Tuesday, October 13, 2020

See THE 40-YEAR-OLD VERSION

It was 1:30 in the morning and there I was, belly laughing at moments in a new comedy film on Netflix. With THE 40-YEAR OLD VERSION, Rahda Blank has served up a smart, sharp comedy that is one of the best films I have seen this year. She's the lead character. She wrote the screenplay. The film marks her directorial debut. I would put Rahda Blank's film on a double bill with the 1950 classic, ALL ABOUT EVE, in a heartbeat. In both films, we see talented women of 40 in New York City whose artistry is in the theatre world. Both women need to recharge, reinvent themselves to remain relevant for Broadway. Both women are the romantic interest of a younger man who is also creative and also in the arts. Rahda, years ago highlighted as a talent to watch in the theatre scene, is still a playwright -- but she's a struggling playwright. She's trying to keep the rent paid in Harlem. She teaches playwriting to high schoolers. She's gracefully survived the humiliation of one student Googling her to find that the teacher's once promising career has been sluggish for a few years. Which is why she's teaching. There were several times while watching THE 40-YEAR-OLD VERSION when I said out loud "Girl, I know how you feel. I have been there." You like Rahda as soon as you meet her.
Her agent is a Korean-American friend she's known since high school. He tries to finesse job opportunities for her with an important, pompous and clueless Caucasian producer who feels he has a pulse on the Black Experience. He wants to stage musicals about Harriet Tubman and Ida B. Wells. The conflict comes because Rahda wants to keep her artist voice and vision and not sell-out. But, I repeat, she needs to keep the rent paid in Harlem. She hits on an idea to drop some beats and give her story a hip-hop voice. She writes and performs a cut called "Poverty Porn." In it, she raps about all the sorts of issues privileged White people expect to see in plays about Black life. Here's the writer, director and star on creating this character.
You can tell that Blank has learned a few things from Spike Lee. On Twitter, THE ATLANTIC wrote that she "invokes the style of Judd Apatow." Director/producer Apatow gave us the 2005 hit comedy, THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN, starring Steve Carell. To a tiny degree, Rahda Blank does invoke his style. Big there's a huge way in which she invokes a style that's her own and not his. The main thing being that the film has a Black woman in the lead role. When has an Apatow production ever given you that? Next, it runs a little over 2 hours, as do just about all Apatow comedies. However, at no time while watching THE 40-YEAR-OLD VERSION did I find myself saying "About 15 minutes of this could've easily been cut out" like I did while watching Apatow's FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL, THIS IS 40 and THE FIVE-YEAR ENGAGEMENT. And I worked as a background actor in THE FIVE-YEAR ENGAGEMENT. In my opinion, Rahda Blank should be a Golden Globe and Oscar nominee. Bette Davis, star of 1950's ALL ABOUT EVE, would have cheered Blank's performance. Her original screenplay is worthy of an Oscar nomination. Her directorial debut is a smash.
On Twitter, critic José Solis wrote that "THE 40-YEAR-OLD VERSION is the best antidote for anyone grieving the news about Broadway being closed through summer 2021. It's a love song to theatre and where it can go wrong, but also how it never stops trying. How it never will." I agree whole-heartedly. Go to Netflix and see THE 40-YEAR OLD VERSION.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Work It, Patricia Clarkson!

Don't you just love seeing the natural elegance of actress Patricia Clarkson onscreen? I know I do. She's a darling of those with a taste for independent films. If Patricia Clarkson was a clerk in a mom & pop store in your working class community, she would treat you like you were a favored customer in a high-tone store on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. That's the quality she radiates.
Here are some of my favorite Patricia Clarkson performances: In Todd Haynes FAR FROM HEAVEN (2002), she was to Julianne Moore what Agnes Moorehead was to Jane Wyman in Douglas Sirk's ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS (1955). Clarkson nailed that role. I love her too in THE STATION AGENT (2003), in LARS AND THE REAL GIRL (2007) as the all-wise therapist, in CAIRO TIME (2009) as the middle-aged American wife abroad and in the delightful, witty teen comedy EASY A (2010) as the loving, supportive mother with co-stars Emma Stone and Stanley Tucci. This was a rare high school comedy in which the teen and the parents enjoy each other's company and love each other. The story was a hip twist on Nathaniel Hawthorne's THE SCARLET LETTER. Now that I've shared my favorite Patricia Clarkson films with you, let me share something else. She wants you to get out and vote. Vote for Kamala Harris. Patricia Clarkson is the lady in blue with drag queen performers Nina West and La Tina Turner.
Work it, Patricia Clarkson! One last thing. I must recommend one of her films to you if you're up for a mature romance that has a hint of BRIEF ENCOUNTER (1945) about it. She is sensational as the magazine editor wife of a man who works for the United Nations. She takes some time off to accompany him to Egypt. He must go there on business. He gets stuck in Gaza and doesn't want her to be alone and bored. He sends his former bodyguard to be her tour guide. This is one smooth, smart movie and Clarkson is at her peak. CAIRO TIME is one of her "must-see" movies. She's delicious in it. Here's a trailer.
Again I say "Work it, Patricia Clarkson!" Now get out there and vote. The life of democracy is at stake this year.

Friday, October 9, 2020

On CESAR CHAVEZ (2014)

Mexican-American actor Michael Peña should be a much bigger star than he is. Whether in a serious drama or a goofy comedy, he consistently proves his skill and versatility. He's got a career achievement that, if he was a Caucasian actor, would get mentioned by network morning news show hosts before they interviewed him in the studio. Michael Peña has had significant roles in five films that were Best Picture Oscar nominees: MILLION DOLLAR BABY (2004), CRASH (2005), BABEL (2006), AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013) and THE MARTIAN (2015). MILLION DOLLAR BABY and CRASH won the Oscars. I guess you can tell that I'm in his fan club. Well, I am. Aside from always being impressed with and totally entertained by his talent, he reminds me of every cool Chicano dude I had classes with and served on the altar with when I attended Catholic schools in my South Central L.A. youth. (Yes, I was an altar boy.) It's Hispanic Heritage Month. When I was a high schooler in Watts, our teachers discussed with us the importance of Cesar Chavez and his social activism. In Los Angeles at that time, Chavez was reguarly in the TV, radio and newspaper headlines. It did not get a lot of attention from press when it opened, but Michael Peña starred in a pretty good biopic about the activist. I feel it's worth seeing especially during Hispanic Heritage Month. Here's a clip about the 2014 biopic, CESAR CHAVEZ. The movie was directed by actor Diego Luna.
Director Diego Luna, also Mexican, had a supporting role opposite Sean Penn in the Oscar-winning biopic, MILK. Penn played the late San Francisco gay rights politician and activist, Harvey Milk. He won the Best Actor Oscar for his performance. Luna was excellent with close friend, Gael Garcia Bernal, in Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN. Here's more about CESAR CHAVEZ.
Again, this is some recommended viewing for Hispanic Heritage Month. The movie was overlooked when it came out -- but, I feel it's worth a look and it's packed with a talented cast headed by Michael Peña.

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Remarkable Tommy Rall

He passed away this week in Santa Monica, California. He was 90 and I read that he passed away peacefully after having read lots of fan letters letting him know that his work was loved. That made me smile. He was the extraordinary dancer, singer and actor Tommy Rall.
His name was not as well and widely known as fellow male dancers who performed in classic Hollywood musicals -- specifically Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor. But, wow, was he wonderful to watch onscreen. When I was first introduced to classic movie musicals, I was a kid growing up in Los Angeles. I watched them on TV. Tommy Rall's remarkable dancing pulled my attention to the TV screen like a magnet. I had to know his name. I waited for the closing credits. I looked him up in movie books at the neighborhood library. Tommy Rall was truly a triple threat in movies. He was handsome. The camera loved his face. In addition to that, he was a great dancer, he had a solid singing voice and he could act. Rall had a gift for comedy as you can see in the MGM musical, KISS ME KATE (1953). In that he was paired with Ann Miller, at her peak, as her constantly gambling, fellow Broadway dancer boyfriend.
That MGM musical was a very clever adaption of the hit Broadway musical with a score by Cole Porter. Rall was a Broadway dancer and, in the film, he danced with another Broadway veteran -- Bob Fosse. The two had a challenge dance in an original 1955 musical. MY SISTER EILEEN was a hit comedy starring Rosalind Russell in 1942. Russell repeated her role in 1953's WONDERFUL TOWN, the hit Broadway musical version of MY SISTER EILEEN. Hollywood did its own musical version and kept the original title. In the 1955 film, Rall and Fosse play rival suitors out to win the heart of Eileen's sister. Her sister is a Broadway hopeful.
Tommy Rall was one of the backwoods brothers in the classic musical, SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS (1954), he danced with Barbra Streisand in FUNNY GIRL (1968) when Streisand as Fanny Brice did a parody of the "Swan Lake" ballet with Rall as the prince and, in his 50s, he was still a charismatic, graceful, athletic dancer. We saw that in the 1981 film, PENNIES FROM HEAVEN. In that, he's a member of the "It's The Girl" musical trio number with Steve Martin. Tommy Rall left us with some marvelous work to enjoy. What a great talent he was. I loved his work. Here's another number from KISS ME KATE.

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Zac Efron and St. Bernadette

If you grew up Catholic, as I did, and attended Catholic school, I bet you're aware of the legend of Saint Bernadette. In life, Bernadette Soubirous was the peasant teen in France who saw visions of the Virgin Mother in Lourdes. The first vision occurred On February 11th in 1858. During one vision in the grotto, Bernadette was instructed by the Virgin Mother to dig in the ground. Eventually, a spring appeared. For some faithful followers, the water of the spring had healing powers. All of this is covered in the 1943 biographical film, THE SONG OF BERNADETTE, based on a best-selling book of the same name. Jennifer Jones played Bernadette and took home the Oscar for Best Actress. Does this connect to actor Zac Efron? Yes, it does. Efron has a documentary travel series on Netflix called DOWN TO EARTH with ZAC EFRON. The reviews I saw on social media for the series were pretty good. However, the main reviews seemed to be about his looks. Especially from publications aimed at gay men. On Twitter, INSTINCT MAGAZINE wrote "Zac Efron Remains a Beardy & Totally Sexy Daddy in the Making."
Well, he is a nice slice o' beefcake nevertheless his series is worth watching for the surprising and worthwhile information. The focus is on leading a healthier lifestyle that will, in turn, lead to us treating the planet in a healthier way. Efron does this with a good buddy and author named Darin Olien. He's a wellness expert. Also handsome. You can tell that the two are good buddies because Olien has the knack of making movie star Efron expose his goofy side in a refreshing, unselfconscious way. The first episode takes us to Iceland. I found myself wishing the U.S. would take some serious tips from Iceland on how it's helping the environment. During the Iceland visit, the two friends have a hot tub experience. The sight of Zac Efron in the water, I'm sure, carbonated the hormones of many gay magazine writers and became the lead story. I enjoyed the first episode so much that I stayed on for the second. It was fascinating. The subject was water. Healthy water. It begins with a visit to a West Hollywood restaurant that has a water sommelier. You read that correctly. Not a wine sommelier. A water sommelier. Zac and Darin are joined by actress Anna Kendrick. They all sample and learn about the true health properties of bottled waters. From West Hollywood, the two guys travel to Paris for more water information. Then, they travel to Lourdes. This section really gripped me. With a French executive who, at first, was rather testy, Zac and Darin were allowed to look at medical papers documenting the unexplained properties of the waters from the grotto at Lourdes. They also visit the shrine. Like I said, if you're a fellow Catholic who's aware of St. Bernadette and Our Lady of Lourdes, I highly recommend watching that episode from Zac Efron's travel doc series. It will give your spirit a tingle. Here's a look at DOWN TO EARTH with ZAC EFRON.

Friday, September 25, 2020

Some Delicious Meryl Streep

I'm not blogging as frequently as I have because the format was changed and I cannot stand it. The legacy format, which made postings much simpler, is no longer accessible and cries for its return seem to have fallen upon deaf ears and unseeing eyes in the Help & Feeback office. However, today I rewatched one of my favorite Meryl Streep performances. She played the famous chef/author/TV instructor Julia Child in JULIE & JULIA written and directed by Nora Ephron. I love this movie.
I've been enamored with Streep since the 1970s. I've had the sensational opportunities to interview her on TV a couple of times and to sit next to her at an awards luncheon. During that luncheon, Meryl Streep had me practically guffawing with laughter at her asides and observations. Yes. The Oscar-winning star of the Holocaust drama, SOPHIE'S CHOICE, is one of the funniest show biz people I've ever met in my life. Back in the 80s, I read an interview of her in a Screen Actors Guild publication. She cited Marlon Brando as a great influence on her craft. That is no surprise. She also mentioned Lucille Ball. That may have come as a surprise to some -- but not really when you look at Streep's comedy timing and physicality in DEATH BECOMES HER, DEFENDING YOUR LIFE and POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE. Add several moments of JULIE & JULIA to that list. (The Julie, played by Amy Adams, is a sincere fan who cooks recipes from the Julia Child cookbook and then blogged her results and experiences.) In the movie, you have two women of different decades who find a greater sense of themselves while eating and cooking and writing. Streep captures the funny, nasal little trill we loved in Julia Child's voice as she passionately taught us how to cook on PBS TV. One ingredient I adore about Ephron's screenplay is how she made marriage to the one you truly love to be like a great meal followed by a fabulous dessert. Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci play the married couple.
There's a scene with two tall women that, to me, is absolutely delicious. I watch it. I savor it. I smile. I love it more and more every time I see it. Jane Lynch plays Julia's delightful sister. The two tall women reunite, have lunch in a nice restaurant and discuss such things as growing up in Pasadena and the miracle of marvelous cheese. It's a lovely scene.
A delicious performance from Meryl Streep. Nora Ephron directed her to one of her numerous Best Actress Oscar nominations in JULIE & JULIA, a movie that makes me smile -- and hungry -- every time I watch it.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Salma Hayek in a Killer Role

Back in 2006, I was the weekly film critic entertainment contibutor on Whoopi Goldberg's national weekday early morning radio show. It was a live broadcast out of New York City. During that time, I saw a movie that got a little bitty amount of publicity. You know how John Travolta has gained an amount of fame for making clunker movies that are so bad, instead of saying they were released, you want to say they escaped? Well, this movie seemed to be dropkicked into that category. In New York City, it played for two weeks at an arthouse theater down in the Village. The movie has a film noir flavor. Overall, is this film as fully delicious as DOUBLE INDEMNITY or BODY HEAT? No. Still, what grabbed me by the collar and held my attention was the feverishly sexy, lethal beauty performance delivered by Salma Hayek.
LONELY HEARTS, a brief 2006 release, stars John Travolta, James Gandolfini and Scott Caan as detectives. The detectives have a certain drama going on in their work relationship while on the trail of two serial killers. The killers are the real-life crazy couple we saw portrayed in the fine 1970 black and white crime thriller, THE HONEYMOON KILLERS, starring Shirley Stoler as Martha Beck and Tony Lo Bianco as Ray Fernandez. Beck and Fernandez are given a different interpretation here. This was the movie that made me realize Jared Leto had some serious acting chops. He'd go on to win a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for 2013's DALLAS BUYERS CLUB. Salma Hayek's blistering boldness, her manipulative psychotic sexiness as Martha, sets the screen on fire. LONELY HEARTS came and went quickly in very few theaters. You can stream it now on YouTube or Amazon. If you're a Salma Hayek fan, check out this film and let me know what you think. Go on YouTube and look for LONELY HEARTS trailers that give you a grittier taste of the movie.

See THE 40-YEAR-OLD VERSION

It was 1:30 in the morning and there I was, belly laughing at moments in a new comedy film on Netflix. With THE 40-YEAR OLD VERSION, Rahda B...