Monday, September 22, 2014

History Question about THE STRAIN

My fabulous friend, entertainment correspondent Justine Browning, introduced me to the scary new series, The Strain.  The series airs on FX and comes from Guillermo del Toro, the filmmaker who gave us Pan's Labyrinth.  Remember this from Pan's Labyrinth?
That's the quality of supernatural monster you can expect to see on The Strain.  I have a question about a Holocaust symbol I believe I saw during a World War 2 flashback in one episode.

In a post 9/11 New York, members of the Center for Disease Control fight a virus detected onboard a ghost airliner.  A commercial airliner lands at JFK.  But everyone onboard appears to be dead.  Everyone.  Passengers and crew.  But they're not dead.  Their bodies now host a virus that turns people in vampire-like creatures who resemble zombies.  Just about all these creatures wind up having a bad hair day due to the terrible transformation.  When the human bodies are corrupted by the worm host and the people turn into monsters, they seek the ones they loved as humans to feed on them.

The strain has caused an epidemic of creatures in New York who live underground, like rats, and are destroyed by sunlight, like vampires.  They terrorize New York at night.
This is the masterwork of a Strigoi vampire.  This virus gets loose in New York and the medical team has to learn that it's not a human virus.  The team will need help from a mysterious old shopkeeper, an Armenian who knows all the secrets.

Corey Stoll played the bald party boy politician who goes into recovery on House of Cards.            
He plays the lead investigator from the Center for Diseases Control who learns the secrets from the old man, a vampire hunter.  Stoll's wig is one of the best special effects on The Strain.
The CDC investigator, like the politician on House of Cards, is in recovery to deal with a drinking problem.  He's divorced because he seemed to be more wedded to his job than to his wife, whom he still loves.  They have a sweet little boy.

David Bradley plays the old Armenian vampire hunter.  His longtime nemesis, a German with waxy skin, is played by Richard Sammel.
The German is not human.  He's looked middle-aged for over 50 years.  He and the Armenian have history.  He was the Nazi officer when the Armenian was young and in a concentration camp.  The prisoner was forced to do carpentry work for the Nazi officer.  That's when he learned that the officer was loyal, not only to Hitler, but also to the Strigoi vampire master.
I have a question about one of the episodes in which we see flashbacks of the Armenian carpenter's concentration camp days during the Holocaust.  In one scene, he and other male prisoners are ordered outside into the snow.  They are lined up.  You think they're about to be machine gunned down.

The prisoners are wearing striped uniforms, historically accurate for those Holocaust times.  You see the yellow 6-pointed stars the Nazis made Jews wear in the camps.  That was Nazi disrespect for the Star of David.  Did anyone notice that the young Armenian and some of the other men had soiled pink triangles over their Stars of David?  I'm pretty sure I saw triangles.

During the Holocaust, Nazis forced homosexual male prisoners to wear pink triangles.  That symbol was used defiantly by Act Up.  When angry gay men like playwright Larry Kramer and others grew impatient with our government not addressing the AIDS epidemic in the late 1980s, Act Up was formed and used the pink triangle in this slogan on posters, T-shirts and buttons:
Did I see the old Armenian Jew wearing a pink triangle in the flashback to his Holocaust prisoner days?  If so, that gives an added layer of depth to his tough character.
I've gotten addicted to The Strain.  It's creepy entertainment with a 1950s-1980s feel.  You've got all this science-fiction horror happening.  Educated, upscale white folks are told not to touch something or not to go outside.  They don't listen and get their asses chewed up by a monster while they scream for help at the top of their lungs.  The black folks?  After just one warning, we get in the car and floor it or run like track star Carl Lewis.  And no sci-fi monster, however large, is ever a match for a hot Puerto Rican or Mexican dude who's done jail time and has a baseball bat in his hand.  I love seeing a monster get a Latino beat down.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Boseman Makes You GET ON UP

Lord have mercy, was he good!  I finally got to see Get On Up, this year's big screen biopic about the late James Brown.  Actor Chadwick Boseman plays "The Godfather of Soul."  His performance alone was worth the price of the ticket.  Boseman seemed to be in a seance trance, channeling the spirit of James Brown and not just acting.  He was that amazing.  The low, gravelly voice, the body posture, the swagger, the soul, the look in the eyes, the famous onstage dance moves -- it's all there.

My buddy, Keith Price, is a weekday morning host on Sirius Radio's OutQ.  He saw Get On Up weeks before I did.  He also loved Chadwick Boseman's performance.  About the biopic on the whole, Keith remarked that the the screenplay seemed to be on the Wikipedia side.  I totally agree with Keith on that.  You got the bullet point important events in the life and times of James Brown punctuated by some terrific music numbers.  But it just didn't have a smooth flow.  The screenplay didn't feel fully developed.  The biopic, however, is buoyed by the work of Boseman as Mr. Brown.

Get On Up was directed by Tate Taylor, seen here directing Mr. Boseman.
Taylor directed Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer to Oscar nominations in The Help.  Spencer won for Best Supporting Actress.  Davis made Hollywood history with her nomination as the second black actress in Oscar history to have more than one Oscar nomination for acting to her credits.  She and Whoopi Goldberg have two Oscar nominations each on their resumés.  Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis are in Get On Up.  Spencer plays a bordello madam who takes care of little James Brown.
Viola Davis plays his mother who is forced to leave when he's a boy....
....and returns when he's a famous man.
Davis does not have a large role but she's onscreen long enough to make your jaw drop at how outstanding an actress she is.  She is one of the highlights of the movie.  Brilliant character work.  Another role she did this year was also movie highlight.  In Get On Up,  Davis plays the uneducated, humiliated, heartbroken country mother.

In The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, which opened this month, she is the cosmopolitan, witty, charismatic New York University professor.  And she is a major babe playing that scholarly role.  In the new drama, Davis works opposite fellow co-star from The Help, Jessica Chastain.

As my mother and grandmother said, "It's a sin and a shame" that the gifted Broadway and film actress needed to turn her attention to TV because good Hollywood script offers have not been plentiful since her Oscar nominations.  That is the irritating plight of minority actresses.  I  bet Halle Berry, Whoopi Goldberg, Marianne Jean-Baptiste (Oscar nominee for Secrets & Lies), Rita Moreno and Rosie Perez know exactly how Davis felt in her need to focus on television.  The fact that no black actress has three or more Oscar nominations to her credit in all Hollywood Academy Award history really says something about their lack of fulfilling film opportunities.

Seriously, Hollywood?  Neither Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway play written by August Wilson has been adapted for the big screen.  Hollywood, you can't give us a film version of 1985's Fences starring Viola Davis and Denzel Washington...or Viola Davis and Ving Rhames -- if Denzel's busy?  You can't give us something sophisticated and smart like an All About Eve starring Viola Davis and Lupita N'yongo?  Cactus Flower was a hit movie romantic comedy in 1969 starring Ingrid Bergman, Walter Matthau and newcomer Goldie Hawn.  It was remade in 2011 as Just Go With It.  Jennifer Aniston and Adam Sandler took on the Bergman and Matthau roles.  Why couldn't we get a remake starring Viola Davis and Liam Neeson or Jeff Bridges or Don Cheadle or Colin Firth?

Back to Mr. Boseman.  Highlights of Get On Up include Soul Brother #1 James Brown keeping his cool on a plane being shot at while he and his band entertain the troops in Vietnam, Brown performing on network TV with a white-as-milk cast on a variety show, and his reunion with his mother.  The last 20 minutes of the movie are very good.  The rest of it has sort of a made-for-TV movie feel.  But the acting, across the board, is tops -- starting with Chadwick Boseman.
He gets the material on the good foot.

As for Viola Davis, I'll be watching her in the new series created by TV powerhouse, Shonda Rhimes.  The name of the ABC series is How To Get Away With Murder.

Friday, September 19, 2014


Just give Jeffrey Tambor and Judith Light Emmy Awards right now.  You must see their terrific dramatic acting on the new series, Transparent.  This is an Amazon production.
If you listen to National Public Radio's Fresh Air hosted by Terry Gross, you'll know exactly what I mean by this.  Transparent has an upscale Jewish family in L.A., lesbian sex, interracial sex, Jim Croce music, full frontal female nudity, a parent who comes out to his adult kids,  Jeffrey Tambor as "Maura," mentions of the Holocaust, Holly Woodlawn, people doing Ecstasy, and lines like "This pepper shaker is investigating my vagina."

If the Terry Gross fantasy for future Fresh Air bookings was a piñata that you whacked with a stick, episodes of Transparent would fall out of it.

I've recently written about Saturday Night Live stars going dramatic.  SNL graduates Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig are serious as broken-hearted siblings repairing their relationship in The Skeleton Twins.  Tina Fey shows us her impressive dramatic talent in This Is Where I Leave You.  Jeffrey Tambor is an actor most of us TV viewers associate with comedy.                                                                                  

This association goes back to his work on Three's Company sitcom his role as an Ed McMahon-like sidekick on The Larry Sanders Show with Garry Shandling... his role as the dad on the Arrested Development with Justin Bates.

Transparent shows other aspects of Jeffrey Tambor's range that we didn't often get to see.  He plays a divorced father, the parent who would be happier living his life as a woman.  This is done seriously.  Not as a comedy.  Tambor is absolutely amazing in his performance.  It's a nuanced performance.  He gets so much with a small, subtle gesture.  He's tender and tough, a complicated and flawed person.

Very human.  He plays the heartbreak of the character -- the heartbreak and the years of inner conflict before coming to the truth of himself.  He's the father of family members who don't exactly mind their own business.  Nor do they seem to connect in a way that has made him proud.  About his adult children, he wonders how he managed to produce three people who cannot see beyond themselves.  They've not seen him as he really is.  Director/writer/creator Jill Soloway skillfully and accurately shows us that, when coming out into the gay community, one can often feel like a misfit in a group of misfits.

As for Judith Light, she was about 30 thirty seconds into her vivid first scene when I said out loud, "OhMyGosh!  That's Judith Light!"  Like Tambor, she has created a different and memorable character for a series.  She's the mother -- the dad's blunt, strong, loving and fast-talking ex-wife.

There's also some mighty fine acting from actress Alexandra Billings.  She is a real-life transgender performer.
There's such a natural warmth about Billings that you just want her character to be your new best friend.  Hollywood needs to be giving her some juicy film roles.

I grew up in Los Angeles.  I didn't grow up in the area where the Transparent family lives but we knew folks like those.  The Pfefferman family is very believable to me.  Traditionally, network TV has shown us a Jewish experience with a New York City flavor.  Think of Seinfeld, Mad About You, Friends, Will & Grace, Rhoda Morgenstern and her relatives on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Rhoda, Epstein on Welcome Back, Kotter and Buddy on The Dick Van Dyke Show.  I often wished TV would give some equal time to my West Coast Jews and show the L.A. experience.  On one of the Transparent episodes I watched, it was great to see lead characters food shopping and talking at Canter's Deli on Fairfax Avenue.                                                                                                                            
For all the financial comfort The Pfefferman family members appear to have, their lives seem to be muted.  If you're lucky enough to see the premiere episode, notice the art direction.  Their Southern California lives are mostly gray and white or have muted earth tones.  Not until the father speaks the truth about himself with others present, do we see a pop of bright colors.  They're the colors of the Los Angeles LGBT Center.  When his other family members start being truthful about their sexual selves, notice that color appears either in their surroundings or in their apparel.
If you see Transparent, leave me a comment telling me if you agree that Jeffrey Tambor and Judith Light give Emmy-worthy performances.

Transparent airs on Friday, September 26th, in the U.S. and Great Britain.  It doesn't air on traditional television.  You'll see it on Amazon Prime Instant Video online.

Sometimes the people who have been up closest to you for the longest time are the ones who don't really see you at all.  Those people are your family.  Your loved ones.

Transparent is worth seeing.  Trust me on this.  Bravo, Jeffrey Tambor, on your excellent performance.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Jon Favreau Makes a Good CHEF

I really dig that groovy bear of an actor/filmmaker, Jon Favreau.  This summer, he gave a little indie comedy that got glowing comments whenever I heard a critic or an ordinary moviegoer talk about it.  I saw Chef, directed by and starring Jon Favreau.  I've joined the chorus singing its praises.  What a sweet little movie!  Chef is entertaining, wise, heartfelt and funny.  The food scenes will definitely stimulate your tastebuds.
The top layer is about chef, a divorced dad, whose popular Los Angeles restaurant gets a bad review from a noted and very important critic.  The chef is devastated and fuming.  He and the critic engage in a war of words on Twitter that gets lots of publicity.   Chef Carl wants revenge.  His ego was charred, seared and sliced.
That's the top layer.  The creamy, tasty center of the movie is about reigniting your passion for your art, finding your voice again and making it even better.  Carl is a big sweet bear of a guy who loves to cook and loves to eat.  He savors foods.  He loves variety.  Food is art to him.  He loves the share his knowledge and enthusiasm.
Along the way to creating a new menu, the chef will spend more time with his wonderful little boy.  He'll teach his kid the business.  His kid wants to learn the business.  And the chef will be reminded that one of his wisest and most supportive friends is his vivacious ex-wife, played by Sofia Vergara of TV's Modern Family.

She knows his talent for making Cuban food.  He makes it better than some restaurants she went to in the Little Havana section of Miami when she was girl.  She gently coaxes him to step out of his restaurant food rut, embrace his passion for Cuban cooking and take his food act on the road.  In a food truck. In Miami.  It's in the food truck that he'll rediscover his joy of cooking and joy of fatherhood.

Dustin Hoffman stars as the chef's conservative boss, a man who is a brick wall the chef crashes into when he wants to vary his menu and try something new.  Following the boss' orders and sticking with the old, popular menu brought about the harsh review.  John Leguizamo and Bobby Cannavale play experienced cooks in the kitchen.  Oliver Platt takes on the food critic role.
In one scene, the chef charges into the restaurant's dining area and verbally confronts the critic.  It's a loud  angry scene in which an artist accuses a negative critic of not knowing how hard it is to be consistently good and original as an artist in a marketplace populated with corporate bosses who demand that you give them the same thing over and over again.  His restaurant boss stifles creativity.
I felt Favreau was really shouting at movie critics.  And he had a point.  It's much harder to make a film than it is to watch and review one.  Some critics do seem to be snarky for the sake of making themselves appear clever or they seem to be writing to impress fellow critics.  A true love for the art doesn't read through.  You wonder if they'd still be film critics if they had to pay to see the movies, stand in line for tickets like everybody else and did not get reimbursed for the money they spent on tickets.  I'll use two old Hollywood movies as examples.  The chef is like Tony Hunter, the character Fred Astaire played in the musical comedy classic, Vincente Minnelli's The Band Wagon.  He's stuck to the same act.  He needs to reinvent himself and find new stardom.  The food critic is like the Broadway critic David Niven played in the comedy, Please Don't Eat the Daisies.  He's fallen in love with the power of his own witty barbs and wisecracks.
After the bad review and the conflict with the L.A. restaurant boss, Chef  becomes a road movie in a food truck.  Road movies are about discovery -- discovery of one's self and learning things about others traveling with you and sharing your adventures on the road.  This is one marvelous road trip for a father son.

My parents divorced when I was on the brink of starting high school.  I loved how Favreau, who also wrote Chef, showed that two people can be divorced and remain friends.  That provides such a positive and healthy emotional environment for a child.  It also shows great respect for the child's feelings in what could be a very disconcerting period in a youngster's life.  I wished my parents had been that friendly after their divorce.  It's a bit surreal when one parent is no longer in the house and gets to visit with you only on weekends.  Trust me on that.

Chef is very good, a most satisfying and tasty comedy.  Plus it has the most inspired use of cornstarch I've ever seen in a film that focuses on food.
Check out Favreau's film.  Good cast. Good story.  Good characters.  Good eats.  It's a winner.   I think you'll like it.

Monday, September 15, 2014


My September 10th blog post is SNL Stars Go Dramatic.  I was very moved and touched by the dramatic outing of Saturday Night Live graduates Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig in the new film, The Skeleton Twins.  Another SNL grad got to show her dramatic chops and she was also quite effective.  Just like Kristen Wiig in The Skeleton Twins, Tina Fey plays an adult sibling in the new film, This Is Where I Leave You.  This is more of an outright comedy than The Skeleton Twins but it also has heartache and some poignant dramatic moments.  Tina Fey gives us one of the those moments. What a good actress.

The TV commercial gives the impression that Jane Fonda stars as the mother of a wacky family that puts the "fun" in the word "dysfunctional."  Jason Bateman plays the son, a man whose heart is wounded from a marriage gone sour.  He joins his family to sit shiva for his late father.  It's odd for them participate in that Jewish  practice for a loved one who died considering that the shiva chairs are exactly where they usually placed the Christmas tree.  But that's the kind of family of it is.  It's an upscale, unconventional family.  Each grown kid is quick with a snarky comeback or a wisecrack.  Mom, a best-selling author, is proud of her shape -- and should be.  The dialogue is peppered with four-letter words, sex talk and sibling bickering.

I saw this movie with my Sirius OutQ Radio host/buddy, Keith Price.  I agree with something he said when we left the screening.  Inside each barrage of snarky comments or loopy incident, there was a serious verbal or physical show of true affection.  Snark alone gets tiresome, as you know if you have someone who is constantly snarky on Twitter or Facebook.  It's like the blind date that can't end soon enough so you can be with someone real and mature.  Someone who's not trying to be funny with every single statement.  The sister and brothers really do love each other, although they may not always say so.  They love their mother and she loves them.  That week of shiva, their late father's last wish, will bring about revelations, unexpected bonding and happiness.
Bearded Jason Bateman is Judd Altman.  He's a good man.  A little piece of business in the open shows his character.  He's a producer for a highly-rated syndicated morning talk radio show.  He zooms cheerfully into his big city offices with a large coffee that he purchased for his assistant, a young and busy Asian woman.  When's the last time you saw a well-paid boss get coffee for his assistant in a movie?  Judd is someone we can care about.

We care about how he'll pick up the pieces of his life when his marriage shatters.

This is the second time this year Jason Bateman has impressed me with his acting depth.  Earlier this year, I went to see him in Bad Words.  The trailer made it seem...well, too inappropriate for words.  I expected to hate it.  I wound up loving up.  Bateman starred in and directed a smart, rude and wise comedy about the power of words and how we choose to use them.  He tells his story with a grown man (played by Bateman) legally entering a national spelling bee competition.  He seems bent on entering the competition for some sort of revenge.  A little brainiac is a top opponent who winds becoming his unlikely buddy.  Bateman's character was like Scrooge in A Christmas Carol and Jack Nicholson's novelist character in As Good As It Gets.  He's verbally rude to the world because there's some pain, some heartache, that he wants to keep hidden.  Karma will make him pay a price for his rudeness.  And the little braniac will learn a lesson in parenthood and friendship.  These are two flawed and wounded sons.

Bateman gradually reveals more and more about the spelling bee contestant's adult pain.  There was such warmth and depth in the last part of Bad Words that I still feel it's one of the most under-appreciated films of this year.  Bateman's direction was commendable.  His performance was excellent.  Bad Words was quite original and inspired compared to some summertime sequels and romantic comedies we got.

Bateman didn't direct This Is Where I Leave You but, again, he displays some fine tenderness and depth as an actor which keeps this family story from seeming like a special episode of his Arrested Development sitcom.  Here, Bateman is Judd Altman.  Tina Fey plays Judd's sister, Wendy.  It's a close brother and sister bond, like the one in need of repair in The Skeleton Twins.  Wendy and Judd have a heart-to-heart talk on a rooftop that really got me.  I didn't expect to see Tiny Fey go dramatic.  But, when you think about it, she played and wrote the flip side of disappointment and heartache so brilliantly on the sitcom, 30 Rock.  All that comedy came from high drama in someone's life.  Tina Fey's dramatic skills are as fine as her comedy skills.

I've written before that I'm always fascinated when a performer we associate with comedy flips the script, challenges him or herself and does good dramatic work.  I loved that rooftop scene Tina Fey did. She was so emotionally naked and true to her character.  Very believable.  A beautiful scene. Fey also delivers one of the film's biggest laughs.
Long, lean Adam Driver is known to fans of HBO's Girls.  He's the youngest Altman brother.  The free-spirit.  The manchild.  The hip dude.  I loved Driver's performance.  Especially his final scene.  Keith loved Driver's final scene too.
Corey Stoll plays the business-like brother who used to be fun.  Now he's all buttoned up and serious.  His wife is frustrated.  If you watched House of Cards, he played the sexy young politician with the liquor and recreational drug habit.
And there's Jane Fonda as the modern mother, remembering her late husband with lines like "We made love on our first date.  I don't mind telling you, the man was hung."  Later at a service with her sons, she hits them with "You got high in temple?"  I've pretty much grown up watching Jane Fonda movies -- from the fun and funny Barbarella and Cat Ballou to the serious They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, Klute and Coming Home to her sweet family drama, On Golden Pond, starring her real-life father, Henry Fonda.  I've interviewed her.  Jane Fonda is 76.  She looks terrific.  Jane is one hot senior babe.  It's fabulous to see her back on the big screen again.  She nails her comedy scenes.
Is this a classic comedy about an unusual family, a classic like Frank Capra's You Can't Take It With You, Mark Rydell's On Golden Pond or Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters?  No.  And it doesn't try to be.  It's just an entertaining,  light comedy/drama about loving, dysfunctional family members who need to reconnect, open up, let go, embrace some changes and move on to some new things in their lives.
You get the feeling that cast thoroughly enjoyed each other's company on and off camera.  There's a warmth about this cast that beams through adds to the enjoyment of this movie.  The actors seemed like a family.  You like these people.
To director Shawn Levy I say "Thank you!" for casting an actress in her 40s, Connie Britton of TV's Nashville, as the sexy and scholarly love interest.  Britton is delicious in her role.
For well-played and occasionally heartwarming weekend entertainment that will leave you with a smile on your face, take a chance with This Is Where I Leave You.  Keith Price and I liked it -- and we could not stop commenting on how fierce Ms. Fonda looked in the funeral scene.  Ooh, Baby!
For you Broadway musical geeks, here's something I said to Keith after the movie about Jason Bateman based on his performance in This Is Where I Leave You:  If there was a movie version of Stephen Sondheim's Company and if Jason Bateman could sing, he'd make a good Bobby.

Think about it.