Wednesday, October 1, 2014

On Director Gregg Araki

This is not a review of White Bird in a Blizzard.  The new film from director Gregg Araki opens later this month.  However, I couldn't help but be fascinated with a film that gives us dialogue such as "...in a blink...my virginity disappeared.  Just like my mother."

If you want to see what an independent film should do, look at the work of Gregg Araki.  He wrote and directed the story of a teen hustler who turns tricks in a local park and his dorky buddy who's obsessed with space alien abductions.  It was challenging material with inappropriate sex.  The end put a few tears in my eyes.  Again, Araki takes challenging material with inappropriate sex.  In his world, the scandalous sex is not in the film just for the sake of being hip and edgy.  It's something characters drift into as a release from loneliness, boredom or other heartbreak.  There's another force at play besides hormones.  Araki takes ugliness in life and finds the compassion in it.  He makes us care about characters we didn't think we'd care about.  He did that with Mysterious Skin.  He does that with White Bird in a Blizzard.  Here's the director with the film's lead actress and narrator, Shailene Woodley.  She plays troubled Kat Connor.

The cast includes Chris Meloni as the suburban father and husband of a missing wife.  He's Brock Connor.  Eva Green stars as his erratic, overwhelming housewife.  In the narration, the daughter says "He was her doormat."  Meloni has a mustache and a few extra pounds that soften his macho, assertive TV hunk image.  Her wears short-sleeved, pastel-colored shirts.  The look is perfect for his character who, as his daughter says in a voiceover, was a reminder to her missing mother of the "endless repetition" in her life.
The cast also includes two black women who each has a Best Actress Oscar nomination to her credit.  They are Angela Bassett (What's Love Got To Do With It) and Gabourey Sidibe (Precious).
Both women are in supporting roles.  Bassett's is the smaller one.  Sidibe plays a smart, hip best friend to the lead character.  It's a more critical role than it seems to be.  Back in the 1980s, when the story takes place, her character would've been called a "Valley Girl" because of her vocal pattern.  Hers may not be a major role  in Araki's new film but she still knocked me out her acting range.  I felt the same way I did watching Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle after she'd played the Ozark Mountain girl in the farm noir thriller, Winter's Bone.  Watch Gabourey Sidibe as the high school friend and compare it to her performance as under-educated, withdrawn, poor Precious.  Two vastly different females and Sidibe played each one effectively.  Wow.  Thank you, Mr. Araki, for casting Gabourey in the role.  Her performance was not the only thing about White Bird in a Blizzard that made me say "Wow."
I won't review the film but I will tell you that this mystery has a touch of Chinatown about it in the detective scenes.  And, if I could put this on a double bill at a revival movie theater, I'd put it on a bill with the 1945 classic, Mildred Pierce.  A daughter and her mother are interested in the same guy.
There's a touch of Dorothy Dandridge in it too.  In one scene, Kat gets ready for a date and she seems to have taken a fashion tip from Dandridge as 1954's musical vamp, Carmen Jones.



Gregg Araki.  He is one mighty fine indie film director.  Catch the heart of  White Bird in a Blizzard when it opens October 24th.  Here's the trailer.


Sunday, September 28, 2014

Thank You, Arise TV

The Equalizer.  That was a hit series in the CBS prime time line-up back in the 1980s.  He was played by British actor Edward Woodward, a middle-aged gent who wore a jacket and tie while carrying a gun to protect and help the downtrodden.  I made my TV acting debut in one episode of The Equalizer during my VH1 veejay years.  The Equalizer has been fast forwarded to the 21st Century and upgraded to the big screen.  Upgraded and Americanized.  And he's now played by Denzel Washington.  Today's Equalizer is a man with a mysterious past.  He works in store like Home Depot.
He's a life coach to fellow employees.

At night, he eats alone in a diner and shares his love of classic literature with an abused hooker.
Also at night, he becomes a killing machine as he protects people like that hooker.
No young evil Russian bodybuilder is a match for this nearly 60 year old movie star.  You can tell Denzel is the hero because -- just like other he-man action movie heroes -- he walks calmly in slow motion towards the camera with a serious expression on his face and doesn't flinch at all as something blows up in a fireball behind him.

I was one of three black film reviewers who discussed The Equalizer during the half hour of Arise On Screen, the weekend film review/entertainment news show hosted by Mike Sargent.  Mike is a radio/TV host and nationally quoted film critic.  Every week, he invites a pair of fellow critics on to join  him in reviews of new Hollywood and foreign films.  That's exactly what we did for the September 27th weekend.  Mike is a terrific, knowledgeable host and interviewer who generously shares the spotlight with his guest critics.

Yes.  BLACK people reviewing Hollywood and foreign films on television.  Did you ever see that on the Today Show, Good Morning America, the CBS morning news program or on syndicated film review programs?  Rarely, if at all.  Black and Latino film critics, male and female, lived on the Island of Misfit Toys in the minds of most Caucasian network/syndication TV executives.                                            

That's a color barrier Mike Sargent and Arise TV have broken through with Arise On Screen.  I cannot thank Mike and the staff enough for inviting me to be a guest on the show this year.  It's a groundbreaking program that no TV columnist has noticed yet.  Maybe TV journalists have not noticed that the field of film critics on TV has been a predominantly white boys club from the 20th into the 21st Century.  Think of NBC's Gene Shalit, Joel Siegel on GMA, Gene Siskel (of Siskel & Ebert) on CBS' morning show, Ben Mankiewicz and Ben Lyons in syndication and David Edelstein currently on CBS Sunday Morning.

For the September 27th weekend edition, three black film critics talked about Denzel Washington as the life coach/killing machine called The Equalizer...
...and we highly recommended the sweet British drama/comedy about underdogs -- gays and union mineworkers -- joining forces to fight for political rights in Thatcher's England of the 1980s.  This polished gem of a movie, based on a real event, is called Pride.
Billy Nighy, Imelda Staunton, Dominic West and some talented young actors make this British import a winner.


If you need a good date night movie, keep Pride in mind.

We also reviewed a new French drama called The Little Bedroom.  It's about two people of different generations who have a hole in their hearts where a child used to be.

I loved doing that kind of film review and classic movie history work for Arise On Screen.  Network and local TV news programs in New York City dropped the ball on that kind of racial diversity for decades when it came to movie critics and film review shows. That could change.  I hope it does.

Thank you, Arise On Screen, for allowing me to contribute in presenting some new images on television.  Thank you, host/producer Mike Sargent.  I'm proud to be part of the show's guest history.

Please visit the website at www.Arise.TV.  Take note of this show, you TV columnists.  There's a story in it.  I started my TV career as a weekly movie critic on Milwaukee's ABC affiliate in the early 1980s. I was contacted by Chicago PBS to audition to be half of the new Sneak Previews duo when Siskel & Ebert left for syndication.  In New York City, I always hit resistance when I wanted to review films weekly when I worked on local morning news programs.  Ben Lyons (son of Jeffrey Lyons) never met with resistance.  He reviewed movies for a WNBC news film review show.  I was reviewing movies on TV when Ben was a toddler.  None of the New York City local news shows had a black film critic.  That is why I'm so proud of the groundbreaking Arise On Screen.




Thursday, September 25, 2014

See Me on Arise TV

Remember the 1980s series on CBS called The Equalizer?  British actor Edward Woodward played the man of mature age who was sort of a karma cop/private detective.  If people felt the odds were against them and they needed help, he'd come in and balance the scales of life in a weekly crime story.
This show aired in the mid to late 1980s.  I made my TV acting debut in an episode of that show during my VH1 veejay/talk show host years.  Denzel Washington never rented any old episodes of TV series because he didn't want to steal anything from it when playing the lead in the film adaptation.  Denzel is now The Equalizer.  He could've watched all the episodes he wanted because his Americanized version of this character has hardly any similarity at all to the old TV series.
By the way, I made my TV acting debut in one episode of that series.  I played a talk radio host.

The Equalizer has been updated as a protective man with a mysterious government past.  He works in a Home Depot-like store, introduces an abused hooker to good literature and kills a lot of evil Russians with some supplies from his day job.
                                                                                                                                              

This is The Equalizer's 2014 way of balancing karma.  In this big screen adaptation of The Equalizer, Denzel could've sung "If I had a hammer, I'd beat you in the morning...I'd beat you in the evening...all over this land..."
Denzel is nearly 60.  When you see him in action, you'll wonder how come there's no scene of him shouting, "Can a brother get some Advil up in here? Killing all these bad guys gave me some serious lower back pain!"

I will talk about Denzel's new action movie hero feature.  I rejoin the Arise On Screen team Saturday, September 27th.   If you're in the New York tri-state area, watch us on Time Warner Ch. 92 or Verizon Ch. 481 at 5:30p Eastern time with a Saturday repeat at 7:30p Eastern.  Arise On Screen repeats on Sunday at 5:30p ET.

We'll also review Pride, a British film starring Billy Nighy and Imelda Staunton.  Arise On Screen host/critic Mike Sargent has urged me to see this movie.  I haven't seen it yet but the trailer makes me think it's a bit like The Full Monty.

It looks like the gentle folks of a small town in Wales have their first encounter with hip gay men and lesbians.  That's what I gathered from the trailer.

We stay in the United Kingdom with AndrĂ© Benjamin, formerly of OutKast.  He stars as the late, great rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix.  The feature, shot like a semi-documentary, is Jimi: All Is By My Side.


The son of acclaimed director Mike Nichols gives us a romantic comedy about two young adults in New York who decided to hook up for a night of sex.  Then get to know each other come the daylight hours.  We'll also review Two Night Stand.


I hope you can watch the show.  That's Arise On Screen, with host/critic Mike Sargent, airing Saturday at 5:30 & 7:30p Eastern time with a 5:30p on Sunday.  You can also see it streamed online on Arise.TV.







Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Jimmy Kimmel Needs BLACK-ish Star

Back in 2003, there was a documentary special on Discovery.  It was a special that Discovery produced in conjunction with The New York Times.  The name of the show was The New Face of Late Night TV.
This special spotlighted Jimmy Kimmel, the host of the late night ABC show that I totally dig.  I like Kimmel a lot.  I like that there's a late night show with a Los Angeles vibe.  L.A. is my hometown.

The Discovery Channel special was very interesting as it went behind-the-scenes to show us what a helluva lot of work it takes to launch a new late night show.  One aspect really caught my attention because I've personally seen this bit of business happen in morning TV -- especially morning TV news programs in New York City.

We, the viewers, were focused on staff members booking guests for Kimmel's first shows.  There was a young, slim willowy blonde who was an important part of the process.   You hear the name "Laurence Fishburne" come up as an available guest to book.  She passes on Laurence Fishburne because she wasn't sure if he could be funny.

I felt that she really passed on booking him because she personally did not know much about his career.  By that time, Fishburne had a Best Actor Oscar nomination to his credit for playing Ike Turner in the Tina Turner biopic, What's Love Got To Do With It.  Angela Bassett got a Best Actress Oscar nomination for playing Tina.  The 1993 movie did very well at the box office.

Fishburne had a major role in the hugely successful sci-fi futuristic thriller, The Matrix.  That 1999 movie was about as popular with American males as The Super Bowl game.  It did terrific box office and had a sequel.

Before that, in the late 1980s, Larry Fishburne showed millions of TV viewers that he could do comedy.  He played Cowboy Curtis on the Pee-wee's Playhouse TV series.


But the young blonde staffer on Jimmy Kimmel's soon-to-debut late night show didn't know all that, bless her heart.  Instead, if I recall correctly, she booked a guy seen on MTV's Jackass.  His skill was that he could set his stomach on fire.  We see him perform in the Discovery documentary special.

If I had been on Kimmel's production staff, I would have blurted out, "What are you, nuts?  It's Laurence Fishburne!  Book him!  Trust me on this.  He's a good booking!"

Many's the time I've seen a TV staffer about to turn down a guest simply because the staffer didn't know anything about the person offered to be a guest.  Here's a story from when I worked for Good Day New York on Fox5 TV in New York City back in the1990s.  I had been offered the opportunity to interview Chris Rock live on our show.  I would've loved to do that interview.  But the offer went to our executive producer, whose name I will not print here.  A nice guy, but he wasn't exactly hip.  He admitted to me that he'd been offered the chance to have Chris Rock on our show live for me to interview.

He turned down that chance because he was not familiar with Chris Rock's work.  At the time, Rock had a comedy show on HBO and was gracing national magazine covers.  Who did my executive producer book for me to interview live on Good Day New York instead?  The Body-by-Jake guy.
Remember him?  He made the minutes fly by like hours.  He was an absolute jerk in the green room.

Wednesday, September 24th, Black-ish premieres on ABC.  One of the stars and producers of the new sitcom is Laurence Fishburne. I hope this sitcom is a hit.
I think Mr. Fishburne should be a guest on Jimmy Kimmel Live!  Don't you?




Monday, September 22, 2014

History Question about THE STRAIN

My fabulous friend, entertainment correspondent Justine Browning, introduced me to the scary new series, The Strain.  The series airs on FX and comes from Guillermo del Toro, the filmmaker who gave us Pan's Labyrinth.  Remember this from Pan's Labyrinth?
That's the quality of supernatural monster you can expect to see on The Strain.  I have a question about a Holocaust symbol I believe I saw during a World War 2 flashback in one episode.

In a post 9/11 New York, members of the Center for Disease Control fight a virus detected onboard a ghost airliner.  A commercial airliner lands at JFK.  But everyone onboard appears to be dead.  Everyone.  Passengers and crew.  But they're not dead.  Their bodies now host a virus that turns people in vampire-like creatures who resemble zombies.  Just about all these creatures wind up having a bad hair day due to the terrible transformation.  When the human bodies are corrupted by the worm host and the people turn into monsters, they seek the ones they loved as humans to feed on them.

The strain has caused an epidemic of creatures in New York who live underground, like rats, and are destroyed by sunlight, like vampires.  They terrorize New York at night.
This is the masterwork of a Strigoi vampire.  This virus gets loose in New York and the medical team has to learn that it's not a human virus.  The team will need help from a mysterious old shopkeeper, an Armenian who knows all the secrets.

Corey Stoll played the bald party boy politician who goes into recovery on House of Cards.            
He plays the lead investigator from the Center for Diseases Control who learns the secrets from the old man, a vampire hunter.  Stoll's wig is one of the best special effects on The Strain.
The CDC investigator, like the politician on House of Cards, is in recovery to deal with a drinking problem.  He's divorced because he seemed to be more wedded to his job than to his wife, whom he still loves.  They have a sweet little boy.

David Bradley plays the old Armenian vampire hunter.  His longtime nemesis, a German with waxy skin, is played by Richard Sammel.
The German is not human.  He's looked middle-aged for over 50 years.  He and the Armenian have history.  He was the Nazi officer when the Armenian was young and in a concentration camp.  The prisoner was forced to do carpentry work for the Nazi officer.  That's when he learned that the officer was loyal, not only to Hitler, but also to the Strigoi vampire master.
I have a question about one of the episodes in which we see flashbacks of the Armenian carpenter's concentration camp days during the Holocaust.  In one scene, he and other male prisoners are ordered outside into the snow.  They are lined up.  You think they're about to be machine gunned down.

The prisoners are wearing striped uniforms, historically accurate for those Holocaust times.  You see the yellow 6-pointed stars the Nazis made Jews wear in the camps.  That was Nazi disrespect for the Star of David.  Did anyone notice that the young Armenian and some of the other men had soiled pink triangles over their Stars of David?  I'm pretty sure I saw triangles.

During the Holocaust, Nazis forced homosexual male prisoners to wear pink triangles.  That symbol was used defiantly by Act Up.  When angry gay men like playwright Larry Kramer and others grew impatient with our government not addressing the AIDS epidemic in the late 1980s, Act Up was formed and used the pink triangle in this slogan on posters, T-shirts and buttons:
Did I see the old Armenian Jew wearing a pink triangle in the flashback to his Holocaust prisoner days?  If so, that gives an added layer of depth to his tough character.
I've gotten addicted to The Strain.  It's creepy entertainment with a 1950s-1980s feel.  You've got all this science-fiction horror happening.  Educated, upscale white folks are told not to touch something or not to go outside.  They don't listen and get their asses chewed up by a monster while they scream for help at the top of their lungs.  The black folks?  After just one warning, we get in the car and floor it or run like track star Carl Lewis.  And no sci-fi monster, however large, is ever a match for a hot Puerto Rican or Mexican dude who's done jail time and has a baseball bat in his hand.  I love seeing a monster get a Latino beat down.