Sunday, January 31, 2016

Happy Birthday, Carol Channing

Broadway legend Carol Channing could've been knocked out during a knock-out performance of Hello, Dolly! on tour.  It was one of the most memorable nights of theater I've ever experienced.  It was also a memorable week because I got to interview her in her dressing room.
It was the 1970s.  I was new to Milwaukee's world of local media and had landed my first professional on-air broadcast job.  I was a part-time reporter for a weekday morning show on 93QFM.  That was a very popular FM rock radio station.  What's now called the Marcus Center was, in the 70s, called the P.A.C. -- the Performing Arts Center.  The main theater of about 2500 red seats was just as handsome and deluxe as any theater I'd seen in Los Angeles, my hometown.  When I was in college, I worked as an usher at the Performing Arts Center.  That job was more fun than work.  As a cub radio reporter fresh out of college, I returned the P.A.C. in a different capacity.  Hello, Dolly! came to our Performing Arts Center during its revival tour.  Starring Carol Channing in the role she made famous in the 1960s.
Press was invited to Channing's opening night performance of Hello, Dolly! and there was a press conference after the show.  I was local press, a radio guy with a tape recorder.  She was delightful and chatty and smart as a whip.  She could play a ditzy blonde onstage and on TV but, in real life, she was at ditzy as General Patton.

I saw the show three times.  The second time I saw it, a tragedy nearly occurred.

I had a great seat up close in the orchestra section.  Broadway veteran Lee Roy Reams was in the cast.  The company had just started the "Put On Your Sunday Clothes" number when I saw stagehands that I knew from my usher days gather in the wings.  They looked seriously anxious and worried.  They were also looking up at the ceiling.  Above the actors was a long, thick brown roll of material.  It was long like a tree log you'd find in a sawmill.  And it was dangling precariously above Carol Channing.  It had become unhinged.
 Channing was downstage performing the number.  She took a choreographed step back and, is if on cue, that huge roll came crashing down onto the stage.  Wham!  I felt the wind from it in my seat.  The audience gasped.  You saw the wind from it ruffle the feathers on her hat.  Not a single actor was hit, thank Heaven.  But that long roll was still on the stage.  The two actors playing Barnaby and Cornelius, Mr. Reams was one of them, danced it off into the wings in time to the music.  One took one end, the other took the other end, they lifted it and strutted it over to the relieved stagehands.  I talked to a stagehand after the show.  He said they could see where it would fall and they were about to run onstage and pull Channing to safety when she took steps back as choreographed.  They were positive the star could've been critically injured if that object had fallen on her from that height.

She never missed a step or a lyric in the number during that mishap. She kept right on going and she stayed in character.  The audience loved every single thing she did even more from then on.  Folks cheered the title number as if Milwaukee had won the World Series.
The standing ovation at the end of the show was long and enthusiastic.  The audience rose immediately with cheers and applause.  Miss Channing addressed the audience -- and no one sat as she spoke to us.  With that distinctive voice, she sweetly said "Why...you're shtill shtanding."  She complimented Milwaukee for its politeness.

I'd seen the movie starring Barbra Streisand.  The screenplay, not surprisingly, changed the book of the Broadway show to suit the image and different vocal talents of Streisand.   The movie was a big budget, colossal 20th Century Fox musical in the late 60s helmed by production team veterans from the famed MGM Freed unit of the 1940s.  Director Gene Kelly, producer Rogers Edens and music director Lennie Hayton were on the movie's team.  The Broadway play was more intimate, more touching.  At the press conference, Channing detailed the essential dramatic heart and wisdom of Thornton Wilder's source material that served as the basis for the musical.  I saw it three times because  her performance was like a master class in musical comedy acting.  Eddie Bracken was her leading man.

How'd I get a one-on-one interview?  Well, I was the only black person at the press conference on opening night and I had introduced myself to her then-husband, Charles Lowe.  He was also her manager and publicist.  I thanked him for inviting me to the press conference.  He was impressed that I knew he'd once worked with Gracie Allen.  He saw me in the lobby about to purchase a ticket to see the show a third time (after the onstage accident) and he stopped me before I got to the window.  I told him I was seeing the show again.  He told me to come backstage after that show to see Carol.  I asked if I could do a short interview of Miss Channing for my radio show.  Not only did he say "Yes," he went to the box office window and told the clerk to give me a house seat.

Carol Channing is tall. Taller than I.  And a gracious pro.  She greeted me at her dressing room door with an energetic "Bobby Rivers!  Thank you for coming to see the show again."  She was wearing black pants and a sheer black blouse. Very sheer.  Let's just say see-through.  And she wasn't wearing a bra.

Hello, Dolly!

She gave me a lovely interview.  I was so lucky.  And she was extremely lucky onstage.  The Theater Gods definitely had her in a protective circle that day in Milwaukee.  Carol Channing turns 95 on January 31st.  Our interview was one of the things that helped me move up in the early days of my broadcast career.  Obviously, I've never forgotten her generosity -- and the greater respect she gave me for the theater.  She didn't just promote her show, by the way.  She promoted others shows that were running on Broadway and urged us to see them if we could.  She was passionate about people experiencing live theater.

I wish a most Happy Birthday to Tony winner, Golden Globes winner and Oscar nominee Carol Channing (Best Supporting Actress for Thoroughly Modern Millie starring Julie Andrews).      
Happy Birthday, Miss Channing...and thank you.  You're a true show biz legend and a wonderful advocate for the fine arts.
If you readers are ever in Milwaukee, there's some mighty fine theater at the Marcus Center.  Check out its website here:  www.MarcusCenter.org.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Carol Burnett at the Oscars

She gets a lifetime achievement honor during the Screen Actors Guild Awards tonight, January 30th. Carol Burnett certainly deserves it and not just for making us laugh every Saturday night for 11 years on CBS with her marvelous hour-long variety show.  On Broadway, on TV and on film, she has proven to be one of our most versatile entertainers.  She sings, she makes you laugh and she has strong dramatic skills.  Carol Burnett is so versatile and she's made hard work look like so much fun that her accomplishments outside of the TV box probably escaped some people.  I think one such person was film critic and published Hollywood historian Neal Gabler.  During a personal appearance, he pretty much told us folks in the audience that Carol Burnett had no right to be an Academy Awards presenter that month.  I felt...and still feel...that Carol Burnett had earned the right to be on that Oscars telecast.
 This happened in Milwaukee in the 1980s.  I was making a living at my first profession TV after graduating from college.  I was the weekly movie critic and a celebrity interviewer on Milwaukee's ABC affiliate.  Neal Gabler had a seat as one of the two new film critics on Sneak Previews after Siskel & Ebert left Chicago PBS for Disney syndication.  At the time, Neal Gabler may have been promoting one of his books while also promoting Sneak Previews.  The Oscars had recently been giving out and he got rather snarky about the fact that Carol Burnett presented the Oscar for Best Picture.  The winner for 1982 was Gandhi.  What he said and his attitude towards Ms. Burnett being a TV comic struck me as sexist and snobbish.  By then, she'd ended her successful long run on CBS.  The Carol Burnett Show ended in 1978.  One thing I can tell from my TV career is tht comedy is hard work.  Very hard work.  She made hard work not only look effortless on Saturday nights, she entered the weekly network variety show host game when it was mostly a boys' club.  Before TV, she'd hit big on Broadway in a musical comedy.  The fairy tale spoof was called Once Upon A Mattress.  On The Carol Burnett Show, there were the hysterically funny spoofs of classic movies like Sunset Boulevard starring Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond...
 ...and probably her most beloved movie spoof of all, her Gone With The Wind take-off.
Remember when Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara in the famous 1939 film made a dress out of plantation window curtains? Burnett's version gave the show one of the longest laughs in the history of her show.  In her sketches as Eunice opposite Vicki Lawrence as the cranky old Mama, she'd played the flip side of serious family heartbreak and disappointment.  That was good character acting.
If Neal Gabler mentally reduced Carol Burnett to being "just" a TV comic who wasn't respectable enough to share a share with Hollywood movie stars, he was wrong.  Before that Oscars telecast, actress Carol Burnett was tapped to display her versatility in films directed by some of Hollywood's most acclaimed directors.  Her film credits include the touching comedy/drama Pete 'n' Tillie (1972) directed by Martin Ritt (Hud, Sounder, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold and Norma Rae).  In Pete 'n' Tillie, Burnett shares screen time with Walter Matthau and Geraldine Page.  She plays a middle-aged woman in San Francisco who meets a wisecracking guy.  They marry and have a child.  The child becomes critically ill.  Burnett is so good dramatically in this film.  Then she and Geraldine Page give you one of the funniest, messiest "girl fights" we've ever seen in Hollywood movie.
She's in Billy Wilder's 1974 remake of The Front Page starring Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, 1978's A Wedding directed by Robert Altman and she starred opposite Albert Finney in the 1982 movie version of the hit Broadway musical, Annie, directed by John Huston.

If Carol Burnett was good enough to be directed by Martin Ritt, Billy Wilder, Robert Altman and John Huston...she was good enough to stand on a stage in 1983 and announce the winner of the Oscar for Best Picture of 1982.  In Academy Awards telecast history, Carol is one of the few women to be the solo presenter of the Oscar for Best Picture.

Carol Burnett has won Emmys, Golden Globes, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Mark Twain Award for American Comedy presented at the Kennedy Center.  I bet even Neal Gabler would be impressed by all that.
The Screen Actors Guild Awards show, with a lifetime achievement honor going to Carol Burnett, airs Saturday, Jan. 30th.  See the show on TNT and TBS at 5pm Pacific/8pm Eastern.


Friday, January 29, 2016

Overlooked by Oscars: Paul Dano

LOVE & MERCY.  That music biopic was one of the best movies I saw last summer.  Critics hailed this biopic about Brian Wilson, the top creative force and member of The Beach Boys.  Wilson is an artist whose youth was nowhere near as carefree as the many hit pop songs The Beach Boys sang in the 1960s.  The brilliant singer/songwriter and musician suffered breakdowns.  He's played by two actors in Love & Mercy.  The psychologically abused Brian Wilson of the 1980s is played by John Cusack.  The young 1960s pop star Brian Wilson is played by Paul Dano.  What a terrific performance Dano gives in Love & Mercy.  Christian Bale, winner of a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for 2010's The Fighter, is currently an Oscar nominee in that category again.  Bale aces the eccentric hedge fund manager role in The Big Short, a financial whiz who seems to have Asperger Syndrome.  However, I would've given a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination to Paul Dano for Love & Mercy.
 The Beach Boys topped the music charts in the 1960s just like The Beatles did.  The Beach Boys, thanks to Brian Wilson, created what became a Southern California sound in their music.  It crystallized the image of Pacific Coast life in those days.  Their look, their sound, their record sales...The Beach Boys definitely knew stardom.
Dano's Wilson does seem like he gets telepathic messages from other planets.  His behavior can be odd.  But we also see the process of his creativity.  The Beach Boys didn't grow up in a nurturing household.  Their dad was somewhat of a tyrant.  There's no way that kind of environment will not color a child's emotional growth.  Dano shows us the heartbreak of young Wilson.  As I wrote in my review last June, "...with his moon-face, there's always a look of darkness approaching in Dano's eyes as he plays young Brian, a pop star singing of the joys teens can have in the Southern California surf and sun."  Here's a trailer for Love & Mercy.  
 Paul Dano is a first-rate young actor.  Love & Mercy shows him in peak form.  This is another solid performance from Dano that takes a place on the top shelf with his work in Little Miss Sunshine, There Will Be Blood and 12 Years A Slave -- three films that got Oscar nominations for Best Picture.  Paul Dano, John Cusack, Paul Giamatti and Elizabeth Banks are all excellent in Love & Mercy.  

Paul Giamatti, by the way, slammed across two exceptional supporting role performances last year.  He's the clever and co-dependent manager of the N.W.A. rap group in Straight Outta Compton.  He's the outsider helping other outsiders become major stars in the hip-hop music business of the 1980s.  In Love & Mercy, he's a detrimental force in the life of the middle-aged Brian Wilson.  He may look harmless with his dorky haircut and equally dorky sweaters, but he's got a psychological control over Brian Wilson that's dangerous.  He's a therapist who's practically skin-grafted onto the emotionally broken musician.  He keeps Wilson away from relatives, he tags along when Wilson has a date, he administers pills for Wilson to take.  Giamatti has one Oscar nomination to his credit (Best Supporting Actor for 2005's Cinderella Man).  He's fierce and nasty in Love & Mercy.
Here's my DVD Double Feature tip for your weekend viewing:  Love & Mercy followed by Shampoo, one of Warren Beatty's biggest movie hits.
The 1975 satire boasts music by The Beach Boys and The Beatles on its soundtrack.  Hal Ashby (Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Being There) directed the movie.  Robert Towne (Chinatown) and Beatty wrote the screenplay.  Warren Beatty stars as the sexy Beverly Hills hairstylist who's popular with the ladies in the salon and in the bedroom.  His hand-held blow dryer is pretty much a portable phallic symbol.
 This movie is about sexual politics.  It came out after the Watergate scandal.  That's the scandal that forced President Richard Nixon to resign from office on live TV in August 1974.  Shampoo takes place on the day America elected Nixon to the White House.  Characters in Shampoo are more concerned with getting laid than they are with who will be running the country.  The cast includes Julie Christie, Goldie Hawn, Lee Grant, Jack Warden and -- in her screen debut -- Carrie Fisher.

Have a good weekend.  I hope you dig Paul Dano in Love & Mercy as much as I did.


Thursday, January 28, 2016

I Love SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS (1941)

A prison chain gang.  The physical abuse of prisoners. Homelessness. Poverty. Greed. A gruesome railroad death.  These are all elements in one of my favorite classic comedies.  It makes me laugh.  And it makes me cry.  It's SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS, the 1941 classic written and directed by the extraordinary Preston Sturges.  You can tell by the opening credits that you're in for a fable -- like Jonathan Swift's book, Gulliver's Travels.  The Preston Sturges movie stars Joel McCrea as rich Hollywood movie producer, John L. Sullivan, and Veronica Lake as The Girl.
I feel like I have grown up loving this movie.  When I was a kid in Los Angeles, local TV stations were attached to movie studio libraries and frequently aired the studios' old movies as midday, night time and late night entertainment.  We didn't have cable, DVDs and dozens of channels then.  We had "The Million Dollar Movie," "The Late Show," and "The Late, Late Show" with movie presentations on local television.  KTLA/Channel 5 was hooked up to Paramount Pictures.  I saw Preston Sturges comedies a lot on TV during Christmas and summer vacations. I loved the screwball rhythm of his classic comedies, the lively performances, the snappy dialogue and the highly original situations that confronted his characters.
In Sullivan's Travels, a top Hollywood producer eager to have his "panther woman" wife grant him a divorce is tired of producing comedies and musical comedies.  The world's in a mess and he wants to make socially relevant drams.  He's acquired the rights to a bleak novel called "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"  (Keep in mind that this is an original screenplay by Preston Sturges.)  His studio bosses want him to produce another comedy hit.  They also remind him that he's had a privileged life and knows nothing about living below the poverty line.  He decides to go out into the world, with no cash on him, dressed as a hobo, to see if he can survive.  He then meets a beautiful blonde who's given up dreams of a Hollywood movie career and plans on heading back to Chicago.  She sees the "hobo" in a diner and buys him breakfast.  That's the beginning of a wacky and wonderful -- and heartwarming -- journey they will take together.
In the opening credits, Sturges dedicates this movie to everyone, every entertainer who's tried to make us laugh.  There's tall, lanky John L. Sullivan, dressed as a tramp and headed down a highway -- like Charlie Chaplin, "The Little Tramp" of silent film fame.
Before embarking on his great experiment, he gets words of wisdom from his butler.  His butler has known poverty. He politely issues this warning:  "Poverty is not the lack of anything, but a positive plague, virulent in itself, contagious as cholera, with filth, criminality, vice and despair as only a few of its symptoms."

The butler, as we'll see, is correct.  This movie has so many laughs, such as fast pace, and then there's a sequence that runs about six or seven minutes -- without dialogue.  Just music.  We see Sully and The Girl dressed as tramps.  Homeless people.  They have no money and must survive as best they can.  They're hungry and dirty and tired...with others who are the same.
In those revealing moments without dialogue, comedy master Sturges shows us that poverty does not discriminate.  It accepts you regardless of race or age.  Sadly, it brings people together.

Sully will learn even more before he gets back to Hollywood.

I got hit hard by the Great Recession.  Although I have had network TV jobs and worked on national radio, I never made big money.  But I love performing.  I never made more than $55K annually on any TV or radio job I've had since 1999.  Honestly, I probably could've made more money if I was an electrician or a landscaper.  With my income, I helped a couple of relatives and I had a humble studio apartment in New York City.  In 2008, a bunch of us got laid off.  I was out of work for almost a year.  I'd never been out work that long.  I got another job.  Another layoff came within the same year I started that job.  I was out of work for so long and I was so broke that I lost my once-affordable studio apartment and had to part with most of my belongings.  I'd used much of my savings and emergency fund to take care of my mother.  A buddy in San Francisco offered me a spare room at his place and a chance to start over.  I took it.  Then I couldn't find work there for months.  Technically, I was -- and still am -- below the poverty line.  In San Francisco, I applied for jobs ranging from restaurant bus person to shop clerk to TV news contributor at local stations. San Francisco had been hit by the Great Recession too.  Thank Heaven, I had a few friends there.

My spirit had been beaten down.  If I did get a day of work here or there, I'd take some money and see or rent a movie. Usually a comedy.  When I saw people asking for money on the street, I thought to myself "There, but for the grace of Heaven, go I."

I saw Sullivan's Travels on TCM and tears welled up in my during that dialogue-free sequence.  I felt it more.  It touched me in a deeper place.  It was like seeing it for the first time.  And then the absolutely loopy and imaginative ending had me laughing out loud.

Years ago, when times were better in New York City, I went to my local DVD rental store.  I chatted with another customer about Coen Brothers movies.  I mentioned how major an influence Preston Sturges had on them.  Look at Tim Robbins playing an Eddie Bracken in The Miracle of Morgan's Creek-type of character in The Hudsucker Proxy. Look at the Coen Brothers film entitled O Brother, Where Art Thou? -- the same title as the book Sully has in Sullivan's Travels.  The customer said, "Yeah,  but the big difference is...the Coen Brothers don't like people."

That really hit me.  But, when I thought it, I agreed.  They've given us excellent films but there's a coldness to them.  Fargo, No Country For Old Men, Barton Fink -- not packed with characters you'd buy ham and eggs for in a diner.  Preston Sturges cared about people.  He liked them.  He liked making them laugh.  He appreciated those who made him laugh.  In Sullivan's Travels, there are sweet mentions of directors Frank Capra and Ernst Lubitsch.  He shines a spotlight on the work of Walt Disney.  He shows that Disney's work, and comedy in general, can be more healing to the beaten down soul than the shaming sermons of organized religion in church.  And writer/director Preston Sturges made us laugh.  In Sullivan's Travels he gives us big laughs, heart and warmth.

I'm still looking for work.  I'm again living temporarily in a friend's spare room.  This time in New Jersey.  I had more days of freelance employment last year than any year since 2010.  My spirit is resurrecting.

Now I get tears of joy in my eyes at the end of Sullivan's Travels when Sully says, "There's a lot to be said for making people laugh.  Did you know that's all some people have?  It isn't much, but it's better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan."
How true, how true.  What a great movie.  A genuine classic.  It's 75 years old.  Still funny and still relevant.  And how it's lifted me up and when I was down.  If you've never seen it, rent it.

Thanks to The Retro Set for reminding us that Sullivan's Travels was released on this day in history in 1941.  Find The Retro Set, an entertainment site, on Facebook or on Twitter: @the_retro_set.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

For Oscar Night, There's ROOM

It's in the Oscar race for Best Picture and Brie Larson is a nominee for Best Actress.  In ROOM, she plays the mother of a 5-year old boy.  The mother and her little boy have been kept in isolation for quite some time.
I don't want to tell you too much about it.  I avoided reading reviews because, nowadays, reviewers give away too much detail.  I will tell you that, throughout this physical and emotional deprivation, she is devoted to her little long-haired boy, Jack.
And Jack loves her right back.  Brie Larson breaks your heart with the difficult role, a role she plays so well.  Ironically, this abused woman who pushes herself to remain optimistic and strong for her son is named Joy.

You have got to experience that performance that young Jacob Tremblay delivers as Jack.  That is a complicated, emotionally demanding role.  It would be a daunting task for actors in their 20s to call up the kind of raw emotions that he does portraying a 5-year old kid.  Jacob Tremblay is 9 years old.  He's remarkable in the film.  You care about Jack and his journey.  You understand why he is the way he is.  You want things to get better for him.  And for his mother.  Here's a trailer for Room.
Brie Larson's previous film release of 2015 was the delightfully vulgar summertime hit comedy, Trainwreck.  Just like in Room, she dealt with relatives and dysfunctions that affected her relationship with those relatives.  Larson played the sister to Amy Schumer's character in Trainwreck.
For as depressing a situation Joy and little Jack endure when first we meet them, Room is not a depressing movie.
Room is about isolation, love, letting go...and embracing the great big world around you.
Bravo to you, little Jacob Tremblay!  Great work.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Bear with Leo in THE REVENANT

Back in 1972, Robert Redford went all scraggly and played a mountain man called JEREMIAH JOHNSON.  He was a deserter from war and in a hostile environment.  He battles the elements and fights Indians to remake his life alone in the wilderness.  When I watched Leonardo DiCaprio as the frontiersman in the film that brought him another Best Actor Oscar nomination, I felt like THE REVENANT could've been called WHAT'S EATING JEREMIAH JOHNSON?  He's battling the elements, there were some warrior Indians, he's got very little dialogue and he's all scraggly.  And, yes, he does deserve his current Oscar nomination.
 First of all, what is a revenant?  It's a person who has returned after death or a long absence.

Leonardo DiCaprio gives an outstanding performance as frontiersman Hugh Glass.  Director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu gives an outstanding performance as director Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line, The New World, The Tree of Life).  This is an extremely mystical film. It poses philosophical questions about survival and revenge and what the need for revenge does to one's spirit.  There's a bear attack scene that's one of the brutal and exciting scenes I saw in a 2015 film.  How that was shot, I don't want to know. I lost myself in the movie-making magic of that sequence.  There's a slight sexual overtone to that wild animal scene.  There's a moment or two when you can't tell whether it's an attack or a first date that went quite well.  A memorable movie scene.
ABC News and Good Morning America entertainment correspondent Chris Connelly was in place on GMA when the nominations came out.  He felt that the Oscar nomination for British actor Tom Hardy was a surprise.  I disagree.  But I've disagreed with Connelly about an Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu film before this one.  Hardy is one flat-out brilliant actor.  Watch him in The Revenant as the villain, the man who wants to kill Hugh -- finish him off and leave the body.  Hardy sounds just like a character plucked right out of a classic John Ford western.                 
 Now rent Bronson, an inventive psychological biopic drama about a notorious and highly violent British prisoner who changes his name to Charles Bronson.  He came from a socially upright middle-class family but wound up spending most of his adult life in solitary confinement behind bars.  Hardy is absolutely fascinating, frightening and occasionally funny in Bronson.  He burns up the screen.  He should've been a Best Actor Oscar nominee for his one-man tour-de-force in 2013's Locke.  He's the only person seen onscreen in that movie, playing a businessman on the road who takes phone calls while driving.  During the course of all those calls that reveal his personal drama, he decides which road to take in his life.  Hardy commands the screen for that entire film.  Critics raved about his performance.  Last year, critics practically did cartwheels over his leading man work in Mad Max:  Fury Road.  Couple that with last year's The Revenant .... and you've got Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee Tom Hardy.  Here's what he looks like when he's not playing a grizzly man in the wild frontier.
 Iñárritu directed 2011's BIUTIFUL starring Javier Bardem as a family man who knows the mean streets of Barcelona and who has a psychic gift.  On GMA, a few minutes before the nominations were announced, Connolly felt that Bardem didn't have a chance at a nomination.  I wrote on Twitter that I felt Javier Bardem would be a Best Actor Oscar nominee for Biutiful.  Javier Bardem was a Best Actor Oscar nominee for Biutiful.

The director also guided Michael Keaton to a Best Actor Oscar nomination for Birdman, a backstage look at a movie actor attempting a comeback in a Broadway drama.  It took last year's Oscars for Best Director and Best Picture.  The Revenant got 12 Oscar nominations including Best Director and Best Picture.  Here's a trailer that's subtitled for foreign audiences.
The visuals are extraordinary.  The cinematography is rich and the acting is noteworthy.  But the movie is just too darn long.  The Revenant keeps you in the cold and snow for 2 hours and 36 minutes.  The director could have made all his points in 1 hour and 50 minutes.  I felt that same way about his 2006 drama, Babel.  It's a fine film but you do get that "Move on, you made this point already" feeling.  Babel clocked in at about 2 hours and 20 minutes.
 Admit it.  Leonardo DiCaprio has done some remarkable work over the years.  When I saw 1993's What's Eating Gilbert Grape?, I thought it was terrific that Hollywood found a special needs kid who could act.  That's how real young DiCaprio was in his performance.  Still, he's yet to take home some Hollywood gold.  Remember when he was Oprah's daytime guest to talk about his film, The Aviator?  Martin Scorcese's 2004 movie eventually brought Leo a Best Actor Oscar nomination.  Seated next to Oprah on her old daytime show stage, she gave her review of his performance this way:  She stood up and proclaimed, "Go get your Oscar, Leo!  Go get your Oscar, Leo!" And, of course, her Chicago audience erupted into wild applause.

And then, Ray, starring Jamie Foxx as blind singer/musician Ray Charles, opened.  Foxx got nominated for the Best Actor Oscar opposite DiCaprio for The Aviator.  Jamie took home the prize.  On her post-Oscars Hollywood special edition the day after the awards, Oprah hugged Oscar winner Jamie Foxx and said into his ear "I knew you'd win."

I really hoped Leo was watching Judge Judy instead of Oprah that day.  And I really hope he wins next month for The Revenant.  DiCaprio deserves the Hollywood gold.

Monday, January 25, 2016

They Created OUTSIDERS

Actor David Morse plays the fierce father figure of the Farrell Clan.  He's in OUTSIDERS, a new original drama series that premieres Tuesday night, January 26th, on WGN America.  The Farrell Clan has lived in the remote hills of Appalachia for 200 years.  It's a clan with its own customs, currency, rules and language.  Now corporate types want to evict them off the land for the sake of profit.  Are sophisticated corporate dudes in suits really a match for a clever, manipulative mountain man like "Big Foster" played by David Morse?  We shall see.
In this struggle for power and control and survival, there are echoes of today's headlines.  Think of factions that proclaim it's time to "take this country back" and oppose the current White House administration.  Look at Americans vs Americans on Supreme Court rulings while there's an outside force of foreign terrorist.  Think of greedy corporate executives making life harder for average folks who pursued the American Dream?  Look at all the working class people who got eviction notices because of shady activity on Wall Street.  All those elements come to mind when you watch Outsiders.  It's more than just a bunch of wild hillbillies who make a wicked moonshine opposing corporate forces and the law.  As Sheriff Wade warns the white collar men making snarky comments about The Farrells, "You have no idea what you're dealing with."
Two top forces of creativity gave us this compelling new drama series.  Peter Mattei is an indie filmmaker, a playwright and a novelist.  He wrote a novel titled The Deep Whatsis.  He's the creator, the writer and an executive producer of OutsidersPeter Tolan has given us over 20 years of laughs.  He was a producer/writer for the TV sitcoms Murphy Brown, Home Improvement and cable's The Larry Sanders Show.  He was a co-creator and writer on Rescue Me.   (Lord, how I wanted to a do a bit part in an episode of that excellent Denis Leary series about firefighters!)  Tolan co-wrote the hit comedy movie, Analyze This, starring Billy Crystal and Robert De Niro.  As you can tell from the description of his new series, Outsiders is a departure from kind of popular entertainment Tolan has given us in the past.  He's the other executive producer on this challenging new show.
Before I interview the two Peters, here's a trailer for their new series about a Caucasian family living off the grid.

Now, meet Peter Mattei (wearing a cap) and Peter Tolan (not wearing a cap).  Early in the interview for We Got This Covered, I'm so thrilled to meet the gentlemen and so in-the-moment that I made a mistake during a question.  I said "Lord of the Rings" when I meant to say the William Golding book title, Lord of the Flies.  Here's our interview.

Again, Outsiders premieres on WGN America which is available on the DISH TV network.  The show airs at 9p ET/PT on Tuesday night.

The opening episodes are smart and thought-provoking.  America is 240 years old.  The Farrell Clan has been on that mountain for 200 years fighting to keep its independence and way of life.  In some ways, is that family with all its in-fighting a reflection of the U.S.A. itself?  The writing is very layered and the acting is very good.  I hope Outsiders connects with viewers and becomes a success for Peter Mattei and Peter Tolan.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

SNL Comedy Stars Get Serious

I'm always fascinated when a performer known for comedy challenges him or herself and plays the other side of the coin.  Often, those comics slam across a solid dramatic performance.  I recently read that Molly Shannon, formerly of Saturday Night Live, moved Sundance Film Festival audience members to tears with her work in OTHER PEOPLE.
 A report in the January 21st issue of Variety has this:  "As the credits rolled on the film, loud sobs echoed across the Eccles Theatre as many members of the crowd stood and cheered..."  Kyle Smith, New York Post film critic, wrote that the performance could mean an Oscar nomination for Molly Shannon -- and the film hasn't even opened in theaters yet.
In Other People, a gay man moves to Sacramento to take care of his mother.  She's terminally ill with cancer.  Shannon plays he mother.

I'm not surprised she got a good response tackling more serious material.  I saw Molly Shannon do a dramatic turn in an indie movie a few years ago that totally knocked me out.  She was quite moving.  In this post, I recommend DVDs in which SNL graduates played it straight and did good work.

We go to the West Coast for YEAR OF THE DOG, a modestly-budgeted 2007 movie.  Shannon plays the very likable Peggy.  Peggy is in her early 40s and has an office job.  She's a good friend, a good sister and a good employee -- but she has no romance in her life whatsoever.  What Peggy does have is a dog.  That's the love affair in her life.  We see that she's really pulled away from life due to disappointment after disappointment on concentrates of her dog -- because her pet's love is something she can count on.  That is, until her dog dies.  Peggy's rather plain life falls apart.  There are laughs in this film but Shannon also taps into Peggy's dark side.  That's what makes her performance so human and so poignant.  She plays the lonely woman's heartbreak.  Here's a trailer for Year of the Dog.

Former SNL stars Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig take on dramatic material as an estranged brother and sister in 2014's THE SKELETON TWINS.  How I wish this indie feature had gotten more attention from moviegoers than it did.  It's one of my favorite films of that year.                                                                                                                       
 Those two actors are so effective and so truthful in their performances.  It opens with Milo, the brother, attempting suicide.  His sister, Maggie, is about to overdose on pills when she gets a call that her brother is in the hospital.  She coaxes Milo to come live with her and her husband.  Maggie's marriage isn't as happy as even the husband thinks it is.  Milo is gay.  He sees his former lover, very well-played by Ty Burrell from the hit sitcom Modern Family.  The former lover is not really good for Milo's fractured emotional state.  Milo and Maggie must confront what caused the rift in their relationship.  They must come to understand and, in a way, heal each other's wounds.  Here's a trailer for The Skeleton Twins.

Bill Hader has a monologue.  Milo talks about being gay in high school.  Hader put tears in my eyes during that scene.  I knew exactly how Milo felt.  I think you'll be very impressed with Bill Hader Kristen Wiig and Ty Burrell in The Skeleton Twins.

You probably think it's impossible to care about a man who works for the IRS.  You may change your opinion watching SNL graduate Will Ferrell in STRANGER THAN FICTION.  Ferrell is understated and serious here, not like in his hit comedies like Anchorman and Talladega NightsStranger Than Fiction wasn't a big box office hit.  However, it holds some of his best big screen work.  The story is surreal.  He's an IRS employee, an unmarried man, who hears narration in his his head.  He hears the story of his life unfold.  No one else hears the voice.  His job is pretty much his life.  Then he hears the narration that he's going to die.
You can just imagine how that shakes things up in his head.  Emma Thompson, Dustin Hoffman, Queen Latifah and Maggie Gyllenhaal co-star in 2006's Stranger Than Fiction.  Here's a trailer.


To me, this is a Will Ferrell high point.  It was a revelation to see him do dramatic moments with such subtlety.  Never before have tax tips been so touching.  Actor Tom Hulce is also in Stranger Than Fiction.  Hulce played the title role in 1984's Amadeus and got an Oscar nomination for playing the naturally brilliant and somewhat of a party boy composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.  The film won 8 Oscars including Best Picture of 1984.

Tom Hulce was also in 1978's comedy hit, National Lampoon's Animal House.  He played "Pinto."  Nowadays, he's less a pinto and more of a bear.  Hulce won a Tony Award as a lead producer of the 2007 Broadway musical success, Spring Awakening.
There you have it -- three DVDs in which former comedy stars of Saturday Night Live take on a challenging dramatic role and do some mighty fine acting indeed.  And I'm really eager to see that new Molly Shannon movie, Other People.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

She Lights Up BROOKLYN

A department store clerk.  An Irish immigrant in BROOKLYN, a romantic story that deserves its Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Actress. Brooklyn is lyrical and lovely to look at.  The production reminds you that movies can be beautiful.  The story reminds you that some of the most extraordinary people you could ever hope to meet are the ordinary people you see just about every day.  One of those people is Eilis Lacey, wonderfully played by Saorirse Ronan.  She's the shy, sweet, intelligent young lady who traveled alone from Ireland and landed a job in a Brooklyn department store.
She's from a small, humble Irish town, the kind of town in which it's hard to keep one's business to one's self.  Gossip seems to be a pastime.  When first we see her, it's dark and she looks rather drab as she heads out.  Keep that in mind when you see the final image of her at the film's end.  In town, she's the highly efficient  shop clerk.  It's the early 1950s.
In Brooklyn, based on a novel of the same name, we see a young woman leave her homeland to create her life -- her own life -- be open to new things and challenge the strong emotional pulls of hometown, family and society.  Her American girlfriends help her create her new self with make-up, clothing and table etiquette tips.

I thought this movie was going to be a bit slow and very hightone -- like those prestigious Merchant Ivory films we got in the 1980s.  Wrong.  Brooklyn never loses its working class sensibilities and warmth.  Ronan glides through the role with grace and wit, even when sea sickness hits her at both ends during the ocean liner voyage to America.  A gorgeously photographed film, director John Crowley lets the camera rest on Ronan's gentle face.  He gives her close-ups, the quality of close-ups we've seen in classic Hollywood films from the 1930s, 40s and 50s.  She's an actress who can let emotions wash over her face effectively in a close-up.  In Brooklyn, the Irish lass meets an Italian guy at a dance. It's a new feeling in a new land but complications arise.  And secrets.  There's the pull of home and family and society.  Here's a trailer.

Saoirse Ronan is radiant in this movie.  Julie Walters is a hoot as the woman who runs the Brooklyn boarding house.  Emory Cohen is perfectly cast as Tony Fiorello. Is Tony the right man for her?  This young actor delivers a rich, tender performance.  He's terrific with Ronan.
The streetcar scene with the two of them gave my heart wings.  Wow.  Beautifully acted.  I loved that scene so much.  If you need a date movie, keep this gem in mind.  Trust me on this.  Going to Brooklyn is absolutely worth the trip and money.
About Saoirse Ronan -- she was born in the Bronx in New York City.  When she was a toddler, her Irish parents moved the family to Ireland.  I first noticed her in 2007's Atonement.  Now that was a hightone, prestigious and occasionally slow British film.  But the kid in it knocked me out.  She was sensational.  She projected a depth and maturity without coming off as precocious or bratty.  It was juvenile actress Saoirse Ronan.  For that performance, she became one of the youngest females nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar.
You really get to see her versatility in a Hollywood comedy that never got released.  It pretty much went straight to cable and DVD.  That's a shame because it's most enjoyable and way better than some of those big screen silly and crappy comedies Adam Sandler cranks out.  I Could Never Be Your Woman is a 2008 comedy directed by Amy Heckerling.  It stars Michelle Pfeiffer and Paul Rudd.  Pfeiffer, in fine form, plays a 40 year old divorced TV sitcom writer and producer in Hollywood.  She's good at her job, insecure about her age, still friendly with her ex-husband, and the love of her life is her 13-year old daughter.  The feeling is mutual.  Ronan is so delightful as that down-to-earth, unspoiled Hollywood kid who is crazy about her mom.  She watches her mom develop a major crush on an actor who did very well at a sitcom audition.  But the cute actor, played by Paul Rudd, is almost ten years younger than the divorced writer/producer & single working mother.  You'd swear Ronan had grown up in Southern California.  She's so good.  If you can find the DVD, I Could Never Be Your Woman is a fun weekend rental.  Tracey Ullman appears as Mother Nature.  Come on...that's fun right there.  Michelle Pfeiffer and Saoirse Ronan made a lovable team.

 Enjoy that...and you must see the film that brought Ronan her second Oscar nomination. Brooklyn.