Wednesday, June 29, 2016

On FREE STATE OF JONES

 The new movie starring Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey, a Civil War drama called FREE STATE OF JONES, has a key element in common with the Netflix original sitcom, UNBREAKABLE KIMMY SCHMIDT.  Like Kimmy, McConaughey's character is a wide-eyed Caucasian outcast who becomes the educated white savior of sorts to a poor black man.  Newton Knight, played by McConaughey, is a Mississippi man who opposes slavery.  Yet, he's drafted into the war to fight on the Confederate side, the side that wants its slaves and cotton.  The opening war sequence is brutal and bloody.  We see a wide-eyed McConaughey at the open and he remains wide-eyed throughout the rest of the film.
We see men made unrecognizable because of being shot in the face, we see a head pretty much explode from gunfire.  We see gaping, bloody wounds. We see boys of high school age drafted into fierce battle for which they are unprepared.  But I could not take my attention off Matthew McConaughey making big eyes.
Not since Bette Davis in the first five minutes of 1940's classic, THE LETTER, has a star been so big-eyed while holding a gun.
Newt's young nephew is killed in battle.  That triggers the Mississippi medic to leave the war and return to his Jones County home and wife (played by Keri Russell).  On the way home, he bonds with runaway slaves, he's chased and bitten by deserter-hunting dogs and he's helped on his journey by a young Creole woman.  When I heard that a young female Creole slave was coming into the picture, I just knew she was going to be a babe.  She was.  Rachel, the Creole, is played gracefully by Gugu Mbatha-Raw star of the 2013 film, BELLE.
McConaughey's eyes get even bigger when Newt sees Rachel for the first time.  So, we have the Civil War, a white Southern man who does not believe in slavery, leaves the battlefront and bonds with runaway male slaves.  He will ultimately help them vote when the war is over.  And we, as moviegoers, know he will be attracted to Rachel as he strives to establish his own peaceful community that embraces diversity.  That community is known as the Free State of Jones.  Then we jump 85 years ahead to a Mississippi court case involving interracial marriage.  Interracial marriage was illegal in Mississippi those 85 years later.

Newt is the story's leader of a group of interracial outcasts -- runaway slaves and fellow Civil War deserters.  Newt leads a rebellion.  The war ends and there's Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, but things really don't change in Mississippi.  Just like America didn't become immediately "post-racial" when Barack Obama was elected President of the U.S. for his first term, black folks weren't really free after the Emancipation Proclamation.  Newt marches in with black men to challenge the racists who won't let them vote.  That scene is interesting.  Black Republicans were a whole lot different back in the 1800s.
As soon as Newt shows up, he improves the lives of the runaway slaves.  He removes physical bondage.  He improves their menu.  When he arrives, they're sharing one fish cooked over a fire after it was caught in a swamp.  Then they ate cooked dog.  When Newt increases the band of outcasts and adds other white folks into the mix, their eating a basted and succulent roast pig.  And they have beverages.  During this dinner scene, there's racial tension when one white man mouths off about having to share food with a black man.  McConaughey settles things down by reminding the white outcasts that "everybody is somebody's n***er."  They've all got to get along.  And, yes, he gives us the big eye as he delivers this speech.
About Rachel -- it's a mutual attraction.  And he has a white wife.  And he has a child by Rachel.  But the Rachel relationship is so sterile onscreen.  When she's having the baby, you want to say "Well...how did THAT happen?"  Newt and Rachel never so much as passionately hold hands in the movie.  Not one single kiss.  Then BOOM.  Creole baby time.  The same goes for that modern-day courtroom scenes.  No kiss or physical displays of affection from the couple at the center of the interracial marriage court case.  Heck, even BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN had the balls to show you a ranch hand who kissed his wife...and his boyfriend.

My friend Mike Sargent, film critic and New York city radio host, also saw this new movie and did some reading up on the actual story.  We talked about the real story and it's a complex, fascinating piece of American history.  More fascinating than this movie.  Not only that, but Hollywood filmed an earlier version of a picture based on the FREE STATE OF JONES story.  But, which will come as no surprise, Hollywood watered down -- or pretty much washed out -- the black element of the story and replaced it with a friendly Native American character played by Boris Karloff.  The movie is 1948's TAP ROOTS starring Van Heflin and Susan Hayward.
Newt is established as the conflicted good guy at the beginning.  He's a Southerner by birth but he has an abolitionist spirit.  In one scene, Newt reads an article in which we realize the injustices of slavery. And the benefits.  Apparently, if you owned 20 slaves, one male did not have to serve in the war.  If you had 40 slaves, two males in the home did not have to serve.  Down South, it was sort of like the other side of a coffee shop discount card.  Buy 20 slaves, get the next one free.

McConaughey is earnest with his Bette Davis eyes and slightly Foghorn Leghorn voice.  Newt Knight is out to do the right thing.  To me, the stand-out performance in FREE STATE OF JONES comes from Mahershala Ali as Moses the runaway slave/freedom fighter friend to Newt.  TV viewers know Mr. Ali from HOUSE OF CARDS.  He is excellent as Moses.
This, in great part, is a war picture and it's a rare picture that shows women bearing arms for battle in a real life war era.  Big and little females take aim in FREE STATE OF JONES.  There's a lot of killing and several funeral in this film.
When the action jumps 85 years ahead, the story connects to Newt's but those scenes need something more.  There's not a smooth transition to those scenes from Newt's drama. And you feel that the really interesting stories were treated like footnotes.  For instance, after the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation and the Reconstruction, times for black folks were still hard.  They were still cheated, abused and enslaved.  There was trouble.  Federal troops left, the Ku Klax Klan rode in and burned churches.  On the screen we read that the klan killed hundreds of African-Americans.  It was a home-grown terrorist group that attacked safe havens like churches.                                                
You think of last year's murders of black people in a Charleston church. The killer is a racist.  You think of this year's murders in an Orlando gay bar.  The patrons considered that nightclub to be a safe haven.  But that KKK gets a minor mention with its dark deeds printed on the screen for your information.  Director/screenwriter Gary Ross (seen on the right in the photo below) spends more time on Newt teaching farmers how to take back and hide corn from the enemy than he does on the KKK.
FREE STATES OF JONES is not dull.  Disappointing, but not dull.  But if Newt's relationship with Rachel was meant to give the dramatic story more urgency, to underscore the need for diversity and racial acceptance today, we needed to see some kind of passion between those two characters.  I've seen more physical displays of romantic attraction between kids in Catholic high school.

The film tries to make a History Channel point but the tone is uneven.  Remember the 1988 movie MISSISSIPPI BURNING?  That was based on a real life crime -- the disappearance and murder of three young adult males -- two white and one black -- who'd gone Down South the help in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s.  The FBI investigated the murder of the three men determined to register black people for the right to vote.  The KKK was involved in the murders.  This was a major crime in the history of modern Black America.  However, the movie focuses on the white characters.  The same pretty much applies to FREE STATE OF JONES.

 








Thursday, June 23, 2016

Laughs from ONE FUNNY MOTHER

Blizzard was hot the night we saw her.  Comedian Dena Blizzard took maternal material from her stand-up act and crafted it into a 90-minute stage show that is, judging from last Thursday's audience response, a real crowd-pleaser.  Dena Blizzard's one-woman show is called ONE FUNNY MOTHER and you can catch it at the easily accessible New World Stages theater on West 50th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues in New York City.  I took a buddy with me.  He's not married.  I'm not married.  He has a full-time job working with special needs kids.  He howled with laughter at Dena's tales of trying to balance suburban motherhood and wifely duties.  Wine helps carry her through the craziness of domestic life.  Wine cleverly stashed in different places on the set -- like in stuffed toys or behind the sofa as she folds laundry in the cluttered room.  She's got the daily routine down to a science.  She knows when and who to drop off at ballet class and soccer practice and who to pick up in the mini-van.  Her loving but flatulent husband can't do what she does.  Dena Blizzard has her crazy domestic army under full control.  She's like General Patton with Fallopian tubes.
When I was a youngster, I remember a critic taking Totie Fields to task for a routine she did on a TV variety show.  Her bit was along the lines of "Last weekend, my husband was focused on the Super Bowl.  What did I focus on?  The toilet bowl! I'm cleaned the entire weekend!"  The audience loved Totie talking about her tiring life as a domestic goddess.  But the male critic felt that her mention of "toilet bowl" was very unladylike.  Trailblazing women comedians like Totie Fields, Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers would have loved and enthusiastically applauded Dena Blizzard in ONE FUNNY MOTHER.
Keep in mind, this is not G-rated like the classic Erma Bombeck material about being a wife and mother.  Dena drops a few 4-letter words and does some fabulous R-rated stuff.  Her bit about men if they had to deal with the "discomfort" of having extra large penises broke me up.  Very funny.  That and the story about her gas-passing Italian husband playing online poker.
She has a very casual, conversational tone onstage.  You feel as if you're in the room with her having coffee (or wine) as she folds laundry.  Dena Blizzard directed the show herself.  Her Creative Consultant is the highly-respected theater director and Broadway veteran, Carl Andress.  Her stage presentation works because it wisely brings in other faces and voices.  There are funny video clip montages of friends answering questions about their spouses.  Is the marriage still sexy?  Do they need a little sip of wine occasionally to get through the housework? Does the spouse ever work their last good nerve?  The audience loved the answers.  The video segments allow Dena some time off-stage to make costume changes.
For me, Dena Blizzard was at her peak when she interacted with audience members and did improv.  It's a non-mom section that really highlights her quick and sophisticated comedy gifts.  The guys in our audience gave her good stuff to deal with in that bit.  This is the kind of vehicle that's like a excellent 90-minute pitch for a network TV sitcom deal and film role consideration.  I'd be shocked if Dena hasn't been approached by TV executives.

This is working class entertainment with a fun character.  Behind all the gags and wisecracks, you do sense that Dena Blizzard loves being a mother, a wife and a friend.  And a performer.  Her warm personality makes the show.  The ad for it didn't lie:  It's a hilarious night of laundry, laughs and liquor.  For ticket info, check out the website at OneFunnyMother.com.

I'm very eager to see what TV and/or Hollywood do with the talents of Dena Blizzard.  ONE FUNNY MOTHER has been extended through September 3rd.



Sunday, June 5, 2016

Viola Davis in Oliver Stone Film

It's now on Netflix.  WORLD TRADE CENTER was a 2006 release directed by Oliver Stone.  You can probably tell from the year of its release and the title that it's a drama based on the September 11th attacks in which New York City's World Trade Center was a target.  Stone's movie focused on first responders.  It salutes the NYPD and New York firefighters.
Nicolas Cage, the star of the film, played a Port Authority police officer.
World Trade Center doesn't rank as one of Oliver Stone's peak films like Midnight Express, Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July and JFK.  But it's worth a look -- especially for a bit player.

I was the weekly film reviewer on Whoopi Goldberg's national weekday morning show the year World Trade Center came out and I reviewed it.  During the movie, there's a hospital scene with a mother.  The actress who played the mother just knocked me out.  She made me sit forward in my movie seat.  She was so raw, so real in that performance. She played a flawed person with a flaw we could recognize because she reflected a way we've probably all treated a loved one at some time.  She was a highlight of the movie and she wasn't even onscreen probably more than five minutes.  Her dialogue as the mother hit you right in the heart with such power than I purposely stayed through the closing credits to see who the actress was.  Near the near end of the credits, I saw "Mother in Hospital.........Viola Davis."

In 2008, that same acting excellence made a scene opposite Meryl Streep one of the highlights of Doubt.  She wasn't a bit player in Doubt.  She had a key supporting role as the conflicted New York mother of a little boy in Catholic school.  Her performance earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.
                                                                                                       
More excellence got her a Best Actress Oscar nomination for 2011's The Help in which she played a maid in the deep South during the civil rights era of the 1960sAnd there's her Emmy-winning work as the lead character and star of the hit ABC legal drama series, How To Get Away With Murder.

I've said it before and I will say it again: I believe that Broadway, film & TV actress Viola Davis will make Hollywood history as the first black actress to get more than two Oscar nominations for her screen performances.  Right now, she and Whoopi Goldberg are tied at two each.  No black actress has more than two Oscar nominations to her credit.


When World Trade Center was over, I felt that Viola Davis' bit part was easily one of the most memorable things about the movie.  Watch it and see if you agree.  She is extraordinary.


Friday, June 3, 2016

SOUTH PARK and Sex for James Franco

I needed something animated and naughty to clear my brain after a long, busy day.  I noticed that 1999's Oscar-nominated big screen feature, SOUTH PARK: BIGGER, LONGER and UNCUT is on Netflix.  What could be more animated and naughty than those popular little cartoon kids from cable TV engaging in "foul language and toilet humor"?
They didn't even realize the meanings of the bad language they whipped out because they'd heard it in a movie -- a movie called "Asses on Fire."  The movie was rated R and they should not have been in the audience in the first place.  They tricked a homeless guy into buying their tickets.  Instead of their parents and the employees on the movie theater staff taking responsibility for little school kids being in the R-rated movie screening, the town decides to blame the two Canadian stars of the movie.
That leads us into "Blame Canada," the funny original tune that earned an Oscar nomination for Best Song.  I'm still waiting for Michael BublĂ© or Michael Feinstein to do a cover of "Blame Canada."

I laughed a lot when I saw SOUTH PARK: BIGGER, LONGER and UNCUT during its theatrical release.  The South Park adventure had that same snap of sweet silliness and smart anarchy that moviegoers got from The Marx Brothers at their peak in the 1930s.  Then and now, there's one thing that always tickles the heck out of me in SOUTH PARK: BIGGER, LONGER and UNCUT -- and it's something that's rarely mentioned.  Little Kenny has an out-of-body experience on a hospital operating table and goes to Hell.  While in Hell, he finds the home of Satan and Saddam Hussein and he peeks into their bedroom.  The two are in bed having a conversation.
It's a large, attractive, minimally decorated bedroom.  Above Satan and Saddam Hussein on their bedroom wall, is a large and framed photograph of actor Skeet Ulrich.
That is so South Park.

That R-rated animated full-length feature inspired by the TV series reminded me of something I thought about when I watched another feature on Netflix:  INTERIOR. LEATHER BAR.  That's a one-hour docu-fiction that premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.  James Franco is in it as himself and he co-directed the feature.  This is way naughtier than the South Park feature because of its full frontal male nudity and graphic sexual situations.  But the South Park animated feature has more of a point.

CRUISING is a 1980 murder mystery starring  Al Pacino as a New York City cop who goes undercover.  He takes a walk on the wild side and goes undercover as a gay man who frequents leather bars. He does this because a number of gay men have been slain and the psycho needs to be caught.  William Friedkin (The French Connection, The Exorcist, Boys in the Band) directed the movie.  Cruising got a lot of publicity because of the controversy that arose.  Gay groups protested the content.  The ratings board wanted to give it an X.  Reportedly, Friedkin cut 40 minutes of hardcore footage to bring his Pacino vehicle down from an X to an R rating.  
James Franco and Travis Mathews shoot a short indie movie in a Hollywood warehouse.  The indie movie is what they imagine the missing 40 minutes to be -- hence the title Interior.  Leather Bar. 
There are times when this one hour feature is unintentionally funny.  Like a few actors ask in Franco's docu-thing: "What's the point of this project?"  Men will be naked and some will be engaged in sexual acts.  Franco is cool with that.  He casts a friend of 15 years in the role that Al Pacino had in the movie.  The friend, an unknown actor named Val, took the job -- but he's straight, married, and fairly conservative in his sexual views of what Franco and his co-director want.  On his way to the shoot, his wife calls and reminds him they have dinner reservations that night.  A concerned male friend wants to know why he's doing that "Franco faggot project."  Val feels that Franco wants to get a range a human experience and then there's talk of "artistic and sexual free expression."  But, while men are putting on studded leather codpieces and jockstraps, no one really knows what the point of this project really is.  And poor Val.  There's a moment when a nearly-naked man is getting spanked with a wooden paddle.  Val looks wide-eyed, like Shelley Duvall freaking out in The Shining.  James Franco looks on casually and unfazed like he's waiting for his SUV to come through a car wash on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood.                                            
This is all too much for Val, an actor who can never quite grasp how to play his scene as the cop character in a gay leather bar where he's a hot man getting cruised.  Val says that Al Pacino is his favorite actor.  Franco doesn't give him much direction.  He tells Val that he's tired of Hollywood movies restricting sexual expression and constantly showing only the heterosexual side of life.  Then he goes inside, takes a camera, and shoots two men having sex on a couch.  I'm surprised Val's head didn't explode.  The whole dynamic between Val and Franco seemed to be like that between the Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine ballet characters in The Turning Point.  Franco is Bancroft's, the one who became the big popular star.  Val is MacLaine's, the one who didn't become a star and got married.
I would've told Val this:  "You're in a gay bar in downtown New York City.  It's a sexually intense environment.  Not the mainstream. More underground. You're undercover and underground.  Guys are cruising you.  You may be questioning your own sexuality.  You may be slightly excited.  But more than anything, your cop radar is at work.  If you are cruising a guy..,you're not just cruising.  You're checking him for possible weapons.  You're on the hunt for a psycho killer who picks up gay men. You're constantly alert."

Val kept his eyes downcast as if he was a shy Southern belle at a barbecue.  I would've had him shoot that scene over.

INTERIOR.  LEATHER BAR also shows you want not to do as a young actor in L.A.  Or any other city.  Val is in the make-up room watching the make-up woman put eye shadow on a tall, lean, handsome and chatty guy.  He's a straight guy playing a drag queen.  He's heard of Al Pacino but he never saw Cruising.  Renting a DVD of that movie should have been the first item of his homework list.  He's playing a character in a project based on the movie Cruising.  Val talks to him about footage he saw in the dailies from the previous day and the chatty actor says, "What are dailies?"  I kid you not.  It was like Cruising meets Waiting for Guffman.

When I was pretty fresh out of college and had just landed my first professional TV job, I had to review Cruising.  There was no preview of it for local press, so my producer had me attend the first early afternoon showing the day it opened at a theater.  Then I went to the station taped my 2-minute interview for the evening broadcast.

I didn't hate Cruising.  I'm an Al Pacino fan and I did like his performance.  But there were things I strongly disliked about the movie.  One thing I did hate about the experience was the theater policy.  It was on a double bill with PG-rated kung fu movie.  I sat near three boys who looked to be of high school age, who'd come for the kung-fu movie.  I entered during the last ten minutes of it and the boys were being boys -- shouting stuff at the kung fu hero.  Then there was an intermission, then coming attractions followed by Cruising.  Those kids should not have been allowed by management to stay in that small audience for Friedkin's R-rated movie.  They were laughing and making wisecracks at the sight of men dancing together on the screen, but...when the gruesome murders started...they got quiet.  I could see that they were shaken.  What happened in Milwaukee that Friday afternoon was pretty similar to the opening of SOUTH PARK:  BIGGER, LONGER and UNCUT.  Under-aged kids in an R-rated movie audience.

James Franco's INTERIOR.  LEATHER BAR is the kind of feature that would've been lampooned in an episode of SOUTH PARK.  With a special cameo appearance by Skeet Ulrich.


 

Notes from Alice Faye and Don Ameche

If you're a fan of the late, great queen of Broadway...that legendary belter, Ethel Merman, then be sure to watch Turner Classic Movies ...