Saturday, October 17, 2015

Neglected Gem #84: Our Song (2001)

Melissa Martinez, Anna Simpson and Kerry Washington in Our Song (2001).

Our Song is a small, sweet picture about three teenage African-American girls in Crown Heights – best of friends dealing with the vicissitudes of adolescence exacerbated by the special challenges of a poor neighborhood. Lanisha (Kerry Washington, at the very beginning of her acting career) lives with her Spanish mom (Marlene Forte); her dad (Raymond Anthony Thomas) is a loving and well-meaning man who, in her mother’s words, lacks follow-through, and that’s the reason they split up, though they’ve remained friends. Lanisha has a boyfriend (Tommy Axson) but he isn’t around much, and lately he’s floated the idea that they see other people. Maria (Melissa Martinez) has a more serious problem: she’s just learned she’s pregnant, and she’s afraid to say anything to her mother (Carmen López), a no-nonsense woman who thinks her daughter should concentrate on getting a decent job. Joycelyn (Anna Simpson) is a restless, dreamy girl who works in a clothing store and has it in her head to manage her own someday – if her number one agenda, to become a star, doesn’t pan out.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Crazy Fun: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

Rachel Bloom and the West Covina marching band in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, on The CW.

This winter, ABC premiered a medieval musical comedy spoof called Galavant. Galavant tells the story of Sir Galavant (Joshua Sasse), a washed-up knight who fell off the hero wagon after his beloved Madelena (Mallory Jansen) is stolen from him by an evil king. Each episode boasted original songs and an ensemble cast clearly having the time of their on-screen lives. Add in a few insidiously catchy tunes (penned by Tangled songwriters Alan Menken and Glenn Slater), a regular sprinkling of anachronistic Yiddish, a few pointed Game of Thrones shout-outs, and several happy inversions of fairy tale tropes (including a damsel-in-distress who, as a song lyric put it, tilts "pretty sharply bitchward" as the season progresses), and you have one of the 2015's most underseen delights. Its plots were breezy and largely without consequence – pure candy perhaps, but in the best sense. Galavant's first season also included some of this year's most surprising – and often equally unrecognizable – cameo appearances: including the incomparable Anthony Head, "Weird Al" Yankovic, Ricky Gervais, Hugh Bonneville, Rutger Hauer, and even John Stamos (as a rival knight named Sir Jean Hamm, a one-off joke that I kept waiting to land but somehow never quite did). But the biggest surprise was yet to come: in May, ABC renewed the musical series for a second season. Not being a cross-platform, money-making juggernaut like Glee, the straight-ahead juvenile fun of Galavant seemed destined from the start to be a single season curiosity; ABC aired its 8 episodes two-a-night in January and the whole season barely clocked in at 3 hours in total, giving it the feel of a slightly too-long feature musical. In this era of so-called Peak TV, where it seems that practically everything gets made but very few shows live long enough to tell their tale, I am grateful and still not a little bit shocked that Galavant will be returning to prime time this coming January. But now it may turn out that Galavant's renewal was just the first wave of a trend. This Monday, The CW premiered Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a musical series that is easily the most refreshing new show is this still rather underwhelming fall television season.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Checking Out “Checking In” – The Season Premiere of American Horror Story: Hotel

Last Wednesday, creators Brad Falchuk and Ryan Murphy checked us into the fifth season of their anthology horror series, American Horror Story, with a gore-packed hour-long premiere. The episode, aptly titled “Checking In,” introduces us to this season’s setting of The Cortez Hotel and an assortment of bizarre and fascinating key players. Like the previous installments of American Horror Story, the fifth season (subtitled Hotel) tells a new, self-contained story with many familiar faces stepping into fresh characters. Falchuk and Murphy have hinted that American Horror Story: Hotel will be the season that ties American Horror Story’s previous story arcs together at last into one cohesive (and undoubtedly messed up) narrative through the use of flashbacks and crossover characters. Whether it does indeed all come together or not remains to be seen, but Hotel’s return to the present day Los Angeles from season one’s Murder House storyline certainly bodes well for fans looking for closure. As a fan looking mostly for fun, the episode's gorgeous setting and wild performances bode well for me too.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Castle of Del Toro: Crimson Peak

Jessica Chastain in Guillermo Del Toro’s Crimson Peak.

Like the work of many artists, Guillermo Del Toro’s films are an amalgamation of his many different influences: from the eye-catching visuals and mythic storytelling of the comic book world to the heightened melodrama of Spanish literature and film, both of which deeply informed his upbringing in Mexico. His love of classic horror is clear too – he vibrates to the cerebral angst of Lovecraft, when he’s not referencing the Gothic staples of Shelley and Stoker. Crimson Peak is all of these, a Gothic horror romance come screaming to life with all the repressed sexual anxiety of the Victorian era and a lavish modern sheen. They (read: everyone except Del Toro) simply don’t make them like this anymore.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

A New Look at Erroll Garner's Concert By The Sea

Erroll Garner at the piano, 1946. (Photo by William P. Gottlieb, courtesy of Library of Congress.)

On September 19, 1955 Erroll Garner and his trio were booked to play the auditorium at the Sunset Center in Carmel, California. The gig included bassist Eddie Calhoun and drummer Denzil DeCosta Best. It paid a guaranteed $650 plus sixty cents “privilege of net receipts.” The band was scheduled to play two sets between 8:30 and 11pm. At first glance the contract was just another gig in the life of Erroll Garner, one of the best and most-beloved jazz pianists of his era who travelled and performed regularly during the fifties in between recording dates for his label at the time, Columbia Records. A year earlier, Garner recorded his biggest hit “Misty” which put his name and music into the mainstream.

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Method Meets Stand-Up: Lily Tomlin in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe

Lily Tomlin (as Trudy the bag lady) in the film version of The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe (1991).

Though it has often been the case that actors celebrated for their work on the stage are replaced in the film adaptations by established movie stars, there’s a long and respectable history of great stage actors who have recreated their signature performances on the screen; it goes back at least to Walter Huston in Dodsworth (1936), if not even farther. Often it denotes pedigree in the eyes of Oscar voters: sixteen women and men have won Academy Awards for performances they originated on the stage.* In the case of actors who have an instinctual sense for the camera, the work may deepen on film: I suspect that was the case with Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire, and I know from personal experience that it was true of Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl, Stockard Channing in Six Degrees of Separation and Lily Tomlin in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, the one-woman show Jane Wagner wrote for her in 1985 and John Bailey filmed in 1991, in which she plays a dozen different characters. When Tomlin opened it on Broadway theatre critics searched for new superlatives to describe her performance; she had a triumphant national tour with it afterwards, and it was the subject of a PBS documentary. I saw it in Boston prior to the New York opening, and I was mesmerized by her invention, by her emotional range, and by the physical commitment. It was a Saturday night, and she still had a second evening show to give, but she moved as if she’d been shot out of a cannon, and the level of energy never lessened – she even did handstands. It was one of the most amazing performances I’ve ever seen on a stage, and it was even greater on screen, yet the critical reception it got was merely respectful and no one turned out to see it. Perhaps a movie of a one-person show – especially one that acknowledges its stage origins (though one can hardly envision a movie version of a one-person show that didn’t) – is easy to dismiss as a kind of second-hand special event, though in fact Bailey, a cinematographer making his directorial debut, developed a real concept that altered the stage play while paradoxically preserving it at the same time. Perhaps the ideal audience for this sort of entertainment had mostly seen it on stage or caught excerpts on PBS and didn’t bother checking it out at the movies. Or perhaps the show had been touted so loudly and so long when Tomlin was performing it live that it already felt old hat by the time it came out on film.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

A Gatsby For Our Age: Mistress America

Greta Gerwig and Lola Kirke in Mistress America.

Why doesn’t filmmaker Noah Baumbach get more love? Oh, the critics like him alright, more so of late, but the public doesn’t seem to. Yet since his debut with Kicking and Screaming (1995), he’s been putting out a steady and mostly consistent stream of smart, funny and appealing comedy/dramas that really reflect the way we live now. Yet the audience’s fancy seems to be tickled more by the artificial, hollow and hermetic likes of Wes Anderson’s output (Rushmore, Moonrise Kingdom) than anything Baumbach has on offer. It’s their loss but if they would check out Baumbach’s latest movie Mistress America (the second film of his to be released in 2015 after While We’re Young), they would be in for a treat. This comedy of manners about a young woman’s attachment and involvement with her older, soon-to-be stepsister is a small, indelible gem.