Wednesday, July 30, 2014

She's Your New Peter Pan

She's in the cast of Girls on HBO.  Now she's been cast as a famous fantasy boy for NBC.  Allison Williams hooked the starring role in the upcoming live NBC telecast of the musical Peter Pan.  We wish her the absolute best of luck as she handles Peter.  Congratulations, Allison!
It's sort of a family affair for the network.  She's the daughter of NBC news anchor, Brian Williams.  The network had such an enormous ratings success with its live production of Rodgers & Hammerstein's The Sound of Music that it quickly -- and wisely -- decided to go live with another beloved Broadway hit from its theatrical golden age.  This will be the network's second live telecast of musical that starred Mary Martin.  She originated the role of Maria on Broadway in The Sound of Music.  She played Peter Pan on Broadway and, fortunately for us, recreated that performance for NBC.

I loved that TV special.  It was so warm, so touching, so much fun and very well-acted.  Back when I was a kid,  Mary Martin's Peter Pan got an annual special NBC airing -- the same way 1939's The Wizard of Oz did on CBS.  Mary Martin, with that lilting voice of hers, just had the right spirit and spunk to play Peter Pan on TV even though she was about 40 when she did.  Mary Martin had star magic in that NBC special.

The Wizard of Oz continued to get annual special broadcasts for quite a few more years, but NBC's Peter Pan didn't.  It's now available on DVD.

In 1976, NBC gave us another Peter Pan.  Mia Farrow played Peter almost ten years after she gave moviegoers chills as the horrified mother in Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby.  Danny Kaye co-starred as Captain Hook.
I can only recall having seen Peter Pan portrayed by a male in three full-length features.  The first one is my favorite -- the classic Disney version with the animated Peter.  I'm a sucker for any full-length feature that has bloodthirsty pirates wearing pastels.

Robin Williams showed us an older and hairier Peter in 1991's Hook directed by Steven Spielberg.  Dustin Hoffman played Captain Hook.  Julia Roberts starred as Tinkerbell.

The next one was the wonderful 2003 film version with Jeremy Sumpter as Peter Pan and Jason Isaacs as Captain Hook.  This is an excellent DVD rental for kids.

Out of curiosity, I asked Twitter readers why Peter Pan is always played by women on network TV and not by a male.

The first response I got was "Traditionally always played by a woman on the stage..."

Yes.  I know.  But I wrote on network TV.  That's different.  Traditionally, Maria in The Sound of Music was always played by actresses on the stage.  On network TV, however, she was played by Carrie Underwood.

The next response was:  "Peter Pan is a boy who won't grow up.  If played by a male, it would either have to be a prepubescent kid or a castrato."

OK.  So...he'll now be played by actress Allison Williams.

Wow.  Wait till the Lost Boys get a load o' that in the forest.  Oak, spruce, birch and morningwood.

For many years, I just assumed that Peter Pan was played by females on TV and on the stage because adult females usually weigh less that adult males and would be easier to lift for the show's special effects.  Think of movie musicals.  It would've been easier for Gene Kelly to lift Debbie Reynolds than it would've been for her to lift him.
But technology has advanced and changed since Mary Martin flew in as Peter Pan the 1950s.  Also, our society has advanced and changed.  When NBC viewers first saw Martin as Peter Pan in the 1950s, the thoughts of an American walking on the moon, an African-American being elected President of the United States and millions of Americans being able to take photographs with their cellphones were impossible dreams.  That all became a reality.  It's now part of our 21st Century history.

With that in mind, would viewers embrace a male Peter?  If NBC had done another version of Peter Pan in the late 1980s starring Michael Jackson at the peak of his Thriller fame, that could've been a ratings blockbuster.  Think about it.  Michael Jackson was the boy who wouldn't grow up.  He named his ranch "Neverland."

Michael's father, Joe Jackson, would've been perfect to play Captain Hook.

I answered the "castrato" tweet with this:  "Would network TV execs cast someone like, say, Jaden Smith?"

The reply was:  "Who is Jaden Smith?"

I mentioned Jaden and his upcoming film role in my previous blog post, "Jazz Man Has The Write Stuff."  He'll star in the film adaptation of a National Book Award winner.
Jaden Smith as Peter Pan could've also been a family affair for NBC considering that his dad, Will Smith, starred in NBC's hit sitcom, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.  Jaden got big national attention acting opposite his father (and doing a mighty fine job) in the dramatic film, The Pursuit of Happyness, a film that earned Will Smith an Oscar nomination for Best Actor of 2006.

Jaden went to co-star with Jackie Chan in a remake of The Karate Kid.

What do you think?  Would a modern TV audience be ready for a different kind of Peter?  In New York City where hundreds of good young actors auditioned for Broadway musicals like Spring Awakening and Billy Elliott, I bet a network would have no problem finding talented young male candidates to fly through the air and sing "I Won't Grow Up" like middle-aged Broadway legend Mary Martin did in the 1950s.

Allison Williams of HBO's Girls will play Peter Pan in NBC's special live telecast on December 4th.

I think Girls creator and star Lena Dunham should join Allison in the Peter Pan cast.  And Dunham should play Smee.

Just an idea for something different.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Jazz Man Has The Write Stuff

On Sunday, I listened to KALW on my computer.  The San Francisco public radio station airs To The Best of Our Knowledge.  I always learn something fascinating and provocative,  something culturally enriching when I listen to that early Sunday morning show.  Last weekend's show had an interview with James McBride.  If you've not heard of him, he's someone you need to know.

He's a jazz man.  A mighty fine jazz man.

He's a writer.  He was a staff writer for The Boston Globe and The Washington Post.  He's also a novelist.  He won the 2013 National Book Award for his novel, The Good Lord Bird.  It's a book about John Brown, the abolitionist, and a young slave in the Kansas area during the 1850s.  Brown was a controversial white man who hated slavery and felt it was his duty to start a war against it.  He was eventually executed.  The story in McBride's novel, a historical road trip, is told through the voice of the young slave who meets Brown.  He's called "Onion."  The slave narrator lives to be 103.

To The Best of Our Knowledge has a segment called "On Our Minds."  In that segment, James McBride read an excerpt from his National Book Award winner and he explained why he doesn't like depictions of American slavery that we've seen in recent films like 12 Years a Slave and Django Unchained.  What the author had to say about the history of slavery in America and our need to discuss the topic in a new way was deep.

He's a musician.  He's literary.  He's provocative.  He's funny.  In the Bio section of his website, James McBride wrote this about...James McBride:  "He's the worst dancer in the history of African Americans, bar none, going back to slavetime and beyond.  He should be legally barred from dancing at any party he attends."

That just broke me the heck up when I read it.  I giggled at that for the rest of the Sunday morning.

Mr. McBride was so interesting, passionate and down-to-earth in the interview that I just had to find out more about him.  Plus, his music was kickin'!

Did you see Miracle at St. Anna, the World War II drama set in Italy and directed by Spike Lee?  James McBride wrote the screenplay for that 2008 film.  The screenplay was based on his novel of the same name.

On the radio show, it was mentioned that The Good Lord Bird will get a big screen adaptation with Liev Schreiber and Jaden Smith (son of Will Smith) slated to star.

To hear Brother McBride talk about his National Book Award winning novel and to hear him play some of his music, visit the To The Best of Our Knowledge website.  Download his interview in the "On Our Minds" section.  Here's the radio show's website:

To hear some good music, read the rest of his bio and learn other groovy things about him, visit his website:  The Good Lord Bird is now in paperback.

His new CD is called The Process.

Monday, July 28, 2014

STAR TREK Star, George Takei

It's Monday.  I just heard actor George Takei interviewed by Terry Gross on today's edition of National Public Radio's Fresh Air.  Takei fascinates me.  I've never met nor interviewed him but he's been extremely important to me with his career.  We're both minorities, we're both natives of Los Angeles and we're both performers who had to confront racial and sexual orientation barriers in our careers.   He deserves big applause.  His childhood years were not easy due to Japanese-American families in California being relocated from their homes to internment camps during World War 2.  He grew up, he persevered and proved his talents.

It was the role of Sulu on Star Trek that brought him national fame through the years.
When I was a high schooler in the post-riot Watts of South Central L.A and growing up on a cul-de-sac block near 120th and Central Avenue, Star Trek was a very significant TV show to our family, my classmates and to our friends and neighbors on the block.  Our block was diverse.  We were black, Filipino, Mexican and white.  Seeing reflections of our working class block's diversity on television was important to us.  It was reflected in the sci-fi TV series with upscale, intelligent characters that made us proud.  Takei also acted on TV's Mission: Impossible.  That show, like Star Trek, was a Desilu Production.  The landmark company, started by Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball when they became TV icons on I Love Lucy, was groundbreaking in putting racially diverse casts on weekly television.  That began with I Love Lucy.  Arnaz, a Cuban immigrant, was executive producer and the male lead actor on the legendary sitcom.  I wrote about his extraordinary and oddly unhonored contributions to TV as an actor and pioneer TV producer.  Read about that in my recent June blog post, On Ricky Ricardo.  Arnaz never received an Emmy nomination nor a lifetime achievement Emmy.  Desilu Productions gave a green light to Star Trek and Mission: Impossible.

About his Sulu role, Takei told Terry Gross that he remarked "I smell quality with this script" when he was shooting the pilot.  She's a good interviewer.  I'm assuming she's way younger than I.  She missed the Desilu connection in regards to the notable racial diversity of the Star Trek TV and film cast.

Also, when Takei talked about early film roles and mentioned his understandable concern when offered parts in Jerry Lewis comedies, she wanted to know why.  I understood his concern because Lewis would occasionally fall back on stereotypes for a laugh.  That was the case when he played Asians.

Lewis' comedies of the 1950s and early '60s were big box office hits.
Being seen in them could benefit a new actor's visibility but it could also present a dilemma, as it did in Takei's case.  What I found extremely interesting about that portion of the interview was that Takei's agent was also Japanese-American.

There's some casting we rarely -- if ever -- see in movies or on television.  How many times have you seen a production in which the actor's agent or manager was an Asian-American, African-American or Latino?  Think of movies like Tootsie and Postcards from the Edge.  Think of TV shows like Entourage and the Kirstie Alley sitcom,  Fat Actress.

George Takei was closeted early in his career when he witnessed how rumors of being gay could cripple an actor's healthy career.  He mentioned top 1950s Warner Brothers movie star, Tab Hunter.  Hunter came out in his later years.

Today Takei is out of the closet,  he's in his 60s, he has a husband and Takei seems to be more popular now that ever before in his career.  He's the subject of a new documentary that opens in August.  Its title is To Be Takei.

Takei also worked in a film with Hollywood legend John Wayne.  Takei was anti-Vietnam War.  Wayne for pro-Vietnam War.  They discussed their political differences briefly on the set.  This came up in today's Terry Gross interview.

I wonder if the Star Trek star ever talked about John Wayne's performance as Asian emperor Genghis Kahn in The Conqueror (1956).

As George Takei would say, "Oh myyyyy."

Thursday, July 24, 2014

LUCY Is On Drugs

Scarlett Johansson goes all Miss Matrix on you as Lucy.  Is it a great movie?  No.  Does it have entertaining action?  Yes.  Is she good?  Yes.  She made smart acting choices in an action movie with a far-fetched script and some cinema images that dropkick you back to the 1940s.  Scarlett Johansson starts out as a victim, a young and clueless woman with a "Hello Kitty" T-shirt personality.  Somehow she wound up in Taiwan dating a low-life rat who tricks her into helping him with a drug deal.
The next thing you know, innocent and scared Lucy is tortured by a bunch of Asian thugs and their drug lord.  She's rendered unconscious and turned into a drug mule.  A plastic bag filled with a weird drug that looks like blue pop rocks was surgically implanted in her belly.  While she's having all this drama, a renowned professor (played by Morgan Freeman) lectures on how the average human uses only 10% of his or her brain.
Of course, something goes horribly wrong while Lucy's in Asian captivity.  The Asian men want to have beastly sex with this pretty American blonde.  They abuse her.  The big bag of drugs breaks, the drugs go into her system and she gains superhuman intellect and powers.  She has lost the feeling of pain and fear.  She feels everything around her.  She has gained extraordinary abilities.  And she's got a gun.  She goes from being victim to being the top aggressor with a super computer-like brain.  Does she want vengeance or does she want answers?  Or both?  Francis Bacon said, "Knowledge is power."  Lucy says, "Ignorance causes chaos."  She has power.  She will use 100% of her brain.  The screenwriter used the usual 10%.  Or a bit less.

I'm interested in seeing if this action movie pulls in female moviegoers and has a satisfying box office debut.  It's 2014 and a female as the lead action character is rare in Hollywood movies.  Johansson was in Marvel's The Avengers but she wasn't the star of it.  Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man was.  I hoped Veronica Mars, the movie version out earlier this year, would inspire Hollywood to give us a new adult female private eye lead character.  That's a genre crying out for attention.  We haven't had a female private eye drive a movie since Kathleen Turner starred as V.I. Warshawski in 1991.  The men are still the majority of comic book action figures in films.  And when the heck is Hollywood gonna gives us a big screen version of Wonder Woman?  We got Ryan Reynolds as Green Lantern.  Ben Affleck was Daredevil, then he donned the Superman outfit when he played TV Superman George Reeves in Hollywoodland and he will be the new Batman.  That's three for him.  But there hasn't been one actress starring in a big Wonder Woman feature yet.  That's just wrong.

Luc Besson directed and wrote Lucy.  He directed La Femme Nikita and The Fifth Element.  He likes shapely young women, macho foreign men with that butch leather-clad Euro-look, car chases and slapping scenes in which we're focused on the hand before the person gets slapped.  That's all here in Lucy.  The car chase scene in Lucy totally worked for me.

Lucy contacts policeman Pierre Del Rio to help her nab the drug kingpin and bust the drug mules before they arrive at their destination.  Her superhuman skills intimidate the cops at first but, eventually, they work with her.  She works the closest with the macho Del Rio.  He may not get to go horizontal with her but she sets him up to get a major raise and a promotion at work.  Del Rio is well-played by Amr Waked.  I'd like to see Amr Waked and Scarlett Johansson team up again in something just as action-filled and driven by the female lead but with a sharper movie script -- like 1996's under-appreciated The Long Kiss Goodnight starring Geena Davis and Samuel L. Jackson.  She played a suburban mom stricken with amnesia whom we follow as we see her become a top secret agent with a gun.  Like in The Long Kiss Goodnight, an ordinary woman gains strength and extraordinary skills.  Lucy can handle men with guns.  She's their match.

Luc Besson movies are usually like fast food.  They're Big Macs and a Quarter Pounder with Cheese.  But when you say that in French like John Travolta's character does in Pulp Fiction, they sound fancier.  What I wrote about him using the usual 10% of brain power when he wrote the screenplay?  I'll put it like this:  If I'd acquired the powers to lift people into the air with my mind, I'd have tossed that drug lord out the penthouse hotel window about 30 minutes into the movie for holding me captive and ramming illegal drugs into my gut. The New Bad-Ass Lucy had that chance when he was relaxing.  Why is he even around for the last act?  And what happened to his proper British assistant who made all the drug mule surgical and travel arrangements?

As for Scarlett Johansson, she does very well as Lucy.  She finds a great vocal tone for the aggressive superwoman.  She takes on a monotone, perfect for someone becoming computer-like, yet it's not a voice without color.  It's not flat.  And her movements as the super-brain take on a slight robotic edge.  Even though she's killing villains, there's still a touch of compassion in her voice for good people.  Like Del Rio and the Professor.  She read the professor's 1000-page textbook in a few minutes and can recite it back to him.  She can contribute to his scientific theories.  She can Skype by simply using her mind.  She doesn't need to touch computer keys.  Professor has to work fast with Lucy.  She wants to give him information, she wants to get the bad guys, and she may have only one day to live.  Which means Morgan Freeman should pick up the pace a touch when he talks to her.  You know how Morgan is.
For a domestic action movie driven by a female lead character, it doesn't make as much scene as Alien and Aliens with Sigourney Weaver or the Terminator movies with Linda Hamilton did.  Blame Besson's writing.  Don't blame Scarlett.  But Johansson keeps you interested because she takes the role seriously.  You have to kick logic to the curb, enjoy Scarlett Johansson and hold on for the all the action.  And there's plenty of it.  Even though this story of a woman with supernatural intellect makes very little sense, I liked seeing a female take the lead in a summer action movie.

As for my reference movie images from the 1940s, here's what I meant:  Actor Choi Min-sik plays the feared drug kingpin, Mr. Jang.  He's a cold-blooded killer.
When his henchman stare at Lucy in the first 20 minutes, you know they have rape on their minds.  Asian men lusting over a young blonde American woman in distress -- that's right out of Hollywood propaganda movies made during World War 2.  Did you ever see the old movie, So Proudly We Hail?  Paramount put its A-list ladies in that drama about brave military nurses stationed overseas during combat in the Pacific.  Claudette Colbert, Paulette Goddard and blonde Veronica Lake starred.  Lake, with her famed peek-a-boo hairdo, sacrifices herself one night to Japanese soldiers who come a runnin' to get their evil hands on her hooters.

Like Lucy, this patriotic nurse had a surprise for her captors.  This was great for 1943 audiences when millions of American men and women were serving in WW2.  But in 2014, those movie images of the young American blonde and the villainous Asian male can seem rather moldy.
Lucy.  She's young, she's blonde, she's a babe.  And she turns into a tough super-intellect who uses over 50% of her brain power.  Stephen Hawking would pop a wheelie for her in a heartbeat.
This sci-fi/action thriller runs only about 90 minutes long and it's rated R for violence, brief nudity and graphic footage of animals copulating.

Oscar Buzz for TILL

 I'm on Twitter and, in the last three weeks, there's been Oscar buzz from a few established movie critics. The buzz was that Cate B...