Saturday, September 25, 2021

Denzel Does Shakespeare

The New York Film Festival is underway at Lincoln Center in New York City. This is like free tickets to and free rides in Disneyland for film critics who've been shut in and shut out of movie theaters due to the pandemic. On Friday morning, I read some of their Twitter post comments on THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH, a fresh take on the Shakespeare drama, starring Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand in the lead roles. My first thought was "Wow! These reviews are going to generate major Oscar buzz." The black and white film adaptation was written and directed by Joel Coen, the husband of Oscar winner Frances McDormand.


 I first looked for reviews from the critics of color who saw the film based on the famous Shakespeare tragedy: Kevin L. Lee of Film Inquiry tweeted "THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH is a soaring epic...elevated by excellent performances. Absolutely see it on the big screen." Robert Daniels of the African American Film Critics Association tweeted "THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH is definitely the bleakest adaptation of it. And I loved it. Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand gave me everything I wanted and more." Trey Mangum of Shadow and Act online wrote "Thrilling cinema that understands its purpose & accomplishes it ever so swiftly." Peter Bradshaw, an excellent Caucasian reviewer for Britain's The Guardian, gave THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH five out of five stars. Another White critic, David Ehrlich of IndieWire, wrote "Denzel Washington delivers one of the best performances of his career in Joel Coen's THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH, a film that points back to the glory days of film noir."  The wonderful Joanna Langfield of the Critics Choice Association tweeted "...McDormand, Denzel. A knockout."


 See what I mean? Here's a trailer for the film.

In Milwaukee, I was the first Black person to be seen as a weekly movie critic on the city's TV. I did that work for four years on the ABC affiliate and I also did print reviews. When Siskel & Ebert left PBS/Chicago to do their landmark film review show for Disney syndication, Chicago PBS contacted me to audition to be half of the new duo. In 1993 and 1994, I did a few film reviews on WNBC's local weekend live show in New York City. In 2000, after I pushed to be considered, I landed the weekly film critic spot on a live ABC News weekday afternoon magazine show called LIFETIME LIVE. The ABC News production aired on Lifetime TV and lasted nearly a year before its cancellation. I wrote "pushed to be considered" because initially ABC news producers questioned whether or not I had any knowledge of film and film history. They said that before looking at my demo reel. I loved that job and loved showing that Black people do have knowledge of new and classic films.

I watch ABC's GOOD MORNING AMERICA when the Oscar nominations are announced live from Los Angeles. In early 2017, when ABC News entertainment anchor Chris Connolly and Jess Cagle, veteran entertainment journalist now a PEOPLE Magazine editor discussed the nominees, they raved over Meryl Streep's umpteenth nomination. Neither Caucasian gentleman mentioned the Hollywood history Denzel Washington had just made with Oscar nominations for 2016's FENCES. The 2-time Oscar winner had just become the most Oscar-nominated Black actor in Hollywood history. FENCES, which he also directed, brought him his 7th Oscar nomination. He was nominated in the producer category thanks to the Oscar nomination for Best Picture that FENCES received. On Academy Awards night, Denzel had directed co-star Viola Davis to an Oscar victory for Best Supporting Actress.

That is why I push for critics of color to be included in the field of film reviews and film journalism, especially on network television. When Oscar nominations are announced next year, it looks as though Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand will get invites to Hollywood Prom Night again.

This archive reel of mine has a moment of me with Mr. Washington. The actor played a quadriplegic former homicide detective in 1999's THE BONE COLLECTOR. (The phone number you'll see is no longer in service.)





Friday, September 24, 2021

Henry Golding in MONSOON

I saw handsome Henry Golding in a movie on Netflix and I liked it. I liked it so much that it left me a bit irritated with ABC's GOOD MORNING AMERICA. I shall explain. Henry Golding stars in MONSOON, a British drama that was released in the U.S. in late 2020 after he'd wowed moviegoers as the leading man in the smash hit romantic comedy, CRAZY RICH ASIANS. Golding's lead role in MONSOON is not as flashy as his one in CRAZY RICH ASIANS. It's more dramatic, one of frank sexuality and one that shows the actor is not "just a pretty face." He's an actor of depth, an actor who commits to his characters. In MONSOON, he plays an upscale young man who spent his formative years in London and travels from London to Saigon in search of his Vietnamese roots. Did you see Robin Williams in his 1987 war comedy triumph, GOOD MORNING, VIETNAM? The action took place in the Saigon of the 1960s. That was the Saigon the Asian Englishman fled, with his parents, when he was a little boy. They were "boat people" who made it to England. His name is Kit. Kit longs to reconnect to the early part of his life in the land of his birth. The land is different now. It's a seemingly overpopulated city with mass transit, lots of traffic and deluxe hotels. Kit is a gay male -- and that is a very important element in his emotional journey.


When first we see Kit, he is a solo traveler. He has checked into a deluxe hotel. He is very much a tourist and appears to be a polite stranger in a strange land. He is tall, lean and tattooed. The one time "boat refugee" is no longer familiar with Saigon and has "a vague remembrance" of the Vietnamese language. He visits a childhood friend who never made it out of Vietnam with his family. The visit is cordial but awkward. The friend is not jealous yet immediately sees that Kit was moved on from his Vietnamese roots in social class. The working class friend still speaks fluent Vietnamese. Kit sounds like a proper Englishman. He's now an outsider in his homeland. We see this in the shots and scenes of him alone. We see him framed in wide shots -- by himself -- unsmiling. Taking a trip to Hanoi is his goal.

In a way, Kit is like Audrey Hepburn's Eliza Doolittle in the 1964 film version of the classic Broadway musical, MY FAIR LADY. Eliza is a poor girl who lives in the low-income part of London. She works in the flower district selling flowers to high-tone folks in the fancy part of London. She wants to reinvent herself, improve herself, stop wearing raggedy clothes and speak proper English. She wants to be "a lady in a flower shop." In six months, she accomplishes that with the help of a speech professor. The way she now walks, talks, dresses and behaves is so classy that she attends a gala and is the belle of the ball attended by royals. But when she visits her former work district, looking elegant, her former co-workers don't recognize her. They treat her like a lady. She now  speaks proper English and has become a tourist in what was her longtime turf, the place from where she came. She moved up in class and now feels cut off from her roots like bunches of flowers she used to sell in London. Eliza and Kit are alike.

But when Kit meets Lewis, the scenes and shots are different. In the wide shots, colors are bright. Not muted like when he's in his hotel room. Lewis is also tall, lean and smart. He's a Black American in the clothing business, clothing that is sold in Saigon. They two met online. With Lewis, Kit is more relaxed. And he smiles. He's not alone in the shot. We see them together. Lewis is warm and honest. There is a trace of sadness behind the eyes. To the childhood friend, the slightly nervous Kit gave gifts he later regrets. He feels they were patronizing. In the company of Lewis, the at ease Kit sweetly says, "This is nice." Kit tells Lewis about his life and his journey to Saigon. Will Kit find some sense of belonging? Will he feel like a stranger in a strange land for his entire homecoming trip -- especially after he visits Hanoi? Can we balance the differences of our past and present? Here's a trailer for MONSOON, a fresh look at the immigrant experience.

Let me tell you right that the kissing scenes Kit has with Lewis are absolutely delicious. There are excellent, subtle, moving performances from Parker Sawyers as Lewis and David Tran as Kit's childhood friend, Lee.

Here's why GOOD MORNING AMERICA irritated me. Full disclosure: I worked for ABC New in 2000 as the weekly entertainment editor and film reviewer on a live weekday ABC News magazine show that aired on Lifetime TV. Henry Golding was a live guest on GOOD MORNING AMERICA, booked to talk about, among other things, his new 2020 release called MONSOON. He was a lively, likeable guest and was given a generous amount of time. Never, when describing MONSOON, did the anchor conducting the interview or any other anchor mention that Golding's character was a gay British male seeing his Asian roots during a trip to Vietnam. Before 2017's CALL ME BY YOUR NAME got top Oscar nominations, actor Armie Hammer was a live in-studio guest on GOOD MORNING AMERICA. A clip of him dancing in a nightlife scene from the movie was shown and the anchors lightly teased him about his dancing. No anchor ever mentioned that the movie was centered on the tender, complicated 1980s summer romance in Italy between two visiting American males. The gayness was omitted from the interview. Just last month, ABC News aired a one-hour 20/20 special devoted to the late John Ritter. Entertainment anchor Chris Connolly talked about and showed a clip from the 1996 classic, SLING BLADE. I'm sure I am not the only person who feels John Ritter should've been a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee for that touching, memorable performance. Ritter played a schoolteacher in a conservative Southern town. He's a gentle, paternal, protective gay man who will save a young boy from certain physical abuse. His being gay was a key element to the story. At no time did Chris Connolly mention that the character way gay.

ABC News boasts openly gay anchors/reporters Robin Roberts and Gio Benitez. GMA gleefully books openly gay celebrities. Then why the sheepishness from news reporters in telling the public that those three movie characters were gay? With it happening three times, the omission to me -- as a regular viewer and a gay man -- felt deliberate. I hope I'm wrong.

If ABC News had kept me as an entertainment contributor after its Lifetime TV show was cancelled, and if I had been added to GOOD MORNING AMERICA, I would've mentioned the those movie characters were gay and worth seeing by LGBTQ moviegoers.

MONSOON, with a fine performance by Henry Golding, runs 1 hour and 25 minutes. Written and directed by Vietnam refugee Hong Khaou, MONSOON is currently on Netflix.

Monday, September 20, 2021

Starring Tom Skerritt

It opens on September 24th. The new film, EAST OF THE MOUNTAINS, stars Tom Skerritt in the lead role. The veteran actor is now in his 80s and he can still bring it. He was quite properly annoying as the overbearing, bigoted father to Tom Hanks character in 2016's A HOLOGRAM FOR THE KING. He was lively and thoughtful in a strong scene with Harry Dean Stanton in 2017's LUCKY. The two actors were crewmates on the starship Nostromo in 1979's ALIEN. I'm a longtime Tom Skerritt fan. My appreciation of him goes back to 1977's THE TURNING POINT in which he and Shirley MacLaine played a married pair of former ballet dancers. That film did very well come Oscar nomination time. It also did very well at the box office. Skerritt and MacLaine reunited as cast members in 1989's STEEL MAGNOLIAS.


 EAST OF THE MOUNTAINS has Tom Skerritt in peak form. I hope his performance ignites buzz for a Best Actor Oscar nomination. The story is based on a novel of the same name. Skerritt plays Ben Givens. As the film opens, we see him having breakfast alone. Tea and toast. He's casually well-dressed. His home is immaculate. Nothing out of place. No clutter. However, the colors of the scene and his dwelling are gray and off-white. No bright colors. This visual gives his home the sterility of a hospital room. That's fitting as Ben was a cardiac surgeon for a long time in Seattle. He lives alone in the Pacific Northwest. In the pan around the room the camera gives us, we see a framed photo of a young bride and groom. If we assume that Ben is a widower, we are correct.

After breakfast, he pets his dog, goes upstairs to a bedroom, sits on the bed and puts  rifle to his mouth. After a few intense seconds, he decides against committing suicide. Instead, he has dinner with his loving daughter at a nice restaurant -- and hurts her feelings -- and then goes on a road trip to the mountains. Just his senior citizen self, the dog and the rifle. Ben plans to do some bird-hunting and visit a site or two from his youth. Something dangerous happens at night. It's a good thing he has his rifle. However, his vehicle is disabled and he's forced to accept the kindness of strangers.

Road movies are not about sightseeing. They're about the things learned along the way. Ben, the heart surgeon, needs to work on his own heart. He pushes loved ones away. He doesn't respond to those who try to keep in touch. Then he blames them for why the relationships are frayed. One of the people he meets along the way is a veterinarian. She, like he, is a military vet. Ben has a great economy with words but her kindness draws him out. He continues his journey. There will be more intense situations with guns. Here's a trailer.


Skerritt's character is not frail but he is ailing. He's guarded with his words -- not saying too much, probably to keep an emotional distance. The themes of EAST OF THE MOUNTAINS are life, death and love. We will come to see the power of such simple statements as "I'm so glad to see you" and "I'm so sorry." Mira Sorvino plays Ben's daughter. Annie Gonzalez hits just the right note as the Iraq/Afghanistan vet veterinarian. This compact, moving drama was directed by SJ Chiro. She did a mighty fine job. The film runs about 90 minutes. Tom Skerritt is excellent as the retired heart surgeon who must learn to open his broken heart.

Tom Skerritt was in Robert Altman's 1970 hit military comedy, M*A*S*H*. He played one of the GIs in the Korean War. In EAST OF THE MOUNTAINS, he's a veteran Marine who served in the Korean War.

In 1985, I had the supreme joy of interviewing Tom Skerritt when I was new to New York and working on WPIX TV/Channel 11. In our studio interview, he laughed when I mentioned that I'd heard he'd been offered points -- a certain percentage of the box office profits -- in two movies he'd made: THE TURNING POINT and ALIENS. I'd also heard he decided to take a flat fee and did not have points in those two box office winners. I didn't ask him to confirm this as I didn't want to put him on the spot. So I said, "If you were offered points in the movie you just wrapped, I hope you took them. What's the name of the movie?"

He giggled and replied, "TOP GUN."

At the end of the interview, he gave me a big, warm, wonderful bear hug. 

In EAST OF THE MOUNTAINS, one character looks at Ben and says "You're one ugly old man."

Hardly. What I would not give for another Tom Skerritt bear hug.


Sunday, September 19, 2021

Coming Attractions -- Remakes

 "What's a geek?" That question gave me more insight into my dad's knowledge and embrace of the arts. Dad didn't talk much about his youth. Not nearly as much as Mom did.  Dad had to be questioned, drawn out. Not Mom. She freely talked about herself. A lot. He was a brawny man, reserved but not unapproachable. Attractive, but not what most folks would call handsome. He was far more knowledgeable than society gave him credit for being. Keep in mind this was when the Civil Rights movement was a new, young, unified voice. Dad was a veteran who'd purchased the house I grew up in with the benefit of a G.I. Loan after having served in the segregated Army of World War II. He was a working class man in South Central Los Angeles, a diverse yet predominantly Black section of L.A. Dad was a postal clerk at what was the city's main post office located in the downtown area. 

In our music cabinet were some of Dad's records. Jazz records by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. A theme album by Paul Robeson. An album of spoken word excerpts from Laurence Olivier's 1948 film adaptation of Shakespeare's HAMLET. The love theme to the film FOR WHOM THE BELLS TOLLS. An album of Brazilian dance music. A hit record by Betty Hutton. I asked "What's a geek?" because the word came up in the opening scenes of an old movie Dad was watching on local TV one afternoon. The movie was a favorite of his. He'd seen it in a theater when it opened. It was the dark 1947 thriller, NIGHTMARE ALLEY, starring Tyrone Power. Dad answered my question, told me the name of the old movie and, about Tyrone Power in the movie, he said "It's the best thing he ever did." This was way back in the early 1960s when I was well under the age of 13. Dad watched the movie. I went outside to play in the backyard.

Zoom ahead to my adult years doing entertainment reports on TV in New York City. I learned that the enormously popular Tyrone Power pleaded with his 20th Century Fox studio boss to let him star in the gritty, unsettling NIGHTMARE ALLEY. Power wanted to challenge himself and prove that he was not just a very handsome movie star whom audiences loved seeing in action adventures and love stories. Power made NIGHTMARE ALLEY, a tale of greed that starts with a carnival act. It flopped at the box office and was pretty much eased out of theaters a month after its release. It was replaced by Power in big, colorful, audience-pleasing action adventures. I would learn too that, despite the box office and critical failure of the film, NIGHTMARE ALLEY was Power's favorite of all the movies he made in his long movie career. Today, the 1947 thriller is considered to be a film noir classic that was unjustly unappreciated in its initial release.

When I learned all that, I always thought "My Black dad back in South Central L.A. was way ahead of the curve before Caucasian critics reappraised it." By the way, when I was a young man and saw 1947's NIGHTMARE ALLEY on television, I loved it just as much as Dad did.

Here's a trailer for the Tyrone Power film.


NIGHTMARE ALLEY has been remade by Guillermo del Toro, the Mexican filmmaker who gave us PAN'S LABYRINTH and THE SHAPE OF WATER. The remake opens in December. Take a look at the trailer. Bradley Cooper steps into the role Tyrone Power played.


The highly anticipated Steven Spielberg remake of WEST SIDE STORY also opens this December. The original won several Oscars including Best Picture of 1961. Rita Moreno won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. George Chakiris won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. To me, the original is a work of film art. It's rarely mentioned, but the original came out during those early, strong days of the Civil Rights movement. Remember, Dr. Martin Luther King's historic March on Washington (which Rita Moreno attended) was in August 1963. With the musical's storyline of bigotry towards immigrants and racism towards Latinos, it felt socially relevant then and, with our country's previous administration, in our current decade. Rita Moreno has a supporting role in the remake. Here's a trailer.


Wouldn't it be amazing if Rita Moreno got another Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for WEST SIDE STORY? That would be some stunning Hollywood history.


Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Liza Sang It First

 A whole generation is singing this movie theme -- and getting the lyrics wrong. The song is from a 1977 Martin Scorsese film that starred Robert De Niro and Liza Minnelli.  The musical drama is NEW YORK, NEW YORK. Liza's character, a 1940s band singer who became a 1950s movie star, introduces the title tune, the theme to NEW YORK, NEW YORK, in the last 20 minutes of the film. It's one of the original songs written for Scorsese's film. The original songs were written by Broadway tunesmiths John Kander and Fred Ebb. One of their Broadway hits was CABARET. Liza Minnelli starred in the 1972 movie adaptation and won the Best Actress Oscar for her performance. Here she is introducing the world to Kander and Ebb's theme to Scorsese's 1977 film.

 

For decades, at the stroke of midnight when the ball drops in Times Square to welcome in a Happy New Year, ABC blasts Frank Sinatra's rendition of "New York, New York" during its live festivities telecast. We see shots of revelers in the crowd singing along with Sinatra. I'm the son of Sinatra fans. I'm a Sinatra fan. One of the most thrilling experiences of my life happened in Chicago one night when Frank Sinatra motioned me over to shake his hand after he gave a sensational concert. I loved and still love Frank Sinatra.

However, he muffs the lyrics in his vocal. He gets a couple of lines wrong. Because of the popularity of his recording, thousands and thousands of other people are singing the wrong lyrics too. There was a soundtrack to NEW YORK, NEW YORK. Why doesn't any network blast Liza's rendition, the one with the correct lyrics?

Last night was a great night in my beloved New York City. Broadway opened again. Plays were onstage again after theaters had been dark for months and months due to the pandemic. HAMILTON was one of the shows back in action.

About 7:30 last night, New York Times culture reporter, Julia Jacobs, wrote this in an article that was posted online:

"Get a mask, get vaccinated and come see live theater!" Lin-Manuel Miranda said as he lead a group of Broadway performers in a rendition of Frank Sinatra's "Theme from 'New York, New York'" outside the Richard Rodgers Theater."

Bless her heart. It's not really Frank Sinatra's theme. It's more Kander & Ebb's theme -- written for Liza Minnelli. Here's another original song from the Martin Scorsese movie. Liza played a band singer. De Niro played a jazz musician. They meet, fall in love, marry and then break up when he becomes verbally and physically abusive. After the divorce, singer Francine Evans (Minnelli) records this song.


 I still say the theme to Martin Scorsese's NEW YORK, NEW YORK should've been an Oscar nominee for Best Song. It wasn't. The Oscar went to "You Light Up My Life."

Sinatra never covered that one.

 

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

EMA from Chile

Wow. Wow. Wow. What an incendiary performance in this South American film. Newly released here in the U.S., the film is called EMA and Ema is played by Mariana Di Girólamo. To give you an idea of this actress' skill and intensity, I'll put it like this: If EMA had been a popular film in America in 2018 and if Carey Mulligan had been unavailable for the lead role in 2020's PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN, Mariana Di Girólamo would've been a perfect candidate for the part.


The opening image is a stop sign at night that has been set ablaze. Then, in daytime, we see Blonde Ema walking down a city street with an older woman. They're having a strong disagreement. We shall see Ema disagree and argue with others in this story. Notice that others will apologize or take responsibility for some action that caused friction. But Ema never does. She's a dancer. We see her in a couple of troupes. One is professional and was headed by her husband. The next one, not as professional and one she joins now that she's taken steps to get a divorce , is more reggaeton. Like hip-hop. In neither troupes does she partner. She dances with others but individually -- not like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers did, not like couples on DANCING THE THE STARS do. Ema is independent, tough, manipulative, caustic and she can occasionally be cruel to the point of seeming unhinged. But there is a pain in her heart, a pain the husband knows. When she's zinging out caustic comments, he can immediately halt that bad behavior with a sentence reminding her of that hidden pain. We see, in her eyes, that his aim was true. She's wounded. We see the flash of hurt and vulnerability in her eyes.

We see their detachment in the way scenes are shot. When they talk, when they argue, we do not see them together in a two-shot.  Each is shot individually in a close-up talking to the camera. Then it cuts to the other character for a response. This underscores Ema's emotional separation in the same way she never dances with a partner. These scenes call to mind Ingmar Bergman films of the 1960s and early 70s.

Ema and Gastón were married but could not have a child. It turned out that he was sterile. She calls him an "infertile pig" and later verbally cuts him with "You are a human condom." The married couple decided to adopt a little boy. The boy acted out with some disturbing behavior. He seemed to be a pyromaniac. That would've made him a perfect child for Ema who seems to go through life setting fire to her relationships. The boy loves her very much but she can't deal with his drama and returns him to the agency. Someone says "Perhaps you're not cut out to be a mother." She's guilt-ridden that she abandoned the boy and was irresponsible. Gastón is also guilty and admits the mistake. She never really does. She says things that dance around an apology or an admission of guilt.

Her hip-hop dancing moves seems to reflect her sex life. Assertive, aggressive, not coming from true warm emotions. She manipulates herself into an affair with a married man, she has an affair with her female divorce lawyer and she goes horizontal with just about every woman in her hip-hop troupe. If she doesn't see the emptiness in all this, Gastón does. He's mostly unsmiling. Not deadpan, mind you. It's just that life has not presented him reasons to smile. A handsome man, he speaks in a low, polite voice. He's rather reserved -- until he blows up in a fabulous rant to Ema and few members of her female posse.  Gastón is terrifically played by the gifted, intelligent Gael Garcia Bernal, one of my favorite actors. This film is from Chile and it's subtitled. It was directed by Pablo Larrain.

Larrain, a Chilean filmmaker, directed Natalie Portman as famed First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy in JACKIE (2016). This year, Kristin Stewart got raves and Oscar buzz at the Venice Film Festival for her performance as Britain's late Princess Diana in SPENCER, directed by Larrain.

Polo, the little orphan boy, will reappear. Will Ema take him back into her life? Will she stop setting fire to her relationships? We hope that she does. A couple of aspects in the film might be a bit far-fetched, but just give yourself over to the performances. The truth the actors give their characters carries you over those moments in this good movie. The film runs 1:47. It has sex and nudity. More than that, it has two excellent performances thanks to Mariana Di Girólamo and Gael Garcia Bernal. 

Friday, September 10, 2021

Johnny Mathis Music Break

This week on Twitter, my dear Nancy Giles, a longtime friend who's a contributor on CBS SUNDAY, tweeted me her joy at hearing Johnny Mathis on TCM (Turner Classic Movies). In LIZZIE, a 1957 drama starring Eleanor Parker, Mathis sings "It's Not For Me To Say," which became one of his many hit records. I once heard a radio host joke, years ago, that many of us baby boomers existed because our parents were listening to love songs sung by Johnny Mathis when they were alone together. Nancy's tweet to me was *liked* by several people who love Mr. Mathis. I happen to be one of those people. Here's the song he introduced in LIZZIE. "It's Not For Me To Say" by Robert Allen and Al Stillman.


Writing a title tune for a film seems to be a bygone art today. In the 1950s and into the 60s, however, it was a Hollywood tradition. On local New York City TV in the mid 1980s, I interviewed novelist Rona Jaffe. Besides seeing her best-seller adapted into a glossy 20th Century Fox film release in Cinemascope and DeLuxe color, she said that one of the greatest thrills was hearing Johnny Mathis sing the title tune over the opening credits. The movie was the 1959 romantic drama, THE BEST OF EVERYTHING. The Alfred Newman and Sammy Cahn tune was an Oscar nominee for Best Song. Here it is.


WILD IS THE WIND is a 1957 drama directed by George Cukor. It starred Anna Magnani and Anthony Quinn. Johnny Mathis sang the Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington composition over the opening credits. It got an Oscar nomination for Best Song. "Wild Is The Wind" was covered later by Nina Simone and David Bowie. Here it is by Johnny Mathis.

Johnny Mathis celebrates a birthday this month. On September 30th. Millions of us will be sending him our love as he enjoys his birthday cake.




Monday, September 6, 2021

The Loss of Michael K. Williams

You really couldn't turn away from his performance. It was like witnessing a miracle, the visitation of a heavenly force. That's how I felt when I first noticed actor Michael K. Williams. He was playing Omar Little, the Baltimore robber on the highly acclaimed HBO crime series, THE WIRE. During the series, we learn that Omar is queer and has a man he loves. Wow. In my teen and young adult years, you rarely saw Black actors play openly queer characters in main dramatic roles on film or TV. White and Black actors, in the 70s and 80s, were afraid to take on such roles for fear of homophobia rearing its ugly head and causing them to be unjustly labeled and not considered for future employment. But White actors started to get bold and got Oscar nominations for their bravery. Veteran actor Robert Preston of THE MUSIC MAN fame was an Oscar nominee for his gay male mentor/friend in VICTOR/VICTORIA. William Hurt and Tom Hanks won Best Actor Oscars for playing gay male characters. I once asked a friend, also Black, if he thought Denzel Washington would've played the gay man with AIDS opposite Tom Hanks as his lawyer if  the PHILADELPHIA roles offered had been reversed. It took him about 15 seconds before he began his answer. I cannot think of another Black actor who, in my lifetime, played more gay characters in key roles than the gifted Michael K. Williams did.


There was Omar on THE WIRE. There was the tough, pro-Reagan, Vietnam veteran Leonard Pine in HAP AND LEONARD, based on the Joe Lansdale books with stories set in the 1980s. The love and respect Leonard didn't get from some relatives, he got from his White pacifist best friend, Hap, during their adventures. In the 2017 ABC TV docudrama miniseries, WHEN WE RISE, he played a real-life character. Ken Jones was a San Francisco community organizer and AIDS activist in the series that followed several real-life characters from the Stonewall uprising in New York City in 1969 to the AIDS epidemic in the Bay Area of the 1980s. And then there was Montrose Freeman, the queer dad to Atticus on HBO's LOVECRAFT COUNTRY. Michael K. Williams' LOVECRAFT COUNTRY performance made him a current Emmy nominee. If he wins, it will be a posthumous win.

Word came today, Labor Day, that the actor was found dead in his Brooklyn apartment. He was 54.

As a gay/queer man, I loved seeing Michael K. Williams play those complicated, different, dimensional, same-gender loving men. Those performances made me feel significant. Williams always played the human condition with a certain heartache or need revealed, making his characters relatable as people you knew or people you've been. He did not just play queer characters, as you know if you saw him on HBO's BOARDWALK EMPIRE, BESSIE (the biopic about blues singer Bessie Smith), Spike Lee's MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA, Ava DuVernay's WHEN THEY SEE US on Netflix or his comedy turn in the all-female GHOSTBUSTERS (2016).  Here's a clip from one of the HAP AND LEONARD swamp noir adventures.



I do feel that he should have been acknowledged and honored by GLAAD.  The organization prides itself on "accelerating acceptance for LGBTQ people." It honors LGBTQ people and straight celebrities who have either played queer characters, appeared on gay-friendly shows or have large gay followings. Such celebs range from Madonna to Chris Meloni and Lee Tergesen who played prison lovers on HBO's OZ, to the WILL & GRACE sitcom stars to Beyonce. GLAAD should've shown the groundbreaking Mr. Williams some similar love and appreciation.

He was loved and appreciated by many in our Black/Latino community. Michael K. Williams will be deeply, greatly missed.


Saturday, September 4, 2021

About Q-FORCE

 I watched the first three episode of this LGBTQ-flavored animated series now on Netflix.. I have to agree with Daniel Fienberg of The Hollywood Reporter. If this series, Q-FORCE, had launched in 1997, when MY BEST FRIEND'S WEDDING was on movie screens and the year before WILL & GRACE made its bow on NBC, it would've been hot stuff. But what I saw was more like tepid bathwater. The music may call to mind THE INCREDIBLES, the animation is groovy and we see naked animated people -- mostly men - but it feels oddly dated. Like we've already seen these characters. It also feels like it's trying too hard to be fabulously gay. Why the mention of MY BEST FRIEND'S WEDDING? When the movie came out and folks loved Rupert Everett as the gay best friend to Julia Roberts' character, there was talk of a "gay James Bond" and, perhaps, Everett could play him. Q-FORCE is an animated gay spy comedy. Handsome, muscular Steve Maryweather is an aspiring intelligence operative who graduates at the top of his class from the American Intelligence Agency. He dreams of international assignments. But those dreams are dashed when he comes out while making his valedictorian speech. "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" had just been repealed. Instead of being assigned overseas, Steve's homophobic boss assigns him to -- West Hollywood, an epicenter of gay life in Southern California. That's where we find the frustrated Maryweather ten years later.


He decides to put together his own ragtag group of spies -- gay spies -- and get some assignments. There's proudly full-bodied Deb, voiced by Wanda Sykes, there's a slim lesbian computer whiz and an equally slim master of disguises called Twink, because that's what he is. The majority of flaming comments about cosmetics, skin care, overnight tricks and fashion statements come from Twink. He's like an extension of Jack on WILL & GRACE. Incidentally, Sean Hayes, who played Jack, is the voice of Steve Maryweather.  Hayes is also one of the show's executive producers. The crew does the best it can in its assignments. It's joined by the brawny, thick-browed, annoying straight employee Rick Buck. Instead of a cool car like James Bond always drove,  Steve has to get around in a Subaru that lesbian mechanic Deb customized. Here's a trailer.

The first two episodes were so-so and can't match classic episodes of ARCHER. That animated secret agent series on TV has a definite gay vibe with Archer's team members gay Ray and Dr. Krieger. Couple that with the delicious "hint of mint" that frequently comes from macho Archer. Things picked up a bit with the third episode, one that does a bit of a riff on BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN. The crew is assigned a mission in Heartland America. Steve has to deal with a taciturn, cowboy-like character named Ennis (just like Heath Ledger in BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN). Ennis claims he's straight but he has a collection of SEX AND THE CITY episodes on DVD. This episodes shows dudes completely naked and engaged in steamy sex. What tickled me the most is that clueless Rick Buck, one of the dudes we see completely naked in this chapter, is voiced by David Harbour of STRANGER THINGS fame. Harbour is in BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN. He played the married guy Jack Twist started seeing when Ennis wouldn't commit.

I'm not going to give up on Q-FORCE yet. I'll give what I've seen a C+. I'll watch further episodes to see if it picks up even more. 

Saturday, August 28, 2021

About Donald O'Connor

 He fascinated me. He was a most under-appreciated triple threat Hollywood talent. He could sing, he could dance, he could act. Donald O'Connor was one terrific entertainer as a child, as a teen and as an adult. He shines in the 1938 Paramount musical comedy, SING YOUR SNNERS. It's about three brothers who are a popular singing trio. O'Connor was about 11 or 12 and there he is, giving you screen charisma as he keeps up with stars Bing Crosby and Fred MacMurray as his siblings. I have loved Donald O'Connor movies ever since I was a kid in Los Angeles. When I was a boy in grade school, there was no such thing as VHS, DVD or cable TV. The local TV stations back then aired of lot of old movies. I'd get home from school and there would be a late afternoon movie on some station to lead into the local evening news. One station, Channel 13, had some of the 1940s Universal musicals starring Donald O'Connor and Peggy Ryan. Those two teen performers were sort of Universal's answer to MGM's Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. Local ABC aired the Donald O'Connor FRANCIS movies of the 1950s.

Like millions of fellow classic film devotees, I love Donald O'Connor as Cosmo in SINGIN' IN THE RAIN (1952). He lights up the screen with his every appearance. His dancing is sensational.


I read the Rita Moreno memoir and her account of being in SINGIN' IN THE RAIN really gave me more insight into his film career. She was almost more in awe of Donald O'Connor than she was of the classically trained Gene Kelly. His 1940s musicals as a teen/young adult star for Universal were surely popular. However, the studio gave those movies nowhere near the budget it gave to its Deanna Durbin, Abbott & Costello or even its monster movies. They were given a minimal budget and look as though they were shot in five weeks with no more than two takes required of the actors. But, in all of those movies, you see Donald O'Connor bringing his A-game to a production with a B-movie budget.

In 1950, Universal put Donald O'Connor in another movie with a bargain basement budget. The comedy, FRANCIS, has him as an Army soldier who encounters a talking mule. Francis was the mule. The comedy cost about $622,000 to make. It made $3 million at the box office. And that's the under-appreciation of Donald O'Connor that Rita Moreno points out in her memoir. FRANCIS was such a hit for Universal that it was the first of a franchise concluding in 1955. Donald O'Connor would get a role in an A-list musical like 1952's SINGIN' IN THE RAIN or Fox's CALL ME MADAM (1953) starring Ethel Merman or Fox's THERE'S NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS (1954) starring Ethel Merman, Marilyn Monroe and Mitzi Gaynor, and then he'd have to go to Universal to make another comedy with a talking mule. A modestly budgeted comedy that would make millions.

Universal never gave Donald O'Connor an A-list musical project like MGM, 20th Century Fox and Paramount did.

For SINGIN' IN THE RAIN, Gene Kelly was the choreographer. For the two Fox musicals O'Connor did with Ethel Merman, MGM veteran Robert Alton was the choreographer. Durinng Donald O'Connor's very long association with Universal, his choreographer was Louis Da Pron. If you see O'Connor's dance numbers in Universal's 1948 musical western called FEUDIN', FUSSIN' AND A-FIGHTIN', you'll recognize the Da Pron influence in O'Connor's "Make 'Em Laugh" SINGIN' IN THE RAIN number. In Universal's 1948 musical, ARE YOU WITH IT?, Lou Da Pron donned a bow tie, played a bartender and joined Donald O'Connor in this number.


If the hoofer wearing a hat looked familiar, he should. He's Lew Parker. On the classic hit sitcom, THAT GIRL (1966-1971), Marlo Thomas played Ann Marie, as aspiring actress in New York City. Lew Parker played Ann Marie's father.

After SINGIN' IN THE RAIN, Donald O'Connor made another MGM musical with Debbie Reynolds. She played an aspiring actress in New York City and he was a photographer for a top national magazine in 1953's I LOVE MELVIN. I love this number choreographed by Robert Alton.


Donald O'Connor's next film release in 1953 was Universal's FRANCIS COVERS THE BIG TOWN.









Thursday, August 26, 2021

By Johnny Mercer

 I wish I had the songwriting gift that Johnny Mercer had. Even if you didn't know it, you know a Johnny Mercer tune or two. He took more than one walk to the stage to accept an Oscar in the Best Song category. The lyricist was nominated for writing "Jeepers Creepers," "Blues in the Night," "That Old Black Magic" and "My Shining Hour" among others. He won his first Oscar for "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Sante Fe" introduced by Judy Garland in the 1946 musical western, THE HARVEY GIRLS. He won another for "In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening" from 1951's HERE COMES THE GROOM, a third for "Moon River" from 1961's BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S and his last one for "Days of Wine and Roses" from the 1962 film of the same name.


One of my all-time favorite songs is one that Mercer wrote for a 1942 musical comedy from Paramount Pictures. THE FLEET'S IN starred Dorothy Lamour and a young, fresh-faced William Holden. The song is "I Remember You." Here's lovely Lamour as she introduces it.

I have a very dear friend, a terrific jazz singer, named Paula West. Paula lives in San Francisco. One day, I was at her apartment while she was going through songbooks to select numbers for an upcoming show. She had a thick book of songs by Johnny Mercer. A song that is NOT in the book is the very popular "I Remember You."

Why? Well, the married Mr. Mercer fell in love with Judy Garland and their brief romance inspired the song. It crystallized his feelings for Judy. Mrs. Mercer excluded it from the book. Yep. She found out about the affair.

Another Paramount musical comedy to boost morale during World War II was 1944's HERE COME THE WAVES starring Bing Crosby and Betty Hutton. It brought Mercer a Best Song Oscar nomination for "Accentuate the Positive" introduced in the movie by Crosby. In blackface. Mercer cut a swingin' record of it himself. You hear that record with Mercer's totally cool vocal in the opening minutes of the movie L.A. CONFIDENTIAL.

There's another original Johnny Mercer tune in HERE COME THE WAVES that is pretty much obscure but, baby, it's a gem. The song is called "I Promise You" and it gets a velvety duet introduction from Bing Crosby and Betty Hutton in a highlight of the movie. 

When I first heard it, I thought "Wow. What a great song to do at a wedding or a wedding reception." I still feel that way. However, the actor part of me now thinks one could approach it with a different emotional core. Think of Mercer and Garland. You could sing it as one secretly vowing to still be devoted to the one you love -- even though the one you love is marrying someone else. Listen to Mercer's lyrics.


Johnny Mercer. What an extraordinary music man.

Saturday, August 21, 2021

Short Note on ALIEN (1979)

 My all-time favorite action movie hero is Ripley, the character we first in the 1979 sci-fi horror thriller, ALIEN. The character played so terrifically by a then unknown actress named Sigourney Weaver.  As I write this, ALIEN is airing now on FXM Retro. That's the Fox classic movie channel that airs older movies commercial free in the daytime. I have seen this movie numerous times. I saw it with my brother the day it opened nationwide. We were in Milwaukee at the time. We're both L.A. kids. We both graduated from Marquette University in Milwaukee. I had begun my first professional TV job -- working as a weekly film reviewer and entertainment contributor on the city's ABC affiliate, WISN TV. Like, I'm sure, millions of other moviegoers, we knew really nothing about the movie, but we were intrigued by the imaginative promotional poster showing a giant egg in space, cracked and emitting an eerie light. There was the sentence, "In space no one can hear you scream."


My brother and I sat in that early afternoon movie audience. ALIEN just about scared the black off us. In the dinner scenem when the baby creature bursts out of Kane's torso, my shocked brother and I looked at each other and said, "Damn! He was an egg!"

I paid to see ALIEN again and again during its theatrical release. I watched it countless times on VHS and DVD rentals. Here's my note for you fellow ALIEN fans. In all times I've seen this classic, I saw something today in the first five minutes of the film that I'd never noticed before. The crew is waking up in their sleep pods. Two pods are open. Kane is in one. Next to him is Ash. The pods are open as the two crew members still lie flat with their eyes closed. We see that bare-chested Kane is obviously inhaling and exhaling. Now look at Ash's torso. No visible signs of breathing at all. And we will discover why.

Brilliant.

This year, in these pandemic times, special screenings of ALIEN should be held in states like Florida and Texas. In the first 40 minutes, when Dallas and Kane leave the ship on an exploratory mission, a facehugger pops out of a large alien egg and attaches itself to Kane's face. Dallas wants to take Kane back into the ship. He radios Ripley, the officer in charge. Dallas wants her to open the hatch. Scientist Ripley is suspicious of the strange organism covering Kane's face. Dallas still wants her to open the hatch.

Ripley: Wait a minute. If we let it in, the ship could be infected. You know the quarntine procedure. Twenty-four hours for decontamination.


Was Ripley right? See ALIEN. Then see Ripley in 1986's ALIENS. Then think of U.S. governors wanting to penalize people for wearing masks and getting vaccinated.



Saturday, August 14, 2021

About THE KING AND I (1956)

Yul Brynner, who originated the role in the Rodgers & Hammerstein Broadway musical, took home the Best Actor Academy Award for his dynamic performance in the deluxe 20th Century Fox film adaption. The film brought the great Deborah Kerr one of her six Oscar nominations for Best Actress. THE KING AND I was an Oscar nominee for Best Picture of 1956. Here's a trailer for a classic musical that I have loved since my childhood in South Central Los Angeles:


I know this is an old Hollywood musical. But, if you look at 1956's THE KING AND I with a 2021 awareness -- in this age of despicable violence against Asian-Americans and our age of Black Lives Matter -- this musical still holds up. It has a contemporary relevance.

We know the basic story. A genteel widow with a little boy leaves Great Britain to become a governess and tutor, teaching English to the children and wives of a stubborn, macho king in Siam. Siam is now known as Thailand. She becomes a tutor to the king too. Unexpressed romantic feelings will develop. That's the basic story for the Rodgers & Hammerstein vehicle.

But wait. There's more -- when you look past the well-known show tunes. In 2021, this 1956 movie has an anti-slavery theme that rings significant to Black Lives Matter. The genteel Anna, played by Deborah Kerr, is also a steely feminist. She believes in gender equality and proves to be a match for the king, challenging his macho sexism. Anna will cause the king to bellow "You are very difficult woman!" The Siam action in THE KING AND I occurs while the Civil War wages on in America. The Asian royal is aware of President Abraham Lincoln. Anna tells him that she admires Lincoln "very much." She is against slavery and strives to make the king stop treating many of his subjects like slaves.  The king, owner of many books, reads the Bible and questions one miraculous point. Anna reminds him that the Bible "...was not written by men of science, but by men of faith." She sees the potential in this larger-than-life, intelligent royal to do the right thing and become a better king.

An entertainment industry buddy of mine took me as her guest to see a 1996 Broadway revival of THE KING AND I. It was wonderful. She knew the leading lady and we went backstage to see and compliment her. During our brief chat, the actress leaned over to me and revealed that she wasn't sure, at first, if she wanted to do the show. She was afraid the script might seem dated.

The South Central L.A. theater enthusiast in me came out:  "It's still relevant today," I blurted out to her. I told her that just about every other Black family that we knew in our community had at least one Rodgers & Hammerstein movie musical soundtrack in its record collection along with the Motown albums. Why? Because classic Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals like THE KING AND I, SOUTH PACIFIC snd THE SOUND OF MUSIC shouted down intolerance and racial bigotry. And the music was fabulous. I told her that when Anna sings "Getting To Know You," it's not just a cheery show tune, it's a lesson in equality and inclusion. "Getting to know YOU, getting to know all about YOU. Getting to like YOU, getting to hope you like me..." That is major. Anna is not some white woman strolling on in with a colonial attitude and proclaiming "Now you all have to do as I say and dress the way my people dress. And, by the way, you all have to kick Buddha to the curb and start worshipping my image of a very Caucasian Jesus Christ." 

Listen to the lyrics and look at the classroom choreography of the "Getting To Know You" number. Anna has an affection for the children. She respects and embraces their Asian culture, customs and clothing as she shares her culture.

The king is given a young, lovely slave-girl as a gift. Her name is Tuptim. She's played by the future WEST SIDE STORY Oscar-winner, Rita Moreno. Tuptim has a secret love. He's an equally oppressed young man who lives outside the palace limits. Tuptim speaks English and she's a reader. Anna hates that Tuptim is treated like a slave who will eventually be used by the king for procreation purposes. Anna helps Tuptim see her secret love. Important British people are invited to the palace for a royal dinner. With Anna's help, the king wants to show that he is not a barbarian. After the sphisticated and successful gala dinner, there is entertainment. Tuptim has written an Asian musical adaptation of Uncle Tom's Cabin, the anti-slavery novel by America's Harriet Beecher Stowe. Tuptim is its narrator.

When all the guests are gone, the king and Anna cheerfully discuss how well the dinner party went. One of the guests was a dear friend of Anna's. He and Anna danced that evening, making the king a tad jealous. The British gentleman sweetly makes it known that he'd love for Anna to return to Britain and marry him.

I live for the "Shall We Dance" number. It's one of the sexiest dance numbers in a classic Hollywood musical performed by two non-dancers. We know that Anna is anti-slavery. As she sings about the thrill of being a girl and attending her first dance, we see that she'd also be pro-interracial romance. Notice that the camera cuts to the handsome, muscular, robust king when she sings "...and shall you be my new romance..." The two do an energetic polka that leaves Anna breathing rather post-orgasmically. And the king wants to..."do it again."


One last thing -- in RITA MORENO: JUST A GIRL WHO DECIDED TO GO FOR IT, this year's terrific and terrifically honest documentary about Rita Moreno, she talks about 1956's THE KING AND I. (Both she and Deborah Kerr loved working with Brynner.) Leading man Yul Brynner remarked to Rita that she didn't have much of a part. She agreed.

Tuptim was the first role in a Hollywood film offered to Dorothy Dandridge after her groundbreaking and sizzling performance in Fox's 1954 musical drama, CARMEN JONES.  That film made Dandridge the first Black woman in Hollywood history to be an Oscar nominee for Best Actress. Reportedly, Otto Preminger, director of CARMEN JONES, advised Dandridge to not accept that small role in THE KING AND I. The next film Dorothy Dandrige made in Hollywood was, unfortunately for us, her last. She played Bess in the 1959 adaptation of the musical drama, PORGY AND BESS. Sidney Poitier starred as Porgy in the Samuel Goldwyn production.

Think about that with regard to Hollywood opportunities for talented women of color.

Thursday, August 12, 2021

SOMEBODY FEED PHIL...in Chicago

A few days ago, I wrote a blog post calle "Eating in Rio on SOMEBODY FEED PHIL." On Netflix, there's a most entertaining food & travel ocumentary series titled SOMEBODY FEED PHIL that's apparwnly been on for a couple of seasons. I just discovered it last weekend. I watched the Rio episode and loved it.  The charismatic and wise host is Phil Rosenthal, the man who created the hit sitcom, EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND. Scroll down to read my previous post about Phil.


I've been watching S3 -- Season 3 -- of SOMEBODY FEED PHIL on Netflix. I watched him eat his way through San Francisco, Singapore, the Mississippi Delta and Marrakesh. All wonderful visits with foods that made my mouth water. 

Each episode I've seen has fabulous food, fabulous sites, great food, groovy people and laughs. And each episode also has a heart that may reveal itself after the laughs Phil gives us. The San Francisco episode was about hope.

That brings me this special recommendation of the Season 3/Episode 2 of SOMEBODY FEED PHIL...in Chicago.  Like Phil -- and as Sinatra sang -- "My Kind of Town Chicago Is." I grew up in South Central L.A. and graduated from Marquette University in Milwaukee. I started my professional radio & TV career there after graduation. Over a course of 10 years in Milwaukee, before I accepted a New York City TV job offer in 1985, I took many tips to Chicsgo. Chicago is where I had deep dish pizza, one of my first dates with a guy, got career advice from Jack Lemmon, shook hands with Frank Sinatra, marveled at the great architecture, delighted in its museums and enjoyed some excellent theater. And food. Like Phil, I love Chicago, but not in the winter! We can live without a Chicago winter. However, early in my TV career, I did go there from Milwaukee a couple of times in the winter for auditions. I trudged through Chicago's frigid wind and snow looking like a giant Fudgesicle, but that's how serious I was to get ahead in my chosen profession..

Phil treats us to terrific archtectural sites and sensational food. The big heart of this episode omes near the end. Phil's warmth and genuine interest in people he's just met are in full bloom when he visits Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church

Phil tells us about the time he was a little boy and his parents took him to see Sidney Poitier in LILIES OF THE FIELD. He loved the song "Amen," heard in the movie, and sang it a lot around the house. When I was a boy, my parents took my sister and me to see LILIES OF THE FIELD too because -- well, in our community, seeing a new Sidney Poitier movie was the law. "Amen" was so popular thar we were singing it in Sunday Catholic masses.

The song is key in Phil's church visit. The heart of the Chicago episode is Phil Rosenthal's visit with the Black members of the congregation. His ease with and immediate fondness for the folks is a master class lesson in how to embrace diversity and inclusion. It's something we need much more of in today's world. Thank you, Phil.

If you csn, watch it on Netflix. Season 3/Episode 2 of SOMEBODY FEEL PHIL.Here's a trailer for Season 3.



Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Molly Shannon Movies

She got belly laughs out of me with her comedy work as a cast member on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE. In recent years, she's left me slack-jawed at the depth of her dramatic work. I am sure I'm not the only TV viewer who was dazzled by the performance Molly Shannon gave this summer in the first season of HBO's THE WHITE LOTUS. She played the ebullient, shallow upscale mother who seems to smell of a perfume called "White Privilege" who makes a surprise visit to her equally shallow son during his honeymoon in Hawaii. Shannon was fabulous in the guest role.


 In this blog post, I want to recommend two post-SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE indie movies Molly Shannon made which show that she's not just a sketch comedy funny lady. Molly Shannon is one gifted, versatile actress whose dramatic work can leave you awestruck.

OTHER PEOPLE was released in 2016. When it played in film festivals, a few critics felt the film could bring Molly Shannon a Best Actress Oscar nomination. Shannon's performance is a revelation. But, LA LA LAND opened that same year and all critics went gaga for it and the lead performance from Emma Stone. OTHER PEOPLE was overshadowed. In New York City, the Recession really kicked me to the curb financially and emotionally. I could not get work after having been a part of two consecutive job lay-offs. I was on two national shows that got cancelled. I lost my apartment. I'd not been romantically involved with a guy for years -- and not by choice. For a time, I was forced to live with some rather conservative relatives in a suburban Sacramento area. It was easy for me to connect emotionally to the gay son in OTHER PEOPLE.

His TV comedy writer work in New York City has hit several potholes. The relationship with his boyfriend has hit a deadend. He goes home to Sacramento and his mostly conservative family in a big beige house. He returns to be of help to a family member. The only one who understands and makes him laugh is his mother -- and she's terminally ill. Many fragile emotions have to be stepped over like landmines. Molly Shannon plays the loving mother. Jesse Plemons plays her loving son. Here's a trailer.


OTHER PEOPLE runs 1 hour and 37 minutes. Shannon will make you laugh and break your heart. I wish she had been in the Best Actress Oscar category for 2016.

Before that, the indie film that awkened me to Molly Shannon's dramatic potential was the 2007 indie comedy/drama, YEAR OF THE DOG. 

A secretary at a firm in Southern California is middle-aged and lonely. Her love of dogs fills up the hole in her heart. It's a love that borders on obsession as she takes more chances in the world of dating, urged on by her best friend/office mate played by future Oscar winner Regina King. We watch Shannon's character start to slowly spin out of control after her dog dies. Here's a trailer.


YEAR OF THE DOG also runs 1 hour and 37 minutes. It was written and directed by Mike White, the man who gsve us THE WHITE LOTUS currently on HBO. I hope you can stream and enjoy these two films starring the talented Molly Shannon.


Sunday, August 8, 2021

Viva VIVO!

 I love animated features. I have ever since I was a kid. I was especially fond of the classic animated Disney features. When I was a kid in the 1960s, the avuncular Walt Disney hosted Disney's WONDERFUL WORLD OF COLOR Sunday nights on NBC. The show often aired some of those features. Also, from my childhood through my adult years, those classics would be re-released theatrically every seven years -- PETER PAN, PINOCCHIO, BAMBI, CINDERELLA, SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS, DUMBO, LADY AND THE TRAMP, SLEEPING BEAUTY. You can't readily see those richly designed pre-1960 classics today. They don't air on network or cable TV. They're not re-released theatrically. They're under house arrest on Disney Plus (+) and can only be streamed there once you join. That brings me to VIVO on Netflix from Sony Pictures Animation. Iy's a colorful musical with original songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda, an executive producer and the voice of Vivo. I watched VIVO this weekend. The animation is like gettng a great big, unexpected valentine in the mail. I absolutely loved it. Some reminded me of vintage Disney animation from the studio's 1950s period.


The story's action takes us from Cuba to Florida. The plot is a simple one for kids to understand and a sweet one for grown-ups to embrace. It's about friendship, loyalty and love. Vivo is a hard-luck kinkajou in Havana. He's adopted, if you will, by a kindly older street musician in Havana. Even though the animal and human cannot speak to each other, they can communicate through music. They became fast friends -- and a very popular street musician pair in the Havana plaza where they make good money from the crowd. 

One day, Andres (Vivo's partner) gets a letter from Miami. It's a tender letter from Marta Sandoval, the famous Latin singer soon to give a concert and retire. She and Andres had been sweethearts in their youth in Cuba when she was an unknown, Andres loved her but, for purely unselfish reasons, never told her. Marta wants to see him and Andres wants to see her. He'd written a song for her called "Para Marta" and, after all these years, wants to give it to her. 

He passes away before he can make the trip. Vivo is determined to get to Florida to give Marta the song for his late friend. He gets there with the unlikely help of a single parent, purple-haired little girl named Gabi, travelling with her mother. Gabi is a totally cool, independent thinker who yearns to break away from being a member of a bland, conformist, girl scouts-like troop. Gabi and Vivo bond and embark on a Florida adventure to deliver "Para Marta" to singer Marta Sandoval.

About the songs: Lin-Manuel Miranda really hit an out-of-the-park home run with this score. Gabi's number, "My Own Drum," is a hip-hop winner. "One More Song" is a poignant love tune. "Keep the Beat" is a fun rhythm number about perseverance, Lin-Manuel Miranda should get a Best Song Oscar nomination for "One More Song" or "Keep the Beat." Or both. He's just right for the voice of Vivo. Ynairly Sino is wonderful as the voice of Gabi. Brian Tyree Henry is a comedy stand-out as the voice of a lovesick tropical bird called a spoonbill. Gloria Estefan voices Marta Sandoval -- and she does sing one of the new tunes. The mature Marta is styled with a sophisticated look reminiscent of the late Latin music legend, Celia Cruz. Here's a trailer for VIVO on Netflix.


VIVO is sentimental, sweet, touching, exciting and funny. I laughed out loud at several scenes, I was touched by the bittersweet moments and I was groovin' to the new Miranda music. VIVO runs 1 hour and 35 minutes. It's good family entertainment. I plan to see it again.

Miranda produced this year's film version of INTO THE HEIGHTS, based on his hit Broadway musical of the same name. John M. Chu directed the movie. It opened to rave reviews from noted film critics. A week or two later, a non-film critic on Twtter accused the film of colorism -- claiming that most of the large Latinx cast was light-skinned and Afro-Latinos were few. National news outlets picked up the story. Miranda immediately responded to the press and addressed the situation like a true gentleman. He said that it was an important issue to raise and he'd be mindful of it in future onscreen projects. I haven't seen INTO THE HEIGHTS yet. I did see VIVO.

From the open of the Latino-centric VIVO to its final scene, no one could accuse this Lin-Manuel Miranda production of colorism. Although animated, there are many Latinos of different shades and body types in it. I've yet to see anyone bring up that positive fact on social media.

Saturday, August 7, 2021

Eating in Rio on SOMEBODY FEED PHIL

 I have to share this with you. A few days ago, I was really stressed out and wanted some mental relief come evening time. I wanted a piece of entertainment that would refresh my mind and mood. I went to Netflix and clicked onto an episode of a food/travel series called SOMEBODY FEED PHIL. I knew nothing about the host, I knew nothing about the show. I'd just discovered it. But when I read that the episode was in Rio de Janeiro and focused on the Brazilian food, that was good enough for me. What a tasty discovery! I watched and loved SOMEBODY FEED PHIL The host is a tall, lanky, chatty, affable, middle-aged American. He was new to me. I'd never seen him do any host work on TV. Well, come to find out, he hasn't done any regular hosting on commercial television, but we have seen his work on network TV. Phil Rosenthal is the host of SOMEBODY FEED PHIL. He created the long-running hit sitcom, EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND.


Rosenthal is warm and funny and has a lively personality However, he never lets his personality eclipse his guests and other people he meets along the way. He keeps the focus on them. And the food. The dishes he presented all looked so succulent and delicious that I wished I could fly to Brazil with plenty of money, lots of extra napkins and eat my way through Rio. The pork ribs with pineapple salsa? Oooh, Daddy, yes please! Also, being a guy who loves lamb, Rio menus would make me feel like I was in heaven. I'd be eating as if I'd just discovered my stomach.

The food and Phil's tourist segments are beautifully photographed. He visits sites that are traditional for our American tourists such as Sugarloaf Mountain and the famous Christ the Redeemer statue. But his camera crew gives us angles and viewpoints we don't usually see. Rosenthal has a hearty appetite, loves to share his food and loves to mingle. His culinary visits took him to upscale Rio restaurants, street booths and to a favela in the lower income part of town. The favela visit is a good example of how Phil's warmth engages strangers, He finds a cafe with great working class food. When he gets the young owner to tell the story of how and why he opened the place, the story is very touching. Here's a trailer for SOMEBODY FEED PHIL on Netflix.

The next episode puts Phil in San Francisco. I lived there in 2011 and I'm eager to see where Phil takes us to eat. In the meantime, I really wish I had a big plate of those Brazilian pork ribs with pineapple salsa.

Thursday, August 5, 2021

Kim Hunter in Movie Harlem

 I saw the 1944 movie on cable with the title WHEN STRANGERS MARRY. Apparently, when it was re-released, it was given the title BETRAYED. Future Broadway star and Oscar winner Kim Hunter stars in this suspense tale along with Robert Mitchum and Dean Jagger. 

I'd never heard of the movie until this week. When I came across it on cable, I really kept WHEN STRANGERS MARRY on for background sound while I worked on some writing. But the story and acting caught my interest. Plus, I was awed by the movie's positive images of Black folks. The Kim Hunter and Dean Jagger characters wind up in Harlem and casually go into a Harlem tavern called Big Jim's. 


 WHEN STRANGERS MARRY was a Monogram Pictures production. Monogram was sort of the poor cousin of Hollywood studios. This will give you an idea about it: In the 1940s, when the Academy Awards were a deluxe Hollywood affair with a banquet, Bob Hope did some master of ceremonies duty after the dinner. He quipped something like "It's great to see all the studios represented here tonight. Paramount has a table, MGM has a table, Warner Brothers has a table, Fox has a table ... Monogram has a stool..."

WHEN STRANGERS MARRY does not look like a bargain basement prodution. The acting is so good, the black and white cinemtography is so good, the editing and pace are so energetic that you'd think it came out of MGM or Warner Bros. It's an entertaining film that runs about 1 hour and 10 minutes.

With Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter gained fame in the original Broadway production and the 1951 film adaptation of Tennessee Williams' A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE. She played Stella and won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. She made her film debut in a 1943 occult thriller called THE SEVENTH VICTIM (which airs September 10th at 8p ET on Turner Classic Movies). In that, she leaves school to head to Greenwich Village in New York City and find her missing older sister. Her sister got involved with a Satanic cult. WHEN STRANGERS MARRY was Hunter's third film and, again, she played a character who goes to Greenwich Village.

Hunter plays a sweet bride from Ohio who quickly fell in love with and married a salesman in Ohio. A month later, he has to leave on business and sends her a message from Philadelphia to meet him at a hotel in New York City. We see the happy bride on a train to NYC. When she arrives at the hotel, her husband isn't there. But she runs into a friend who's staying at the hotel. He's also a salesman, they knew each other in Ohio and he wanted to marry her. She turned him down. When the loving husband does show up, he's a bit dodgy when asked about his whereabouts. He seems to be ducking the other salesman from Ohio. And what's this newspaper business about a silk stockings murder in Philadelphia? The bride confides in the Ohio friend and asks for his help in solving a couple of riddles abut her husband. A handsome Dean Jagger -- with a full head o' dark hair -- plays the husband. Screen newcomer Robert Mitchum plays the friend. This 1944 film was early in his career. He'd score a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for 1945's THE STORY OF G.I. JOE and really hit big in the1947 RKO film noir classic, OUT OF THE PAST. WHEN STRANGERS MARRY shows his magnetism, talent and promise -- promise he later fulfilled in such films as OUT OF THE PAST (1947), THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955), HEAVEN KNOWS, MR. ALLISON (1957), THE SUNDOWNERS (1960) and CAPE FEAR (1962).

Before the Harlem scenes, something caught me in the first five minutes of WHEN STRANGERS MARRY. Sam McDaniel, the actor brother of GONE WITH THE WIND Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner Hattie McDaniel, appeared in many movies. Like his sister, he was constantly cast in domestic roles, many of which went uncredited. He played train porters numerous times and was always burdened with having to speak in that stereotypical way Hollywood made many Black actors speak in the 1930s and 40s. An example -- "You sho izz right about dat, boss! You sho izz right."


Not so in WHEN STRANGERS MARRY. Sam McDaniel's porter character opens and closes the film. He speaks in his natural voice. When the white husband and wife go into the Harlem tavern and take a table, the sight of the Harlem customers is refreshing. They're well-dressed, dapper, sophisticated -- like the nightclub crowd enjoying Duke Ellington in Vincente Minnelli's all-Black MGM musical, CABIN IN THE SKY (1943). When the piano player in the tavern gives out with some music, the husband and wife watch as a couple takes to the dance floor. The male dancer may look familiar. He was in that CABIN IN THE SKY nightclub dance number featuring Duke Ellington..
 
The husband and wife leave the tavern. Outside, they see two Black cops on motorcyles chatting about a sports event that night. The white married couple strolls down about ten Harlem blocks from 137th & Lenox Avenue. Yes, I said "stroll." Not "walks quickly smelling of fear." The big money studios rarely gave moviegoers that quality of racial inclusion with its stars back then.

WHEN STRANGERS MARRY was directed by William Castle. In the 50s and 60s, he was known for such delightfully cheesey movies as THE TINGLER, HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, 13 FRIGHTENED GIRLS and STRAIT-JACKET starring Joan Crawford.

1944's WHEN STRANGERS MARRY isn't cheesy. I'm glad I saw it. I was pleasantly surprised.


Monday, July 26, 2021

Lena Horne Music Break

 Singer, Actress, civil rights Activist. She was a Best Actress Tony nominee for the 1957 Broadway musical, JAMAICA. Her leading man, Ricardo Montalban, was nominated for Best Actor. This was after her 1940s years making musicals at MGM, the Tiffany's of Hollywood studios for A-list musicals. She was a groundbreaking and glamorous Black star in those deluxe musicals. However, her freedom was limited. She was showcased in a sophisticated number separate from the movie's actiom. She never was given the opportunity to do scenes and act with her white fellow stars of those classy musicals -- performers such as Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, Judy Garland and Fred Astaire. In the 1980s, she was the Toast of Broadway, receiving a Tony Award for her sensational one-woman show, LENA HORNE: THE LADY AND HER MUSIC. When she toured with that show in Milwaukee for a week, I saw the show more than once, attended the warm, friendly press reception Lena Horne held -- and Ms. Horne was extremely kind to my mother.


 For your enjoyment, I've posted some Lena Horne vocals. First, is one I love from her years as a band singer before Hollywood called. The lovely song is "Out of Nowhere."

From the 1948 MGM musical, WORDS AND MUSIC, here's "The Lady Is a Tramp."


Here's Lena on an NBC music variety special in 1971 singing "Watch What Happens" from the French musical, THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG.


Lena Horne. She was absolutely fabulous.

Saturday, July 17, 2021

J.J. Gittes on Netflix

 This 1974 neo-noir film classic still awes and amazes me. It amazes me just as much today as it did when I took the bus to Hollywood during my summer vacation from school and saw it one weekday afternoon at Grauman's Chinese Theater during the first week of its run. It's one of my Top Ten all-time favorite films -- and it's now on Netflix. Jack Nicholson as dapper private eye J.J. Gittes and Faye Dunaway as the glacially elegant and wealthy Mrs. Evelyn Mulwray star in CHINATOWN.


In this tale of corruption, greed and deceit in 1930s Los Angeles, a Los Angeles undergoing a severe drought, actor/director John Huston co-stars as tycoon Noah Cross. This Noah controls the water and has...doubled-Crossed his daughter, Evelyn, When I was a kid in South Central L.A. and saw CHINATOWN for the first time, some people in that weekday matinee audience gave it a standing ovation at the end -- even when a guy in the back rows shouted, "They can't see you! It's a movie!" I loved that movie audience.

Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway, in peak form, deliver two of the top Hollywood film performances of the 1970s. There's sharp direction from Roman Polanski and a brilliant screenplay by Robert Towne.

CHINATOWN is a must-see -- ad it's currently on Netflix.

Friday, July 16, 2021

Ginger Rogers & Barbara Stanwyck Dance Break

 Two Hollywood greats were born on this day in history -- Ginger Rogers and Barbara Stanwyck. Ginger secured her place in the A-List of Hollywood history when she danced with Fred Astaire in a series of 1930s RKO musicals, some with original songs written for them by Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin and Dorothy Fields and Jerome Kern. An actress of depth and great clarity, she won a well-deserved Best Actress Oscar for the 1940 feminist drama, KITTY FOYLE. In films such as that, films that did not co-star Astaire, she proved to be a significant talent in such dramas and comedies as STAGE DOOR (1937), PRIMROSE PATH (1940), ROXIE HART (1942), Billy Wilder's THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR (1942) and I'LL BE SEEING YOU (1944).


 When Ginger danced with Fred in those celebrated original RKO musicals, she didn't just dance. She acted. She reacted. She danced in character, in the moment, and keeping the emotions of the scene fluid.

With Irving Berlin's TOP HAT (1935), Astaire & Rogers became a truly iconic movie musical team. They followed that with another classic, an original movie musical with a score by Dorothy Fields and Jerome Kern. Fred plays a professional dancers who sees, chats with and instantly falls in love with Ginger. She plays a non-nonsense dance teacher in Manhattan. Fred goes into the studio and pretends to need classes in order to talk to her again, However, his innocent ruse gets her fired and he immediately works to fix his mistake. Here's the "Pick Yourself Up" number from SWING TIME (1936).


The amazing Barbara Stanwyck didn't star in a series of star-making musicals like Ginger did, but, Lord! What a career! Stanwyck could break your heart as the ultimate self-sacrificing mother from the wrong side of the tracks in STELLA DALLAS (1937), break you up laughing as the lovable lady card shark in the Preston Sturges screwball comedy classic, THE LADY EVE (1941) and be the ultimate cold-blooded femme fatale killer in Billy Wilder's film noir classic, DOUBLE INDEMNIT (1944). In between, she'd get a song 'n' dance opportunity as Dixie Daisy in LADY OF BURLESQUE, a comedy murder mystery based on a novel written by famed stripper, Gypsy Rose Lee. Here's Stanwyck singing the "Take It Off the E-String, Play It On the G-String" number from LADY OF BURLESQUE (1943).


Later in the movie, Dixie Daisy and two fellow company members have to ad lib a dance routine when one of the tootsies has a loud meltdown backstage.


Ginger Rogers and Barbara Stanwyck -- two extraordinary talents.

Monday, June 28, 2021

Cleo Laine Music Break

 If you are unfamiliar with the glorious jazz voice of Britain's Cleo Laine, treat your ears for a few minutes. I first discovered her artistry during my first professional broadcast job when I was a recent college graduate. I read the weekday morning news on a popular FM rock radio station in Milwaukee. Publicists sent all sorts of record albums to the program director to consider for airplay. Albums that wouldn't be played were placed in a box for staffers to sift through and take home. I saw an album by Cleo Laine. I took it home, played it and I was hooked. This was the late 70s. In the mid 80s, I had the privilege and joy to interview her on New York TV. I was new at WPIX TV and she was a cast member in the Broadway musical, THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD.


Here's Cleo Laine swinging the title tune from another Broadway musical, "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever."

Here's one of the cuts I heard on the Cleo Laine album I took home from work at that FM rock radio station in Milwaukee. From PORGY AND BESS, here's "I Loves You, Porgy."


I hope you enjoyed the  artistry -- and range -- of singer/actress Cleo Laine. 

Sunday, June 27, 2021

Jackie Collins Embraced Diversity

 A documentary about the charismatic, best-selling novelist Jackie Collins airs on CNN June 27th. It's called LADY BOSS: THE JACKIE COLLINS STORY. Starting in the late 1980s, when I was one of the daily VH1 veejays (along with Rosie O'Donnell), Jackie Collins became an unexpectedly dear buddy with our first meeting. She was promoting her naughty and entertaining novel, ROCK STAR, on my show. 


 Jackie, a sophisticated pro at self-promotion, was talking about ROCK STAR. That book kept me thoroughly entertained. She adored the sexy naughtiness, rebellion and vibrancy of the rock scene and it's obvious in that MTV-flavored novel. Jackie was always a delicious guest -- smart, spontaneous, frank and funny. To me, there was a touch of the "Auntie Mame" about her in her manner, in her style, in the way she kicked conservative smugness to the curb and embraced diversity. 


 Just because you and a celebrity click during an interview and establish a good rapport doesn't mean you two are instant best friends. I've clicked with several stars in interviews, if I say so myself, and I worked with Whoopi Goldberg for two years, sitting next to her as we performed on weekday morning radio. However, I couldn't call, text or otherwise contact those stars personally to go grab a bite to eat. I knew how to do my work, be professional and then keep my polite distance.

But Jackie Collins was different. After our first interview experience, on VH1, she kept in touch. She may have been all dolled up in her Beverly Hills best, but there was always a working class warmth and sincerity about Jackie. She had a down-to-earth quality that carried over into her writing.

I interviewed Jackie on VH1, taped an interview in her Beverly Hills home, chatted with her on a live afternoon ABC News magazine show that aired on Lifetime TV and interviewed her on the local Fox TV morning show called "Good Day New York." One time, she was in Manhattan a couple of weeks after a relative died. I knew where she was staying and sent flowers. Her assistant called to thank me on her behalf the very day they were received. When Jackie was pitching her own TV project to a popular cable network, she called to tell me I was part of her pitch. She wanted me as a regular. When she heard I was in L.A. for some auditions, she invited me to a party she threw at a West Hollywood club. It was around the time her movie/TV star sister, Joan Collins, had written a debut novel that had just hit bookstores.

When I saw Jackie at the party, I asked "Did you read Joan's book?"  I giggled after she answered "Yes. Which is probably more than she did."

About Jackie's novels. During the New York summers when I'd see folks reading on the subway, in diners and at the beach, I always noticed how popular Jackie's books were with Black and Brown women. Starting with ROCK STAR, I noticed how racially inclusive her collection of characters were. She created Black and Brown working class professionals who were substantial characters and not just sidekicks or stereotypical. Jackie's affection for the working class was no surprise to me. That's something she had in common with Charles Dickens -- and Jacks had a hardcover copy of pretty much every story Dickens wrote on her bookshelves at home.

I greatly appreciated  the racial diversity in her novels and, in a casual conversation, asked her about it. She told me that she did it on purpose. She included undeniably Black and Brown characters so that, if Hollywood adapted the book into a big screen feature, Black and Brown actors would have work. 

For someone who was such a Hollywood insider, why didn't movie studios give the sexy Jackie Collins best-sellers the same attention it gave Jacqueline Susanne of VALLEY OF THE DOLLS fame? Her books were made into movies. Jackie was a better writer.

One thing about her career as an author that irked her -- and rightfully so -- was that, despite her many novels about Hollywood wives and husbands and her LADY BOSS Lucky Santangelo novels, critics never described her as "prolific." They saved that word for the boys such as Robert Ludlum and Tom Clancy. Jackie Collins was indeed a prolific author, one who championed racial diversity long before the Twitter hashtag "Oscars So White" was one thing that made the lack of inclusion a hot topic issue.

2015 was a rough year for me. I was unemployed and financially struggling. A bright spot was receiving an email from Jackie's office. She'd be in New York City in June to promote her new novel and she wanted me to be her interview for a special lunchtime appearance in Bryant Park. Of course, I gratefully agreed to do it.


It was wonderful to see her again in person. I did notice she was slimmer and, physically, a tad slower. But she still had that Jackie energy. As we walked to Bryant Park for the appearance, she asked me how I'd been. She leaned in to give full attention to my answer. I told her that the Recession hiad walloped me. I was living with friends temporarily and seeking work. She looked me straight in the eyes and passionately said, "Don't give up."


The June 18th Bryant Park appearance was a success. I had no idea when I hugged and kissed Jackie good-bye, and thanked her, that she was battling an illness. She passed away a few months later. Jackie Collins was a dear lady who was quite gracious and attentive to me for a long time. I miss her very much.



Denzel Does Shakespeare

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