoologist, Lutz Heck (Golden Globe Award nominee Daniel Brühl of Captain America: Civil War). To fight back on their own terms, the Żabińskis covertly begin working with the Resistance and put into action plans to save lives out of what has become the Warsaw Ghetto, with Antonina putting herself and even her children at great risk.”

The 2017 Oscars: A 10-Image Summary

These GIFs and still images capture what I consider some of the most memorable moments from last night’s Academy Awards ceremony. It was an interesting night, for sure, and one that won’t soon be forgotten by viewers. From messages of political protest and diversity/inclusivity to the shocking ending that would have fit just as easily in a Hollywood thriller, on several counts the 2017 Oscars earned its unique place in the history books.

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Michael Shannon trying to stop the feeling during Justin Timberlake’s show-opening performance

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Best Supporting Actor, the first award of the night: Moonlight’s Mahershala Ali (the first Muslim actor to win an Oscar)

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Viola Davis’s Best Supporting Actress speech – award-worthy in its own right

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Taraji P. Henson’s unbridled joy at receiving one of the snack packages that floated down from the rafters

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98-year-old Katherine Johnson, onstage with Hidden Figures stars Janelle Monáe, Taraji P. Henson (who plays Johnson in the film) and Octavia Spencer for the Best Documentary Feature category

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The Lion stars, in toto

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While presenting animated film categories with Hailee Steinfeld, Gael García Bernal speaks out against Trump

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Anousheh Ansari (the first Iranian astronaut to go into space, as well as the first Muslim woman) reads director Asghar Farhadi’s statement after The Salesman won for Best Foreign Language Film

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Twist ending!

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Puts it all in perspective, no?

2017 Oscar Predictions

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Best Picture: La La Land

Best Actor: Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea)

Best Actress: Emma Stone (La La Land)

Best Supporting Actor: Mahershala Ali (Moonlight)

Best Supporting Actress: Viola Davis (Fences)

Best Director: Damien Chazelle (La La Land)

Best Original Screenplay: Kenneth Lonergan (Manchester by the Sea)

Best Adapted Screenplay: Barry Jenkins (screenplay) and Tarell Alvin McCraney (play/story) (Moonlight)

Best Animated Feature Film: Zootopia

Best Foreign Language Film: The Salesman (Iran)

Best Cinematography: Linus Sandgren (La La Land)

Best Editing: Tom Cross (La La Land)

Best Production Design: David Wasco and Sandy Reynolds-Wasco (La La Land)

Best Costume Design: Madeline Fontaine (Jackie)

Best Makeup & Hairstyling: Richard Alonzo and Joel Harlow (Star Trek Beyond)

Best Original Score: Justin Hurwitz (La La Land)

Best Original Song: Justin Hurwitz (music) and Benj Pasek & Justin Paul (lyrics), “City of Stars” (La La Land)

Best Sound Mixing: Ai-Ling Lee, Steve A. Morrow and Andy Nelson (La La Land)

Best Sound Editing: Robert Mackenzie and Andy Wright (Hacksaw Ridge)

Best Visual Effects: Andrew R. Jones, Robert Legato, Dan Lemmon and Adam Valdez (The Jungle Book)

Best Documentary, Feature: O.J.: Made in America

Best Documentary, Short Subject: The White Helmets

Best Short Film, Animated: Piper

Best Short Film, Live Action: Ennemis Intérieurs

Ranking the Films of 2016

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Spoiler alert: I haven’t seen every film from 2016 yet. I need to see a number of Academy Award contenders, including Fences, Hidden Figures, La La Land, Land of Mine, Manchester by the Sea, Moonlight, Nocturnal Animals, The Salesman, Toni Erdmann and 20th Century Women. Despite this gross oversight on my part – hey, some of these are still in theaters; I’ll have more chances after Oscar night! – I have ranked the films I have seen, including (just under the wire) Hacksaw Ridge a few short hours ago.

35 Films, Ranked Best to Worst:

  1. Loving – dir. Jeff Nichols
  2. Captain Fantastic – dir. Matt Ross
  3. Hell or High Water – dir. David Mackenzie
  4. Weiner – dirs. Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg
  5. Chicken People – dir. Nicole Lucas Haimes
  6. Jackie – dir. Pablo Larraín
  7. Florence Foster Jenkins – dir. Stephen Frears
  8. One More Time with Feeling – dir. Andrew Dominik
  9. The Fits – dir. Anna Rose Holmer
  10. Hacksaw Ridge – dir. Mel Gibson
  11. Anthropoid – dir. Sean Ellis
  12. Star Trek Beyond – dir. Justin Lin
  13. Eddie the Eagle – dir. Dexter Fletcher
  14. Captain America: Civil War – dirs. Anthony Russo and Joe Russo
  15. The Lobster – dir. Yorgos Lanthimos
  16. Paterson – dir. Jim Jarmusch
  17. Lion – dir. Garth Davis
  18. Hello, My Name Is Doris – dir. Michael Showalter
  19. Hail, Caesar! – dirs. Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
  20. Marathon: The Patriots Day Bombing – dirs. Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg
  21. Keanu – dir. Peter Atencio
  22. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – dir. Zack Snyder
  23. The Dressmaker – dir. Jocelyn Moorhouse
  24. Midnight Special – dir. Jeff Nichols
  25. How to Be Single – dir. Christian Ditter
  26. Arrival – dir. Denis Villeneuve
  27. X-Men: Apocalypse – dir. Bryan Singer
  28. Deadpool – dir. Tim Miller
  29. City of Gold – dir. Laura Gabbert
  30. Triple 9 – dir. John Hillcoat
  31. Snowden – dir. Oliver Stone
  32. Now You See Me 2 – dir. Jon M. Chu
  33. Ghostbusters – dir. Paul Feig
  34. Standing Tall – dir. Emmanuelle Bercot
  35. Money Monster – dir. Jodie Foster

Friday Music Focus: 2/17/17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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