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.




Sunday, September 21, 2014

Boseman Makes You GET ON UP

Lord have mercy, was he good!  I finally got to see Get On Up, this year's big screen biopic about the late James Brown.  Actor Chadwick Boseman plays "The Godfather of Soul."  His performance alone was worth the price of the ticket.  Boseman seemed to be in a seance trance, channeling the spirit of James Brown and not just acting.  He was that amazing.  The low, gravelly voice, the body posture, the swagger, the soul, the look in the eyes, the famous onstage dance moves -- it's all there.

My buddy, Keith Price, is a weekday morning host on Sirius Radio's OutQ.  He saw Get On Up weeks before I did.  He also loved Chadwick Boseman's performance.  About the biopic on the whole, Keith remarked that the the screenplay seemed to be on the Wikipedia side.  I totally agree with Keith on that.  You got the bullet point important events in the life and times of James Brown punctuated by some terrific music numbers.  But it just didn't have a smooth flow.  The screenplay didn't feel fully developed.  The biopic, however, is buoyed by the work of Boseman as Mr. Brown.

Get On Up was directed by Tate Taylor, seen here directing Mr. Boseman.
Taylor directed Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer to Oscar nominations in The Help.  Spencer won for Best Supporting Actress.  Davis made Hollywood history with her nomination as the second black actress in Oscar history to have more than one Oscar nomination for acting to her credits.  She and Whoopi Goldberg have two Oscar nominations each on their resumés.  Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis are in Get On Up.  Spencer plays a bordello madam who takes care of little James Brown.
Viola Davis plays his mother who is forced to leave when he's a boy....
....and returns when he's a famous man.
Davis does not have a large role but she's onscreen long enough to make your jaw drop at how outstanding an actress she is.  She is one of the highlights of the movie.  Brilliant character work.  Another role she did this year was also movie highlight.  In Get On Up,  Davis plays the uneducated, humiliated, heartbroken country mother.

In The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, which opened this month, she is the cosmopolitan, witty, charismatic New York University professor.  And she is a major babe playing that scholarly role.  In the new drama, Davis works opposite fellow co-star from The Help, Jessica Chastain.

As my mother and grandmother said, "It's a sin and a shame" that the gifted Broadway and film actress needed to turn her attention to TV because good Hollywood script offers have not been plentiful since her Oscar nominations.  That is the irritating plight of minority actresses.  I  bet Halle Berry, Whoopi Goldberg, Marianne Jean-Baptiste (Oscar nominee for Secrets & Lies), Rita Moreno and Rosie Perez know exactly how Davis felt in her need to focus on television.  The fact that no black actress has three or more Oscar nominations to her credit in all Hollywood Academy Award history really says something about their lack of fulfilling film opportunities.

Seriously, Hollywood?  Neither Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway play written by August Wilson has been adapted for the big screen.  Hollywood, you can't give us a film version of 1985's Fences starring Viola Davis and Denzel Washington...or Viola Davis and Ving Rhames -- if Denzel's busy?  You can't give us something sophisticated and smart like an All About Eve starring Viola Davis and Lupita N'yongo?  Cactus Flower was a hit movie romantic comedy in 1969 starring Ingrid Bergman, Walter Matthau and newcomer Goldie Hawn.  It was remade in 2011 as Just Go With It.  Jennifer Aniston and Adam Sandler took on the Bergman and Matthau roles.  Why couldn't we get a remake starring Viola Davis and Liam Neeson or Jeff Bridges or Don Cheadle or Colin Firth?

Back to Mr. Boseman.  Highlights of Get On Up include Soul Brother #1 James Brown keeping his cool on a plane being shot at while he and his band entertain the troops in Vietnam, Brown performing on network TV with a white-as-milk cast on a variety show, and his reunion with his mother.  The last 20 minutes of the movie are very good.  The rest of it has sort of a sanitized made-for-TV movie feel.  But the acting, across the board, is tops -- starting with Chadwick Boseman.
He gets the material on the good foot.

As for Viola Davis, I'll be watching her in the new series created by TV powerhouse, Shonda Rhimes.  The name of the ABC series is How To Get Away With Murder.







Friday, September 19, 2014

TRANSPARENT Must Be Seen

Just give Jeffrey Tambor and Judith Light Emmy Awards right now.  You must see their terrific dramatic acting on the new series, Transparent.  This is an Amazon production.
If you listen to National Public Radio's Fresh Air hosted by Terry Gross, you'll know exactly what I mean by this.  Transparent has an upscale Jewish family in L.A., lesbian sex, interracial sex, Jim Croce music, full frontal female nudity, a parent who comes out to his adult kids,  Jeffrey Tambor as "Maura," mentions of the Holocaust, Holly Woodlawn, people doing Ecstasy, and lines like "This pepper shaker is investigating my vagina."

If the Terry Gross fantasy for future Fresh Air bookings was a piñata that you whacked with a stick, episodes of Transparent would fall out of it.

I've recently written about Saturday Night Live stars going dramatic.  SNL graduates Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig are serious as broken-hearted siblings repairing their relationship in The Skeleton Twins.  Tina Fey shows us her impressive dramatic talent in This Is Where I Leave You.  Jeffrey Tambor is an actor most of us TV viewers associate with comedy.                                                                                  

This association goes back to his work on Three's Company sitcom episodes...to his role as an Ed McMahon-like sidekick on The Larry Sanders Show with Garry Shandling...

...to his role as the dad on the Arrested Development with Justin Bates.

Transparent shows other aspects of Jeffrey Tambor's range that we didn't often get to see.  He plays a divorced father, the parent who would be happier living his life as a woman.  This is done seriously.  Not as a comedy.  Tambor is absolutely amazing in his performance.  It's a nuanced performance.  He gets so much with a small, subtle gesture.  He's tender and tough, a complicated and flawed person.

Very human.  He plays the heartbreak of the character -- the heartbreak and the years of inner conflict before coming to the truth of himself.  He's the father of family members who don't exactly mind their own business.  Nor do they seem to connect in a way that has made him proud.  About his adult children, he wonders how he managed to produce three people who cannot see beyond themselves.  They've not seen him as he really is.  Director/writer/creator Jill Soloway skillfully and accurately shows us that, when coming out into the gay community, one can often feel like a misfit in a group of misfits.

As for Judith Light, she was about 30 thirty seconds into her vivid first scene when I said out loud, "OhMyGosh!  That's Judith Light!"  Like Tambor, she has created a different and memorable character for a series.  She's the mother -- the dad's blunt, strong, loving and fast-talking ex-wife.

There's also some mighty fine acting from actress Alexandra Billings.  She is a real-life transgender performer.
There's such a natural warmth about Billings that you just want her character to be your new best friend.  Hollywood needs to be giving her some juicy film roles.

I grew up in Los Angeles.  I didn't grow up in the area where the Transparent family lives but we knew folks like those.  The Pfefferman family is very believable to me.  Traditionally, network TV has shown us a Jewish experience with a New York City flavor.  Think of Seinfeld, Mad About You, Friends, Will & Grace, Rhoda Morgenstern and her relatives on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Rhoda, Epstein on Welcome Back, Kotter and Buddy on The Dick Van Dyke Show.  I often wished TV would give some equal time to my West Coast Jews and show the L.A. experience.  On one of the Transparent episodes I watched, it was great to see lead characters food shopping and talking at Canter's Deli on Fairfax Avenue.
cantersdeli.com.                                                                                                                            
For all the financial comfort The Pfefferman family members appear to have, their lives seem to be muted.  If you're lucky enough to see the premiere episode, notice the art direction.  Their Southern California lives are mostly gray and white or have muted earth tones.  Not until the father speaks the truth about himself with others present, do we see a pop of bright colors.  They're the colors of the Los Angeles LGBT Center.  When his other family members start being truthful about their sexual selves, notice that color appears either in their surroundings or in their apparel.
If you see Transparent, leave me a comment telling me if you agree that Jeffrey Tambor and Judith Light give Emmy-worthy performances.

Transparent airs on Friday, September 26th, in the U.S. and Great Britain.  It doesn't air on traditional television.  You'll see it on Amazon Prime Instant Video online.

Sometimes the people who have been up closest to you for the longest time are the ones who don't really see you at all.  Those people are your family.  Your loved ones.

Transparent is worth seeing.  Trust me on this.  Bravo, Jeffrey Tambor, on your excellent performance.





Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Jon Favreau Makes a Good CHEF

I really dig that groovy bear of an actor/filmmaker, Jon Favreau.  This summer, he gave a little indie comedy that got glowing comments whenever I heard a critic or an ordinary moviegoer talk about it.  I saw Chef, directed by and starring Jon Favreau.  I've joined the chorus singing its praises.  What a sweet little movie!  Chef is entertaining, wise, heartfelt and funny.  The food scenes will definitely stimulate your tastebuds.
The top layer is about chef, a divorced dad, whose popular Los Angeles restaurant gets a bad review from a noted and very important critic.  The chef is devastated and fuming.  He and the critic engage in a war of words on Twitter that gets lots of publicity.   Chef Carl wants revenge.  His ego was charred, seared and sliced.
That's the top layer.  The creamy, tasty center of the movie is about reigniting your passion for your art, finding your voice again and making it even better.  Carl is a big sweet bear of a guy who loves to cook and loves to eat.  He savors foods.  He loves variety.  Food is art to him.  He loves the share his knowledge and enthusiasm.
Along the way to creating a new menu, the chef will spend more time with his wonderful little boy.  He'll teach his kid the business.  His kid wants to learn the business.  And the chef will be reminded that one of his wisest and most supportive friends is his vivacious ex-wife, played by Sofia Vergara of TV's Modern Family.

She knows his talent for making Cuban food.  He makes it better than some restaurants she went to in the Little Havana section of Miami when she was girl.  She gently coaxes him to step out of his restaurant food rut, embrace his passion for Cuban cooking and take his food act on the road.  In a food truck. In Miami.  It's in the food truck that he'll rediscover his joy of cooking and joy of fatherhood.

Dustin Hoffman stars as the chef's conservative boss, a man who is a brick wall the chef crashes into when he wants to vary his menu and try something new.  Following the boss' orders and sticking with the old, popular menu brought about the harsh review.  John Leguizamo and Bobby Cannavale play experienced cooks in the kitchen.  Oliver Platt takes on the food critic role.
In one scene, the chef charges into the restaurant's dining area and verbally confronts the critic.  It's a loud  angry scene in which an artist accuses a negative critic of not knowing how hard it is to be consistently good and original as an artist in a marketplace populated with corporate bosses who demand that you give them the same thing over and over again.  His restaurant boss stifles creativity.
I felt Favreau was really shouting at movie critics.  And he had a point.  It's much harder to make a film than it is to watch and review one.  Some critics do seem to be snarky for the sake of making themselves appear clever or they seem to be writing to impress fellow critics.  A true love for the art doesn't read through.  You wonder if they'd still be film critics if they had to pay to see the movies, stand in line for tickets like everybody else and did not get reimbursed for the money they spent on tickets.  I'll use two old Hollywood movies as examples.  The chef is like Tony Hunter, the character Fred Astaire played in the musical comedy classic, Vincente Minnelli's The Band Wagon.  He's stuck to the same act.  He needs to reinvent himself and find new stardom.  The food critic is like the Broadway critic David Niven played in the comedy, Please Don't Eat the Daisies.  He's fallen in love with the power of his own witty barbs and wisecracks.
After the bad review and the conflict with the L.A. restaurant boss, Chef  becomes a road movie in a food truck.  Road movies are about discovery -- discovery of one's self and learning things about others traveling with you and sharing your adventures on the road.  This is one marvelous road trip for a father son.

My parents divorced when I was on the brink of starting high school.  I loved how Favreau, who also wrote Chef, showed that two people can be divorced and remain friends.  That provides such a positive and healthy emotional environment for a child.  It also shows great respect for the child's feelings in what could be a very disconcerting period in a youngster's life.  I wished my parents had been that friendly after their divorce.  It's a bit surreal when one parent is no longer in the house and gets to visit with you only on weekends.  Trust me on that.

Chef is very good, a most satisfying and tasty comedy.  Plus it has the most inspired use of cornstarch I've ever seen in a film that focuses on food.
Check out Favreau's film.  Good cast. Good story.  Good characters.  Good eats.  It's a winner.   I think you'll like it.