Saturday, August 30, 2014

Adrien Brody as HOUDINI

One way or another, we all want to escape.

In The New York Times last Friday, there was a big ad in the Weekend Arts section for the movie Begin Again.  The top of the ad read "As The Summer Ends, The Oscar Race Begins Again."

For me, the Oscar Race began before the summer when The Grand Budapest Hotel opened.  I loved that movie so much, I spent money to see it twice.  One of the several fine performances delivered in that Wes Anderson period comedy came from Adrien Brody.  He plays one of the heavies in the film, a film that would be on my end of the year "10 Best of 2014" list.  If I was asked to compile one.
In Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel, we see characters who want to escape danger.

That theme of escape carries over to Adrien Brody's new work.  The first part of it premieres Monday, September 1st, on History Channel.  Brody plays a legendary showman who says "I don't want to escape life, I want to escape death."  Adrien Brody stars as Houdini.  This controversial entertainer was  definitely a piece of special delivery chain male.
Brody is not the first actor to play the famed Harry Houdini.

Tony Curtis, seen on the far left, played him on the big screen in the 1950s.  Paul Michael Glaser, next to Curtis, played him on TV in the 1970s.  Other actors have appeared on screen as Houdini.  Adrien Brody really puts his colorful stamp on the character in the first half of this very entertaining TV biopic.
Don't get me wrong.  I'm not implying that the last half sucks.  For some reason, I was given access to part one, but the screener for part two was unavailable to me.  However, just like I did with The Grand Budapest Hotel, I watched the first half twice.  I loved part one of Houdini that much.
It's colorful, it's vibrant, it's interesting, it moves.  You're hooked because you want to know how Houdini did those tricks.  How did he escape while chained?  How did he stop a bullet with his teeth?  Brody has charisma in the role, he really connects to the character and -- let's face it -- he's a talented actor.  Brody won the Best Actor Academy Award for his performance in 2002's historical drama, The Pianist.
There's a touch of the Golden Age of Hollywood about History Channel's Houdini.  Like in a 1930s movie starring Tyrone Power, twenty years pass by yet the lead characters look the same.  No weight gain, no hair loss, no saggy skin.
You can't blame Harry Houdini for wanting to reinvent himself and escape his background.   He and his Jewish family members were misfits within a group of misfits who immigrated to Appleton, Wisconsin.  He Jewish father got fired by Jews for sticking with the ways of Budapest and not coming up to Appleton, Wisconsin standards.  Young Houdini, born Erich Weiss, witnessed his dad being treated like a nobody.  He didn't want to be like his dad.

We see him become a master illusionist after becoming fascinated with a rather macabre sideshow act in his youth.  We see him fall in love.  We see him find a helpful and devoted assistant who enables Houdini to kick his act up a notch.

We see Harry Houdini perform for and amaze royalty.  We see him do espionage work.  When his popularity fades a bit, the driven showman will reinvent himself when new technology attracts audiences to a new guy in a new medium.  Charlie Chaplin is a star in silent movies on big screens.

If you get a chance to see History Channel's Houdini, I think you'll dig it.  I can't wait to see the last half.  I hope it's as entertaining as the first.

This week I saw the new movies November Man starring Pierce Brosnan, The Last of Robin Hood starring Kevin Kline and Susan Sarandon and a non-scary horror/thriller called As Above, So Below.  None of those was so much fun that I wanted to see it a second time the way I did the first half of Houdini.  It was like a fun Saturday matinee at the movies.

To repeat, I really hope that part two is just as entertaining as part one.

Friday, August 29, 2014


It's established early on that the young, pretty and slim British woman is an impressive intellectual.  She's got a couple of degrees.  She speaks about four languages.  She says, "I'm a student of history.  Of alchemy."  Fine.  But just because you're an intellectual does not mean that you've got good common sense.  Very little makes sense in the new alleged horror thriller, As Above, So Below.
Scarlett, the young archeologist, is obsessed with finding something her late father sought.  It's a rock.  Something of a magic rock.  It's one of the several things not fully explained in the movie.  We meet her  on a secret personal mission in Iran where she has a kind Iranian risk his life to help her find some ancient writing on a cave wall in a war-torn community.  He repeatedly orders her to run for it when dangerous military approaches.  She ignores his warnings because it's all about her and what she wants.  Then we're taken to France where she's positive that the ancient item she seeks, and that her father wanted to find, is in the bowels of Paris.  It's in a hidden cave in The Catacombs, a historical location full of the bones of hundreds of people who died hundreds of years ago.  That means she will crawl through dirt-filled, dark chambers underground.  For this mission, she shows up dressed as if she's auditioning for a stage version of Flashdance.  A white sweater with one shoulder pulled down like the popular Jennifer Beals fashion statement in the 1980s movie.  Remember this look?
That's how Scarlett is dressed for a secret archeological expedition in underground Paris.  But wait.  There's more.  To get her underground without officials finding out about the expedition, she recruits the aid of a young French team that looks like a new rock band you'd see on Saturday Night Live.  Or housemates on a Parisian version on Big Brother.  The French hipster in charge wants half the buried treasure that Scarlett leads him to believe they'll find.  There's a black guy on the team.  When we black moviegoers see a black man in a scary movie, we never expect him to be around for the last act.
Scarlett is on a quest but, apparently, it's not for money.  She tells someone that.  But then what the hell is it for?  A National Geographic cover story?  A network TV news profile? A book deal?  What?  She's so self-centered and irritating in this quest.  There's a lot of mumbo-jumbo about mythologies coupled with camera work that reminds you a bit of The Blair Witch Project.  In the beginning, a man mentions that such a search could cause insanity.  The one who made me crazy was Scarlett.  She has no regard for museum property as she takes one item off a wall and pours chemical fluids on it...
...and she's crawling through a cave wearing something white and partially off-the-shoulder.

In classic old Hollywood horror movies, like the ones starring Boris Karloff, you were given details.  If an ancient curse was disobeyed for the sake of greed, you knew why The Mummy came back to life and was killing people in that 1932 film.  In a ghost story like 1944's The Uninvited, you learned who the ghost was.  In 1961's The Innocents, we discovered the identity of the ghostly apparition.  In Alien, we were told how the alien creature got onboard and how dangerous it was.  In the excellent 2007 Spanish thriller, The Orphanage, we learned who the ghosts were.

We don't learn shit in As Above, So Below.  We see a zombie-like brunette appear and scope out the expedition crew before it goes underground.  We see her in the hidden chambers.  We never learn who or what she was.  We don't learn how a rotary phone wound up in the catacombs -- and still works.  And who was that on the phone to Scarlett?  Also, the invisible, mighty force that violently pushes crew members before they start the major part of their underground journey -- shouldn't that have been a clue that they might be in danger seeking hidden chambers with a magic rock in the bowels of France? And who or what are those ghosts or monsters in the caves?  Why are there personal visions that freak out crew members?  Don't the expedition team members have relatives who may get curious if they're never heard from again?  And could Scarlett maybe apologize for irresponsibly leading a team of young explorers into an ancient curse?  Now playing in cineplexes, here's a trailer for As Above, So Below.
This script has more holes that The Catacombs do.  Capable actors are given a script that could have been fixed and improved by a quartet of clever high schoolers.  For a scary movie, As Above, So Below is not that scary.  And it has the most unsatisfying end since my prom night.  About the archeologist leader -- when she proclaims yet another theory after things got deadly, you wished one injured crew member would slap the spit out of Miss Scarlett and say, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn."

Thursday, August 28, 2014


An all-white jury in the deep South.  No one is brought to justice.  No one is convicted in the mutilation  and lynching of Emmett Till.  Only 14, the Chicago teen was visiting relatives in Mississippi.  He was accused of whistling at a 21 year old married white woman in a local store.  It's been written that Till was a good son who took on a share of domestic responsibilities at home to help his single, hard-working mother.  She was an office clerk for the Air Force.  A grammar school friend described Emmett as a funny, chubby kid who liked to make people laugh.
Two white men were accused of kidnapping, torturing and shooting the teen in the head.  The teen's face had been beaten beyond recognition.  He'd been tied and thrown into the Tallahatchie River.  Again, no one was brought to justice.  Emmett Till died on August 28, 1955.  Ron Bryant, the husband of the woman who claimed Till flirted with her, and the husband's half-brother were acquitted of the murder on September 23, 1955.                                                                                                                            

Emmett Till's murder was a galvanizing point that added intense motivation to the Civil Rights Movement.  It was the racist murder of the African-American youth (seen in the photo with his mother) and the court trial that inspired Harper Lee to write To Kill a Mockingbird.
This connects to a powerful new documentary now playing in theaters such as Film Forum on West Houston Street in downtown New York City:

Thomas Allen Harris has my respect, appreciation and deep gratitude for his moving and significant new documentary, Through a Lens Darkly:  Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People.

Harris understands and communicates the power of a single image -- a single black and white image.
He gives us history.
He shows how the power that images taken by black people challenged demeaning images projected in mainstream white media.  This ranges from family photos to pictures in national magazines.  Here's a trailer for Harris' Through a Lens Darkly.

I did not expect this documentary to make me cry, but it did.  The segment about photographs taken during the funeral service for Emmett Till had tears rolling down my face.  There have been documentaries made about Till.  One aired on PBS.  If you're unfamiliar with that crime and its court case, learn about it.

I think the negative, humiliating racial images projected in mainstream media influenced Hollywood.  I feel they had an impact on the restricted film image career of Oscar winner Hattie McDaniel (1939's Gone With The Wind, Best Supporting Actress) and the complicated career of the actor known as Stephin Fetchit, an black actor very popular with white audiences for his shuffling, dim-witted, comical black character.  I also believe the history in Harris' documentary makes one realize how bold directors like John M. Stahl and Vincente Minnelli were in presenting more accurate, more respectful images of black people in A-list Hollywood films.  Stahl directed the original 1934 Imitation of Life starring Fredi Washington, a light-skinned black actress playing a racially conflicted light-skinned black woman.  The very popular Douglas Sirk 1950s remake has Susan Kohner, a non-black actress, playing a light-skinned black woman.

In Vincente Minnelli's Cabin in the Sky (1943), the nightclub sequence featuring Ethel Waters, Lena Horne, Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, Duke Ellington and dancer John "Bubbles" Sublett showed black people as far more sophisticated and dignified compared to the stereotypical way we were portrayed in, say, 1930s musical numbers directed by Busby Berkeley.  Minnelli showed upscale images of black families and black soldiers in his World War 2 love story, The Clock, starring Judy Garland and Robert Walker.  In that drama, the images of black people reflected images of my parents in our family album.

Self-affirmation and negation, shame and survival, love and family.  And our American history.  It's all there in Thomas Allen Harris' documentary.  I highly recommend it, especially if you're a photographer.  When you think of photos seen in the news coverage of the shooting deaths of unarmed African-American youths Trayvon Martin in 2012 and, this year, Michael Brown, it clicks how relevant the history in this documentary is.
Mr. Harris, thank you, thank you, thank you for Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People.  You brought so much to light.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Travel Tip: Picture This

Like thousands of others, I'm determined to climb back up above the low-or-no income level.  Thanks to my wonderful flight attendant cousin and some travel passes, I've been able to fly out to audition and hustle up meetings for possible new gigs.  This has been my most hopeful year since things feel apart back during the Recession in 2010.  I've gotten meetings and a few days of freelance employment.

In the past when I've travelled for work purposes, also like thousands of others, I've arrived at my destination only to wonder "Hmmmm.  Where are my bags?"
If you're a traveler, you've probably asked the question too.  It's a wonderful feeling when you and your bags are one.  Like lovers.

On Twitter, I read one disgruntled traveler describe the letters in the name of a certain airline as standing for "Don't Expect Luggage To Arrive."

My cousin works for a competing airline, not the one that disgruntled the Twitter traveler.

Recently, while waiting to fly "stand-by" on a direct West Coast to East Coast flight, I was near a very sweet foreign married couple.  Our flight had such a long weather-related delay that they would not make their connection in New York.  They were connecting to Lisbon.  They decided to stay in California another night and fly out the next day.  The very helpful United Airlines desk agent asked them what their luggage looked like to help speed its retrieval off the delayed flight.  They knew the color but could not describe its specific size or tell a name brand on the luggage.  Eventually, their luggage was taken off the delayed plane but it took some time because all that was known was its color and that it had name tag.  The desk agent had to pull out a sheet with illustrations of baggage sizes and types and ask the couple to select which illustration looked like their bags.

Luggage is like relatives in families.  After a while, it's been with you for so long that you don't notice what makes it special anymore.  You just get used to it.  You get used to it being there and never consider how inconvenient things could be for you if it wasn't.

At some time, you will need more than two pieces.  Or you may be told to check a piece.
Life cannot always be a piece of carry-on luggage for the overhead bin.
Here is my travel tip -- and it's a simple one.  With your cellphone, take a photo of your luggage.  Store it on your phone.  If your luggage has a distinguishing name brand and/or logo, take a close-up photo of that too and store it in your cellphone.
Take a cellphone photo of anything that makes your checked luggage identifiable.  That way, if -- Heaven forbid -- you are separated from your luggage and an airline agent asks you to describe it, you have a photo on your phone.  That will help matters, I believe.

Trust me on this.  If  a representative at an airline counter asks you what you piece of absent luggage looks like and you say "It's black and has two handles," that's not much of a help.  That describes me when I stand arms akimbo.

One photo of your luggage is worth a thousand words to an overworked airline representative.

Have a good flight.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Deneuve Double Feature

In the mood for some French kissing?  I've got a double feature DVD rental tip for you and both movies star the divine Catherine Deneuve.  This Deneuve double feature gives you love, loss, laughs, fabulous fashions and memorable music.  My first pick is the film that put the beloved French actress on the international map.  It's the beautiful and bittersweet musical drama, 1964's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.  Jacques Demy directed it.  Michel Legrand composed the lovely music.  The entire movie is sung and subtitled.  A somewhat old story is given a fresh, hip, jazzy treatment with eye-candy colors.  Deneuve plays the young lady who works in an umbrella shop.
She works in the shop with her mother, a widow having tough financial times.  She's a bit of a snob who worries about her daughter's social class standing.  The daughter's boyfriend is too blue collar for mother's taste.  He's an auto mechanic.
The boyfriend cares for an ailing relative.  The young lovers want to get married but can't.  He gets drafted.  After he leaves for military service, she discovers she's pregnant.                                  
Eventually, she marries a prosperous older gentleman for financial security -- and then her true love returns.

If you've heard jazz vocalists and musicians perform the songs "I Will Wait For You" and "Watch What Happens," those two hit songs originated in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.  English lyrics were provided and they did very well on the pop charts when Americans fell in love with this new foreign film.  (Lena Horne's rendition of "Watch What Happens" knocks me out.)

I'm attaching my 2-minute podcast review of the second feature, Potiche.  My buddy Keith Price, Sirius OutQ morning radio co-host, got plenty of giggles seeing this 2010 feature at a screening.  He loved it and told me to get on the list for another screening.  I'm glad I did.  This Catherine Deneuve comedy had me laughing in the first five minutes and it kept a smile on my face up to the closing credits.  It's a fun farce that takes us to a factory strike in the 1970s.  Deneuve plays the pampered middle-aged woman married to a businessman you just want to slap repeatedly.  He's a prick.

A lively, robust character played by French great GĂ©rard Depardieu enters the picture.

Things go comically haywire in her family.  The rather provincial housewife and mother is thrown into the role of businesswoman and has to umbrella factory.

See why I coupled it with The Umbrellas of Cherbourg?  Here's my 2010 podcast review of Potiche, a subtitled comedy directed by the handsome Francois Ozon.

I'm still surprised there hasn't been a Hollywood version of this sweet French comedy.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Hadda Brooks: Did You Know?

Late one night recently, thanks to YouTube, I was giggling at a goofy comedy that's not exactly a well-known film but has well-known actors.  It's kind of a screwball comedy set in Manhattan.  Out of the Blue stars George Brent as a dork in glasses -- like Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby or Eddie Bracken in Summer Stock.  Brent was known in the 1930s as the leading man opposite Bette Davis in top dramas like Jezebel, Dark Victory and The Great Lie.  Cast as the suave ladies man was Turhan Bey.  He was usually in costume dramas and wearing a turban in exotic desert adventures.  In this movie, he's in GQ Magazine attire and trying to hold the Mayo -- yummy Virginia Mayo.
Who steals this picture?  Ann Dvorak as a ditzy interior decorator who likes to drink and gets a crunch on the nervous married dork.  You classic film fans know that Ann Dvorak was one helluva good dramatic actress.  Just watch her opposite Paul Muni as the gangster's sister in the original Scarface (1932) and Three on a Match with Bette Davis and Joan Blondell (1932).  1947's Out of the Blue showed that she had comedy chops that were rarely utilized.
Olive the interior decorator goes home with the harmless husband while his bossy wife is out of town.  It's all very innocent but there were quite a few cocktails in this Olive.  She falls asleep in his apartment.    He's a gentleman but anxious the next morning when he asks if he can get her anything for breakfast.  Olive, charmed, replies "Just some melba toast and brandy.  Don't go to any trouble."
This non A-list studio comedy has nice sets and, obviously, someone came up with money to make the lead women look terrific.  They're dolled up in smart dresses, fabulous hats and flattering hairdos.
Even the black woman in the movie gets the glamorous treatment.  This was an era in which Hollywood was still giving black actresses roles as maids and mammies.  Lena Horne was the breakthrough, getting the glamour treatment in deluxe MGM musicals.
Olive is in the cocktail lounge with the married man.  She absolutely loves the singer playing piano.  They're acquainted and have a brief chat like girlfriends.
I had to find out who that singer/pianist was.  Hadda Brooks was her name and, reportedly, she made TV history in Los Angeles in the 1950s.
Our Miss Brooks was a class act.  College educated and trained in classical music, this native Los Angeleno loved pop music and theater.  She played piano for a Hollywood choreographer and she became a recording star, billed as "Queen of the Boogie."

Out of the Blue marked her first film appearance.  She also appeared and sang in the Humphrey Bogart classic, 1950's In a Lonely Place.  Gloria Grahame co-starred.  
Hadda Brooks contributed to the 1952 classic that brought Grahame the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, The Bad and the Beautiful.
Remember when Gilbert Roland as "Gaucho" is nightclub dancing with the tall, blonde babe who zeroes in on a T-bone steak?  You hear a vocal of "Temptation" in that sequence.  Hadda Brooks was the vocalist.

The TV history came in 1957 when Hadda Brooks hit screens as the first African-American woman to host her own television program.  The Hadda Brooks Show had talk and musical entertainment, airing on KCOP/Channel 13 in Los Angeles.  The 26 episodes aired in Southern California and were repeated on KGO in San Francisco. That is a nice piece of TV history.
From what I read, she was coaxed out of retirement and had more success in the 1980s.  She played nightclub engagements in Hollywood and New York City.  She even did other film appearances, such as making music in 1995's The Crossing Guard starring Jack Nicholson and Angelica Huston.  The film was directed by Sean Penn.

The singer/musician passed away in 2002 at age 86.
I love that Hadda Brooks made history as the first black woman in America to host her own TV show -- and she hosted it in her hometown.