Wednesday, August 31, 2016

SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU

SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU is a small indie film with a simple story and setting, Barak Obama's and Michelle Robinson's first date. It takes place in one day and only a couple of locations. It can be seen as a summary of who this couple is and what they stand for, and of the arguments both for and against Obama as a conciliator and politician.

But it is also an engaging and surprisingly moving love story. The most radical thing about it is its rhythm of normalcy set against the backdrop of the ongoing struggle of African-Americans to achieve equality and justice (the date includes the couple's going to see DO THE RIGHT THING, and focuses on the now even more resonant scene of a young black man being choked to death by a New York City cop).

Parker Sawyer as Barak captures his speech patterns and physicality perfectly, and even looks like a slightly darker version of him. Tika Sumpter as Michelle isn't quite as perfect a match, but the actress gives her version of the proto-first-lady an emotional complexity that I found convincing and compelling.

It's a surprise to find out that this film was written and directed by a fairly young and not African-American Jersey boy, Richard Tanne. Some scenes and dialogue might be seen by some as not authentically "black" enough, but I noticed it wasn't just the few "white" folks in the audience I saw it with who were wiping away tears at the end.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

REPONSES TO GENE WILDER'S PASSING

A friend of mine posted a rebuke on Facebook to those expressing sadness at the passing of Gene Wilder, pointing out that Wilder suffered from Alzheimer's and thus his death was something to be grateful for, not sad about, as it was a release for him from that tragic disease and a relief for his family and friends.

But my perspective, as someone who hit the sad emoji over and over again to posts about Wilder yesterday, is that I wasn't expressing sadness that Wilder was finally free of his suffering, but that this genius of unique movie performances no longer existed in my this world. I'm grateful as I'm sure we all are that the purity of his talent lives on in film but it still feels like an iconic presence has departed, and the loss feels monumental.

From the first time I, and most audiences, saw him, in his brilliant brief appearance in BONNIE AND CLYDE, there was no way of denying the power of his original screen presence. I could list other great performances, but instead here's an example of the power of his one-of-a-kind take on his characters' emotional lives. This is an extremely simple song, in every way, and an equally simple scene, and yet Wilder endows it with more complex emotion than Hamlet's soliloquy (oh how I'd have loved to see him do that):

Sunday, August 28, 2016

A BRIEF (AND PERSONAL) HISTORY LESSON

I joined the military when JFK was president. But I didn't see the leaflet above until I was stationed in Texas, then Southern rural Illinois, then South Carolina. This kind of stuff wasn't on TV in those days, or even radio, though in rural "America" sometimes the ubiquitous (in rural "America") newscaster Paul Harvey would repeat some rightwing myth as reality (in my memory).

So, I was shocked when I saw this, and the anti-Semitic and racist and anti-Catholic, and anti-immigrant etc. lies that would appear on flyers in my barracks or guys would try to give to me. I was freaked out by it at first, finding it totally creepy as well as crazy.

This was before the Goldwater wing of the Republican Party gained influence and eventually morphed into something even more rightwing and creepy under Reagan and the deregulation of TV networks and radio frequencies so that anyone could say anything and not have to back it up with facts: the birth of Rush and Fox et. al.

I like to tell younger people that when I was a kid, of course there were people who still believed the world was flat, but they didn't get air time on radio or TV let alone their own shows or networks!

Saturday, August 27, 2016

JOEL LEWIS'S MY SHAOLIN

As you can see from the subtitle, Joel Lewis's MY SHAOLIN is a book length poem about Staten Island, or more specifically about Staten Island's history and present and Joel Lewis's observations and adventures during his commute from Jersey through Manhattan to and from Staten Island.

Book-length poems are rare and ones that work to sustain my interest even rarer. There are some brilliant exceptions, like William Carlo Williams's PATERSON, Louis Zukofsky's "A", Nazim Hikmet's HUMAN LANDSCAPES FROM MY COUNTRY (a novel in verse, as he called it), Gary Snyder's MOUNTAINS AND RIVERS WITHOUT END, or my own OF (I know, immodest of me, but it's still one of my favorite book-length poems along with my book-(but-a-very-short-book)-length MARCH 18, 2003) and probably others I can't think of right now.

MY SHAOLIN (Shaolin being the Wu Tang Clan's name for Staten Island) seems to have been inspired more by W. C. Williams's PATERSON than the others mentioned. But it is uniquely Lewis's creation. Separated into several sections, and each of them further separated into smaller sections representing where that part of the poem was written (or the poet's perspective is). Lewis uses ferries, subway trains, buses and walking as part of his commute, and little drawings (silhouettes) of a bus or subway or ferry or pedestrian etc. head each smaller section.

Reading this poem/book is like joining Lewis in his adventures going to and from Staten Island and his recording of his experiences while there and that of others throughout the island's history. I highly recommend this book, especially as a gift to any friends with any connection to Staten Island, but also to lovers of any of the long poems I've mentioned.

I'll leave you with two short excerpts to give a tiny taste of MY SHAOLIN:

The bomb-sniffing dogs are sleeping side by side,
Whitehall Terminal filling up with sunshine.
Woman next to me in the elevator hums along to earbud gospel.
The 7:45 AM boat empties, passengers walking downstairs
underneath a king-size patria mia American flag.
"All the days in the world
don't add up to opera," says a gabardine-suited man to his
pal in the IBEW poplin jacket
across from the Pizza Plus counter.
The margarita stand is setting up.
This morning seems a remake, but with better data.




Off the boat, down the pedestrian walkway
then stop at Richmond Terrace waiting
for green light. A woman in white blouse,
              black bangs and onyx-lens sunglasses
approaches me with this seasons' must-have: a clipboard

"Excuse me sir, are you a registered Republican?"

"Only in my nightmares."

"Well, thank you for your time, have a good day."

Thursday, August 25, 2016

ONCE UPON A TIME

Last movie I "starred" in before joining SAG in 1979 and having to add my middle name "David" for acting gigs from then on. This movie got a name change too, they added "DRACULA'S" before the title. [you have to click to enlarge to actually be able to read my name...]

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

STEVEN HILL R.I.P.

I want to start by saying Steven Hill was well liked and admired as an actor and a person. I didn't know him as a friend, so my sympathies go out to his family, friends and fans.

But I did work with him on an episode of LAW & ORDER. Met him on set, and on our first take I felt like I was actually intimidating, or at least surprising him, and then he "went up" on his lines, i.e. seemingly deliberately flubbed them so the director would have to yell "Cut!" Which he did.

He seemed to be studying me while we got ready for the next take, and that time he made me feel intimidated or surprised, and I didn't dominate like I had intended to (which I thought my character would be trying to do).

It went back and forth like that, with the director telling me to loosen up, then tighten up, the producers chiming in. Way too many takes were done. Probably more than I ever did on any TV show or movie. During the whole encounter, Hill just kept staring at me with those intense eyes.

I have to admit, after a while I started doubting my choices and abilities. Finally they gave up and we moved on, but I haven't watched my work on that thing since. Just wasn't happy with the whole experience. With the exception of the lead female actor in the show at the time, Angie Harmon, I found almost everyone I encountered while working on that episode unfriendly.

I didn't work with Jerry Orbach but ran into him at the crafts services table and was happy to have the opportunity to tell him how much I dug his performance in the Broadway musical Chicago that I'd seen him do a few years earlier, and he gave me a look like I was aggravating him and walked away without even saying thank you.

Maybe there was something going on those days I worked on the show, or maybe it was always like that. I don't know. I know I sat around between takes with Angie and Sam Waterston and she was a delight, chatting and sweet, while he never said a word to me, in fact, acted as if I wasn't even there, which I thought might just be his being in character or something.

It was my first acting job in New York after almost two decades of working as an actor in L.A. I'd just returned back East. Made me wonder what I'd done.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS & WAR DOGS

Movies that their makers think will be nominated for awards usually don't come out in the middle of August.  Big franchise action movies, comedies and kids' movies come out in summer. Movies that their makers think will be nominated for awards are usually serious flicks, often based on true stories, saved for late Fall.

FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS and WAR DOGS are both based on true stories that certainly have some pretty serious aspects to them, and they've both come out in the middle of August. So the expectation is that they're being dumped into that time slot because they aren't very successful.

But that turns out to be an incorrect assumption. Both of these movies, though not grand works of art, are small works of art, successful at what they do. Despite being based on serious stories, they've been written and directed as comedies that happen to have very serious moments, as well as suspense and, in the case of WAR DOGS action, and that's partly why they work so well.

Meryl Streep as FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS pulls off playing a frumpy aging matron who presents herself as a great classical singer but actually is pretty awful. She has moments that cover the spectrum of human emotion in ways that range from hilarious to poignant. Hugh Grant as her mate and Simon Helberg as her piano accompanist (an actor who actually is also a concert pianist), add their own powerful performances. The movie sticks close to the facts and yet Stephen Frears' direction makes it an entertaining fable.

In WAR DOGS, Miles Teller and Jonah Hill play two guys in their twenties who stumble into arms dealing that gets out of hand. Also sticking pretty closely to the actual facts, Todd Phillips's direction turns a mini-tragedy into a mini-comedy, but one that becomes totally engaging, mostly because of the lead performances and an extended cameo by Bradley Cooper (who also produced it).

Both these films are about, and create, unlikely heroes who endear themselves to us despite their obvious flaws and self-delusions. And maybe helping us to face our own flaws and self-delusions with a little more acceptance.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

ARTHUR HILLER R.I.P.

Arthur Hiller was famous for directing a lot of films, foremost LOVE STORY, but I will always admire him most for directing a too often overlooked film that is one of my personal classics and believe should be studied by anyone interested in the art and history of filmmaking: THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY. The film's simple story, tight plot, minimal theatricality gives it the feel of an "indie" rather than the Hollywood production it was. Maybe that was because its star, James Garner, and director Hiller, were such humble and unpretentious people. Hiller was 92 so though he will be missed by family, friends and fans (like me) there's no reason to mourn his passing, he had a long life well lived.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

JULIAN BOND R.I.P.

I admired him greatly, even when I didn't always agree with his approach (I was usually on the more radical end of the spectrum) and tactics, he always seemed honorable and reasonable as well as courageous and kind. Here's The NY Times obit.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Monday, August 15, 2016

THE NIGHT OF

I had decided not to watch this new HBO series, THE NIGHT OF, because the ads made it look too dark, both mode wise and lighting, and that's not what I'm looking for in entertainment these days. Well, it's not the darkness I mind as much as the cynicism and easy use of violence, usually against women, that seem to make all crime procedurals similarly negative.

But, I was out to dinner with friends and they were all raving about THE NIGHT OF so I binge watched the first five episodes and caught the sixth last night. And, indeed, it is bleak and cynical and even somewhat contrived in its portrayal of the "dark realities" of life and death as seen through the prism of cops, court officers, prison guards, prisoners and "civilians."

There's inconstancies that I'm assuming are meant to misdirect viewers and keep some mystery going despite the often predictable plot points. But there are also some sparks in the writing and the characters from creator Richard Price and director and co-writer Steven Zallian. And enough good acting to keep me coming back, so far, though the add-water-for-instant-thug transition of the lead, played terrifically by Riz Ahmed, almost makes me want to drop out.

John Torturo is the real star as an obviously-brilliant-but-nonetheless-low-end-bargain-basement defense attorney (a role initially intended for James Gandolfini before he passed) whose character's quirkiness is almost tiresomely quirky for me, but he manages to pull it off with his usual artistry. Along with Michael Kenneth Williams (best known to most of us for the perfection of his performance as Omar on THE WIRE) whose artistry also makes the most of the thankless role of the violent thug, again, playing second fiddle to drug paraphernalia and other prison bad guy props and bursts of violence and/or calculated coldness.

But it's the actors in the minor roles that are compelling me to keep watching, like Jeannie Berlin as the prosecutor, an Emmy deserving performance to my mind, and Amara Karan as a novice defense attorney, and Sofia Black-D'Elia in what almost amounts to a cameo but an incredibly memorable one. And Poorna Jagannathan as the accused's mother (one of our most versatile and skilled film actors, or actresses if you still prefer that separating term). And others.

So, I'll tune in next Sunday while hoping it lightens up on the now tired cable TV fascination with bloody violence, drug rituals, and the dark at the end of the tunnel.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

TERENCE WINCH'S THAT SPECIAL PLACE


I have a few shelves of favorite books that I reread now and then, and my dear friend Terence Winch's memoir about his life as a writer and player of traditional Irish music (most famous for creating the now Irish standard "When New York Was Irish"), THAT SPECIAL PLACE, is one of them. I love all of Terence's books, mostly poetry, but this one touches my heart even more than his other titles.

That's partly because, though he's a few years younger, we both come from large Irish-American families in which we are the youngest and lost our mothers too early in our lives (him when he was a teenager, me in my early twenties) and were raised in an Irish immigrant culture (his parents came over, my grandparents who lived down the street did).

But above and beyond that personal connection, there's the beautiful writing in THE SPECIAL PLACE. I chose to reread it this time out loud, in fact for the benefit, I hoped, of a young poet/writer I'm mentoring, Rachel E. Diken (check out her twitter haiku-a-day site HAIKU AVENUE), and was delighted to see that she got the humor and the pathos of Terence's writing, as well as the brilliant subtleties and not-so-sutbtleties.

THAT SPECIAL PLACE would be among the handful of books I'd grab if I had to choose only a few possessions before running from my home. If you're interested in Irish-American culture and history, or just like great writing and unshowy, clearly rendered memoirs, I highly recommend finding a copy of THAT SPECIAL PLACE on the internet if you can, I think you'll be happy you did.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

THOSE WERE THE DAYS MY FRIEND

My sister Irene and me, my closest sibling growing up, she's five years older but the brother between us died as an infant. Our four remaining siblings all died when they were older, so we're the only ones left. In front of our father's home repair business, where I worked from grammar school through high school (after which I left town) and whenever I came back for a visit. She was visiting me at work, sometime I'd guess around 1955.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

WORTH READING

I don't know how Facebook works in terms of people who aren't on it getting access to public posts, but here's a link anyway to a great conversation about "race" which includes my dear friend Lisa Duggan. You should check it out, and not because it mentions me (and makes me much older!)...

Sunday, August 7, 2016

DON'T THINK TWICE

DON'T THINK TWICE is the the definition of an indie movie. Its subject matter is about an improv theater group, the indies of theater. The storyline is about the joy of artistic creation—in this case improvised comedy with audience participation—and the challenges of same. It's pretty serious for a comedy, and pretty funny for a serious flick.

The cast should get a SAG award nod for ensemble acting, without which the movie wouldn't work since it's all about an ensemble. A fictitious improv group called "The Commune" that works incredibly well together while individually dreaming and at times scheming to make it to the big time, a parody of Saturday Night Live called Weekend Live.

There are no movie stars in it, (except for a cameo by Ben Stiller playing himself) unless you count Keegan-Michael Key made famous for his TV sketch comedy with his partner Peele both of whom recently starred in a movie that didn't do so well. The rest of the cast is also known for TV gigs if at all, but the breakout star is Gillian Jacobs as the best of the troupe who has different ideas about success.

The rest of the cast—Kate Micucci, Chris Gethard, Tami Sagher and the film's writer/director and part of the ensemble cast Mike Birbiglia—are all terrific. And Biglia's movie making is so sweetly artisan, both personal and unsensational, DON'T THINK TWICE feels almost like a home made documentary, its artistry underplayed and reality influenced. What can I say, I enjoyed it and am glad it got made.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

LOVE ME SOME PHOTO BOOTH PHOTOS

Me in NYC in a long sheepskin overcoat an admirer actually gave me and with Miles, my oldest son, then five, (making a funny face as he always did), me thirty-three in 1975 in NYC when he began living with me for good, he wore glasses until around age ten or twelve, which the eye doc said he would after an operation when he was two...and then never again...

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

CAPTAIN FANTASTIC

This movie was highly recommended by many and various friends. They were sure I'd love it, and they were correct. Despite some inconsistencies and contrivances CAPTAIN FANTASTIC is so delightful and refreshing, while still dealing in depth with some pretty serious subjects, I can't recommend it enough.

I have to admit that I'm a big fan of Viggo Mortensen since the first tine I saw him on screen and was relieved to see a male lead with old Hollywood screen charisma, the kind that can display a gentle and flawed yet still manly character, and none of that contemporary trend of being boyish, or in comedy flicks, even adolescent despite playing grown men.

I could rave about all the actors, which must be credited in large part to the director/writer Matt Bass, who is also an excellent actor which may have something to do with his directing chops, that and the cinematography, the big screen totally mesmerizing rugged landscape scenes, being politically incorrect but from the farther left perspective for a change, (the only nudity being finally only male, also for a change, pointed out by my friend Rachel), and more, but just go see for yourself.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

POST BRAIN OP POETRY

Here's a link to a recording that's just gone online of a reading I did (at Manhattan's DIA series run by Vincent Katz, whose introduction is also worth listening to) in early 2011, a year and a half after my brain was operated on...it's a fair chunk of time to devote to listening to any poet, but if you indulge me for the first several minutes I think it becomes pretty compelling or at least engaging...

Monday, August 1, 2016

LATISH NIGHT MINI-RANT

My take on polls this election season is they can't be relied on even more than usual. I suspect many who will pull the lever (or press the button or whatever election machine they vote on has) for Trump as a protest, or because they want to see what happens and secretly desire some kind of dramatic even chaotic, change, even it is hurts them, will not admit their choice to any pollster, after all the outcry against Trump even from his political or natural allies...even more reason to not only vote against Trump but to get out the vote against him by working to elect Hilary....because any other choice is a de facto vote for Trump...and if you don't get she's better than him for The Supreme Court, women's rights, minorities and immigrant's rights, kids, Social Security, pensions, etc. I'm afraid you're out of touch with reality or deciding your ideals mean more than having a rightwing Supreme Court or privatized Social Security or a diminishment instead of expansion of the rights of women and minorities and immigrants etc...