Archive for the Movies (Contemporary) Category

Help Charles Lane Make His New Web Series

Posted in African American Interest, Movies, Movies (Contemporary), PLUGS with tags , , , , , , on February 21, 2017 by travsd

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No one is happier than this commentator to see actor/director Charles Lane re-emerging from wherever he’s been for the past 20 years. Lane’s day in the sun was 1989-1993, when he had an extremely promising, very interesting run. His debut silent feature Sidewalk Stories put him on the map as the “Black Chaplin“, and today it’s not only an incredible record of a very different NYC (the one I moved to, in fact, so it makes me nostalgic) but to a time when film-makers were putting that much heart and humanity into their work. There is zero commercialism in his film, just integrity and craft, and at the time, that was still enough to make people take notice. I wrote about the film here when its was restored and shown at Tribeca Film Festival back in 2014. I found the film transformational.

The success of Sidewalk Stories landed Lane a gig directing a film for Touchstone in 1991; British comedian Lenny Henry’s American debut entitled True Identity. I saw it when it came out, and it seemed to make a lot of sense for both Lane and Henry conceptually. It’s very high concept; not unlike Tootsie. A black actor puts on white make-up so he can escape from the mob. It has echoes of Godfrey Cambridge in Watermelon Man, and presages the Wayans Brothers in White Chicks. Both Lane and Henry did fine work, but the script itself was pretty lacklustre (Touchstone is Disney after all, so this potentially explosive concept was at best timidly explored). And Henry didn’t click as a star in the states. Lane himself also appeared in the film, and was quite funny. In 1993, he was the comic relief in Mario Van Peebles’s interesting all-black western Posse. That year he also directed an episode of American Masters called Hallelujiah, with a cast that included James Earl Jones, Keith David, Ruth Brown, Isaac Hayes and others.

On the face of it, he seemed to be a guy who was going places, but after this he vanished,emerging only recently with the renewed interest in Sidewalk Stories. I’ve come across no commentary as to why. People do get discouraged in this business, even people as talented and promising as Lane. And I can imagine the sort of projects that typically get offered to African American artists being insulting in any number of ways. And that could add to the discouragement. All I know is I am glad to have him back. We need art right now, especially art with Lane’s sensibility. He’s just launched this Kickstarter for a new web series called Please Date Me Now. I don’t have a pot to piss in at the moment; all I can do is endorse his talent and the idea that he deserves your backing. Learn all about the project here.

Birth of a Movement

Posted in African American Interest, CULTURE & POLITICS, Hollywood (History), Movies, Movies (Contemporary), PLUGS, Silent Film, Television with tags , , , , , on February 8, 2017 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the Los Angeles premiere of D.W. Griffith’s landmark film The Birth of a Nation (1914), which like America itself, is epic in scale, unprecedented, innovative — and troubled by a perverse, pathological racism. As it is so emblematic, I return to the subject of this film periodically, as in these previous posts:

On the Complicated Legacy of The Birth of of a Nation 

The Premiere of a 101 year Old Bert Williams Feature

Embargo on Griffith 

The Dark Side of the Jazz Age 

Today there is something new to add to the dialogue. This past Monday, the PBS show Independent Lens premiered the new documentary Birth of a Movement, the story of how William Monroe Trotter, editor of an African American newspaper in Boston, helped launch a nationwide movement to get the film banned. It’s a perfect topic to talk about at the moment. Just as in Griffith’s time, when his film inspired a rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan, the repercussions of hateful and irresponsible speech are all around us — including, unthinkably, a President who is endorsed by the Klan. Sometimes history not only repeats itself, it gets worse. That’s why it’s a good idea to study it. The film is streaming online at the PBS web site through March 8. Watch it here. 

Vince Giordano Movie Opens at Cinema Village Today!

Posted in Ballroom/ Big Band/ Swing, Movies, Movies (Contemporary), Music, PLUGS with tags , , , , on January 13, 2017 by travsd

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Opening today at Cinema Village in New York, the new documentary about our pal latter day big band leader and music preservationist Vince GiordanoThere’s a Future in the Past. It’s playing through January 18. Information and tickets are here. 

Bright Lights (R.I.P. Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds)

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Hollywood (History), Movies, Movies (Contemporary), OBITS with tags , , , , on January 9, 2017 by travsd

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For obvious reasons, we have been catching up with our Carrie Fisher-watching more expeditiously than we might otherwise have done. Over the past several days we looked at Postcards from the Edge (which I’d never seen), The Force Awakens, Wishful Drinking, and then last night the wonderful HBO documentary Bright Lights, just released.

The timing of the film is jaw-dropping; essentially it captures the final days of three of its principal subjects, Fisher and both her parents. Her father, singer Eddie Fisher occupies the fringes of the film as he occupied the fringes of the lives of his children. He comes across as a morally bankrupt character. That’s no surprise. What is a surprise is the deep, palpable love between Carrie Fisher and her mother Debbie Reynolds. The public knew of competition and frisson and parrying, and of course that is part of it, but I think what we didn’t realize is that we were merely seeing and hearing a public version of something quite similar to most mother-daughter relationships, at least in my experience. Aren’t most of them to some degree contentious, mixed with a great deal of affection and camaraderie? You squabble while you stuff the turkey, and then you hug each other. I related to their relationship a lot; my aunt used to live across the street from my grandmother. They were essentially best friends. One would pop over to see the other one every day. And this is how it was with Fisher and Reynolds, who lived next door to each other. It’s like living together, but with just enough distance to go home at the end of the day.

The film is incredibly intimate and revealing, adding to the power of its timing. Both women are former beauties dealing with aging in different ways. Reynolds was failing. I had the mistaken impression watching it that she was a good ten years older than her 84 years. In the opening scenes I thought she was amazingly together for a woman of her age: charming, witty, etc. (and she was).But then we see her fail: she falls and bruises her face. We see her sundowning at crucial moments. On the other hand, Fisher at 60 seemed to be embracing the role of “old woman” with full vigor. Besides the occasional news quote, I hadn’t really looked in on her in a couple of decades and was astounded at the transformation. In her youth, she was unbelievably gorgeous. Those EYES, both large and and intense, giving her the contradictory qualities of neotenous hotness and flashing anger. What a perfect stroke to cast her as a princess; she was regal in just that way. If she had chosen to, in the glamour-puss tradition of her mother, I have no doubt she’d “clean up” impressively like a grand dame, even at 60. But she seemed to prefer being the author and wit to being the actress. She literally enjoyed taking her shoes off, not coloring her hair, and walking around with a small dog under her arm. In her younger days, fresh from acting schools in London, she had a bit of mid-Atlantic affectation like the stars of the Hollywood studio era. In recent years, her voice went a register lower, and she reverted somehow to a new comic persona not unlike Albert Brooks. It was as though she were channeling her own grandparents.

Not that she still didn’t love show business as much as her mother. At one point, she does a fairly killer Streisand impression, revealing not just an inherited talent, but the fact that she had worn out the grooves on the LP. The poster art (above) and the title of the film do a wonderful job of conveying the romance these two women have with show business.  It is INFECTIOUS. If you are a show biz buff, you will walk away from this film with your ardor redoubled. Debbie Reynolds owned Dorothy’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz! (At one point, Reynolds accidentally drops them on the floor, and I shouted, “That’s like dropping pieces of the True Cross!”)

Another insight I had was….sure, Fisher did drugs a couple of decades ago, and was a heavy smoker, but, wow, she sure has been busy these past few months. That really seems obvious. Doing these new Star War movies (for which she was expected to exercise and lose weight), a new book, a new book tour, a new solo show, caring for her mother, and in the midst of it all THIS DOCUMENTARY. That’s a lot. It’s enough, well, to give you a heart attack. But the fact that it’s logical doesn’t make it hurt any less. Her early movies were an important part of my youth; her oft-quoted wit in the years since have been an inspiration. We could have done with another two, three decades of her mordant, larger-than-life presence.

New Year’s Eve in the Movies

Posted in Hollywood (History), Movies, Movies (Contemporary), New Year's Eve with tags , on December 31, 2016 by travsd

In honor of the day, some favorite movies featuring New Year’s Eve scenes. This holiday is often used to mark extreme or catastrophic change in the life of the characters or their environment — a theme for us to contemplate this year in particular when the clock strikes midnight.

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The Gold Rush (1925)

Shame on you if you don’t know this movie or this scene. Led on by the supercilious dance hall girl Georgia (Georgia Hale) lone prospector Charlie Chaplin prepares for what he thinks will be a delightful New Year’s party with Georgia and a few friends. He sleeps and dreams a magical time, but awakens to find himself alone and stood up. Warning: don’t watch if you’re alone and depressed!

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Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)

Something about the early Technicolor adds to the eeriness of this, one of the creepiest of classic studio era horror films. The opening scenes depict feisty girl reporter Glenda Farrell making her way through the crowded New York City streets on New Year’s Eve, clogged with carnivalesque revelers. Holidays are always interesting in older films — what people wear, the different ways they celebrated. Farrell’s journey will lead her to a corpse, and eventually to mad wax sculptor Lionel Atwill. 

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Every Day’s a Holiday (1937)

Mae West loved to celebrate the period of her early childhood, the gay ’90s, in her films.  Something about the era symbolized relative freedom to her, I think: saloons and bawdy houses and crooked politicians. That’s the milieu of her last true starring film Every Day’s a Holiday, set in Tammany era NYC, with crucial scenes taking place on New Year’s Eve 1900 — just when the city and nation were poised to go from horses and buggies to automobiles.

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Sunset Boulevard (1950)

One of the most touching scenes in Billy Wilder’s masterpiece has William Holden briefly escaping from the virtual tomb he has been inhabiting with former silent star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) to the relative joy and vitality of a proper New Year’s Eve party at a friend’s house, full of youth and music, and a much more appropriate girlfriend. The moment is a poignant blip, a last chance, a fleeting glimpse into a happy life he’ll never get to have.

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The Poseidon Adventure (1972)

At age seven this was my introduction to New Years’s Eve, the first place I heard “Auld Lang Syne”, witnessed a countdown to midnight, saw grownups with noise-makers and party hats. It’s part of the mysterious magic of this film (which is still one of my favorites) that the moment of disaster strikes just at midnight: it’s a new year and everything turns upside down. Celebration turns to tragedy in the blink of an eye. It’s part of the peculiar dream logic and symbolism of movies, and it works extraordinarily well.

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Jaws the Revenge (1987)

This is  a most entertainingly terrible movie which has only recently become a new classic around my house. (I never bothered with it when it came out.) It’s predicated on the concept that now-deceased Amity Island Police Chief Brody’s wife Ellen’s most irrational fears are TRUE — that a sentient, malevolent, psychic shark has designs on her family for some reason, and that you get killed every time you are crazy enough to go into the water. That her son managed to become a MARINE BIOLOGIST given such a family dynamic is one of the film’s countless delightful head-scratchers. Lorraine Gary is the film’s star, Roy Scheider having long since decided he had far better things to do. At any rate, the film starts around Christmas (her other son is killed by a shark while people on shore sing Christmas carols), and so the family travels to the Bahamas to forget it all (wouldn’t you choose someplace far INLAND?) At any rate, the New Year’s Eve scene in this film is memorable for being one of tent pole WTF moments, where you go…”H’m, we seem to have lost the narrative thread here.” As Gary and Michael Caine dance and romance each other and talk, and various other characters move around the party and talk, and you’re like, “Wasn’t this supposed to be a thing about sharks?” Oh, but it will be, for Bruce the Shark soon swims the thousand or more miles to the Bahamas from New England just to have another go at this particular family. New Year, same old killer shark!

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Boogie Nights (1997)

Much like Mae West’s Every Day’s a Holiday, P.T. Anderson’s porn-industry portrait features a scene on a historically significant New Year’s Eve, in this case not a century demarcation but an important change of decades. The coming of the ’80s (and home video) will mean the end of porn theatres, and the end of the time when the industry had some claims to professionalism. Soon any amateur could grab a video camera and make their own porn and the industry would be glutted. The death of the old era is symbolized by a tragedy at the party — but I won’t spoil it, in the unlikely event you’ve not seen this terrific movie.

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New Year’s Eve (2011)

Let’s get one thing straight: New Year’s Eve is a nearly unwatchable trough of expensive garbage. You can just hear Garry Marshall saying, “Ya like good lookin’ young people? I’ll give ya 28 good lookin’ young people — plus Robert de Niro!” I watched a good hunk of this rubbish for the first time last year, and there was one aspect I found very interesting, however. Its structure…of constant cross-cutting between over-expository scenes of diverse people bustling around in anticipation of some major event….feels EXACTLY like the opening act of a DISASTER MOVIE. This feeling is enhanced by the fact that it’s set in New York…TIMES SQUARE, to be precise. A major terrorist target. And I LOVE disaster movies . So I so badly want this to be a disaster movie, to re-cut it, so that instead of a midnight countdown, the climax will be a gigantic wall of water coming from the Hudson River, or a bunch of mid-town skyscrapers toppling like dominoes. And the fact that this DOESN’T happen, in particular, to all these beautiful Caucasian cipher-people, is a total let down.  Roland Emmerich, please step in and give us a new third act for this movie.

W.C. Fields has a Cameo in “La La Land”

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Movies (Contemporary), PLUGS, W.C. Fields with tags , , , , on December 27, 2016 by travsd

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I didn’t see La La Land yet, but Dr. Harriet Fields reports she spotted the mural containing her grandfather in the film. She says the mural is located “just off Hollywood Blvd., and up from the Roosevelt Hotel, where the first W.C. Fields star is” (meaning, his star in the Hollywood Walk of Fame). The muralist humorously grouped Fields (whose screen character was supposed to dislike kids and dogs, with Shirley Temple and Lassie. Meet Dr. Fields live in person this Thursday at our screening of Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935) at Metrograph! 

Films of Fields #31: Mississippi

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Movies, Movies (Contemporary), W.C. Fields with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 14, 2016 by travsd

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We’ll be blogging about comedian W.C. Fields all through November and December as part of our tribute to the comedian called Fields Fest.  For a full list upcoming live Fields Fest events go here. 

Today is the anniversary of the release date of the Paramount film Mississippi (1935), directed by Eddie Sutherland and starring W.C. Fields, Bing Crosby and Joan Bennett.

Unlike many of the other so-called “classic comedians”, for many years Fields was often cast in, and was excellent in, “real films”, i.e. more subdued, conventional films with a dramatic component which required him to interact with an ensemble of actors. (For contrast, think of the debacle that occurred the one time the Marx Brothers tried to do such a thing, in Room Service). In Mississippi, Fields plays riverboat captain Commodore Jackson, who makes a project of trying to toughen up gentle young Bing Crosby, who abjures confrontation in favor of singing Rodgers and Hart songs. The story is based on the Booth Tarkington novel Magnolia. 

Fields’ vessel in the film is a showboat; among the movie’s myriad pleasures is that it gives us a chance to see what he might have been like as Captain Andy in Show Boat, a part intended for him in the original Broadway production, but which he didn’t get to play until a couple of years later regionally.  Highlights in the film include a recurring bit where Fields (much like a Mark Twain character) boastfully recounts his Indian fighting exploits, in which he “took a knife and carved through a wall of human flesh”, and a funny episode where he attempts to cheat at cards. Like all Hollywood films at the time with such a setting it glosses over and idealizes slavery and black servitude in the Old South, not one of its finer points. It also interesting to see Bing so early in his career, still a young heart throb and not yet a middle aged one. Interestingly, Bing’s sometime screen partner Bob Hope, also had a chance to co-star with Fields at this early stage, in The Big Broadcast of 1938.

For more on comedy film history see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc. For more on show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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