Sunday, November 30, 2014

Rock, Rocca and Race

Chris Rock has a new film coming out in December.  It's screened a few times here in New York City and entertainment reporters/film critics whose work I respect tell me that it's excellent.  One told me that Rock's new effort as an actor, writer and director deserves the kind of praise filmmaker Woody Allen got in the 1970s and 1980s for films such as Annie Hall, Manhattan, Broadway Danny Rose and Hannah and Her Sisters.  This new Chris Rock film is called Top Five and co-stars actress Rosario Dawson.

I was really jealous of Mo Rocca today while I watched CBS Sunday Morning.  Rocca did a mighty fine interview of Rock, an interview I wish I have conducted.  (Full disclosure:  After my VH1 veejay and talk show host years, I pushed to be an entertainment contributor on that CBS show.  I pushed for years.  I could never get an audition or an interview.)  Chris Rock and Mo Rocca discussed the comedian/actor's career.  Chris described his film career as "middlin'."  Rocca was surprised but I totally understand it.  I thought of something I tried unsuccessfully to get across to my former VH1 co-worker, Rosie O'Donnell, who wondered why I'm not working.
Rock knows that, in show business, the playing field is still not exactly level when it comes to black performers.  It's not just casting.  We're often lucky if we can get an audition or interview to be in consideration for the job.  I've seen talented, responsible, unemployed ethnic actors struggle to get work and auditions in New York City.  But Andy Dick can get drunk, get behind the wheel, crash his car into a bus full of elderly nuns, get out of the car wearing nothing but a thong and clown shoes and get an offer to make thousands of dollars on Dancing With The Stars.

We wind up looking at things in terms of race.  And we wonder why non-minorities don't notice the same things or ask the same questions we do.  Take network TV news -- the Monday through Friday evening newscasts you see on ABC, NBC, CBS.  There has not been a black anchor on one of those networks since the late Max Robinson anchored on ABC in the early 1980s.  He died at age 49 in 1988.  If NBC's Brian Williams quit next year, I'd give the anchor seat to Lester Holt.  But that's just me.  None of those three senior networks has had a black host of a late night show nor did any have a black film reviewer on a weekly basis on its morning news shows.  Heck, you rarely saw black film critics on local NYC television news and there are plenty of black/Latino film critics in this town who'd love some TV exposure outside of Black History and Hispanic Heritage months.  When have you ever seen a black female review new movies on a TV newscast?  You'd think they're harder to find than Sasquatch but they're not.  New York City has knowledgable black female movie critics -- but they're rarely picked to be on TV.  Where are the black/Latino/Asian talents as movie channel hosts or guest co-hosts?  In October, Turner Classic Movies had a month-long salute to Africa.  I love TCM.  But who was the guest host?  Someone like Oscar winner Louis Gossett Jr., LeVar Burton, Leslie Uggams or Diahann Carroll, one of the few African-American women to be an Oscar nominee for Best Actress or Bryant Gumble, the former Today host who was the force behind the show's week-long ratings champion week in Africa back in the 1990s?  No.  The guest host was Alex Trebek.  Which episode of Roots was he in?

Rock was an Oscars host and, as Rocca said, was too controversial for the Academy.  Chris Rock poked fun at veteran stars such as Clint Eastwood.  However, years later, the Academy picked Seth MacFarlane to host the Oscars.  He's the writer, director, producer -- the big talent -- behind TV's boundary-blasting animated series, Family Guy.  In one episode, MacFarlane used the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy as comedy material.
Hello?!?! Seth got to host The Oscars years after that aired and after Chris Rock hosted.  As a viewer, I was more nervous about him than I was about Chris.  I think Rock touches on some of these wacky double standards in Top Five.  Also, it can be tough for ethnic actors to move on to something else to distinguish themselves in their careers.  Tough, because we're trying to get someone's attention so we can get the opportunity or trying to grow out of a certain limiting image.  I'll use myself as an example.  Rosie O'Donnell had her celebrated daytime talk show, she went on to a short-lived talk show on Oprah's network and now she's on The View.

I never got another national talk show opportunity after my VH1 years -- and I really wanted one.  Nor could I get a broadcast agent.  Throughout the 1990s, local TV news execs hired me but were reluctant to let me sit at the desk in the studio and do regular film reviews and such.  They wanted me on the streets as the funny guy -- like Jim Carrey in the first 20 minutes of Bruce Almighty.  Here's a sample of my old VH1 talk show:
After my local NYC morning news program days in the 1990s, I got myself a Food Network host gig and made my comic acting debut as a recurring character in satirical political news features for The Onion.

In 2008, I tried yet again to get a good broadcast agent.  I had a meeting with ICM here in New York City.  It's a fine, top quality agency.  I met with the broadcast agent (no longer there).  Here's the short demo reel of mine the agent watched.   It's got national TV host and acting bits:
When we met, I was a full time talent working with Whoopi Goldberg on her national weekday morning show.  My Food Network show, called Top 5, was in its sixth year of broadcast and repeats aired Monday through Friday.  The agent turned me down, saying "I wouldn't know what to do with you."

Mo Rocca did humorous political pieces for The Daily Show, he now hosts a show on the Cooking Channel and he's doing celebrity interviews on CBS Sunday Morning.

Somebody knew what to do with Mo.  He is one lucky white dude.

I cannot wait to see Chris Rock's Top Five.  If you have time, go to the CBS website and watch Mo Rocca's Sunday Morning interview of Rock:

Friday, November 28, 2014

INTO THE WOODS, Look for Pine

Thanksgiving Day, I was invited to see a special screening of Into The Woods here in New York City. This will not be a long-form review.  But I will tell you that director Rob Marshall should be proud of himself.  It's his best film since Chicago, Oscar winner for Best Picture of 2002.

Will Meryl Streep get her 65th Oscar nomination?  I strongly believe so.  She's thrilling, touching, frightening and funny as The Witch.  The big revelation in this film version of a Stephen Sondheim Broadway musical comedy is Chris Pine as The Prince.  He's currently in Horrible Bosses 2.  When he was promoting that comedy sequel as a guest on Jimmy Kimmel's late night ABC show this week, Kimmel complimented Pine on his singing talent.  Kimmel said that Pine's singing voice is so good that it's a surprise.
It sure is.  Man, that dude can sing!  His comedy duet with a rival handsome prince ("Agony") is a highlight in a movie that has several highlights.
Also, let's face it -- Chris Pine is so handsome that he looks like a Disney factory creation.  And he sits a horse well.  Into The Woods is a Disney production.  Hardcore Star Trek fans know that Pine has played young Captain Kirk in Star Trek movies.
I bet Into The Woods, which opens on Christmas Day, will put the movie career of Chris Pine on the fast track and make him a hot guy to get on the Red Carpet.  Pine is perfect as Cinderella's Prince.  His character is movie star gorgeous and delightfully shallow ("I was raised to be charming, not sincere.")  This Pine stands out in the woods.
As for Meryl Streep, she's also surprising.  I'm pretty sure that, in her youth, she wanted to be an opera singer before she settled on acting.  She has sung in previous films.  She sings a rousing barroom number in Ironweed, her 1987 drama co-starring Jack Nicholson.  She sings again in 1989's Postcards From The  Edge.  In Mike Nichols' film adaptation of the Carrie Fisher novel, with a screenplay by Carrie Fisher, Streep sang the tune that got an Oscar nomination for Best Song -- "I'm Checkin' Out."  I believe that Streep was eager to star in a film version of the hit Broadway musical drama, Evita.  But producers eventually decided to cast a non-actress in the lead.

I saw Into The Woods with its original Broadway cast here in New York City back in the 1980s.  Hearing Streep sing "Stay With Me" was like hearing it for the first time.  And hearing the power of her singing voice -- wow.  Watch this Disney trailer.
James Corden and Emily Blunt give shining performances as The Baker and his wife.  They're a childless couple.  The Witch can make their parenthood dreams come true.

Emily Blunt -- what lovely performance!  This film reunited her with Meryl Streep.  They previously played intimidating boss and snarky assistant in The Devil Wears Prada.

Using fairy tales and their lessons as its foundation, Sondheim's genius and wise lyrics direct our attention to parent/child relationships.  This is done so movingly that, ever since the Broadway show, I've listened to songs from it and wondered what Stephen Sondheim's relationship with his mother and father was like.  Were they loving?  Were they distant?  Were they supportive?  Into The Woods may introduce a new generation to the brilliance of Stephen Sondheim, brilliance we are lucky still to have with us.

Rob Marshall's Into The Woods opens on Christmas Day.  I will be seeing it again.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Birds, Brains, Bosses at the Movies

If you get Arise TV on your cable channel (Time Warner or Verizon), watch me talk movies on this coming weekend's edition of Arise On Screen hosted by Mike Sargent.  Because of the holiday, some features come out before Friday this week.  Here are my notes on films you can see at the cineplex this week before or after you get your lips on that turkey.

If you've got kids 13 years of age or younger, you can laugh with them at a new animated feature.  Chill out with The Penguins of Madagascar.  Four penguins with a weakness for crunchy cheese-flavored snacks are not the most sophisticated team of elite spies, but they somehow get the job done while fighting a foe and helping fellow penguins.

It's a 3D feature.  The animation of good, colorful and witty on its own.  There really wasn't any need for the added 3D effect.  There's plenty of action to keep the kids interested and it has enough hipster gags to make the grown-ups giggle.  One sly element:  Rico the Penguin seems to be the gay member of the penguin quartet.  Notice the kiss.  I loved the big bear undercover agent who has a fondness for cuddly penguins.  John Malkovich is a hoot as he voices the villain character.

Benedict Cumberbatch supplies the rich voice for the ace wolf, head of the slick and the coordinated undercover unit trying to work with the less-coordinated penguins.

The Penguins of Madagascar is totally cool and fine family fun.

Cumberbatch plays the head of another intellectual team in The Imitation Game.
I wrote about The Imitation Game earlier this month.  Based on the life of war hero Alan Turing, this fascinating thriller has World War II history and gay history that deserve attention.  This 1940s story is relevant today.  Keira Knightley co-stars and does some of the best film work of her career here as Turing's supportive, independent team member.
Nowadays we see entertainers, network journalists and sports stars come out of the closet and get celebrated.  In the 1980s, people like actor Neil Patrick Harris, news anchor Anderson Cooper, and NFL player Michael Sam might have been afraid to come out for fear of never working again.  Things are different now.  Very different.  Gay people are popular celebrities who attend top entertainment functions and pose with their partners on red carpets for press photographs.  Today's young gays and lesbians should never, ever think that this freedom, this embrace of diversity was always present.
Benedict Cumberbatch splendidly plays Alan Turing, a brilliant mathematician who was the godfather of today's computers.  His brain was a great computer.  In his youth, he was ostracized and bullied for being different.  As a man -- a gentleman who saved many lives -- he was ostracized and bullied after he broke Hitler's Enigma code which prevented the evil leader from killing more innocent people during World War II.
Turing was persecuted for revealing that he was homosexual.  The way society was at that time, being openly gay was illegal and his sexual revelation eclipsed this genius' phenomenal contributions to help Britain fight Hitler.  Read my earlier piece about this movie, if you have time.  See this film. The Imitation Game deserves an Oscar nomination for Best Picture of 2014.

Jason Bateman gives us a third movie this year.  His first of 2014 was Bad Words.  That comedy, which he directed and starred in, was followed by This Is Where I Leave You, a comedy/drama about family love and loss.  Horrible Bosses 2 is, obviously, a sequel.  The previous installment was pretty popular at the box office.

The story of a horrible boss is nothing new.  In the 1940s, there was The Devil and Miss Jones starring Jean Arthur as a department store clerk and Charles Coburn as her mean boss.  In the 1980s, there was 9 to 5.  Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton played secretaries who got their revenge on a horrible boss.  There's also the beloved yuletide story of a horrible boss, 1951's A Christmas Carol starring Alastair Sim as Charles Dickens' famed literary character, Ebenezer Scrooge.

All three of those classics are better than this sequel.  The three lead actors are very good.  They have excellent comic acting rhythm and chemistry together.  Unfortunately, they have a screenplay that runs out of steam about 45 minutes into the story.  Horrible Bosses 2 opens as the trio of losers promotes a shower invention on a way-too-perky morning TV news program.  The guys keep pitching their idea to whomever will listen.
The awesomely handsome Chris Pine plays a sleazy corporate exec who takes advantage of them -- and he's really good at playing a real sleaze.
I hear that Chris Pine just about steals the upcoming musical, Into The Woods, as Prince Charming. That's huge when you consider the musical fantasy also stars Meryl Streep.

Two time Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner Christoph Waltz also stars as a mean boss.  Best Actor Oscar winner Jamie Foxx plays a tough dude advisor.  Foxx and Waltz starred in Django Unchained, the western drama for which Waltz won his second Oscar.  If you saw Christoph Waltz on Saturday Night Live, you know that he was one of the funniest guest hosts SNL had this year.  He killed in comedy sketches.  He and Foxx have no scenes together in this comedy sequel.  That was a missed opportunity.

Jennifer Aniston is in it.  She's oversexed, she's got dark hair, she talks dirty and she dresses as a dominatrix.  Her role seems like a planned movie move to take a giant step away from her wholesome Friends television image.  Yeah...she's a nasty girl with her kooky X-rated mouth in Horrible Bosses 2.

This is not a "date night" comedy movie.  It's more a "boys night out" movie due to the frat house-like humor.  Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day are sort of a modern day answer to The Three Stooges with Bateman as Moe.
I love the way Bateman does comedy.  Rent his Bad Words.  That summer feature deserved more attention than it got.  There's a nice emotional depth to that movie and a very good performance from Bateman.  There's a reason for the inappropriate language and his character's Scrooge-like verbal behavior.  Bateman was making a smart statement on the power of words and how we choose to use words as power tools.  Like his new sequel, Bad Words is also a revenge comedy -- and a much better one.  In Horrible Bosses 2, the crude language is there just to be crude and to get quick, easy laughs.  There are some laughs but the non-stop stupidity, especially from bearded Charlie Day's character, wears thin into the second hour.  You watch a bunch of talented actors work hard to lift a script that doesn't match their talents.

Happy Thanksgiving Day and have fun at the movies.

Sunday, November 23, 2014


This was the comedian's most serious and best screen performance, in my opinion.
There was a poster of this movie on a restaurant wall during a key scene with Ben Affleck on John Goodman in the Best Picture Oscar winner for 2012, Argo.  I thought the choice of that movie poster was an inspired piece of set decoration.
Why?  Because in that 1979 movie, like in Argo, senior citizens proved that gray hair doesn't mean a loss of toughness, wit and street smarts.  The two veteran Hollywood insiders in Argo helped Affleck's character hatch a major scheme.  A rescue plot.   The three old men in Going In Style also hatch a clever plot.
George Burns, in the 1970s, was a movie star.  He was in his 70s.  After winning an Oscar, he had a big box office hit playing the title character in Carl Reiner's Oh, God!  That 1977 comedy co-starred John Denver.  I'm surprised it wasn't remade ten or fifteen years ago starring Betty White as the Supreme Being.
Burns, one of America's most beloved comedians, first won national fame as half of the comedy team, Burns and Allen.  He and his wife, Gracie Allen, were a successful comedy couple for decades.

After a long absence from films, his 1975 return -- Neil Simon's comedy, The Sunshine Boys -- won him the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.  It revived his film career.  In that comedy, Walter Matthau played the other, shabbier half of a bickering comedy team.

In his 1979 dramatic role, Burns played a tough, lonely old man who plans a caper with his two friends.

Last week, Variety reported plans for a remake starring Dustin Hoffman, Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman.  Here's my short podcast on why you should rent the original Going In Style.  (Note: The Sunshine Boys was 1975.  I mistakenly say "1985."):

George Burns died in 1996 at age 100.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Morgan Freeman Makes You Laugh

Millions of us moviegoers loved seeing him as the chauffeur in 1989's hit film, Driving Miss Daisy.  Oscar-winning screen and stage actor Morgan Freeman has been nominated for the Academy Award five times. The films -- Street Smart, Driving Miss Daisy, The Shawshank Redemption, Million Dollar Baby and Invictus -- were all dramas.
This week, Hollywood's Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences celebrated the 20th anniversary of The Shawshank Redemption with a special screening.  Attending the celebration were Morgan Freeman, the film's director/screenwriter Frank Darabont and Mr. Freeman's co-star, Tim Robbins.
One of my top five favorite Freeman film performances is in a comedy.  He's the star.  We all totally dug him driving that dear little old white lady down South.  In 10 Items or Less,  Morgan Freeman plays a Hollywood movie star who has a young white dude driving him to a location for film research.

The show biz veteran will have a slightly dizzy adventure on the road.  It starts at a supermarket in a low-rent, working class section of Southern California.
Unlikely and lovely friendships form along the way.  The movie star discovers new things about life on this loopy trip outside of his Hollywood comfort zone.

Here's my short 2011 podcast review of 10 Items or Less:

I paid to see this breezy feature during its short theatrical run.  All of us in the audience loved it.  Folks left the theater with smiles on their faces and commented and how enjoyable the movie was.  Consider this DVD for a weekend rental.
10 Items or Less co-stars beautiful Paz Vega, Danny De Vito and Jonah Hill.  In a small and funny role, you'll see a then-unknown actor named Jim Parsons.  This was just one year before the premiere of The Big Bang Theory on CBS. He's now a star too.

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...