Sunday, August 31, 2014

Roz Russell Labor Day Double Feature

"Labor Day.  That's sometime in November, isn't it?"                                                                          
So says the charming and charismatic Auntie Mame to her new little love at the end of the colorful comedy that highlights diversity and chosen family in New York City. Transferring her Broadway hit to the big screen, the role brought Rosalind Russell another Oscar nomination for Best Actress.  This was a role she was born to play. In her early 50s, Russell was sophisticated, radiant, energetic and memorably funny in the part.  It's a great performance in a must-see classic film comedy.

Auntie Mame was an Oscar nominee for Best Picture of 1958.

Picnic, co-starring Rosalind Russell, was an Oscar nominee for Best Picture of 1955.  Like Auntie Mame, it was a project that originated on the Broadway stage.  Roz didn't star in the Broadway play.  She replaced Eileen Heckart as the middle-aged, high school teacher who's afraid she'll live the rest of her life as an old maid, an unmarried woman.  In 1950s movies, you were an old maid if you were 29 and a single woman without a steady boyfriend.  Rosemary digs a good stiff drink once a while.  Well, more than once in a while.  You'll see at the Labor Day picnic.
This is of my longtime favorite Labor Day movie rentals.  The action starts on Labor Day.  William Holden plays a drifter in Kansas.  He'd been in L.A. and there was a hint of him becoming a movie star because of his butch good looks, but nothing happened.  Now he's in Kansas looking up a buddy from college days.  The town is preparing for the holiday picnic.  The drifter, Hal, seeks some handyman work but everyone has the day off.  He stays and helps a local family.  Come to find out, the oldest daughter, Madge, is the town beauty queen and the girlfriend of Hal's old frat house buddy, Alan.

Madge has an intellectual and neurotic younger sister, an unmarried and bitter mother who's pushing Madge to marry the safe and financially secure college Alan...and Rosemary the spinster lives in the house too.  Rosemary has a bumpkin of a middle-aged man she sees but she doesn't take him seriously in that conservative, dull town.

Hal enters with his macho self and carbonates the hormones of all those females.  They're all repressed in a very 1950s way.  He sets their hormones spinning like they're in those giant teacups at DisneyLand.  Of course, Madge falls for Hal.  The dames will have a corn-fed meltdown at the picnic.  Rosemary will drink too much and cruise Hal's package.  Then she'll make a drunken pass at him.
The intellectual sister will have a drink and cry because she's not pretty like Madge.  The mother is still angry that her husband deserted her.  Madge realizes that Hal is sexier that Alan.  Kim Novak plays Madge and Cliff Robertson plays nice-guy Alan.  One reason why I love the letter-boxed DVD is the community pool locker room scene in the first 20 minutes.  Shirtless William Holden and Cliff Robertson are talking.  On a big screen, Robertson's nipples look the size of nuclear missiles ready for launching.
The other thing I love is the famous dance scene.  This is one of the coolest and sexiest movie dances from Old Hollywood studio days that was ever performed by two non-dancers.  Holden didn't want to do the role.  He felt he was too old.  Technically, he was.  But, he was big box office at the time and he'd won a Best Actor Oscar for Billy Wilder's 1953 World War 2 prison story, Stalag 17.  Holden's name on a marquee brought in movie goers -- and it certainly did with this hit film.  Also, Holden hated having to shave his chest hair to make him look younger.  Those discomforts gave him an edginess and insecurity that worked for the Hal character.
The only woman who can handle Hal's rugged masculinity is the kindly old next door neighbor played by Verna Felton.  She lives with her ailing -- and loud -- elderly mother.  As soon as Helen Potts (Felton) meets Hal the drifter, she offers him food and tells him to take off his shirt.  Work it, Helen!
The love theme to Picnic, blended into an instrumental of "Moonglow," became a pop music hit from the soundtrack.  That jazz cut knocks me out in the movie.  It makes no sense in the scene but it totally works.  Watch it and notice what a master Holden was of screen technique.  He's not a dancer.  But look at how he sensually caresses Kim Novak's hand.  That's where his real choreography is.  It reveals Hal's hidden feelings.  Plus the way they stop, gaze at each other, then resume swaying to the beat.  Oh, baby, I dig that.

Why does the instrumental make no sense?  The town is at this Kansas picnic.

Listen to the conservative music that's played from bandstands during the picnic portion of the movie.  At nighttime, the music has all been on the bland Lawrence Welk side.  Perfect for that section of Heartland America. When Hal tells the bookworm sister that he'll teach her a dance step her learned in L.A., the music instantly goes from small town whitebread to sounding like the Dave Brubeck Quartet.  A cool Pacific Coast jazz beat comes out of nowhere -- but I'm so glad it did.

Hal and Madge have fallen in love.  But Rosemary has been drinking straight from the bottle and wants to dance with Hal horizontally. And feels him up to prove it.  She makes a hot mess of herself at the picnic.  Maybe life will give her break come the morning light.
There you have it.  The same holiday mentioned in two classic films with Roz -- Auntie Mame and Picnic.  You can have a holiday double feature starring Rosalind Russell and see Cliff Robertson's perky nipples in one of her films.  Happy Labor Day.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Adrien Brody as HOUDINI

One way or another, we all want to escape.

In The New York Times last Friday, there was a big ad in the Weekend Arts section for the movie Begin Again.  The top of the ad read "As The Summer Ends, The Oscar Race Begins Again."

For me, the Oscar Race began before the summer when The Grand Budapest Hotel opened.  I loved that movie so much, I spent money to see it twice.  One of the several fine performances delivered in that Wes Anderson period comedy came from Adrien Brody.  He plays one of the heavies in the film, a film that would be on my end of the year "10 Best of 2014" list.  If I was asked to compile one.
In Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel, we see characters who want to escape danger.

That theme of escape carries over to Adrien Brody's new work.  The first part of it premieres Monday, September 1st, on History Channel.  Brody plays a legendary showman who says "I don't want to escape life, I want to escape death."  Adrien Brody stars as Houdini.  This controversial entertainer was  definitely a piece of special delivery chain male.
Brody is not the first actor to play the famed Harry Houdini.

Tony Curtis, seen on the far left, played him on the big screen in the 1950s.  Paul Michael Glaser, next to Curtis, played him on TV in the 1970s.  Other actors have appeared on screen as Houdini.  Adrien Brody really puts his colorful stamp on the character in the first half of this very entertaining TV biopic.
Don't get me wrong.  I'm not implying that the last half sucks.  For some reason, I was given access to part one, but the screener for part two was unavailable to me.  However, just like I did with The Grand Budapest Hotel, I watched the first half twice.  I loved part one of Houdini that much.
It's colorful, it's vibrant, it's interesting, it moves.  You're hooked because you want to know how Houdini did those tricks.  How did he escape while chained?  How did he stop a bullet with his teeth?  Brody has charisma in the role, he really connects to the character and -- let's face it -- he's a talented actor.  Brody won the Best Actor Academy Award for his performance in 2002's historical drama, The Pianist.
There's a touch of the Golden Age of Hollywood about History Channel's Houdini.  Like in a 1930s movie starring Tyrone Power, twenty years pass by yet the lead characters look the same.  No weight gain, no hair loss, no saggy skin.
You can't blame Harry Houdini for wanting to reinvent himself and escape his background.   He and his Jewish family members were misfits within a group of misfits who immigrated to Appleton, Wisconsin.  He Jewish father got fired by Jews for sticking with the ways of Budapest and not coming up to Appleton, Wisconsin standards.  Young Houdini, born Erich Weiss, witnessed his dad being treated like a nobody.  He didn't want to be like his dad.

We see him become a master illusionist after becoming fascinated with a rather macabre sideshow act in his youth.  We see him fall in love.  We see him find a helpful and devoted assistant who enables Houdini to kick his act up a notch.

We see Harry Houdini perform for and amaze royalty.  We see him do espionage work.  When his popularity fades a bit, the driven showman will reinvent himself when new technology attracts audiences to a new guy in a new medium.  Charlie Chaplin is a star in silent movies on big screens.

If you get a chance to see History Channel's Houdini, I think you'll dig it.  I can't wait to see the last half.  I hope it's as entertaining as the first.

This week I saw the new movies November Man starring Pierce Brosnan, The Last of Robin Hood starring Kevin Kline and Susan Sarandon and a non-scary horror/thriller called As Above, So Below.  None of those was so much fun that I wanted to see it a second time the way I did the first half of Houdini.  It was like a fun Saturday matinee at the movies.

To repeat, I really hope that part two is just as entertaining as part one.

Friday, August 29, 2014


It's established early on that the young, pretty and slim British woman is an impressive intellectual.  She's got a couple of degrees.  She speaks about four languages.  She says, "I'm a student of history.  Of alchemy."  Fine.  But just because you're an intellectual does not mean that you've got good common sense.  Very little makes sense in the new alleged horror thriller, As Above, So Below.
Scarlett, the young archeologist, is obsessed with finding something her late father sought.  It's a rock.  Something of a magic rock.  It's one of the several things not fully explained in the movie.  We meet her  on a secret personal mission in Iran where she has a kind Iranian risk his life to help her find some ancient writing on a cave wall in a war-torn community.  He repeatedly orders her to run for it when dangerous military approaches.  She ignores his warnings because it's all about her and what she wants.  Then we're taken to France where she's positive that the ancient item she seeks, and that her father wanted to find, is in the bowels of Paris.  It's in a hidden cave in The Catacombs, a historical location full of the bones of hundreds of people who died hundreds of years ago.  That means she will crawl through dirt-filled, dark chambers underground.  For this mission, she shows up dressed as if she's auditioning for a stage version of Flashdance.  A white sweater with one shoulder pulled down like the popular Jennifer Beals fashion statement in the 1980s movie.  Remember this look?
That's how Scarlett is dressed for a secret archeological expedition in underground Paris.  But wait.  There's more.  To get her underground without officials finding out about the expedition, she recruits the aid of a young French team that looks like a new rock band you'd see on Saturday Night Live.  Or housemates on a Parisian version on Big Brother.  The French hipster in charge wants half the buried treasure that Scarlett leads him to believe they'll find.  There's a black guy on the team.  When we black moviegoers see a black man in a scary movie, we never expect him to be around for the last act.
Scarlett is on a quest but, apparently, it's not for money.  She tells someone that.  But then what the hell is it for?  A National Geographic cover story?  A network TV news profile? A book deal?  What?  She's so self-centered and irritating in this quest.  There's a lot of mumbo-jumbo about mythologies coupled with camera work that reminds you a bit of The Blair Witch Project.  In the beginning, a man mentions that such a search could cause insanity.  The one who made me crazy was Scarlett.  She has no regard for museum property as she takes one item off a wall and pours chemical fluids on it...
...and she's crawling through a cave wearing something white and partially off-the-shoulder.

In classic old Hollywood horror movies, like the ones starring Boris Karloff, you were given details.  If an ancient curse was disobeyed for the sake of greed, you knew why The Mummy came back to life and was killing people in that 1932 film.  In a ghost story like 1944's The Uninvited, you learned who the ghost was.  In 1961's The Innocents, we discovered the identity of the ghostly apparition.  In Alien, we were told how the alien creature got onboard and how dangerous it was.  In the excellent 2007 Spanish thriller, The Orphanage, we learned who the ghosts were.

We don't learn shit in As Above, So Below.  We see a zombie-like brunette appear and scope out the expedition crew before it goes underground.  We see her in the hidden chambers.  We never learn who or what she was.  We don't learn how a rotary phone wound up in the catacombs -- and still works.  And who was that on the phone to Scarlett?  Also, the invisible, mighty force that violently pushes crew members before they start the major part of their underground journey -- shouldn't that have been a clue that they might be in danger seeking hidden chambers with a magic rock in the bowels of France? And who or what are those ghosts or monsters in the caves?  Why are there personal visions that freak out crew members?  Don't the expedition team members have relatives who may get curious if they're never heard from again?  And could Scarlett maybe apologize for irresponsibly leading a team of young explorers into an ancient curse?  Now playing in cineplexes, here's a trailer for As Above, So Below.
This script has more holes that The Catacombs do.  Capable actors are given a script that could have been fixed and improved by a quartet of clever high schoolers.  For a scary movie, As Above, So Below is not that scary.  And it has the most unsatisfying end since my prom night.  About the archeologist leader -- when she proclaims yet another theory after things got deadly, you wished one injured crew member would slap the spit out of Miss Scarlett and say, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn."

Thursday, August 28, 2014


An all-white jury in the deep South.  No one is brought to justice.  No one is convicted in the mutilation  and lynching of Emmett Till.  Only 14, the Chicago teen was visiting relatives in Mississippi.  He was accused of whistling at a 21 year old married white woman in a local store.  It's been written that Till was a good son who took on a share of domestic responsibilities at home to help his single, hard-working mother.  She was an office clerk for the Air Force.  A grammar school friend described Emmett as a funny, chubby kid who liked to make people laugh.
Two white men were accused of kidnapping, torturing and shooting the teen in the head.  The teen's face had been beaten beyond recognition.  He'd been tied and thrown into the Tallahatchie River.  Again, no one was brought to justice.  Emmett Till died on August 28, 1955.  Ron Bryant, the husband of the woman who claimed Till flirted with her, and the husband's half-brother were acquitted of the murder on September 23, 1955.                                                                                                                            

Emmett Till's murder was a galvanizing point that added intense motivation to the Civil Rights Movement.  It was the racist murder of the African-American youth (seen in the photo with his mother) and the court trial that inspired Harper Lee to write To Kill a Mockingbird.
This connects to a powerful new documentary now playing in theaters such as Film Forum on West Houston Street in downtown New York City:

Thomas Allen Harris has my respect, appreciation and deep gratitude for his moving and significant new documentary, Through a Lens Darkly:  Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People.

Harris understands and communicates the power of a single image -- a single black and white image.
He gives us history.
He shows how the power that images taken by black people challenged demeaning images projected in mainstream white media.  This ranges from family photos to pictures in national magazines.  Here's a trailer for Harris' Through a Lens Darkly.

I did not expect this documentary to make me cry, but it did.  The segment about photographs taken during the funeral service for Emmett Till had tears rolling down my face.  There have been documentaries made about Till.  One aired on PBS.  If you're unfamiliar with that crime and its court case, learn about it.

I think the negative, humiliating racial images projected in mainstream media influenced Hollywood.  I feel they had an impact on the restricted film image career of Oscar winner Hattie McDaniel (1939's Gone With The Wind, Best Supporting Actress) and the complicated career of the actor known as Stephin Fetchit, an black actor very popular with white audiences for his shuffling, dim-witted, comical black character.  I also believe the history in Harris' documentary makes one realize how bold directors like John M. Stahl and Vincente Minnelli were in presenting more accurate, more respectful images of black people in A-list Hollywood films.  Stahl directed the original 1934 Imitation of Life starring Fredi Washington, a light-skinned black actress playing a racially conflicted light-skinned black woman.  The very popular Douglas Sirk 1950s remake has Susan Kohner, a non-black actress, playing a light-skinned black woman.

In Vincente Minnelli's Cabin in the Sky (1943), the nightclub sequence featuring Ethel Waters, Lena Horne, Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, Duke Ellington and dancer John "Bubbles" Sublett showed black people as far more sophisticated and dignified compared to the stereotypical way we were portrayed in, say, 1930s musical numbers directed by Busby Berkeley.  Minnelli showed upscale images of black families and black soldiers in his World War 2 love story, The Clock, starring Judy Garland and Robert Walker.  In that drama, the images of black people reflected images of my parents in our family album.

Self-affirmation and negation, shame and survival, love and family.  And our American history.  It's all there in Thomas Allen Harris' documentary.  I highly recommend it, especially if you're a photographer.  When you think of photos seen in the news coverage of the shooting deaths of unarmed African-American youths Trayvon Martin in 2012 and, this year, Michael Brown, it clicks how relevant the history in this documentary is.
Mr. Harris, thank you, thank you, thank you for Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People.  You brought so much to light.

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...