Monday, August 20, 2018

Fanny Brice: Brains and Talent

Fanny Brice, born Fania Borach, pictured in 1928. (Photo: Getty Archives)

In William Wyler’s 1968 Funny Girl, Barbra Streisand gives one of the two or three greatest musical-comedy performances ever put on film as Fanny Brice, the Brooklyn burlesque comic who became a Broadway star when Florenz Ziegfeld tapped her to appear in his Follies in 1910. But Streisand’s is a reimagined Brice – more crafted, funny in a more modern mode, and more of a camera creation (even though Streisand had originated the role on stage and this was only her first picture). The real Fanny Brice, who can be glimpsed in only a handful of movies – Hollywood didn’t seem to know what to do with her, so when she retired from the stage in the 1930s she wound up on radio, where she played Baby Snooks for years – and heard in a couple of dozen recordings. (Jasmine Records has collected them all, including a couple of Baby Snooks routines, on Fanny Brice: The Rose of Washington Square. The song “Rose of Washington Square,” which she performed in Ziegfeld’s Midnight Frolic in 1920, is not, alas, among them.)

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Donny Osmond Does an Encore

Donny Osmond, in his prime. (Photo: Billboard)

The story of Donny Osmond is not an easy one to tell in a short space. A book might be better. Although the former teen idol seems to have been around forever, he just this year turned 60. Yet his life has had as many chapters as someone twice his age.

The first, and the most widely known, is filled with descriptions of his life as a jet-setting member of the internationally known Osmonds. You remember, the singing brothers from Utah? The Mormons in bell bottoms, sequins and big-collared shirts? The guys whose squeaky-clean image helped push them to the top of the recording industry? At one time, they scored nine gold records in a single year. Their rivals were the Jackson 5, brothers too, but black. The teen magazines pitted one against the other.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Podcast: Interview with Tom Laughlin (1985)

Tom Laughlin and Delores Taylor in the 1971 cult hit Billy Jack. (Photo: Handout/NY Daily News)

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show On the Arts, at CJRT-FM (today Jazz 91.1) in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to writers and artists from all fields. In 1985, I sat down with actor, director and screenwriter Tom Laughlin.

At the time of the interview, Tom Laughlin was in Toronto filming The Return of Billy Jack, a planned follow-up to his Billy Jack films of the previous decade, in which he bucked the trend of 1970s film antiheroes by portraying a genuinely positive heroic figure who protected animals and children against racist thugs. The Return of Billy Jack would unfortunately never be released.

– Kevin Courrier

Here is the full interview with Tom Laughlin as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1985.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Refugees: Leave No Trace

Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie and Ben Foster in Leave No Trace. (Photo: IMDB)

Intimate, graceful and sorrowful, Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace is the best movie I’ve seen so far this year. And it’s a total surprise, because I found Granik’s last picture, Winter’s Bone, phony pretty much from start to finish. A study of an adolescent girl (Jennifer Lawrence) growing up in abject poverty in the Ozarks, it was relentlessly gray and cheerless, the characters reduced to editorial signposts proclaiming the director’s vision. The whole movie reminded me of the scene at the end of Brokeback Mountain where Heath Ledger visits his clandestine lover Jake Gyllenhaal’s parents after Gyllenhaal’s death: Ang Lee wanted to make the point that these people were dirt poor, so the walls were bare. But it’s an elemental human impulse to try to import some comfort to even the grimmest surroundings – a hospital room, a jail cell. The only scene in Winter’s Bone that felt lived-in was one where a group of people gather to make music. By contrast, there isn’t a single moment in Leave No Trace – the coming-of-age story of a teenage girl, Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie), who lives, homeless and itinerant, with her father, Will (Ben Foster), in the woods of the Pacific Northwest – that seems inauthentic. It has a varied and rich emotional palette. Perhaps the magnificent visual palette of the landscape (shot by Michael McDonough) helped keep Granik honest.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Through an Architect's Eyes: A Conversation About Columbus

John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson in Kogonada's Columbus. (Photo: IMDB)

Columbus, the indie debut feature by renowned video essayist Kogonada, is considered one of the best films of 2017 and garnered a rapturous response at this year’s Ebertfest. Set among the world-famous modernist buildings of Columbus, Indiana, it tells the story of two people stuck in an in-between phase of their lives: Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a nineteen-year-old architecture fan and daughter of a divorced former opioid addict (Michelle Forbes), and Jin (John Cho), the estranged son of a celebrated Korean architecture professor who suddenly collapses. They meet by chance and spend their days together talking about architecture. Both Richardson and Cho give career-best performances (so far, at least), complemented by the assured direction and the formalist cinematography of Elisha Christian. Shot on location in the eponymous town, Columbus stands out for its many gorgeous and moving shots of well-known modernist buildings, including the Miller House, the Columbus Regional Hospital Mental Health Center, the Cleo Rogers Memorial Library, and the Irwin Union Bank building, among others. In her review for, Sheila O’Malley writes of the film, “What is remarkable is how intense it is, given the stillness and quiet of Kogonada’s style, and the focus with which he films the buildings.” And Nathan Knapp’s heartfelt analysis of Columbus for the online magazine Bright Wall/Dark Room is one of the best pieces of film criticism I’ve yet to encounter.

As architecture is such a prominent part of the film, I was interested in how someone with formal architectural training might see it. Humphrey Yang is a high school classmate of mine who received his degree in architecture not too long ago and is now pursuing graduate studies in computational design at Carnegie Mellon. Our discussion below, which has been edited and condensed, covers the art and engineering aspects of architecture, how to shoot an architectural film, why Columbus isn’t one, and how it might have turned out in a non-Western context.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Portugal/Brazil: Melancholy Redux – The Shared Literary Ethos of Assis, Pessoa, and Lispector

Machado de Assis's Collected Stories, Fernando Pessoa's Book of Disquiet, and Clarice Lispector's Collected Stories. (Photo: Getty Images)

This is an appreciation of three new translations of seminal works by perhaps the greatest writers in a shared language in the late 19th and early to mid 20th century. But these three remarkable writers, all of whom specialized in creating scintillating short stories of extreme structural brevity and emotional precision, had much more in common than only writing in Portuguese. They also shared a deep subterranean conduit of melancholy realism and occasionally a surreal current of open-hearted embrace for the uncanny aspects of everyday life. They each documented waking dreams: everyday life under a magnifying glass.

For my purposes, and for the purposes of this brief study of their work (which is not a review of all three new translations at once but rather is a celebration of their radical stylistic spirit) there is a kind of metaphysical conveyor belt running directly from Machado through Pessoa and leading powerfully into the lap of the almost unbearably glamorous Lispector. (A lap-dance for intellectuals, perhaps.) That conveyor belt also operates in the gloomy nocturnal geographical navigations traveling from Portugal to Brazil and back again, fueled by the quirky and deceptive simplicity of their native language (to which I, alas, have no access apart from the seemingly brilliant handiwork of three gifted translation artisans) as it mysteriously runs uphill into a passionate yet tautly restrained English.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

All That is Solid Melts into Air: The Florida Project (2017)

Brooklynn Prince and Valeria Cotto in The Florida Project. (Photo: IMDB)

Mothers are infallible. They’re the safety net, the locus of belonging that makes everything else okay. This is the secret of childhood. The secret of growing up is learning that this isn’t true. The Florida Project (2017) is about a little girl named Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) who learns this at way too young an age.

In many ways, the entire film is built around the idea of waiting for the other shoe to drop. Moonee lives with her very young single mom, Halley (Bria Vinaite), at the Magic Castle motel right outside Disney World. The motel, and similar ones nearby, serves as home and community for families rendered homeless by the Great Recession, including Moonee’s friends Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and, from the Futureland motel next door, Jancey (Valeria Cotto). The film follows these kids in their world as they while away the early days of summer vacation by getting up to shenanigans, running around screaming, begging for change for ice cream, exploring the nearby (and surprisingly beautiful) empty fields, and basically just doing what kids throughout pre-internet history have always done.