Thursday, March 24, 2016

Don Cheadle Is MILES AHEAD

I wish I had the acting chops that Don Cheadle has.  What an exceptional actor.  At a cineplex this week, I saw a trailer for his new film.  He plays the late jazz legend, Miles Davis.  Davis was creative, mercurial, charismatic and multi-talented. He was one of the most innovative and influential artists in music.  However, Don Cheadle could not get the financing he needed to make this movie unless he hired a Caucasian co-star.  That was a "financial imperative."  This news was in a print article about Cheadle and his film.  His impressionistic biopic is called MILES AHEAD.  Cheadle not only stars, he directed the film.
The news about that "financial imperative" for filmmaker Don Cheadle is not surprising.  That's how the movie and TV business behind-the-scenes has been for quite some time.  However, the story came out during this year's diversity issue with Hollywood and the Oscars.  It hammered home the point that diversity and more enlightened thinking from studios execs who can green light projects is sorely needed.  In archaic Hollywood thinking, a film or TV show is only widely marketable if it has white actors.  My personal experience with this attitude came in 1991.  I was the host of a syndicated game show pilot that got a one-week summer tryout in syndication.  I loved the entire experience of doing that show.  It had a terrific production crew, the trio of celebrity panelists was fun and I had a wonderful time working with the veteran producer, the man who gave us The Hollywood Squares.  Producer Jay Redack worked on The Hollywood Squares, the classic edition with Paul Lynde and Rose Marie.  From what I was told, when I wasn't present, TV execs commented that they really liked our game show but asked Jay if America was ready for a black game show host.  That's Hollywood.  Unfortunately, our imaginative and well-produced game show pilot didn't get picked up.

But enough about me.  Let's get back to Don Cheadle as Miles Davis.
I went to the movies this week and, before the main feature began, the trailers played.  The trailer for MILES AHEAD made me eager to see it as soon as it comes out.  Take a look.  The white co-star Cheadle plays opposite is the gifted Ewan McGregor.  He co-stars as a national magazine journalist.
Don Cheadle was a Best Actor Oscar nominee for 2004's HOTEL RWANDA.  Cheadle is a veteran of TV shows and movies.  I first noticed him in a 1995 crime mystery, the very fine and very under-appreciated DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS.  This 1950s story, based on a novel by Walter Mosley, starred Denzel Washington as an unemployed World War II veteran in South Central L.A. who winds up being a private eye.  Don Cheadle, as a killer called "Mouse," gave a performance that just went through you like a shot of adrenaline.  Don Cheadle just about stole Devil In A Blue Dress and should've been mentioned for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar race.  Rent that DVD and you'll see what I mean.

To me, it's hard to believe that Cheadle has only one Oscar nomination to his credit.  Denzel has two Oscar victories and a total of six nominations to his credit.  I totally dig Denzel but I find Don Cheadle to be a more fluid, more flexible actor.  How many times have you ever heard someone say, "That scene Denzel Washington did was so funny!"?  Cheadle can be a cold-blooded killer.  Cheadle can make you break up laughing.

Look at Don Cheadle as the Southern California porn actor in 1997's BOOGIE NIGHTS.
He was a hoot as Buck Swope, the adult film star who made some unfortunate fashion statements.

Don really hit the right note as the unlikely choice to play Sammy Davis, Jr in THE RAT PACK.  Man, he was terrific!  Ray Liotta played Frank Sinatra in this HBO TV production and he also delivered one of his best performances.  Cheadle is not the singer/dancer that Sammy Davis, Jr. was but Cheadle did move well.  The main thing he did so brilliantly was to play Davis' complicated, angry inner self.  He was the extraordinary entertainer who was the member of the enormously popular group of guys that made movies like Ocean's 11 and headlined top Vegas nightspots -- but he was the only member of Frank Sinatra's famed Rat Pack who'd suffer racial discrimination no matter how famous he was.  Sammy was playing in clubs where black people were not allowed to use the swimming pool.  You need to see Don Cheadle in that 1998 HBO feature, available on DVD.

CRASH drove off with the Oscar for Best Picture of 2005.  He gives a solid performance in that film as the impressive Los Angeles police detective who seems capable of impressing everyone except his mother.  Cheadle's vulnerability is most moving in that film.

In 2007, Kasi Lemmons didn't get nearly enough attention for the highly entertaining biopic she directed called TALK TO ME.  By the time Don Cheadle starred in this winner, he had the Oscar nomination for Hotel Rwanda to his credit.  Co-starring with him in this comedy/drama are future Oscar nominees Taraji P. Henson (Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee for 2008's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (Best Actor Oscar nominee for 2013's 12 Years a Slave).  Cheadle stars as Ralph "Petey" Greene, a verbally free-wheeling ex-convict who made so many people laugh with his outspoken, edgy humor on Washington, DC radio that he was tapped to be a guest with Johnny Carson on NBC's Tonight Show. Petey was a forerunner to Howard Stern, if you will.  Cheadle plays Petey as a hot mess that you just couldn't help but love.  Here's a short clip with Don, Chiwetel and Taraji.

Here's another short clip with Don as Petey on the air in his new radio host job.
I love me some Don Cheadle in Talk To Me!  This biopic is funny, moving and inspiring.  Petey Greene was really ahead of his time with his comedy.  Today, he'd probably have a home on Comedy Central or be a frequent guest with Bill Maher on his Real Time HBO show.

Miles Ahead opens on Friday, April 1st.  It looks like critic A.O. Scott of The New York Times gave some Oscar buzz to Don Cheadle for his performance.
 Dig it!


Tuesday, March 22, 2016


I love Sally Field in this new movie.  Doris is a warm yet withdrawn little oddity in New York City, a place where oddities can blend into everyday life.  She's a true character and a good person who covers up a broken heart with colorful clothing.  I read the Manohla Dargis review of HELLO, MY NAME IS DORIS in The New York Times.  This movie was described at the top of that review as being about "an older woman's love for a much younger man."  Well, that's part of it but it's not the whole picture.  At least, not to me.  And I could relate to Doris.
Sally Field disrupts age again onscreen.  She's been nominated twice for Best Actress -- and she won both times.  There was her victory for Norma Rae (1979) and then for Places in the Heart (1984).  Her third Oscar nomination was in the Best Supporting Actress category for her remarkable work as President Abraham Lincoln's wife in Lincoln (2012).  When Sally Field played First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln opposite actor Daniel Day-Lewis, she was about 64 and ten years older than her leading man.  In Hello, My Name Is Doris we see her kissing handsome and 30-something actor Max Greenfield -- more than once.  And it's fabulous to see because we like Doris.  We really, really like her.
Doris was named after Doris Day.  When the film opens, we see Doris attending the funeral mass for the person who named her after Doris Day.  That person was her mother.  On Staten Island, Doris Miller spent years taking care of and being attentive to her mother.  Doris works at a trendy office close to the Chelsea section of downtown Manhattan.  In between life with mother plus ferry and train rides to the office, Doris became a hoarder to such an extent that it troubles her brother and his meddlesome wife.  Doris can't seem to throw anything away and she can't keep from collecting new-found items that a stranger has thrown away.  When she's clutching one such item in the company elevator, she has a "meet cute" as they used to say in Hollywood.  In the crowded elevator, she comes very face-to-face with the extremely attractive young man who turns to be her new boss.  He's probably in his early 30s.  Doris is probably about 60.

She's immediately smitten with him.  She tells her widowed and bossy best friend, delightfully played by Tyne Daly, and her friend's granddaughter.  The granddaughter helps Doris concoct a fake and young personality to post on Facebook in order to friend and follow John Fremont, the kissable new boss.

John truly does like Doris.  She manipulates an out-of-work encounter with him by dressing up and attending a rock band's club date in a hipster-drenched section of Brooklyn.  John sees her there.  Doris is so unique and unusual that she's immediately embraced by audience members and the band.  And these audience members are total hipsters.  As one says, "I teach in a gay pre-school..."  From then on, Doris and John become pals.  However, in her sweetly delusional mind, he's got a serious crush on her but doesn't know how to express it.
This imagined romance is a great engine to drive the story.  It's a hook.  The more important significance of John Fremont is his impact on this shy, overlooked person who's gotten lost in her own arranged clutter at home.  John Fremont is the tasty cheese that brings this unhappy little mouse out of her hole.  He causes her to come out and see the possibility of a new life.  Here's a trailer.
Loneliness that's layered underneath loving obligation can tatter one's spirit.  Doris took care of her mother for a long, long time and then became a hoarder.  She missed some opportunities for a new life because she was taking care of her mother.  Her brother chose to take care of himself and his business.  His business did well, he married and has a nice clutter-free home.  He's blind to his sister's loneliness and the uneasy task she undertook of being a caregiver.  The brother shows that sometimes the people who've been up to you the longest in life -- your immediate relatives -- are the ones who don't see you at all.  I've been in Doris' position with a parent who had years of major financial needs.  I passed on some opportunities so I could be responsible and keep paying Mom's bills.  Not that I was a hoarder, but I knew Doris' clutter was there to fill a hole in her heart. I've shared her flaws and her contained rage.

In the elevator, in the office, in a club, John Fremont sees Doris Miller.  And she eventually comes to see herself in a different way.

Like a lot of baby boomers, I grew up watching Sally Field.  Like Tom Hanks (her Forrest Gump co-star), she's an actor we first met starring on an ABC sitcom who went on to win two Oscars for dramatic performances.  She was a perky and adorable Gidget and then, also on ABC, The Flying Nun.  She also did dramatic acting in ABC made-for-TV movies.  Her astounding breakthrough came when she unexpectedly hooked the highly-coveted 1976 role of Sybil, the story of a young woman desperately seeking psychiatric help to get to the cause of her multiple personalities disorder.  Doris Miller at times looks like she would've been one of Sybil's personalities.  Field's dynamic, memorable and heartbreaking performance in that NBC mini-series made Hollywood take her seriously after treating the young actress like fluff in the talent department.  Then came the drama, Norma Rae.  The rest is movie history.  In 2006, Sally Field returned to ABC as the outspoken, understanding mother on the Brothers & Sisters series.

What a treat to see Sally Field do comedy again.  She's so good at it.  As for Max Greenfield, they are mighty fine chemistry together in Hello, My Name Is Doris.  I hope there's a project that can re-team these two actors.
Sally Field is the perfect choice to play Doris.  She makes the character ridiculous yet real.  She's aware that there's more than the "older woman/younger man" angle to this feature.  She's in full grasp of Doris' complications that make her so human.  This movie put a big smile on my face.  Keep Hello, My Name Is Doris in mind.  This indie movie about Doris Miller's re-entry into the world runs only 1 hour and 35 minutes.

Monday, March 21, 2016


Like many other TV viewers, I became a quick Christina Hendricks fan when I saw her as Joan as MAD MEN.  Her work on Sundance TV's HAP AND LEONARD has deepened my fan appreciation.  Wow, she is so good in this series.  She's not the Manhattan sophisticate.  She's a diner waitress in Texas.  But, like Joan, she is ambitious and she's dealing with the big boys.  I wrote a piece about this series last month before it premiered.  I've since seen all six episodes.  Man, I really hope this series gets picked up for another season.
In this week's episode, which airs Wednesday night, Trudy says "I keep thinking it'll get easier but then I'll remember that's not how the world works."  When I heard that dialogue, I thought to myself "Girl, you just said exactly what I'm feeling at this point in my life."  You don't agree with everything that Trudy, the Texas femme fatale, does in the series.  But Hendricks makes you understand why she's doing it.  You come to understand why she's a complicated woman.

I read one columnist describe this as a Reagan Era-noir.  It's the 1980s in HAP AND LEONARD and the main characters survived the 60s.  Hap went to prison for being a conscientious objector who opposed the Vietnam War.  Leonard was drafted and served.  He's a veteran.  And he's gay.  He's openly gay and black and one tough customer.  His best friend is straight and white.  We don't get many working class friendships like this as the lead roles on a drama series.  It's some welcomed new turf in TV.  What I like about it most is that both men accept each other as they are and they have each other's back.  They know the emotional roads each other has traveled.
Joe Lansdale wrote the books that serve as the basis for this 6-episode series.  I have to agree with that columnist who described this as Reagan Era-noir.  It does have that feel in much the same way Robert Altman's 1973 movie, THE LONG GOODBYE, did with Elliott Gould as Raymond Chandler's famed private eye, Philip Marlowe.  Under Altman's direction, Marlowe was not the 1940s private eye as we had seen in Hollywood classics starring Humphrey Bogart and Dick Powell.  Marlowe was updated and set in L.A. during the time Ronald Reagan was Governor of California.  The political attitude in Southern California at that time permeates Altman's movie.  The President Reagan Era attitude, quite different from that of the idealistic and turbulent 1960s, filters though HAP AND LEONARD.  At one point when a lot of found money leads to crime, Trudy says "Is this who we are?"

Another characters says, "We're driving into a shit storm."  That is the definite truth as you will see.

I don't know if Christina Hendricks is getting a lot of publicity for this show, but she is fascinating to watch on it.  She spent all those years on a TV series that became part of our "must-see TV" pop culture.  This Sundance TV series highlights another side of her acting range.  Hers is not the only good performance.  The whole cast is mighty fine.  James Purefoy as Hap and Michael Kenneth Williams as Leonard are perfectly cast.
I hope that GLAAD keeps this show in mind when handing out its media awards. Novelist and series co-producer Joe Landsale has given TV a breakthrough gay character in a breakthrough male friendship.  It's a friendship I can relate to.  GLAAD should thank and award him for this show.
You do not want to miss these last three episodes.  How good are they?  I watched each one twice. And I want to see more.

Saturday, March 19, 2016


Paul Reubens is a gifted actor.  Yes, his Pee-Wee Herman character is pretty much a kiddie show host character designed to entertain grown-ups.  Nonetheless, Pee-Wee is a fabulous creation and the truly hard work that went into the creation and performance probably is often overlooked by critics because of Pee-Wee's goofiness.  Look at the choreography, the physicality of Reuben's performance.  The way Pee-Wee carries himself.  That walk. His arm movements. His facial movements. That nasal, upper register voice and his distinctive laugh.  Look at Pee-Wee's sharp, fastidious styling -- from the close-cropped haircut, to the tailored suit and bow-tie down to the white loafers.  All that took imagination and time.  Pee-wee is a man-child.  Jerry Lewis was a man-child in his hit 1950s Paramount comedy movies with Dean Martin.  But Pee-wee isn't manic like those Lewis characters.  He's more...well, more sophisticated in his quirkiness.

PEE-WEE'S BIG HOLIDAY marks Paul Reubens return to the character in a feature film.  The film is in limited release.  It's streaming on Netflix.  This isn't a sequel or a follow-up to one of the earlier Pee-Wee film adventures.  This one stands on its own with some familiar faces from Pee-Wee's previous adventures blended into it.

This is a road movie, one with a road trip sparked by a bromance.  Pee-wee lives in Fairville, a pleasant small town.  He has a job working in the local diner.  He has townsfolk who like him.  But he doesn't really seem to have much of a life.  Why?  As he says to one local salesman with some slight irritation, "You know I don't want to go anywhere or try anything new."
Then one day, when he's alone in the diner, in walks a big muscular hunk who just got off his motorcycle.  That hunk Joe Manganiello as actor Joe Manganiello.  There's an instant and innocent attraction and an immediate friendship.  He invites Pee-wee to his upcoming birthday party in New York City.  New York's not exactly close to Fairville.  The visiting actor is to Pee-wee what Meryl Streep's character was to the Albert Brooks character in the afterlife comedy, Defending Your Life.
Manganiello really wants Pee-wee to come to the party.  Pee-wee's personal mantra seems to be "I can't leave home."  Joe says "Stick around here or live a little."
 Joe leaves.  Pee-wee decides to hit the road to attend the party and adventures begin.  Or, more accurately, misadventures begin.  One of the first things to happen is that he witnesses a bank robbery committed by three dames who look like they took fashion tips from the women in the black and white 1965 cult classic from Russ Meyer, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! 

Is this movie silly?  Yes.  Sweetly so.  And I have no problem with that.  Paul Reubens, with his Pee-wee persona, totally gets what Walt Disney said:  "Adults are only kids grown up, anyway."  And Pee-wee's Big Holiday is like a 90 minute movie that kids wanted to see on a Saturday afternoon.  I had some frustrations this week and I needed a few laughs.  I started watching Pee-wee's Big Holiday well after midnight.  I had to cover my mouth more than once so my shrieks of laughter wouldn't wake the house and disturb the other guys. The bit with the farmer's daughters made me laugh, the Free Wheelin' Mobile Salon trio made me laugh and the 1-minute bit with Pee-wee, a balloon and some Amish people was so juvenile and, man, did it break me up.

Joe Manganiello does quite well in the comedy department.  He's relaxed and likable.  And you do get giggles seeing him as big blue hunk, blue because the one person he wants at his swanky, festive party is not there.  His Pee-wee.

It was just the kind of lunacy I needed to perk up my spirits.  I read a review that picked the movie apart like it should've been in the same league with the best of Chaplin and Keaton.  Wrong.  At times, Reuben's character is reminiscent of a silent screen star from the 1920s.  There's a hint of actor Harry Langdon in his Pee-wee.  But this is just playhouse comedy in which no one gets hurt and there are no dirty words.  It may not be a great comedy, but it sure is a heck of lot better than two Kevin Hart comedies I had to review and a couple of recent Jennifer Aniston comedies.  Did you ever see the Preston Sturges 1941 classic, Sullivan's Travels?  When the rich studio head (played by Joel McCrea) disguised as a hobo gives a ride to The Girl (played by Veronica Lake) after she bought him breakfast, she talks about movies.  She loved a silly but funny comedy much more than some "deep dish" drama.  Sullivan's Travels is also a road movie, one that celebrates all those artists who work hard to make us laugh in some form or another.

I did notice that average movie-watchers took to Twitter and Facebook and got a kick out of the movie. I'm in that group.  I got a kick out of it too.  I think Preston Sturges would've loved it.  Especially the scene with the nine food-bearing farmer's daughters.  I repeat, Paul Reubens is a gifted actor.  He gave me the gift of some much-needed laughter with Pee-wee's Big Holiday now streaming on Netflix.  The movie is a Judd Apatow and Paul Reubens production.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Kirsten Dunst & Joel Edgerton of MIDNIGHT SPECIAL

Kirsten Dunst is no stranger to playing a female involved with a male who has strange powers. I saw her as the little vampire daughter to Lestat in the film version of Interview with the Vampire (1994).  Later she was the sweetheart of the superhero called Spider-Man (2002).  Kirsten Dunst has matured into the role of a young mother who fled a religious cult.  She's an outcast.  Her gentle little boy has supernatural powers that come from a mysterious unseen source.
He and his father and a friend are pursued by killer extremists from the religious cult and by U.S. government agents.  Cult members see the boy as a heaven-sent savior.  Government and military officials see him as a possible secret weapon.  Father, son and friend can only flee at night because of the boy's unique physical condition.
Joel Edgerton plays the faithful Texas friend who helps the father get the boy safely to his mother.
Edgerton, an Australian, was excellent as Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby starring Leonardo DiCaprio and he was charming as Charlie in the British comedy film, Kinky Boots.  The musical version became a Tony-winning Broadway musical comedy hit.

The actors and I discuss their good new sci-fi thriller from director/writer Jeff Nichols and the story's intelligent content.  I also asked Joel Edgerton if he'd ever put on women's sexy footwear again.

Some sci-fi/fantasy movies dazzle you with special effects but that's all there is.  There's no story.  As the British might say, "It's all fur coat and no knickers." There's substance, spiritual depth and family love at the heart of this sci-fi thriller. Here's a short trailer for Midnight Special which opens in the U.S. on March 18th.  Michael Shannon and Adam Driver co-star.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Michael Shannon in MIDNIGHT SPECIAL

Actor Michael Shannon has a face that gives you immediate access into a character's soul.  His face can be still but it's never blank.  There's always something in the eyes.  Working again with director Jeff Nichols, Shannon plays the troubled father of a little boy in Texas.  The boy is a gentle youngster with supernatural powers. This modestly-budgeted, touching and action-packed sci-fi thriller is called MIDNIGHT SPECIAL.  It opens March 18th.

The boy is pursued by dangerous members of a religious cult and by U.S. government agents.  Some see him as a spiritual savior.  Others see him as a secret weapon.
Father and son and a friend flee at night because of the boy's unique physical condition.  Roy will do whatever it takes to protect, Alton, his only child.
Before you get to my interview of Michael Shannon, here's a short clip from Midnight Special.

Michael Shannon had a bit part as a Marine in Oliver Stone's WORLD TRADE CENTER (2006) and he got a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for REVOLUTIONARY ROAD (2008), a drama that re-teamed Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet.  He starred on the HBO series BOARDWALK EMPIRE.  Shannon and I talk about Midnight Special, his youth, his career and the rock 'n' roll superstar he plays in an upcoming film.

Midnight Special is rated PG-13.  If you have kids 12 and under, I think they'll like this movie.  Keep it in mind for family entertainment.

For you fans of Broadway theatre in New York City, Michael Shannon joins Jessica Lange and Gabriel Byrne in the cast of the Eugene O'Neill classic, LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT.  This Roundabout Theatre Company production plays the American Airlines Theatre on W. 42nd Street.  Previews begin April 3rd.  For more information, check out the website:

Wednesday, March 16, 2016


A dear friend survived a stress-filled week at work. I offered to treat him to a movie over the weekend so we could hang out.  He wanted to see a comedy.  Something silly to take his mind off work.  He picked THE BROTHERS GRIMSBY.  This is the newest rude, crude and lewd comedy from the truly talented character actor and writer Sacha Baron Cohen.
He plays the knucklehead brother who lives in a raggedy fishing village in England with his girlfriend and their nine kids.  They're all a hot mess but a happy lot.
He longs to find the brother from whom he was separated in their early years.  That brother is now a secret agent on the hunt to kill a global villain.  Of course, the two brothers cross paths, reunite and the dimwit helps the spy on his secret mission that takes them to the plains of South Africa and back.
The best thing one can say about this movie is that it runs only 1 hour and 23 minutes.  A couple of those minutes are spent inside an elephant's vagina which is used as a quick hideout by the Brothers Grimsby when they flee assassins in Africa.  Trust me on this -- you will never look at the Disney's Dumbo in quite the same way after that scene.   One more thing:  A space that size would go for $3500 a month rent in New York City nowadays.  Easily.

The elephant hideout scene is one of the highlights of The Brothers Grimsby, which lets you know how low the humor is.  There was brilliance in Cohen's Borat, a socio-political mockumentary satire in which it was fascinating to watch Cohen's total commitment to character.  His Bruno was not as successful but did have its moments.  Plus there was the thrill of wondering how far he'd go in his commitment to that character.  It was like watching someone walk a tightrope.  His dramatic role in Tim Burton's 2007 film version of the dark Broadway musical, Sweeney Todd, was terrific.  It made me wish Cohen would venture more into the kind of dramatic film roles Albert Finney played early in his career -- films Saturday Night and Sunday Morning or Charlie Bubbles (which Finney also directed) and even the A Christmas Carol-based original screen musical, Scrooge.

Cohen was slated to play the late Queen singer, Freddie Mercury, in a biopic.  But he's pulled out of the project.  I would've loved to see him tackle that role.  I believe Cohen's popularity and star power would've drawn audiences to the movie about the late rock vocalist (right).
 There's bathroom humor and wacky man-on-man sex-type of situations aplenty in this feature.  There's also top talent such as Penelope Cruz, Ian McShane, and Gabourey Sidibe with little to do in this juvenile film.  Note to Filmmakers:  This is the second time Best Actress Oscar nominee Gabourey Sidibe has been seen onscreen as a hotel maid since her Oscar nomination.  That's enough.  She's got fabulous comedy skills. Give Gabby some upscale comedy material to play.
Mark Strong, who played the secret agent brother, is a very good sport and a very good actor.  He's basically the straight man to Cohen in the movie.  The handsome actor is fun to watch because he's not in the least self-conscious.  He does the actor's work and makes the most of what he was given to play.  Mark Strong is quite believable inside an elephant's vagina.  Unfortunately, The Brothers Grimsby was a major bomb at the box office last weekend when it opened.
Sacha Baron Cohen will next be seen starring with Johnny Depp, Anne Hathaway and Helena Bonham Carter in the fantasy ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS.  He plays Time.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

John Legend Takes Us UNDERGROUND

The singer/songwriter is an executive producer of UNDERGROUND, a powerful new cable TV series based on history relative to American's "original sin."  That sin was slavery.  This series follows a group of slaves, property on a Georgia plantation, that disrupts the ways things are and runs away.  The slaves are determined to run 600 miles to freedom.  Underground premiered Wednesday night, March 9th, on WGN America.  When I saw publicity photos a month ago for this show, I thought "They sure look contemporary for runaway slaves in the 1800s.  They look like a new band that booked a special guest music appearance on Saturday Night Live."  There's a reason for the look and it works well with the tone of this series.
Whereas the slaves are, to their masters, in the same category as livestock, we see their talents, wit and survival skills.  Noah is the talk, dark and finely-muscled blacksmith.  Played by Aldis Hodge (an actor in the hit film, Straight Outta Compton), Noah's got a secret plan.
His back is like a tree marked with slim branches sprouted by evil, the evil of a slavemaster's whip.  Rosalee will tend to his wounds.  Played by Jurnee Smollett-Bell, she works in the big house.  Maybe she's not working in the fields and picking cotton under the blazing hot sun, but she is still a slave and she knows it.
Rosalee is determined to break free.   Her mother, Ernestine, is the head slave in the big house.  Ernestine will do whatever it takes to protect her children.  Amirah Vann is so fierce in this role that you just want to fan yourself while watching her play that complicated mother.  That's how I felt watching the first four episodes.  This is Emmy or Golden Globe nomination worthy work that Amirah Vann delivers in Underground.
There's fine acting from the entire cast.  Some faces you will recognize from HBO shows -- like former Oz regular Chris Meloni as August Pullman, the uneducated country man who treats a runaway slave with compassion when first we meet him.  Pullman knows the way North.  North means freedom to the slaves.  Meloni is very good in this role.

Underground doesn't present these tales of the Underground Railway to you in a scholastic PBS sort of way.  It's contemporary and relevant.  Current music is used in the soundtrack.  You may hear phrases that are more "today" than 1857.   Jessica De Gouw as the wife of an abolitionist, sounds like she could be in an episode of HBO's Girls when she plays Elizabeth Hawkes.  But, I feel, that's the point and that's what hooks you into it.  Racial exclusion, racial friction and the need for people who see the injustice still exists.  Elizabeth Hawkes may seem flighty and focused on home furnishings as first, but she becomes aware.  Watch her awakening of sorts when she sees the "air conditioning" at a high-tone plantation party in the Georgia heat.

Instead of being like slave dramas we've seen in the past, this focuses on the slave talents and a point in American history that had a direct line to the Civil Rights movement.  In seeing what each slave brings to the secret mission, Underground is like war films such as Britain's The Wooden Horse (1950) and Hollywood's The Great Escape (1963) with a touch of TV's Prison Break.  I can't think of any Hollywood classics that focused on the Underground Railway.  20th Century Fox's 1940 film, Chad Hanna, seemed like it would in the first fifteen minutes.  Chad, played by Henry Fonda, discovers a runaway slave played by Clarence Muse.  It's a very interesting scene but the slave leaves and then we concentrate on Chad's traveling circus job with Dorothy Lamour and Linda Darnell as the love interests.
 In this series, you have the slaves.  You have the cruel slave owners and their wives who all consider themselves to be genteel and Christian.  You have the liberals, those abolitionists who want to help but don't realize how evil and severe the problem really is.  You have some slaves afraid to break free.  One upcoming episode has a home invasion sequence with an ending that may call to mind the "black lives matter" protests of today.

I don't want to go into depth about elements of the stories.  I don't want to give anything away.  And there's juicy stuff to give away.  Underground is vivid, sharp, strong and surprising.  You don't have to wait until the third episode for the action to really kick in.  You know the characters and you get action in the first episode.  I watched episode #4 twice.  It knocked me out.  Jussie Smollett, known to millions of TV fans as "Jamal Lyon" on the hit Fox series, Empire, gets a meaty role in that episode and he really chews into it.

John Legend is an executive producer on this show.  Another executive producer with John is Anthony Hemingway (right).  Mr. Hemingway is also the show's director and he deserves much praise for his exceptional Underground work.  He previously episodes of HBO's The Wire.
To see a trailer, the premiere episode and get more info on this new WGN America series, visit its website:

Monday, March 7, 2016


With a title like that, you'd think it was one of those Burt Reynolds Smokey and the Bandit car chase movies so popular in the 1970s.  Wrong.  MIDNIGHT SPECIAL is a relatively low-budget science fiction thriller that engrossed and gripped me.  I had no idea what this new release was about when I entered a Warner Bros. screening room to see it on Sunday evening.  The next morning, I'd be interviewing three of its lead actors.  At the heart of Midnight Special is a little boy who is not like us.  He has an extraordinary, supernatural and mysterious power.  Aside from that, he's just a regular kid who loves his dad and loves reading comic books.  However, his power makes him the target of some dark forces.
We're in Central Texas.  The blue collar dad, who will do whatever it takes to protect his son, is in flight again with an adult friend, a good Texan who is also determined to protect to special child.  The two men reunite the boy with his outcast, loving mother.  But there's another destiny for little Alton.  Midnight Special has the hint of a modern-day Bible story about it.

When I was a kid, going to a Saturday matinee movie or to the drive-in at night with my family was my favorite pastime.  I hoped the movie would be entertaining, interesting, energetic and surprising.  Midnight Special is that kind of film -- and it has emotional depth.  The deep love the father has for his son...a love shared by the the movie a glowing soul.  He believes in his son's goodness.  Also, there is plenty of action that will make you gasp.  I gasped while watching it.  Here's a trailer.

There's action.  There's violence but not the graphic Quentin Tarantino kind of violence.  You can take kids to see this PG-13 thriller.  I think kids will like this escapist fare that focuses on an unusual and sweet kid doggedly pursued by adults.  Some adults see him as a savior.  Others see him as a weapon.  The U.S. government wants the boy for top secret observation.
There hasn't been much publicity for Midnight Special but, as I wrote, I really enjoyed it.  It should be publicized and marketed.  The movie opens in selected cities on Friday, March 18th.  I taped a TV interview with Michael Shannon.  HBO viewers recognize him as the lead character on the 1920s crime series, Boardwalk Empire.  Shannon was a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee for his performance in 2008's Revolutionary Road starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet.  I also interviewed Joel Edgerton, who plays sort of a disciple to the child as the father's friend and Kirsten Dunst who stars as the boy's mother.  You see all three in this photo here.
Keep Midnight Special in mind for weekend entertainment when it opens.  This film, written and directed by Jeff Nichols, was an unexpected weekend treat for me.  A good movie with good actors.  I plan to see it again.  My TV interviews with Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton and Kirsten Dunst will be posted online before its March 18th opening day.
If I could change one thing about this movie, it would be the title.  I think He's Not One of Us would be better than Midnight Special.  But that's just me with a quibble.  Here's a link to the website:

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Ryan Seacrest Doesn't Know Head

"Fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy night."  Screen legend Bette Davis made that movie line immortal in ALL ABOUT EVE, Oscar winner for the Best Picture of 1950.  You don't have to tell that to Oscar winner and former Oscars host, Whoopi Goldberg.  She probably has all the dialogue from that classic movie memorized.  And every bit of the staging.  She spoke to E! host Ryan Seacrest on the red carpet before last Sunday's big show.  I'm just assuming Ryan Seacrest is totally heterosexual because he's in show business, in Hollywood, and didn't recognize Whoopi's dress as being a duplicate of the "Fasten your seat belts" party dress that Bette Davis wore as Broadway diva Margo Channing in that memorable scene.
Not that there's anything wrong with Seacrest being straight, mind you.  But just about every gay man I know who loves movies and lives in the Hollywood area would've gasped immediately in recognition of Whoopi's dress.  By the time I was a high school freshman, I could've pointed to it and said "Edith Head won an Oscar for designing that dress!"  I guess Seacrest just doesn't know Head.

 Here's his segment for E! with Whoopi Goldberg on the Oscars red carpet.

I was a Whoopi Goldberg fan before THE COLOR PURPLE, the film that brought her the first Oscar nomination of her career, even went into production.  I'd gone to my video store and rented her one-woman Broadway show, produced by the late, great Mike Nichols, several times.  Her comedic talent, her acting talent, made my jaw drop down to the floor with a clunk sound like I was a character in a 1940s Tex Avery cartoon.  She was stellar in that one-woman show.  Mike Nichols basically discovered Whoopi when she was a "downtown street artist" and became her mentor.  He put her on Broadway in 1984.  The rest is show biz history.                                                                        

Whoopi was a guest on my VH1 talk show.  At the time, she was promoting her movie, CLARA'S HEART.  That 1988 movie featured a teen actor named Neil Patrick Harris.  Then Whoopi made 1990's GHOST with Patrick Swayze, the film that brought the actress her second Oscar nomination.  She won for Best Supporting Actress.  Lord knows she's got major talent and there should've been other Oscar nominations.  But her mailbox wasn't exactly stuffed with quality scripts after her Best Actress Oscar nomination for The Color Purple.  She took scripts that other actresses had rejected. In fact, she told me that had it not been for Patrick Swayze, she'd never have gotten Ghost.  The producers would not see her for a meeting or an audition.  Swayze used his star clout and took care of that.  She got seen, she got the part, the film was a big hit and she won the Oscar.

For 20 years, Whoopi Goldberg was the only black actress who had more Oscar nominations than any other black actress in Hollywood history.  That was until Viola Davis, Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee for 2008's Doubt, tied Whoopi's record with her Best Actress Oscar nomination for 2011's The Help.

Whoopi Goldberg and Viola Davis are two extraordinary black actress who turned to TV because Hollywood did not have a lot of good script opportunities for black women.

Talented 25-year old Hollywood newcomer Jennifer Lawrence got her fourth Oscar nomination.  The movie JOY put her in the running again for Best Actress.  Joy is the true story of Joy Mangano, the woman who invented the Miracle Mop and sold it with great success on QVC.

When I saw Whoopi in this Oscar movie parody Sunday night, it broke me the heck up.  I think it's one of her funniest comedy turns since Ghost.

I worked with Whoopi for two years on a weekday national morning radio.  We occasionally talked about the Hollywood game.  I know y'all have been watching her on ABC's The View for years now, but don't forget her film versatility.  Here are my Top 5 Films with Whoopi Goldberg that show how Hollywood really dropped the ball by not coming up with more juicy scripts to highlight her talent.

1.  THE COLOR PURPLE (1985):  If you've not watched it in some time, watch it again.  Her performance truly holds up and moves you as much, if not more, today than it did then.  She's brilliant as Celie.
2.  THE LONG WALK HOME (1990):  Two Oscar winners in peak form -- Whoopi Goldberg and Sissy Spacek.  Spacek plays the well-to-do Southern wife and mother.  Whoopi plays the woman who needs to take domestic work in her home but refuses to take the bus.  And the white lady's home is not exactly nearby.  But Odessa (Whoopi) is participating in the bus boycott during the early days of the Civil Rights movement.  The two mothers will blend into each other's life.  Excellent performances.
3.  SOAPDISH  (1991):  Laughs, laughs, laughs.  Whoopi stars as the TV executive in Manhattan trying to deal with all the actor egos and lunacy behind the scenes of a popular TV soap opera.  Sally Field, Carrie Fisher and Robert Downey Jr. co-star.
4.  THE PLAYER  (1992):  I love Hollywood-on-Hollywood movies.  Robert Altman directed this satirical Hollywood murder mystery.  Tim Robbins stars as the Hollywood studio exec who's a top man on the lot.  Did he kill an aspiring screenwriter?  Det. Avery is on the case.  Whoopi stars as Det. Avery.  Cher, Julia Roberts, Bruce Willis, Jack Lemmon and Peter Falk are some of the stars who breeze in for cameo appearances.  This is a good one for classic film fans.  They'll get all the old movie references.
5.  GHOSTS OF MISSISSIPPI  (1996):  Directed by Rob Reiner, this movie based on a true story presents Whoopi Goldberg in one of her most powerful performances.  She plays the wife of slain civil rights activist, Medgar Evers.  Evers was shot in 1963.  A national figure, his murder made national headlines.  This movie focuses on the 1994 trial of the white supremacist, Byron De La Beckwith, accused of the murder.  James Woods got a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for playing the racist on trial.  Alec Baldwin co-stars.

I'd love to see Whoopi get some more good roles in movies.  By the way -- for you classic film fans who dig TCM fare -- Whoopi does the best imitation of Lana Turner entering a room in a movie that I have ever, ever seen. Ever.


Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Ed Sikov Gets Wilder

There I was in the back part of a San Francisco bookstore.  Because of him, I let loose a moan of total delight.  The year was 2011, the year I relocated to, lived in and attempted to find employment in San Francisco.  My best friend from college and I had just finished having coffee and a light breakfast in Jane, an eatery on Fillmore Street.  We then went to the bookstore right next door to browse for a few minutes before he went off the prepare for work and I went off to continue my pursuit of work.  I wander to the back section where the movie books were and there I saw SCREWBALL written by Ed Sikov.  What a wonderful sight to see.  I hadn't seen Ed since we lived fairly close to each other in Manhattan and he was researching the film history book about this intoxicating classic movie genre.
Life has returned me to the New York area.  Here, Ed and I reunited.  A noted film historian and a solid journalist, he interviewed me about the huge diversity issue dust-up following the lack of racial diversity in this year's top Oscar nominations.  It was great to talk to him about Hollywood's diversity issues, issues that needed to be addressed, and it's been great to see him again.  If you want to read the interview Ed did of me, follow the link at the end of this post.

Two highly-regarded film critics have new hardcover books out.  One film is A.O. Scott who writes for the New York Times.  The other is Owen Gleiberman who wrote for Entertainment Weekly.  I just wanted to remind you classic film devotees of books authored by Ed Sikov.  They'd make terrific additions to your library and you'll increase your classic film knowledge a lot.  Ed is one of those lucky film lovers who got to meet the master -- director, writer and producer Billy Wilder.  One of his best books is about the man who gave us masterpieces such as Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, The Apartment and Some Like It Hot.
Ed definitely gets Wilder.  Not only did Ed write ON SUNSET BOULEVARD: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF BILLY WILDER, he did the commentary for the DVD.

Wilder trivia:  Can you name three Billy Wilder films that have a guy named Sheldrake? Sunset Boulevard (played by Fred Clark), The Apartment (played by Fred MacMurray) and Kiss Me, Stupid (played by Mel Blanc).

There are others.  I just wanted to introduce you to some of Ed's work -- work that is worth buying and reading.  These are excellent resource books for aspiring actors, directors, screenwriters and film journalists.  If you want to be in the film-related business, make film history a vital part of your homework.  It can only help.

I'm extremely grateful to Ed for his interview time and attention.  I'm not a big national TV star but I've managed to work on national TV over the years.  It's always a huge honor to me when someone remembers my work -- and Ed remembers it.  I pray I'll have more work for him to remember.  Here's the interview:

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...