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Sean Penn Tag

In the summer of 1958, three of the biggest stars pop music would ever see were born — Prince, Madonna and Michael Jackson. All three are, for what it’s worth, enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And in the past two years, the Popdose Guide has covered the output of two of those artists. So, in honor of her 53rd birthday (which she’s spending in the Hamptons with her two youngest kids and her 24-year-old boyfriend), Madonna acolytes Robin Monica Alexander and Kelly Stitzel decided it was high time Her Madgesty got her own entry. And so we bring you the Popdose Guide to Madonna.

Madonna (1983)

A lot of brain-dead stuff has been written about Madonna over the years. Might good old-fashioned sexism be part of the problem? Madonna is particularly susceptible to sexist criticism because, like fellow superstar and gay icon Barbra Streisand, she exerts an unusual amount of control over her work for someone who was only supposed to be a “girl singer.” For example, on Madonna, her 1983 debut album, she wrote five of the eight tracks, including its biggest hit, “Lucky Star.” However, in later years she remarked that it wasn’t the album she hoped it would be, due to, you know, her total inexperience in the record business. It’s cool, Madonna…you did okay.

Madonna is the love child of the New York dance club scene and pure American girly pop. The vocals — endlessly criticized as weak, squeaky, or immature — are exactly what the material needs: it sounds like the girl next door is singing to you about her guy problems. The girl next door has a little bit of an identity crisis, in that one moment she wants nothing more than to party the night away under a disco ball (“Everybody”), or, uh, get laid (“Physical Attraction,” a track that sounds like a leftover from 1978 — in a good way), and the next she’s sweetly imploring her macho boyfriend to trust in her love (“Borderline”), but that’s the dichotomy that made Madonna distinctive. For every song (and video) that cast her as sexually loose or aggressive, there was another that portrayed her as just a charming girl from the neighborhood. “Lucky Star” manages to do both at once: its suggestive beat and Madonna’s vocal bring the sex while the lyrics — “Star light, star bright/First star I see tonight” — evoke a fairy-tale innocence (that is, until that chorus: “Shine your heavenly body tonight”).

Madonna was not an instant hit, but its popularity built gradually between the summer of 1983 and the spring of the following year, aided by videos which allowed Madonna to show off the East Village ragamuffin chic that had made her a well-known character around NYC. (They also revealed that she was white, which took some early fans by surprise.)  Its singles were more successful — where else? — on the Club chart and the dance floor. Madonna did most of her live performance dates to support the album in clubs. It wasn’t until 1985 when she launched a full-scale concert tour, in support of…

Fair Game is the latest film from director Doug Liman, the man behind Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Go and The Bourne Identity. Liman draws upon all three action paced movies (especially the Bourne movie) to give Fair Game, the account of CIA Agent Valerie Plame-Wilson’s outing as a CIA agent, an edge you generally don’t find in most bio-pics. The film has an intense energy that recalls classics like All the President’s Men and Silkwood. It’s excellent cinematic entertainment, no matter what your political affiliation may be. Add to the mix the powerhouse combination of Naomi Watts and Sean Penn and you have, what I consider, one of the best films of last year, and also one of the most overlooked.

noconcessionsAs you might have heard, the Beatles albums have been remastered, in a format called “CD.” (“Compact disc,” right? I owned some of those back when I had hair.) Not that you would know from this site—Popdose has done a lousy job covering this.

Actually, as you well know, Popdose has been on the leading edge of the new Beatlemania. I’m just bitter: When I misidentified Mae West’s version of “Twist and Shout” as a “Beatles cover” I was thrown under the bus as our magical mystery tour meandered through all the hoopla. But no Blue Meanie can stop me here.

This week we look at Beatles movies. No, not A Hard Day’s Night, Help!, or Yellow Submarine, which by Popdose law you have to watch at least once per year. Nor Let It Be, which I haven’t seen in its entirety. Has anyone since before those DCs, I mean CDs, were introduced? The boys won Oscars for their song score, beating out the fearsome competition of The Baby Maker, A Boy Named Charlie Brown, Darling Lili, and Scrooge. Did recipient Quincy Jones hand-deliver the statuettes, or simply put them in the mail to the fractured four? Whatever—speaking words of wisdom, this is the time to free Let It Be.

I really wanted to include a clip from the 1976 curiosity All This and World War II, which sets Fox-owned footage of the conflict to Beatles covers in a desperate bid to win over the kids and the “nostalgia” audience that was hungry for the next That’s Entertainment! Only in the 70s, folks. But the movie is presumably such a seething mess of rights issues that not even the copyright banditos want to touch it. With a little help from my friends at YouTube, then, my focus is the non-Beatles movies JPGR worked on.

Milk (2009, Focus Features/Universal)
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For any film fan, there’s no pleasure quite as distinctive as sitting down to watch a new movie from a director you know you can not only trust, but whose work boasts its own distinctive visual style. The advent of digital film and the increasingly corporate culture of the major studios have helped weed a lot of the more idiosyncratic directors out of the system, but there are always at least a few of them on the landscape, and 2008 saw new releases from three of them: Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight), Gus Van Sant (Milk), and Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire). As luck would have it, all three of them were sizable hits, and all of them earned some measure of attention from the Academy during Oscar season. TDK has been out on DVD and Blu-ray for some time now, and by the end of March, both Milk and Slumdog will have joined it on the home market.

Milk, the Sean Penn-led biopic of trailblazing San Francisco politician Harvey Milk, reached store shelves on the 10th, just in time for the last bit of Oscar buzz to give the Best Picture contender a boost on the sales and rental charts. Penn, of course, earned an Academy Award for his portrayal of Milk, and for good reason — as is his wont, Penn doesn’t play the character so much as he inhabits him, disappearing inside Milk’s distinctive mannerisms and New York accent — even his hairstyle — until you no longer really see him. Penn’s near-exclusive focus on serious roles is easy to mock, and I certainly wouldn’t complain if he pulled another Spicoli out of his bag before he’s through, but there’s no denying he does excellent work. For an actor this well-known to vanish inside a public figure as iconic as Milk requires truly impressive actorly prestidigitation.

Penn got most of the attention, but Milk‘s biggest asset is probably Van Sant’s eye; his restless camera meshes well with the archival footage used in the film, and the saturated, bleached-out look he uses helps the movie retain an uncommon degree of warmth for what is, ultimately, a garden-variety biopic with a stellar pedigree. Harvey Milk is an American hero, and Van Sant does an admirably nimble job of retracing his steps from cautiously closeted New York professional to political firebrand, but he never really gets inside Milk the way Penn does; no matter how beautifully filmed and performed they are, the details of Milk’s life still feel like points on a curve. Van Sant’s camera entranced me, and his stellar cast (which also includes Josh Brolin, Emile Hirsch, and James Franco, all of whom turn in wonderful performances) impressed me, but Milk rarely moved me; for a truly heavyweight look back at the man, I’d still recommend Rob Epstein’s The Times of Harvey Milk.