Tuesday, December 31, 2019

KNIVES OUT Is Sharp Fun

A family gathering goes all wrong and turns out to be high drama with tensions bubbling up behind tight, polite smiles. No wonder this movie did such good box office business the day after Thanksgiving. KNIVES OUT, written and directed by Rian Johnson, is the most fun "Who Done It?" murder mystery with an ensemble cast that I've seen since Maggie Smith and Diana Rigg, as rivals, lobbed bitchy comments at each other in Agatha Christie's EVIL UNDER THE SUN (1982). The movie opens with a shot of large and rather severe looking house under overcast skies. There's fog and serious strings play in the background music soundtrack. Inside the lushly appointed house, we see nothing really popping with color and festivity but we do see a lot of books. Hardcover book. The patriarch of the family, played by Christopher Plummer, is renowned crime novelist Harlan Thrombey. He's a crusty character who has sweet, young nurse named Marta. She's an immigrant. One of the relatives says that her family is from Ecuador. Another says her family is from Paraguay. Harlen croaks soon after his 85th birthday. Was Harlen murdered? It seems that he was and Marta may have killed him. Or did she? Clues are cropping up but it seems that someone may want to kill Marta.  There's a little Agatha Christie, a touch of the COLUMBO television series and a healthy scoop of Hitchcock suspense. KNIVES OUT stars Jamie Lee Curtis as the dead man's daughter. Jamie Lee is silver-haired and sensational.
All the relatives are questioned by two cops. Michael Shannon, Don Johnson and Toni Collette play other annoying members of the family.
Tagging along with the two detectives is Benoit Blanc. He's been called "the last of the gentlemen sleuths." The private eye assures family members that he's acting "at the behest of a client." I fell in love with Daniel Craig as this Southern-fried private eye. He sounds like a character Truman Capote would've created for one of his short stories. When it comes time to read the will and relatives await news about the inheritance, the relatives have worked the private eye's last good nerve. He lashes out at them, "You are vultures at the feast! Knives out!"
Previously, I'd seen Chris Evans only has Marvel Comics characters onscreen. Man, is he good in KNIVES OUT as the grandson. He is so sexy wearing sweaters that he could do for the sweater what Dorothy Lamour did for the sarong in 1930s movies for Paramount. Chris Evans is definite man-candy. And a good actor.
I'm not telling you any more about the plot. I don't want to spoil any surprises. But I will show you a trailer. Here it is.

This is the second of three Stephen Sondheim inclusive movies I've seen that came out this year. JOKER, with Joaquin Phoenix giving a fantastic performance in a bleak and pointless Marvel Comics inspired film, plays an emotionally imbalanced New Yorker in a clown suit who gets beaten up by three yuppies on a subway train as they sing "Send In The Clowns." In the closing credits, we hear Frank Sinatra's gorgeous rendition of that Stephen Sondheim show tune from 1973's Broadway musical, A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC. In MARRIAGE STORY, Adam Driver sings "Being Alive" from the 1970 Stephen Sondheim Broadway musical, COMPANY. I haven't seen that movie yet.

In KNIVES OUT, Daniel Craig sits in a car alone and sings "Losing My Mind" from the 1971 Stephen Sondheim Broadway musical, FOLLIES.

I know that Daniel Craig experiences great popularity as our current James Bond. But, as good a Bond as he is, I prefer Craig in non-007 roles -- like as the no-name criminal in the 2004 British crime thriller, LAYER CAKE, as the brawny married man who's sexually attracted to the lonely 50+ woman living in the house he's renovating in 2003's THE MOTHER and as one of the convicted Death Row killers being interviewed by Truman Capote in 2006's INFAMOUS. Daniel Craig's highly entertaining performance in KNIVES OUT is one I add to that list.

KNIVES OUT doesn't try to be Oscar bait or make a great social commentary. It's a brisk, brightly acted murder mystery with a racially inclusive cast and good roles for women in ages 30 to 60. The mystery kept me guessing. I loved the original screenplay. KNIVES OUT is sharp fun. Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 29, 2019

About BOMBSHELL (2019)

I'm sure you've heard about BOMBSHELL. Produced by Charlize Theron, it's based on the accounts of women who spoke up and spoke out again sexual harassment from Fox News CEO Roger Ailes. Charlize Theron is remarkable as Megyn Kelly. She's an amazing technician at capturing someone's vocal cadence, physicality and motivations. Look at her Oscar-winning performance as serial killer Aileen Wuornos in 2003's MONSTER. I worked on a local New York City news program at the time that movie was released. One of our show's anchors had done a news feature on the killer. In her feature, she had news footage of Wuornos speaking in custody and then cut to a clip of Theron in the film. The resemblance and the actor's recreation were uncanny. When women started coming forth against Harvey Weinstein and Rogers Ailes, I cheered. When the early accusers stated that they kept quiet for a long time for fear of never working again, I knew exactly how they felt. No, I've never been sexually harassed in a work situation. However, I have definitely felt racial discrimination and the push back from seeking equal opportunities. Other people of color who experienced the same advised me not to speak out and run the risk of not being hired for future work in TV. As for BOMBSHELL, it is one extremely Caucasian movie. That is no criticism of the good cast. It's an accurate detail that I don't recall many white male film critics noticing. The alternate title for BOMBSHELL could've been WHAT HAPPENS WHEN WHITE PRIVILEGE GOES HORRIBLY WRONG.
Charlize Theron plays Megyn Kelly, Nicole Kidman plays Gretchen Carlson, Margot Robbie plays a composite character, Kate McKinnon of SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE plays a lesbian Democrat cautiously working for Fox News and John Lithgow slams across an excellent performance as Roger Ailes. The acting is top shelf and I felt the movie was good, but it could have gone deeper. From 1994 to 1999, I was a regular on a WNYW/Ch. 5 live TV news program called GOOD DAY NEW YORK. That show gets a visual reference in the film as WNYW is a Fox station. There were many Black and Latinx folks on our production staff for the morning show. However, just because Black and Latinx folks are on a staff doesn't automatically mean they're subject to promotions, upward mobility and equal pay like the white employees are getting. I made 1999 my final year on GOOD DAY NEW YORK because, after years of good work -- some entertainment news items I broke got national attention -- and popularity with viewers, my contract had been renewed for $10,000 less. There was no reason for the major decrease. I was not making one of those impressive 6-figure salaries you read about. I was told it was "Take it or leave it." As I was still paying the mortgage on my mother's house, I took it.
Theron, Kidman and Robbie play blondes. The on-air women are selected by Ailes as if he's a lascivious 1930s Fox movie studio head picking out glamour girls to put under contract and turn into sex symbols. When you look at the scenes in the Fox News offices, it was like a Hollywood studio in the 1930s. There were no Black stars. Black performers had minor roles and not got the same privilege white talent did. Did the highly-paid white journalists ever notice or speak up about the racial imbalance in their newsrooms? They're in midtown New York City, working in TV journalism, and the staffs are predominantly white. When other women come forward with sordid stories about Roger Ailes, they're all white. Here's a trailer.

The late Liz Smith, a longtime respected entertainment news journalist whose column was syndicated in newspaper across the country, was a semi-regular on GOOD DAY NEW YORK I loved working with her and she was most kind to me. She felt I was under-utilized on the show and should've been on a network program. Liz Smith wrote a letter pitching me to Roger Ailes, a buddy of hers. She did that on her own -- and sent me a copy of the letter.  I thanked her very much for her support. Nonetheless, I did think to myself "I'm Black, gay and a Democrat. I won't be sitting by the phone waiting for Roger Ailes to call me."

Watching BOMBSHELL confirmed a feeling I go during my seven consecutive years of working on local TV morning news programs in New York City. When the executive branch of a corporation is infected with the virus of toxic white male masculinity, those men have a coin in their pockets they use to their advantage. On one side is sexual harassment. On the other is racial discrimination. The standout performances in BOMBSHELL come from Margot Robbie, Charlize Theron and John Lithgow in heavy make-up and padding as Roger Ailes.
Also in the cast are Allison Janney, Connie Britton, Malcolm McDowell, Holland Taylor, Tony Plana as Geraldo Rivera and Richard Kind as Rudy Giuliani.




Friday, December 27, 2019

Broadway Greats Jerry Herman & Angela Lansbury

Broadway tunesmith Jerry Herman passed away this week at age 88. Broadway will definitely dim its lights in his memory. That man had the gift -- and he put it to great use as he lifted our spirits and entertained us with his songs. I've seen some big new Broadway musicals, musicals that opened after 2000. I enjoyed them but I could not, for the life of me, hum a single tune once I'd left the theatre. That was never the case with a Jerry Herman musical, even if the musical was not a huge hit like his HELLO DOLLY! That Broadway musical solidified Carol Channing as a musical theatre legend and gave pop culture new showtunes to hum. Top recording stars of the day sang Jerry Herman songs from HELLO DOLLY! on their new albums and their recordings got radio play. Singers like Frank Sinatra, Jack Jones, Eydie Gorme. Louis Armstrong did a cover of "Hello Dolly!" that topped the Billboard charts -- and topped a record by The Beatles. And that's why you see Louis Armstrong make a cameo appearance to sing it with Barbra Streisand when she starred in the film version of HELLO DOLLY! Today, when we hear Angela Lansbury sing a hit Disney tune, like in BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, and when we watched her solve crimes for many CBS TV seasons as Jessica Fletcher on MURDER, SHE WROTE, I always think "We have Jerry Herman to thank for that." Herman's music made America realize the true leading lady star quality and musical comedy skills of Angela Lansbury.
MGM was the Tiffany of Hollywood studios when it came to movie musicals in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. In the studio's roster of stars were Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Frank Sinatra, Ann Miller and Lena Horne to name a few. Young Angela Lansbury was signed by MGM in the early 1940s. In her first film, a drama, she got herself an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. She played the promiscuous maid in 1944's GASLIGHT. She got her second Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for playing the sweet, doomed music hall singer in another drama, 1945's THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY. 
Lansbury had the ability to project a maturity that made her seem 10 years older than she was. She played the "bad girl" saloon singer/vamp in the original MGM musical western, 1946's THE HARVEY GIRLS, opposite Judy Garland. She came off older and worldly when she and Judy were only in their 20s and Lansbury was about three years younger than Garland. In that hit musical, Angela Lansbury sang … but, for some reason, MGM decided to dub her singing voice.

MGM never really utilized Angela Lansbury's musical comedy skills while she was under contract. Then came her third Oscar nomination. Again, in the Best Supporting Actress category, she was nominated for her chilling dramatic brilliance as the malevolent mother in 1963's political thriller, THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE. Laurence Harvey played her brainwashed son. In real life, he was only 3 years younger than Lansbury. Here's a clip.

Hollywood was not sending lead role script opportunities to Angela Lansbury. She went to Broadway and did a 1964 Stephen Sondheim musical that lasted for only 9 performances. But Jerry Herman, riding high on the success of HELLO DOLLY!, saw her sing and dance in that short-run musical. He was working on a musical version of the Broadway and film hit comedy, AUNTIE MAME. Rosalind Russell famously originated the role on Broadway and recreated her performance in the movie version. Several actresses were considered for the musical version -- Broadway great Mary Martin, Ann Sothern, Kitty Carlisle … even Rosalind Russell. Angela Lansbury was on nobody's list. Nobody except for Jerry Herman. She got the role and became the "It" Girl of 1966. Broadway gave her the stardom that Hollywood had not. Angela Lansbury looked glamorous, she was the Toast of Broadway, the musical was a huge hit and songs she introduced were recorded by top pop stars of the day. She was now starring in MAME, a leading lady and not a supporting player.

Here is one of the MAME songs written by Jerry Herman that ascended her to Broadway stardom. Click onto the link below:

https://youtu.be/k0L21fXFnjw.


Here's another Jerry Herman song she introduced as the madcap MAME. She's now legal guardian to her little nephew. His late father, Mame's brother, was a stuffy and conservative executive who rarely had time for the boy. She's devoted to little Patrick even when she's having no luck finding a job during the Depression. She sings this song, now one of our holiday favorites.

Jerry Herman's musical forced the entertainment industry to see the versatile Angela Lansbury in a whole new light. His songs illuminated HELLO, DOLLY!, MAME, DEAR WORLD, MACK AND MABEL and LA CAGE AUX FOLLES. Herman was a Broadway great whose work made others Broadway greats. His songs will always hold a special place in our hearts.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

On Netflix, THE SAPPHIRES

I wanted to see a movie. Something entertaining and warm that I'd not already seen. And I wanted it to be under 2 hours in running time. Well, I found it -- on Netflix. It's a movie that I'd heard about five years ago and it had hooked my attention. I'd read that it was made for about $9 million in Australia and made $20 million at the Australian box office. Also, it took home top prizes from the AACTA Awards (Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts). Those are the Aussie version of our Academy Awards. The 2012 comedy/drama is called THE SAPPHIRES and the screenplay is based on some real-life characters on a major adventure in 1968.  Apparently, THE SAPPHIRES opened in New York City in March of 2013. It got little press and U.S moviegoers missed it. This is the kind of thing that really puts a knot in my shorts. If I had been employed in TV or radio in 2013 and in New York City, I would've enthusiastically recommended THE SAPPHIRES as a great date night movie. But I wasn't. I had national TV and radio jobs between 2000 and 2008 in New York City. However, when some of my buddies assumed I was making big bucks, my annual salaries during those years ranged from $44,000 to $60,000. I lived modestly and used my emergency fund to help my mother was who, at the time, was in a serious condition. I was on a show that got cancelled in 2008 right when the Recession started spewing fire like a dragon. I could not find work. Broadcast agents turned me down for representation (as they had been since 2000 even when I was on weekly national TV), I lost my longtime studio apartment and many of my belongings in it. In a way, I've been on the road ever since. I am still passionate about films and, honestly, there are times when my soul needs some warm movie entertainment to brighten my spirits. Which brings me back to THE SAPPHIRES. We follow four young Black Australian women who form a singing group and then get booked to do USO-type shows for the troops in Vietnam. I think some entertainment press reporters may have described this as sort of a "down under" DREAMGIRLS. But it's not.
Did you see the hit 2011 comedy, BRIDEMAIDS? Remember the Milwaukee cop with the non-Milwaukee accent who falls for the Kristen Wiig character? He was played by actor Chris O'Dowd. After BRIDESMAIDS, which was a major box office hit here in the U.S., Chris O'Dowd won the Best Actor AACTA Award for 2012's THE SAPPHIRES and the movie won for Best Film. I don't think that was mentioned by American press when it opened here. If I'd been on TV or radio, I would've mentioned that because millions of moviegoers saw O'Dowd in BRIDESMAIDS.
Here's why THE SAPPHIRES not a "down under" DREAMGIRLS. The movie begins with a few printed lines onscreen about racial history in Australia. That history stinks. Until 1967, Australia's native Aboriginal population was denied full citizenship by the Australian government. The Aborigines are Australia's Black people. Not only were they segregated, they were put into the same category as animals and plant life.  Then you read what the government did to light-skinned Aborigine children, kids who were so light-skinned that they could pass for white.

The action starts in the outback. We see some really cool Aborigines and friends living their lives. Three Black girls love to sing. They sing country & western tunes. They enter an amateur contest in town -- and lose. The emcee is a dude who pretty much lives in his car. He's Dave Lovelace (Chris O'Dowd). He digs the girls who lost and feels that they lost because they're Black. He talks to them, learns that they want to play for the troops in Vietnam and wisely tells them to add some funk to their repertoire. Stop with the country & western tunes. Embrace Otis Redding, Sam Cooke and James Brown. Says Dave, "If you wanna perform for the brothers in Vietnam, you gotta give 'em soul."
He's now their manager. He makes changes. Defensive and argumentative Gail has been the lead singer. He makes another girl the lead singer. Gail is miffed and you know she thinks it's because the other girl is prettier (like in DREAMGIRLS). It is not. It's because the other girl's voice is better and no one knew how to break it to Gail. Gail is good enough to be in the quartet but she's not good enough to be the lead. Dave knows they have to go into their audition being terrific and not just ok.

There's the fourth voice the girls need. She's been accused of being a "coconut" -- acting like she's white on the inside. She's light-skinned and has passed for white. When you know all of this, you can understand why watching the news about Dr. Martin Luther King on TV was just as important to these four Australian women as it was to Black Americans soldiers in Saigon. Dave, by the way, was right. Nothing wrong with country & western. But when The Sapphires discover Motown, the act takes off. Here's a clip from THE SAPPHIRES now available on Netflix.

There are lessons learned about friendship, race, love and soul music in THE SAPPHIRES. This film started off as a popular play in Australia. You see lovely photos of the four women who inspired the play and film in the closing credits. This warm-hearted movie runs about 1 hour 45 minutes -- and it put a smile on my face. Happy Holidays.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Alfre Woodard in CLEMENCY

Oh, my Lord, what a performance. If you want to see a woman at the top of her game in the field of acting, you must see Alfre Woodard in CLEMENCY. This prison drama is another independent feature that comes to us from a female filmmaker. CLEMENCY was written and directed by Chinonye Chukwu. The movie takes an unsentimental look at institutionalized murder. We look at the death penalty in our American prison system. Alfre Woodard stars as Warden Bernadine Williams, a very by-the-book prison boss. The story opens with her on her way to her oversee an execution via lethal injection. She will ask the condemned young man, "Do you have a final statement?"
She's intelligent, stoic, respected and she's been in her position for seven years. We can see she's been in a male-dominated environment. The 1000 inmates are men. In the execution room, she's the only woman. The Death Row convict, the guards, the paramedics and the chaplain are all men. Bernadine's job cannot be an easy one. Something goes wrong with the execution of Victor Jimenez as she watches. Reporters and the convict's mother watch from another room until Bernadine quickly pulls a curtain over the glass window.

We see her steeliness in work situations. After work, she and other employees frequent a local bar. Bernadine drinks just enough to give her a slight buzz before she goes home. The drinks give her relief from the heavy psychological demands of her daily employment. At home, there's now some emotional distance in her marriage. Her husband, a high school teacher, loves her very much. He sees that she's drifting further and further away from him. She's not fully present in their marriage. One night he snaps that he does not want "an empty shell of a wife."

Her office at work is her prison cell, but she doesn't realize it. With every execution she oversees, a bit of her life, a bit of her soul, leaks out leaving her emptier emotionally and spiritually. This she will have to confront as she prepares for another execution. He was convicted of killing a policeman. The crime made TV news headlines. Outside the prison, people protest the death penalty and his death sentence. Bernadine's emotional fractures will connect her to the man condemned to death.
Alfre Woodard's performance is so nuanced, so riveting. To be fair, hers is not the only powerful performance in CLEMENCY. Right up there with her is Aldis Hodge (STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON, HIDDEN FIGURES) as repentant Anthony Woods, the next inmate scheduled for execution. The gifted Wendell Pierce plays Bernadine's husband. Pierce is currently the Toast of London where he got terrific reviews for his work as Willy Loman in a British theatre revival of Arthur Miller's DEATH OF A SALESMAN. One of the new hits on CBS TV is the sitcom called BOB ❤ ABISHOLA. A hospital nurse, one of the regulars on the show, is played by Vernee Watson. She's a veteran an many network TV commercials and parts in episodes of network TV shows. In CLEMENCY, she's Mrs. Collins, a woman who pleads for the opportunity from Warden Williams to bring some humanity into the convict's final days. This small supporting role reminds us that Vernee Watson can make a great impression with dramatic material too. I also want to give some praise to actor Alex Castillo. He's in the first 10 minutes of CLEMENCY as the first inmate we see executed. It's not a big role. However, he gives a gripping, unforgettable performance. Here's a trailer for the film.

Alfre Woodard is outstanding in CLEMENCY. She is another of those remarkable actresses of color who got an Oscar nomination and then had to turn to TV soon after the Oscars telecast because Hollywood no other juicy script offers for her.  Also in this category are Rita Moreno (Oscar winner, WEST SIDE STORY), Cicely Tyson (Oscar nominee, SOUNDER), Diahann Carroll (Oscar nominee, CLAUDINE), Angela Bassett (Oscar nominee, WHAT'S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT?), Taraji P. Henson (Oscar nominee, THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON) and even Whoopi Goldberg (Oscar nominee, THE COLOR PURPLE and Oscar winner, GHOST).

I've been an Alfre Woodard fan ever since I saw her in the Robert Altman social commentary ensemble comedy, HEALTH (1980). Set at a luxury hotel in Florida, there's a health food convention and a political organization election happening at the same time. I was in a movie audience that loved the Black actress who played the overwhelmed public relations director of the hotel. She was comedy gold. I could hear folks in the audience whisper "Who's that girl?" It was newcomer Alfre Woodard in a cast that included Glenda Jackson, Lauren Bacall, Carol Burnett and James Garner.

Woodard played the helper/maid in 1983's CROSS CREEK. Set in Florida in the late 1920s, it's the story of author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, the woman who wrote THE YEARLING. Mary Steenburgen played Rawlings. Alfre Woodard got a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her performance. Did she get other good Hollywood script offers after her Oscar nomination like Julia Roberts, Amy Adams and Cate Blanchett did? Nope. Alfre turned to TV for steady employment. We saw her on HILL STREET BLUES, AMERICAN PLAYHOUSE productions on PBS, ST. ELSEWHERE and DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES. She racked up several Emmy nominations for her TV work. I'd love to see Alfre Woodard in the Oscar race again.

For her prison drama, CLEMENCY, director and screenwriter Chinonye Chukwu became the first Black woman to win the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival.

CLEMENCY is scheduled to be released on December 27th.







Wednesday, December 18, 2019

About A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD

If you're one of the few people who has followed my blog posts for a few years, you know that the work of Tom Hanks holds a very dear place in my heart. I have been a hardcore Tom Hanks fan ever since the early days of my first professional TV job. That was at the ABC affiliate in Milwaukee. When I saw Hanks in drag, looking like a young Ruth Roman, when the sitcom BOSOM BUDDIES premiered on ABC in 1980, I was hooked. I've had the unforgettable opportunity to interview him. In 1994, his kindness on-camera helped me through one of the saddest days of my life. One hour before our interview, I got a call from my partner's doctor at Mount Sinai hospital in New York City that he was not responding to any more of his AIDS medical treatment. She felt the end was near and that I should contact his parents. I was about cancel my FORREST GUMP interview with Mr. Hanks until my partner's doctor added, "Richard is adamant that he does not want you to come to the hospital until after you've done your work." In December 1999, Tom Hanks gave me one of the happiest experiences of my TV career. I was host of a local cable show in Manhattan that focused on new film releases, domestic and foreign. I loved that show and the crew. Our little ragtag crew got permission to be on the red carpet for the premiere of THE GREEN MILE at the Ziegfeld Theater. We did not expect to get interviews, although we had microphones at the ready. Our main goal was to get footage of the stars walking the carpet to use at the end of our holiday edition show. Think of a commercial airline. We were placed in the last five row of the economy section. I was wearing a fleece jacket and a Santa hat. Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson spotted me. He walked by the first class and business section to come give me a hug in economy. We got that on-camera. I was so touched and thrilled, I could hardly speak. Yes, Tom Hanks holds very dear place in my heart.
When I read early reports that he'd be playing Mister Rogers, the beloved Fred Rogers, in a new movie, even I was concerned. How could a biopic match the excellence and poignancy of the 2018 documentary, WON'T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? I am still stunned at the fact that wonderful documentary did not get an Oscar nomination.

Well, Tom Hanks does play Fred Rogers in A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD but it is not a biopic. It's based on a true 1998 story. Rogers is more of a significant supporting character in it. A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD is based a true story involving a national magazine writer assigned to interview the TV host. The writer balked at the assignment. The real writer's name has been changed to "Lloyd Vogel" for the movie. The writer's work always has a taste of sourness towards humanity. His relationship with his father is in such a bad state that he punched his dad out at a wedding reception and he took a serious blow to the face that he tells co-workers resulted from an accident during a sports activity. The journalist's life will be changed as he spends time with Fred Rogers. A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD is about forgiveness, kindness and doing the work to make yourself a better person. It's about acknowledging one's inner scars. As Fred Rogers says to Lloyd Vogel, "There's no normal life that is free from pain."
In this movie, we see a Fred Rogers who occasionally irritates his TV crew. When Lloyd Vogel makes his first visit to the children's show TV set, crew members are annoyed because the shoot is running one hour behind schedule. But Fred Rogers has his own pace, his own rhythm. He knows what he's doing -- and he does it. He takes his work seriously.  In suspicious and bruised Lloyd, Rogers detects an unspoken heartache. Eventually, he will meet Lloyd's loving and concerned wife, their baby and Lloyd's alcoholic, ailing father. He will give them all the same heartfelt, compassionate attention he gives children on his show.

A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD was directed by Marielle Heller. She directed Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant to Oscar nominations for 2018's CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? That film, like A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD, focuses on real-life misfit writers on the ultimate island of misfit toys -- Manhattan. Both writers have soured on people. Both are angry. Both are talented but behave irresponsibly. Heller gives her new film a gentle yet meaningful tone. Just like Mister Rogers' TV show, it's simple, without frills, and allows space for silence -- silence that has emotional gravity. Characters are allowed to think, to listen to the voice of their own souls. There are moments during conversations when you actually hear a clock ticking in the background before a reply is spoken. To me, Tom Hanks gives a masterful performance. He submerges into the carriage and body language of Fred Rogers. He gets his cadence of speech and the different emotions behind the eyes. This TV host is a man who also has his angers.
The performance is brave one for Hanks. He stretched himself as an actor. I read years ago in a magazine interview that he confessed to having a fear of singing in public. As Fred Rogers, he has to sing about 4 or 5 tunes. And Fred Rogers didn't just sing nursery rhymes. He sang original tunes that had a definite light jazz beat. Matthew Rhys, the Welsh actor who was on the TV drama series, THE AMERICANS, stars as the American magazine writer. He's the lead actor in the film.  Here's a trailer.
Chris Cooper is also first-rate as the alcoholic father seeking redemption from his grown son. Marielle Heller's graceful film has a message our world sorely needs right now.  For Tom Hanks fans, A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD is a must-see. I think the performance could land him in the Best Supporting Actor Oscar race next month.

If you'd like to see my unexpected red carpet with Tom Hanks in December 1999, watch this reel. Happy Holidays.


Tuesday, December 17, 2019

The New MAD ABOUT YOU

My late partner introduced me to a new NBC sitcom called MAD ABOUT YOU. This was a week or two after our first date in 1992. He loved the "opposites attract " aspect of the show. The lead characters, played by Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt, were an inter-faith married couple. He was Jewish. She was not. They lived in New York City in the Village, five blocks from NYU (New York University). Richard and I were an "opposites attract" couple. He was a white Southern Baptist from a small town in Tennessee going with me, a Black Catholic guy who hails from South Central L.A. In the late 80s, Paul Reiser was a guest on my VH1 talk show. I was and still am a fan of his actor work. When I watched MAD ABOUT YOU, I fell immediately in love with Helen Hunt. In the TV marriage of Paul and Jamie Buchman, you could see exactly why he fell for and married her. Why he was mad about her. The show had a successful run, airing through 1999. Personally, I didn't like the final episodes that had the couple on the brink of divorce.
Just like another hit NBC sitcom from the 1990s, WILL & GRACE, MAD ABOUT YOU has been rebooted and you have to forget all about those last episodes in the original run. Paul and Jamie are now "empty nesters." Their daughter, Mabel, is leaving to start her freshman year at NYU. The school is just five blocks away but she's packed as though she's relocating to Nova Scotia. I had less luggage when I flew from Los Angeles to start my freshman year at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Mom Jamie is not just hovering as Mabel prepares to leave -- Jamie's so attached, she's practically a skin graft. She follows Mabel to her college dorm room and will drop by unannounced before the episode ends. The premiere reboot episode is about being older and becoming an "empty nester." Writing-wise, it's a light episode but it floats on the chemistry of the two veteran stars. Their timing and charisma is still there. Reiser, like myself, is now burlier. Hunt is leaner and has the look of a seasoned champion athlete who's now coaching. In a way, she is. Helen Hunt directed this first episode. I hope she gets to direct more of them.
She didn't direct the second episode which is not quite as funny as the first. Writing-wise, it's also light and Jamie is forced to join a support group for empty nesters. There's a sub-plot of her wanting a puppy to fill the void of no-child in the home. By the way, for 20 years, I lived close to where Paul and Jamie live. I was on 21st Street at 7th Avenue in Chelsea. Their daughter's vacated bedroom is the size of the entire studio apartment I had.

Recognizable faces from the show's original NBC run appear in these two episodes. There's John Pankow as Ira Buchman, Anne Ramsay as Jamie's sister and Richard Kind as big Dr. Mark Devanow.
But Mark's no longer with Fran. They're history. He's now married to a formidable, middle-aged Black woman who's a therapist. She's the therapist who runs the empty nester's support group.

In its original run, I loved how Jamie embraced diversity. In one episode, she and her girlfriends are happily noting how hot Black pro tennis player Yannick Noah is. As the series went on, Richard and I noticed the lack of Black people in a show about characters who lived in New York City. In one episode, Carol Burnett guest starred as Jamie's mother. Mother and daughter went to see the hit Broadway musical BRING IN 'DA NOISE, BRING IN 'DA FUNK starring Savion Glover. I saw that show three times. Each time, the packed audience was extremely diverse racially. I was thrilled to see so many Black and Latino folks in a Broadway show audience. However, in that episode of MAD ABOUT YOU, when mom and daughter went to the lobby during the Broadway show's intermission, there were no Black people as background actors. This lack of color also applied to fellow NBC sitcoms at that time -- FRIENDS, WILL & GRACE and SEINFELD. The lack of color on shows in which we followed sophisticated characters living in NYC was so evident that, in one issue of Los Angeles Magazine, the question was posed "Does NBC stand for 'No Black Comics'?" As for SEINFELD, I was working at WNBC in the early 90s when one incendiary episode aired. A lead character is driving a car, makes a wrong turn into the Puerto Rican Day Parade and accidentally sets the flag of Puerto Rico on fire. The night that aired, the NBC switchboard just about caught on fire with the mass number of irate calls for Latinx viewers. I was angry about it too. My feeling was that, if setting the flag of Puerto Rico on fire accidentally was written as a gag, there was no one Latino on the writing staff or otherwise on the production team to say, "Can we talk about this before you shoot it? You're asking for trouble here." That episode was taken out of the rerun cycle for years.

We're now in a different age. Diversity and inclusion are key -- especially in shows that feature characters in big metropolitan cities. People of color are definitely in the first two episodes of the MAD ABOUT YOU reboot. Part of me wonders if that was the wonderful work of Helen Hunt who, like actress Frances McDormand, advocates the inclusion rider in production contracts. There's racial diversity in the cast and the first two episodes were directed by women. Helen Hunt and Paul Reiser are executive producers of the reboot. Here's a trailer.

I had some reboot script ideas. For Mark (played by Richard Kind), I would've had his detachment from Fran as a divorce when he came to a truth about his sexual orientation. I would've had him *come out* and now be with a middle-aged Black or Latino man. Now that Mark is out, we could see if Paul is still comfortable doing things they've done for years -- like hit the gym together, workout and catch a steam afterwards. As for Paul, we see him working on a TV commercial for catheters. I would have him now an Oscar nominee for one of his documentaries. He didn't win but he and Jamie were at the Oscars. And he's since made appearances on New York City's PBS station during pledge drives. He's become a bit of a local celebrity. Instead of a great restaurant review in the New York Times (Ira has an Italian restaurant), I would've had his chef get booked on CBS SATURDAY MORNING for one of the news program's popular weekly restaurant segments or get a great profile another national TV show. The on-air TV segments would be great for business in these modern times where more people are looking at screens instead of reading newspapers. While Paul and Jamie are in the restaurant one night after some TV exposure, Jamie could be spotted by one of her old boyfriends from right before she met Paul. Her old boyfriend is now a transgender female and looks fabulous. As for Paul and Jamie's serious marital discord at the end of the sitcom's run in 1999, I would have it that tragedy brought them together again. They both lost a very dear friend who worked in one of the World Trade towers on September 11th. Their shared grief was, in time, sort of a remarriage. They reconciled and reunited in their changed New York City.

Just a few ideas. During the original run, Helen Hunt won the Best Actress Oscar for 1997's AS GOOD AS IT GETS, written and directed by James L. Brooks. In the first episode, we're reminded of why she won that Oscar when she sits with Paul in Ira's restaurant and honestly says, "I'm so tired. My brain is tired..." She's older and she knows it. She reveals her complicated feelings. That's in the episode Hunt directed.  Helen Hunt has done some mighty fine work as a film director. I recommend her 2007 directorial debut with THEN SHE FOUND ME starring Colin Firth, Matthew Broderick and Bette Midler. Hunt got a good, subtle performance out of Midler. I also like Hunt's surfer romantic comedy/drama RIDE. That 2014 film has her as a single mom who learns to surf in order to heal her fractured relationship with her son.

The first two episodes of the non-NBC reboot are "The Kid Leaves" and "Restraining Orders and Puppies." I give the first one a C+ and give a C to the second.  They can be viewed for free until the end of January on Spectrum Originals, the new home for MAD ABOUT YOU. Just click onto the link below:

www.spectrumoriginals.com.




Monday, December 16, 2019

They're THE AERONAUTS

This is a new feature, an Amazon Original. Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones had that right chemistry together in THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING. He played Stephen Hawking, she played Jane Hawking. We loved seeing how that couple met and how science was always in the air of their lives. Redmayne and Jones reunite and play another couple brought together by science. We go to London in 1862 to meet THE AERONAUTS. Remember when TV had half-hour film review shows hosted by two movie critics who gave opinions of the week's new releases? THE AERONAUTS is a movie that should be reviewed on that kind of show if the two critics were Sam Champion and Al Roker. Eddie Redmayne stars as bachelor James Glaisher, a young man who believes in "advanced weather prediction." In other words, he wants to be a meteorologist.
The young scientist is scheduled to go up in a hot air balloon to fly below, in and above the clouds as it ascends. He'll experience and make note of the weather patterns. Traveling with him is Amelia Rennes. At first, she appears to be more entertainer than scientist. She arrives for the trip and wows the crowd with her colorful flair and presentation. She's sort of an 1862 Cyndi Lauper without the music. The two people in the balloon will be opposites in gender and in type. Think of the 1941 screwball comedy, BALL OF FIRE, starring Gary Cooper as a starchy professor who's an encyclopedia writer and Barbara Stanwyck as the hip nightclub singer who winds up as his temporary housemate. She's not a professor, but she's smart enough to teach him a few things. That's a little like the airborne pair in THE AERONAUTS.
Amelia does have some sharp scientific knowledge. And she's a young widow. This is not a biographical story. The script is a mash-up of different balloon adventures that took place in England around that time and it was tailored to give the woman plenty of action-packed scenes. THE AERONAUTS works as good family fare. It's not THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING. But kids in middle school and younger may take to it because of the thrilling, wonderfully shot action scenes. For grown-ups, it's not exactly as "must-see." Younger movie-watchers will dig the action sequences. There are times when high winds whip to the two around like they're rag dolls. There's danger in the air. Amelia can handle it. That dame has brass ovaries.       
 Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones are, once again, good together. Here's a trailer.
For all the gutsy, dangerous work Amelia did during the expedition, she should've been invited into that great hall of Stuffy, Bearded British Men. They applauded the young weatherman who believed science should always seek "to find order in chaos" and who embarked on that journey "for the advancement of knowledge and the good of us all."

Amelia should've been invited to receive some of the applause. She saved the weatherman's life. THE AERONAUTS runs 1 hour and 40 minutes.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Aretha Franklin's AMAZING GRACE

If your spirit needs to be refreshed and recharged, y'all need to see this 90-minute documentary. It's more a concert performance than a typical documentary -- and it's a joyous concert performance at that. AMAZING GRACE puts young Aretha Franklin up front and center at a church in South Central Los Angeles. It's near where I attended high school. In fact, there was a festival one weekend on our campus with some New Orleans musicians. Mick Jagger stopped by. Folks were shocked he even knew our school existed. This was around the time Aretha Franklin performed two nights at the church in Watts. You'll see Jagger in the Aretha Franklin audience for her second night.
It's 1972. Acclaimed director Sydney Pollack is in the production crew. You hear him chatting with crew members and, apparently, the filming of the two performances was intended to be a TV special. That special never got made. There were problems trying to sync up the audio tracks with some of the visuals. All the footage wound up in a vault at Warner Bros. and stayed there until someone in 2007 pulled it out and worked on fixing the technical difficulties. A few legal difficulties followed. After Aretha Franklin's death in 2018, her family consented to release the documentary. It was released nationally early this year.
The Lady Soul has not even been singing for a full two minutes when she's giving you goosebumps. You get that sweet shiver from that truly awesome voice. To me, it was the 8th wonder of the world. This is a gospel concert. Franklin gives gospel flavor to Simon & Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and Carole King's "You've Got a Friend." She'll sing "Amazing Grace," a song that's become quite overdone over the decades, and make you feel like you're hearing it for the first time. Performing with her is the Southern California Community Choir. Aretha's father is present and so is gospel music star Clara Ward a year before she passed away.
Aretha Franklin's voice will make you want to throw your hands up in the air and praise Jesus, Yahweh, Allah, Buddha, Zeus, Wonder Woman or whatever benevolent force you pray to on a regular basis. Here's a trailer for AMAZING GRACE now on DVD.

Director Sydney Pollack (THE WAY WE WERE, THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR, TOOTSIE, OUT OF AFRICA and THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON'T THEY?) died in 2008. In 2004, he was a host on Turner Classic Movies. He hosted the Saturday TCM show, "The Essentials." I wish he'd lived long enough to be a guest on TCM again and talk about the experience of AMAZING GRACE.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Have You Seen PARASITE?

Oh my goodness, what a movie. This is the Korean film written and directed by Bong Joon-ho. If I had to submit my Top Ten of 2019 list of films to a major publication, PARASITE would be on the list. I will not reveal much about PARASITE because I do not want to ruin it for you. I will tell you to be prepared for scenes that range from slapstick to shocking. The other Bong Joon-ho films I've seen, the sci-fi thriller THE HOST (2006) and the sci-fi tinged OKJA (2017) are stories with characters who have family ties. PARASITE is no exception.
Did you the film classic, ALL ABOUT EVE? Bette Davis played the Broadway legend who unselfishly opens her home to an unemployed aspiring actress who turns out to be a conniving witch. If you saw that 1950 classic, think of a low-income family of Eve Harrington types who ingratiate themselves into the lives and home of an upper-class couple -- rich folks like Broadway star Margo Channing. Like Eve Harrington, these family members are all impressively talented in some way. They've got sharp minds but basically use their minds like slacker con artists. The rich married couple shows why the rich need the lower working classes. Cooking, cleaning, food shopping. Those are things the rich cannot, will not do by themselves or for themselves. The brainy, low-income family that lives in a basement in a raggedy part of town poses as unrelated people and pull a fast. First,  they manipulate the longtime housekeeper to quit. Then they individually get hired as new domestic staff members. We are posed with this question: Who are the parasites? The poor folks now with access to privileges in the upper class modern house or the upper class folks who will be polite but never quite treat them as equals? Things change when the wealthy family leaves for a short trip.
One thing to notice about director Boon Joon-ho's literature of film. Notice that when the poor family successfully pulls off its scheme and lands well above street level in a large, expensive Architectural Digest-like house, something keeps forcing them downstairs as if they're banished to the underworld. Only when one member talks about getting employment and earning money in a legit way do we see that character walking upstairs in a comfortable situation.

This is a Korean film and it's subtitled. I could easily see this story taking place in Northern California with the poor family having been forced out of its longtime address in Oakland due to gentrification and escalating rents. I could see those family members ingratiate themselves into the lives and home of a high-tone family in nearby San Francisco.
Here's a trailer for PARASITE. It runs a stylish and thrilling 2 hours and 12 minutes. I dare you not to gasp like I did during the last half-hour. Brilliant filmmaking.



Friday, December 13, 2019

Almodóvar's PAIN AND GLORY

If you've read or if you've heard glowing reviews for the performance Antonio Banderas delivers in PAIN AND GLORY, written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar, believe them. I saw it this week and I whole-heartedly agree with those reviews. Do not be surprised if you hear his name announced on Monday, January 13th, as an Oscar nominee for Best Actor.
Banderas plays an acclaimed Spanish filmmaker in his 50s. A film he made 32 years ago has been restored and is now considered a classic. He gets offers to make personal appearances. With all that glory being heaped on him from film fans, he's endures the aches and pains of aging. There's back pain, front pain, headaches and heartbreak. Aging, art, love, loss and addiction are elements in this well-told, beautifully-acted film that occasionally takes us back to the director's poor childhood. Memories of his mother, a reunion with the actor he has not spoken to since they made that film 32 years ago, a visit from his first boyfriend of his young adult years in Madrid, and an invite from an art gallery -- some of those experiences push him to a new addiction, some could pull him back from it. There's a melancholy void in the present life of filmmaker Salvador Mallo. Can he overcome it? Will he create again? That's PAIN AND GLORY.
When I got my first New York City TV job offer and moved there in 1985, not only was I ecstatic about the job, I was also ecstatic to be in a city with no shortage of movie theaters. I could watch movies -- domestic and foreign, new and classic ones I'd never seen. I saw Almodóvar's LAW OF DESIRE starring Antonio Banderas at a cinema in 1987. It hit my senses like a day at Disneyland. Almodóvar's work was a whole new world of cinema to me. I've been a Banderas fan ever since that day. I feel that what Scorsese has been to Robert de Niro, what director Vittorio De Sica was to Sophia Loren, that is what Pedro Almodóvar is to Antonio Banderas. The filmmaker distills the essence of that particular actor. Their other collaborations include WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN (1988), TIE ME UP! TIE ME DOWN! (1989) and THE SKIN I LIVE IN (2011).  Banderas gives a terrific performance. You'll feel the journey his wounded spirit takes. You feel those things that choke his emotions. Here's a trailer.
Banderas is not the only actor who gives a praiseworthy performance in PAIN AND GLORY. There's Penélope Cruz as the younger poor village mother whose sweet, smart and unselfish little boy loves to look at photos of movie stars such as Betty Hutton, Tyrone Power and Donna Reed. At the cinema, his teen dreams were colored by Natalie Wood and Marilyn Monroe. Asier Etxeandia is excellent as the undisciplined but talented actor who argued with the director when they made that 1980s film which is now considered a classic. They had not spoken to each other since then. He's still a bit reckless. But he's still talented.
PAIN AND GLORY runs a little under 2 hours. I think Fellini would have loved this film.  I enthusiastically recommend it to mature Almodóvar fans.










Thursday, December 12, 2019

On HONEY BOY and POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE

This is a film that could've also been titled THE MAN WITH THE CHICKEN ON HIS BUTT. Last month, I wrote a blog post review of THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON, a new film that I thoroughly enjoyed. Starring Shia LaBeouf, it's the story of a very unlikely friendship. LaBeouf plays an outsider in North Carolina who strikes up a friendship with a young man who has Down syndrome. They travel down the river like a couple of Mark Twain characters. What enriches the film is that the character with Down syndrome was played by a new actor who really has Down syndrome. HONEY BOY is not a biopic, but the screenplay was written by Shia LaBeouf and inspired by his real-life dysfunctional family experiences. This is the story of a sour father-son relationship. The 12 year-old kid is occasionally called "Honey Boy" by his single father, a domineering and irresponsible man. He's an Army vet who entered rehab for drugs and alcohol. His 12 year-old son is a TV actor. The kid is currently working on a project and has to get up for work at 4am. He acts more like a mature adult that his father does.
The movie opens with an action scene. We see a handsome young man, seemingly 20-something, having survived a major airline mishap. An explosion hurls him into the air. We see that he's attached to a line wire. Then he's returned to his original spot. We realize that this is part of a film being shot. The young actor, the star of the film, heads back to his trailer. There, he dallies in recreational substances. He dallies too much. Under arrest, he's in the back of a cop car screaming "Why am I here? Why am I here?" Then, he's in rehab with a therapist. This is the grown Otis, a Hollywood film actor who now drinks like his father did. In flashbacks, Otis (played by Lucas Hedges) recalls his miserable adolescent life. He dodges doing the emotional work in therapy. Otis says, "I'm an egomaniac with an inferiority complex." Eventually, his turbulent childhood memories surface.
The father was a hot mess of a guardian while little Otis is working. The two lived in a bleak motel. Shia LaBeouf is good as the father but his character is such a verbally and physically abusive jerk that you wish little Otis would haul off the slap him back. The father was in rehab but never seemed to learn any lessons. He's still irresponsible, cussing his little boy out and making him learn how to smoke. And then there's the moment when dad dresses up like a clown. While doing clown antics, he has a live chicken on his butt. Dad once said to little Otis, "You come from a line of alcoholics, son..." When grown Otis comes to terms with all this -- and the chicken -- he'll begin to heal.
The opening scene, when we realize the high drama we see is really a movie shoot, reminded me of the opening scene in 1990's POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE. Mike Nichols directed that film, Meryl Streep starred as the talented Hollywood film and TV actress who has to enter rehab. The screenplay was by Carrie Fisher.  POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE centers on a colorful mother-daughter relationship. Both are actresses, both have their addictions, both can work each other's last good nerve. Yet both love each other deeply. POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE was inspired by Carrie Fisher's real-life experiences.
I'd interviewed the fabulous Fisher on my old VH1 talk show. I read POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE, her first novel, before I saw the film adaptation. I feel now as I did then -- Carrie Fisher should have been an Oscar nominee for Best Adapted Screenplay. Her first screenplay, based on her first novel, was witty and wonderful.

I had dinner with two friends of Carrie Fisher and her mother, Debbie Reynolds, when the film had just been cast. They'd read the screenplay and had high praise for it. The two gentlemen had seen my VH1 interviews of Carrie and Debbie. They told me Carrie's screenplay had the characters from the novel, but it was different from the novel. So different that Carrie wanted to title the screenplay HOLLYWOOD AND VINE. Mike Nichols vetoed that idea. In the book, the movie star mother of actress Suzanne Vale is only in about ten pages. Suzanne's grandmother was the more prominent character. For the screenplay, Carrie dug into her real life relationship and made the mother's role larger than in the book. My dinner companions told me "There's a staircase argument scene in the script that's really good. It's not in the book. It's based on an argument Carrie and Debbie really had once at the old house."
The staircase scene went on to become one of the most famous -- and most quoted -- scenes of the movie. The Hollywood mother and daughter were played by Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine.
I wish HONEY BOY was as good as POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE. If Shia LaBeouf's relationship with his father was truly that stormy, Heaven bless him for having survived it. Lucas Hedges is a fine actor. The proof is in LADY BIRD, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA and BOY ERASED. This film may frustrate Lucas Hedges fans because there's so little for him to do. Most of the action is in the flashbacks. Young Noah Jupe is very good as little Otis.  Alma Har'el directed HONEY BOY, a feature that feels fueled on heartbreak and anger. From Amazon Studios, it runs 95 minutes.


Wednesday, December 11, 2019

THE TRUTH ABOUT WOMEN Directed by Muriel Box

Yes, I found another feature film directed by that unjustly overlooked British film director of the 1950s, Muriel Box. After she won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay with her 1945 British psychological drama, THE SEVENTH VEIL (starring James Mason and released in the U.S. in 1946), she continued to write screenplays as she added a new talent to her credits. She directed her first feature film which was released in the U.K. in 1949. Here was an Oscar-winning female screenwriter who became a feature film director, directed several films in the 1950s and her breakthrough accomplishments for women in film seemed to have been swept under the carpet of film history. I've seen STREET CORNER (1953), CASH ON DELIVERY (1954), SIMON AND LAURA (1955), and EYEWITNESS (1956) -- all directed by Muriel Box and all very entertaining. Her work, focusing on the female experience, was as good as 1950s films from some Hollywood male directors. It seems Muriel Box had a rough go of it mainly because British and a couple of U.S. critics did not give her any encouragement on her trailblazing work. There's an attitude of gender bias in reviews of her films. There was a core of feminism in her 1950s films and there were independent working women in her dramas and comedies. I saw what I believe is the ninth film Muriel Box directed -- a 1957 comedy called THE TRUTH ABOUT WOMEN. Whereas some of her films had good British actors who were not well-known in the U.S., this one was different. It was in color and it starred Laurence Harvey, Julie Harris, Eva Gabor and Christopher Lee.
To me, this one seemed to mosey along in sections. It doesn't have the brisk energy and excitement of her dramas STREET CORNER and EYEWITNESS. It's not as funny as CASH ON DELIVERY and SIMON AND LAURA. Still, it's worth a look. THE TRUTH ABOUT WOMEN is one of Laurence Harvey's rare outings in a comedy. We were used to seeing him in serious fare like THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, DARLING with Julie Christie and BUTTERFIELD 8 with Elizabeth Taylor. British senior citizen, Sir Humphrey (Harvey) is in a British mansion. He has grey hair and matching goatee. His son-in-law comes speeding up to the front door in a sportscar, dashes in and demands to see his wife. The butler informs him that she's out. The son-in-law tells his tale of woe to Sir Humphrey. The young man wants his wife to be a wife. That means he wants her to be a second-class citizen and his number-one admirer. Sir Humphrey takes him down memory lane with lessons learned from the women in his past life. We meet these women in flashback sequences. Diane Cilento stars as the first woman. She was a suffragette with a "horseless carriage" (an automobile.) She's feminine, frank and has strong views. She also has her own money. Humphrey falls in love with her and proposes marriage. She loves him but does not want marriage right away. She suggests they live together for a year to see if they're compatible. Shocked, he says "What about your reputation?" She replies, "What about yours?" Muriel Box co-wrote the screenplay with her husband, Sydney Box.
The suffragette is too strong for Humphrey. Then he falls for a woman who's in a sultan's harem. She was purchased in a slave market. Again, Humphrey is shocked. He meets with the sultan and states that the woman is a person "with a mind and a will of her own." To the sultan, she's property. But the sultan challenges Humphrey with Britain's views of women as wives and what's expected of them. In this section, Laurence Harvey has some comedy bits that are just like what Bob Hope would've done in 1942's ROAD TO MOROCCO. Then there's the affair Humphrey had in Paris with a beautiful married woman played by Eva Gabor. She's married to a stuffy aristocrat played by Christopher Lee. He'll learn that, in France, having a husband and a lover is often a smart arrangement.
After the suffragette, the best section in THE TRUTH ABOUT WOMEN is about the woman trapped in an elevator with Humphrey. She's an artist. She's in a relationship but not really in love. She'll fall in love with Humphrey. The artist is delightfully played by Julie Harris. It's a reunion for Harris and Harvey. They co-starred in 1955's I AM A CAMERA which was the basis for the Broadway musical, CABARET. Harris played Sally Bowles. Harvey played Christopher Isherwood.

There are more experiences in which Humphrey will learn more about women. We, the audience, learn -- as one character says -- that a woman does not want to be just a wife. She wants to be "a person, an equal partner in the business of life."

It may not be Muriel Box's best film, but consider what this British film says about women as compared to a glossy Hollywood male-directed movie such as 1959's THE BEST OF EVERYTHING directed by Jean Negulesco. Three Manhattan secretaries have careers in order to find husbands before they're 29. A woman over 29 who isn't married is a freak of nature. She's not a whole person unless she has one abbreviation before her name -- Mrs.

That was the truth about women from Hollywood and male directors in the 1950s.

1957's THE TRUTH ABOUT WOMEN should be restored and remastered in respect to director/screenwriter Muriel Box's long-overlooked breakthrough film legacy. It's in color and the costumes were designed by Cecil Beaton. He did the costume design for GIGI (1958) and MY FAIR LADY (1964).

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

STREET CORNER Directed by Muriel Box

Last month, I wrote blog pieces about two of the 1950s films directed by British Oscar winner Muriel Box. The films I wrote about were CASH ON DELIVERY, a lively comedy starring Shelley Winters, and EYEWITNESS, a crime thriller. I've also seen SIMON AND LAURA, the 1955 comedy directed by Muriel Box about a constantly bickering pair of married actors who take a BBC TV job as hosts of their own live reality TV show. They're so broke, they need the money. However, on the air, they must pretend to be a happily married couple. SIMON AND LAURA starred Peter Finch and Kay Kendall. Recently, I saw another very entertaining 1950s film directed by Muriel Box. STREET CORNER is a 1953 drama focusing on the work lives of policewomen in Great Britain. We also look at the lives of females taken into the station by those policewomen.
In an earlier post, I wrote that Muriel Box needs to be included in our American discussion of female filmmakers. Her work is overlooked here probably because film critics were not warm to her accomplishments as a director in the 1950s. I'm positive the cold reception was absolute sexism. In the 1950s, popular Hollywood screen actress Ida Lupino continued to act and went behind the camera as a director. She was a trailblazer in the male-dominated Hollywood field of film directors.  Muriel Box and her then-husband, Sydney Box, had won Oscars. Their British psychological drama starring James Mason, THE SEVENTH VEIL, won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay in 1947. In 1949, she went behind the camera and directed her first feature film. In her writing and directing, she loved to present the female experience. STREET CORNER is a rich example of that. In my article on EYEWITNESS, Muriel Box in Britain -- as Ida Lupino did in Hollywood -- got behind the camera and proved women could direct dramas that had action and suspense. EYEWITNESS didn't have any British stars who were also stars in the U.S. However, if that screenplay had been at 20th Century Fox in the 50s, it would've starred Jean Peters or Jeanne Crain. After I saw STREET CORNER, I wished Muriel Box had been invited to go to 20th Century Fox in Hollywood and direct a film or two or three with Jean Peters, Jeanne Crain, Linda Darnell, Marilyn Monroe or Dorothy Dandridge. Her directing style is marked with confidence, good pacing, wit, regard for women and regard for audiences. In STREET CORNER, the amount of speaking roles for females and the amount of women seen as background actors is plentiful. Even by today's film industry standards, the gender representation in this 1953 black and white drama would make women smile.

The story opens at night. Two female police officers are walking the beat by the Thames. The officers pass a couple, a man and a woman who are romantically involved. Suddenly, there's drama. A little boy has fallen into the water. He can't swim. The woman tells her boyfriend to get the two female cops as she dives in to save the boy. The heroic woman and her boyfriend are taken to the station by the policewomen. The couple did nothing wrong. The cops learn that the couple is broke, got evicted and has no place to stay that night. The policewomen will help. They'll help even more when it's discovered the woman is in the military. We follow her back on the Army base. Now the film has two sets of women in uniform -- the policewomen and the Army women on the base. The heroic woman in the military has a story. She committed bigamy. The man with her by the river is the poor man she loves and almost lost due to illness. We learn why she was married to two men. Box doesn't focus on the mistake the female made. She brings us into why she made it.

The next female in need of policewoman help is an abused toddler. Two policewomen are on duty in a poor part of town to check on a child and an irresponsible mother. While getting info from neighborhood women, the cops see that the child is in danger. They race upstairs to break into the apartment, This exciting scene comes in the first 15 minutes of STREET CORNER, as did the scene of the little boy being saved from drowning. Director Muriel Box needed to be saved from Britain's gender bigotry that eclipsed her 1950s film career achievements.
The third female we follow with the cops is played by blonde, beautiful Peggy Cummins. She was a star on both sides of the pond. Cummins had a sweet role in Muriel Box's comedy, CASH ON DELIVERY, with Shelley Winters. American moviegoers loved Cummins as the sharp shooter film noir femme fatale in 1950's GUN CRAZY. In STREET CORNER, she's an 18 year old mother. Her husband married her when it was discovered she was pregnant. He's away trying to make money. She gets busted for shoplifting baby clothes. Her witch of a mother-in-law keeps the baby and throws her out, calling her a "slut." The young mother gets innocently involved with a slick dude, not realizing he's a hoodlum. He's a crook who pulls off a big robbery.
The policewomen discuss work, marriage, having children and one happily announces she's off to get her hair done. Another has survived a great personal tragedy.

We follow policewomen handling those three cases, handling them in uniform and in undercover clothing. These are steak-and-potatoes, independent working class women who do good work, are proud of the work they do, yet have to endure a bit of sexism from within the force. One male cop who feels females shouldn't be on the force because women are "flighty, impetuous, undependable" will have a major change of heart in the film's final crime-fighting action scene.
STREET CORNER was also titled BOTH SIDES OF THE LAW. Muriel Box directed the 95-minute film with skillful economy and energy. She co-wrote the screenplay with her husband, Sydney Box. This movie is worth a look. Her career as a film director is film history worth noting. Muriel Box died in 1991 at age 85.

About THE IRISHMAN

The hit man Robert De Niro plays in Martin Scorsese 's THE IRISHMAN says, "You don't know how fast time goes by until you ...