Summer of Soul

You may have seen previews for the music documentary Summer of Soul (Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) and think it looks worth seeing. Well, you’re right! There’s a lot packed in there, reclaimed from footage recorded during a series of outdoor concerts held in 1969 in Harlem’s Mt. Morris Park, now called Marcus Garvey Park (trailer).

Officially titled the Harlem Cultural Festival, the concerts took place the same summer as Woodstock. But while that event has a movie, soundtrack albums, and innumerable cultural references, the Summer of Soul was at risk of being forgotten altogether. For years, the filmmakers who captured the music and sound tried vainly to acquire funding for a finished film.

Finally, they sold the rights to producers David Dinerstein and Robert Fyvolent. They approached Questlove, co-founder of the hip-hop band The Roots, house band for Jimmy Fallon’s “Tonight Show.” He was amazed at the footage of the Festival. Not only was it mesmerizing, he couldn’t believe he’d never heard of these concerts.

What’s to like? The music is terrific. Each week, the concert featured a different type of music—blues, soul, pop—and the performers ranged from gospel choirs and Mahalia Jackson to Motown’s Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, and David Ruffin, to the Fifth Dimension, to the Staple Singers to Sly and the Family Stone and on and on. The concerts were organized and mc’d by singer Tony Lawrence, whom you may know as “The Continental Dreamboat” (pictured) and you can justify the price of admission just to see his outfits. 

While the music makes this a must-see, for those who lived through that era, the cultural touchstones are breathtaking. Especially interesting are the reminiscences of people—performers and audience-members—who were there and talk about what the festival meant to them.

The documentary cannot avoid the era’s significant social context, which so strongly reminded of how I felt at the time and my hopes for my country. Yes, it made me feel a little old.

Spectacular! And coming soon, the Aretha Franklin biopic, Respect.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 99%; audiences 98%.

The Truffle Hunters

Some quirky films came out this past year, despite the pandemic, and we’ve enjoyed watching them at home or, finally—nirvana!—in an actual movie house.

The Truffle Hunters offers a little slice of life about people who live totally different lives than you do (guaranteed). In the beautifully scenic Piedmont area of Italy, the documentary-makers, Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw, found a group of aging men who take their dogs into the woods every day searching for truffles (trailer). Apparently, even though truffles are rare, it’s a living, especially if you know the good spots.

People who spend so much time alone are liable to get a little quirky, and, yes, they are. Their dogs are their children, spouses, best friends. One of the best moments is when the filmmakers attached a camera to a dog’s head, and you get to see the world in caninevision. The bouncing along, the snuffling leaves, the distractions left and right. Best of all is when the dog stops to chase his tail and the trees overhead whip around dizzingly. The whole audience laughed.

Roger Ebert’s review was too snarky by half for such an inoffensive movie. Nevertheless, the film left me a little worried. Most of these men can’t do this for many more years, even though the active outdoor life has helped get them into their 80s and even 90s. So where will future truffles come from? It will be sad if the truffle poachers who are trying to move in (they’ve even poisoned some dogs) inherit this livelihood. And, the middlemen who buy as cheaply as possible and sell for exorbitant profits currently keep it a marginalized business.

If you need a big shot of adrenaline, this is not your film. After all the disruptions of the last year, it’s calming to spend some time in the woods—no ticks!

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating 97%; audiences 77%–probably because of that adrenaline factor.

Get Your Motor Running

Fifty-two years ago, Columbia Pictures released the low-budget film, Easy Rider (peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson) and saw its $400,000 investment balloon into more than $60 million in box office. Never an industry to ignore the possibility of a big payday, Hollywood got its motor running and two years later, the studios offered American audiences a rich diet of long hair, antisocial behavior, and oddball relationships.

With predictable results.

Despite the tepid audience reaction, in 1971, the industry here and in Britain produced intense, dramatic, even arty films that defy the year’s overall poor box office numbers. Film historian Max Alvarez highlighted a number of them in a Zoom program yesterday. Here are the ones I remember seeing that year. Remember these?

A Clockwork Orange – Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of a book by Anthony Burgess starring Malcolm McDowell. In a dystopian London, a crime spree is led by a young man obsessed with “ultra-violence” (everyday fare in 2021). Warner Brothers.

Klute – Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland star in this noir drama about a high-priced call girl who helps a detective solve the case of a business executive who’s gone missing. Fonda won the Academy Award for Best Actress, and I fell in love with Donald Sutherland. There’s a talkback about this film on Sunday, 6/27. (free, but register)

Roman Polanski’s Macbeth – starring Francesca Annis and Jon Finch. What I most remember about this were complaints about “so much blood.” 1971 was the year Charles Manson and his family were convicted of multiple murders, including that of Polanski’s pregnant wife, Sharon Tate. His response was that he’d seen that crime scene: “I know about blood.”

The French Connection – a crime thriller directed by William Friedkin, starring Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider as NYPD detectives in pursuit of a wealthy French heroin smuggler. Even if you’ve never seen the whole movie, you’ve probably seen the car chase. Academy Awards for best picture, best director, best adapted screenplay, and best actor (Hackman). 20th Century Fox.

The Last Picture Show – based on a book by Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove), with Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Ben Johnson, Cybill Shepherd, and Cloris Leachman. Shot in black and white, it well portrays the bleakness of small-town life. Leachman and Johnson won Academy Awards for their supporting roles.

Harold and Maude – starring Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon. This film was among the year’s subversive comedies that Alvarez highlighted. A flop at the box office, it found its way to college campuses where it became a cult classic.

The Hospital – this satire, written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Arthur Hiller, starred George C. Scott, Diana Rigg, and Robert Walden. Academy award for best original screenplay. Here’s a great scene.

The film was inspired in part by the poor hospital care his wife received, and Chayefsky became so leery of medical treatment that he didn’t get optimal care for his cancer and died at age 58.

Now, In Theaters!

Finally breaking out of our covid-cocoon and our addiction to streaming, in the last week we’ve seen two movies in an actual big-screen movie theater. Neither was too challenging to our dulled senses, whereas the previews of superhero films the theatres blasted at us were overwhelming, not in a good way.

Dream Horse

We’re suckers for horsy movies, and this pleasant film about a working class Welsh woman who gets the notion to raise a thoroughbred racehorse, though based on a true story, hits all the predictable Hollywood beats. Wild ambition, success, setback, and so on. Directed by Euros Lyn, the film stars Toni Collette, Damian Lewis, and Welsh actor Owen Teale (trailer). No new dramatic ground broken, but it eases you back into your theater seat. Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 89%; audiences 97%.

Enjoyment of the film is marred by awareness of the current state of U.S. thoroughbred racing, including the tanking reputation of super-trainer Bob Baffert and William Finnegan’s article in the 24 May New Yorker, “Blood on the Tracks,” about the dozens of race-horses who have died recently, especially at Santa Anita Park outside Los Angeles. Not an easy story to read if you love horses. As Finnegan points out, thoroughbred racing, “once the most popular spectator sport in America, has been in decline” for decades. Not because of high-minded animal rights concerns, but because it lost its near-lock on legal gambling before the pre-casino era.

In the Heights

A lively portrayal of the Latinx residents of Washington Heights, in sight of Manhattan’s George Washington Bridge. The film, directed by Jon M. Chu, based on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway version (trailer), has not one, but two love stories! And expands the definition of family. The stars are engaging, the production numbers huge, and the music toe-tapping.

Anthony Ramos stars as the bodega owner who longs to return to the Dominican Republic where he says he had “the best days of my life.” Fans of Hamilton will find Miranda’s lyrics as entertaining and cleverly rhymed as ever. Sets and costumes are colorful and fun. Loved the food! Apparently the Rotten Tomatoes critics did too, giving it 96%; audiences, 95%.

Preceding the film was a thank-you and welcome back to the movie theater from Miranda, Chu, and one of the film’s writer-producers, Quiara Alegría Hudes.

This film is more directly linked to controversy than Dream Horse. Here’s Lin-Manuel’s Twitter response to criticisms the film lacks sufficient Afro-Latino lead characters.

Streaming Movie Picks

Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time

We liked this unusual Hungarian romance written and directed by Lili Horvát and starring Viktor Bodó and Natasa Stork, one of the most pleasant-looking actresses around (trailer and interview with the filmmaker).

Márta Vizy, a successful 40-year-old neurosurgeon, working in the United States, meets a man at a conference in New Jersey, and they agree to meet a month hence. She abandons her prestigious position in deference to romance, but when she encounters him again in Budapest, he claims they’ve never met. This confuses her to the point that, while she rebuilds her career in her home country, she has to sort out where reality and wishful thinking collide.

While the Rotten Tomatoes critics gave it an 88% score, the few audience ratings averaged out to only 55%.  I suspect what American audiences didn’t like were exactly the features that made us admire the film—primarily, the unexpected plot twists. Certainly (and thankfully) it follows no familiar, superficial formula! Oh, and there are subtitles. “A very engaging film to watch,” says Cinetopia’s Jim Ross

The Outside Story

This drama/comedy is kicked off when Charles locks himself out of his New York apartment. He’s a screen-obsessed introvert (a video editor, who assembles online obituaries for people not quite dead yet). He just broke up with his girlfriend and doesn’t know any of his neighbors. Well, he meets them now, and quirky and charmingly human they are.

Brian Tyree Henry is a genial if befuddled Charles, Sunita Mani, is a parking enforcement officer who’s hilariously suspicious of him, Sonequa Martin-Green is the super-glam former girlfriend. Numerous others turn even the smallest roles into gems. Written and directed by Casimir Nozkowski. This is a lot of fun (trailer)!

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 92%; audience rating 79%. The critics consensus: “A refreshingly optimistic look at urban community life.”

I Love Streaming!! Recent Finds

News of the World is a 2020 movie starring the ever-genial Tom Hanks and 12-year-old Helena Zengel, directed by Paul Greengrass and written by Greengrass and Luke Davis (trailer).

The Civil War is over, and former Confederate Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd is traveling between the ramshackle towns of north central Texas entertaining the (mostly illiterate) residents with his readings from newspapers. It is, literally, the news of the world he brings to their muddy doorsteps.

Traveling between gigs, he encounters a busted wagon, a hanged man, and someone running through the trees. It’s an eight-year-old (approx.) girl, kidnapped by the Kiowa years before from a German-speaking settlement in the Texas Hill Country. She speaks only Kiowa. With little exposure to white culture, she longs to return to the Indians, while he’s determined to return her to her family against her will, and her will is formidable.

Together, they encounter a number of fairly predictable lowlifes and have some nevertheless tension-filled adventures. The depiction of immediate post-war Texas was of particular interest, as much of my family moved there from Central Tennessee and other places in the South. The rougher elements are not folks you’d want to tangle with!

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 88%; audiences: 89%.

Les Parfums (Perfumes) is a 2019 French romantic comedy (subtitles) we watched through our local independent movie house’s website (trailer). Written and directed by Grégory Magne, it stars Emmanuelle Davos and Gregory Montel, who played Gabriel in the wickedly funny tv series, Call My Agent.

She’s a “nose”—someone who’s cultivated her sense of smell to the point that she’s created perfumes and developed scentscapes for boutiques. It’s a job that requires high sensitivity, and she’s afraid of losing it. Meanwhile, she’s very much the diva. Montel plays her much put-upon chauffeur, desperate to hang onto his job so he can gain partial custody of his daughter.

Unlike so many American shows, she’s a person with a real job and an interesting one, and you see her doing it. Montel is his bumbling self, who brings unexpected skills to the task of accommodating her.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 100%; no audience rating.

Black & White on the Silver Screen

New Plaza Cinema hosted a presentation last week by film historian Max Alvarez on how the movie industry has portrayed black-white relations for roughly the last sixty years. For decades, Hollywood had chosen the safe path and avoided interracial stories, but toward the end of the 1950s, cracks started appearing in the film industry’s wall of opposition.

In both the United States and Europe, the trail-blazers were often independent filmmakers, who were less hampered by the challenges Hollywood faced. Independents were not as concerned about running afoul of local and regional censorship offices and, as a result, did not fall prey to the pattern of self-censorship affecting the big studios. It wasn’t just political timidity that made Hollywood reluctant; there were economic considerations as well. They were simply not willing to risk losing the Southern U.S. market. All of this conspired to create what Alvarez called “an untenable atmosphere for artists.”

The emergence and popularity of Miami-born actor Sidney Poitier helped shatter many taboos. The doctor he played in No Way Out (1950) and his breakout appearances in The Blackboard Jungle (1955) and The Defiant Ones (1958) showed that movies involving Black characters could be financially (and artistically) successful, even when they tackled sensitive topics. While his award-winning performances broke ground for Black characters (Lilies of the Field, 1963; A Patch of Blue, 1965; and To Sir with Love, 1967), he was criticized for taking on roles that were “too nice.” By the time Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was released (1967), a white woman marrying a black man—especially if that man was Sidney Poitier—didn’t create the shock it would have a decade earlier; more important, it was a hit in Southern states too.

By 1967, Hollywood could no longer ignore the Civil Rights movement, and Black characters began having a more realistic edge. Tougher stories appeared. Although five years earlier, To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) had tackled the issue of Southern racism, it was set in the 1930s, letting audiences reassure themselves that “that was then.” In the Heat of the Night (1967) with Poitier and Rod Steiger (pictured) brought viewers up-to-date. The film included “the slap heard around the world,” when Poitier’s character, police detective Virgil Tibbs, returned the slap of a racist white plantation owner (an action Poitier insisted be in the script if he were to play the part).

The trope of the racist Southern sheriff was revisited in the 2018 film, Green Book, set in 1962, when classical and jazz pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and his white driver are arrested. Unlike Virgil Tibbs, Shirley doesn’t hit back, he simply gets in touch with Bobby Kennedy. There still are racial justice stories to tell. Two brand new films available in streaming that delve into racial politics are HBOMax’s Judas and the Black Messiah, about the FBI informant who betrayed Black Panther leader Fred Hampton (trailer), and, on Hulu, The United States vs. Billie Holliday (trailer).

Tennessee Williams: How To See

“The Fugitive Kind” is the framework Bonnie J. Monte, is using for her “Book Club” discussions of Tennessee Williams (1911-1983) and his work. Monte is the artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, and the next Book Club discussion group will focus on Shakespeare’s Henry IV, both parts, and Henry V, the stirring encomium to the Battle of Agincourt.

She chose “the fugitive kind,” because she believes what she calls Williams’s “vast and complex universe” is liberally peopled with a tribe of broken spirits. You can find one—or more than one—in every play: Rev. Shannon in Night of the Iguana, Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, practically the whole cast of Camino Real. The Fugitive Kind is the title of the award-winning film starring Marlon Brando, Anna Magnani, and Joanne Woodward, which was made from Williams’s play, Orpheus Descending. Williams perfected a certain kind of character—drifters,  misfits, people out of sync with society, often through no fault of their own. We know such characters in daily life. We believe in his drinkers, his womanizers, his people who hide behind religion or lust after the unattainable, because we know people like that too—the people we call “their own worst enemies.”

Williams’s older sister Rose was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Treatments in the 1940s for mental disorders were limited, and Rose (like Rosemary Kennedy) was subjected to a lobotomy,  which left her institutionalized. Later in life Williams felt great guilt about Rose’s fate and was a loyal, financially supportive brother. Rose’s shadow is cast across many of Williams’s most memorable characters, including, of course, Laura in The Glass Menagerie and even Blanch DuBois in Streetcar.

Not only did he create a vast body of work, he expanded the form with experimental (albeit not popular—yet!) plays and covered subjects not openly addressed on stage before: homosexuality, blasphemy, and the like. Monte calls him “a connoisseur of language,” as he sets brutal violence alongside his poetic form.

Marguerite from Camino Real: “Oh, Jacques, we’re used to each other, we’re a pair of captive hawks caught in the same cage, and so we’ve grown used to each other.”

John in Summer and Smoke: “You—white-blooded spinster! You so right people, pious pompous mumblers, preachers and preacher’s daughter, all muffled up in a lot of worn out magic!”

His lines are delivered in a very specific visual world. Williams’s stage directions and descriptions of his sets are detailed and precise: “(T)he sky should be a pure and intense blue (like the sky of Italy as it is so faithfully represented in the religious paintings of the Renaissance),” and, in the night sky, which constellations to project. (Examples from Summer and Smoke.)

Williams fell out of favor in the 1970’s, and Monte says the theater community was downright cruel about him and his work. His later plays were not well received, and many critics and academics thought his reputation was in permanent decline. A dab of homophobia may have contributed and (like Edgar Allan Poe) the machinations of a poorly managed literary estate, a fate shared with Edgar Allan Poe, whose reputation was damaged for decades. But the plays speak for themselves. And, his later plays remain capable of getting audiences to think new thoughts and see the world in new ways.

Movies That Matter

New Plaza Cinema last week hosted one of its popular Zoom presentations with film historian Max Alvarez. The theme this time: The Cinema Seeks Justice, and the examples included courtroom dramas and other stories in which the law was used to achieve greater fairness or to redress wrongs.

Filmmakers wanting to make an “issue movie” face a number of challenges. Perhaps the first challenge is to move past Samuel Goldwyn’s famous admonition: “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.” If their story based on real life, as all of Alvarez’s examples were, situations probably don’t work out as quickly or neatly as the film portrays. Real life is messy; a film has to be selective about the size of the cast of characters (too many are confusing and require too much backstory) and they may simplify complex stories. Nevertheless, they can be powerful emotional touchstones. Alvarez illustrated a half-dozen issues with the films that portrayed them. This type of film must be popular in my family, because we’d seen most of them.

The issue of human rights emerged in a 2006 film from the late Michael Apted, Amazing Grace, set in 1787 England, in which William Wilberforce struggled to persuade Parliament to abolish Britain’s transatlantic slave trade. While the movie ends on an uplifting note, it wasn’t until 1833 that the practice officially ended. A young Benedict Cumberbatch appears as William Pitt on the anti-slavery side.

The quest for racial justice has any number of strong films, and Alvarez selected the 2017 movie Marshall, set in 1941, in which young NAACP lawyer and later Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall (played by the late Chadwick Boseman) defends a young Black man on a false charge of raping a white woman. His second example was Loving, from 2016, the story of a mixed-race couple who lived in a Virginia county where such marriages were illegal. Their case, which went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, led to the elimination of laws banning miscegenation.

In the environmental justice category, the 2019 film Dark Waters dealt with a DuPont chemical disaster (with Mark Ruffalo and Tim Robbins) in Parkersburg, West Virginia, and the company’s practice of deny, deny, deny. I especially admired Tim Robbins’s performance as the conservative head of Ruffalo’s Cincinnati law firm. In 1998’s A Civil Action, lawyer John Travolta takes on the W.R. Grace Company and Beatrice Foods also for contaminating the local water supply of Woburn, Massachusetts. The film is a good example of the long tail of these cases. The lawyers lost this one, but the EPA took it up and, years later, the environmental cleanup in Woburn finally began.

Several noteworthy films have been made about justice for Holocaust victims, including, most memorably, Judgment at Nuremberg, with its all-star cast (Burt Lancaster pictured). Alvarez also highlighted Denial, about the 2000 British trial of David Irving, an infamous Holocaust denier, played by the always excellent Timothy Spall. Playwright David Hare took much of the dialog verbatim from the trial transcript. Glues you to your seat.

The legal system itself can perpetuate injustices, which Alvarez illustrated with the 1993 film, In the Name of the Father, starring Daniel Day-Lewis as Gerry Conlon, one of the Guildford Four—young men wrongfully convicted of a 1974 London bombing. Police lies resulted in life sentences for them men. After 15 years in prison,  they were exonerated and released.

Finally, Alvarez illustrated the issue of what he called global justice with the 1969 Costa-Gavras political thriller Z (in French), a slightly fictionalized depiction of the assassination of a democratic Greek politician. It received Academy Award nominations for both Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Film, winning the latter. (Costa-Gavras, never one to shun controversy, also was responsible for the terrific film Missing, about an American father and wife trying to learn the fate of their son and husband in the aftermath of the U.S.-backed Chilean coup of 1973 that brought dictator Augusto Pinochet to power. Here, the U.S. legal system was no help.)

Now THAT Was Good!

Ten months of stay-at-home entertainment means we’ve watched a lotta movies we’d never have seen otherwise, old and newish. We liked most, hated a few (I don’t care if Barack Obama did like it, Martin Eden is a serious drag), and I thought these might interest you:

Blow the Man Down – An oddball crime story set in a Maine fishing village. Anything with Margo Martindale is OK by me. I especially liked the breaks in which sea shanties are sung by a male chorus garbed up as Maine fishermen (Amazon). (trailer)

North Country – pushes all those “solitary outsider against Greater Economic Forces” buttons, like Norma Rae or Erin Brockovich. This story, based loosely on real events, pits Charlize Theron against Big Coal and a retrograde male workforce in northern Minnesota. At least she has Frances McDormand as her friend and Woody Harrelson as her lawyer. (trailer)

The Trial of the Chicago Seven – excellent. Sasha Baron Cohen is perfectly cast as Abby Hoffman. This brings back all that angst of that remarkable era. (trailer)

The Personal History of David Copperfield – you can’t fault any of this, certainly not the acting, but the book—at more than 700 pages—is necessarily so much richer. Dev Patel is David and Hugh Laurie is Mr. Dick. (trailer)

The 40-Year Old Version – a Black woman (Radha Blank) playwright down on her luck is desperate to have a success before her 40th birthday and reinvents herself as a hip-hop artist. Some really funny stuff about success in the creative arts. (trailer)

Jimmy Carter: Rock and Roll President – who knew? I didn’t, and I remember his Administration very well. He’s a big fan, especially of the Allman Brothers, but others too, and this documentary shows him rocking out. Great music too! (MHz channel for a short while yet; longer; it may be elsewhere too.)(trailer)