Week Ten: Ed Wood (1994)

•March 6, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Title: Ed Wood

Tone: A dramedy-biopic from when Tim Burton still made good films

Who:

Director-Tim Burton

Cast- Johnny Depp, Martin Landau, Bill Murray, Patricia Arquette, Sarah Jessica Parker

When: 1994

What: A funny, stylish, and thoughtful portrait of the “Worst Director of All Time” Ed Wood

Why:

  • Not only is Ed Wood a fantastic biopic (biopics are quite possibly my least favorite genre) it’s also a great way to kick off this month’s theme, films-about-films.
  • Ed Wood, a man who fought in WWII while secretly wearing a bra and panties under his uniform and later performed in a traveling freak show as a bearded lady, was one of the most eccentric, passionate, and inept directors of all time. Wood posthumously received the Golden Turkey Award for “Worst Director of All Time” in 1980, two years after his death.
  • Ed Wood is also a great reminder of how great a director Tim Burton was, before he started just going through the motions. Ed Wood contains some marvelous performances, easily one of Bill Murray’s best, and the cinematography is superb. Ed Wood earned two Academy Awards, Rick Baker for Best Make-up and Martin Landau for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. Landau’s performance as Bela Lugosi is exquisite. Below is a clip showcasing Landau’s performance. Enjoy!

Week Nine: Bill Cosby: Himself (1983)

•February 27, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Title: Bill Cosby: Himself

Tone: Ha Ha Ha

Who:

Director-Bill Cosby

Cast- Bill Cosby

When: 1983

What: Bill Cosby performs some damn good stand-up…mostly while sitting down

Why:

  • Wrapping up Black History Month with some lovely stand-up comedy.
  • Included in Molefi Kete Asante’s book 100 Greatest African-Americans, Bill Cosby has played a significant role in breaking black stereotypes through entertainment and activism.
  • Bill Cosby was the first black actor to co-star in a dramatic series (I Spy), received the “Man of the Year” award in 1969 from Harvard’s Hasty Pudding Theatricals, the 2009 Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, the 2003 Bob Hope Humanitarian Award, and a long list of other accolades.
  • Bill Cosby is probably most well-known for his sitcom The Cosby Show, which earned much praise for its portrayal of a black family who were well-educated and successful. The Cosby Show was one of the first sitcoms based on a comedian’s material and paved the way for similar shows like Seinfeld, Ellen, and The Drew Carey Show. In Bill Cosby: Himself you get to see Cosby at the top of his game and see the material which inspired The Cosby Show. Enjoy!

Week Eight: Stormy Weather (1943)

•February 20, 2011 • 2 Comments

Title: Stormy Weather

Tone: Classic musical extravaganza

Who:

Director-Andrew L. Stone

Cast- Lena Horne, Bill Robinson, Cab Calloway, Fats Waller, The Nicholas Brothers

When: 1943

What: After fighting in WWI, Bill Williamson (Bill Robinson) tries to launch a career as a performer. This is loosely based on Bill Robinson’s real life experience of becoming an entertainer.

Why:

  • After profiling two somber films in honor of Black History Month, I figured it’d be good to lighten the tone with a classic Hollywood musical featuring some of the greatest black entertainers of the 40s. The film includes performances by Lena Horne, Cab Calloway,Fats Waller, Ada Brown, The Nicholas Brothers, Katherine Dunham with her dance troupe, and more.
  • Stormy Weather was a rare type of musical for its time as it had a primarily black cast and showcased the best black performers of the era, an era during which black performers rarely appeared in lead roles in Hollywood. Although the film is only 77 minutes long it features 20 musical numbers all featuring black entertainers.
  • Although a significant milestone in the history of black cinema, Stormy Weather is not without its pitfalls. An unfortunate product of the times and a bi-product of the vaudeville circuit, Stormy Weather includes some deplorably stereotypical musical numbers, including an African themed dance in jungle garb and a minstrel show. These stereotypical musical numbers stand as a reminder of how far black performers have come and the hardships they faced (e.g. forced to play roles perpetuating black stereotypes, paid painfully low wages, and rarely, if ever, given top billing) Thankfully the majority of Stormy Weather strays from perpetuating stereotypes and simply showcases the immense talents of the performers.
  • One of the highlights of Stormy Weather is the musical number for “Jumpin’ Jive” featuring Cab Calloway and The Nicholas Brothers. Fred Astaire referred to this musical number as the greatest movie musical sequence he’d ever seen. Furthermore ballet icon Mikhail Baryshnikov called The Nicholas Brothers the most amazing dancers he had ever seen in his life. The number is absolutely astounding and the Nicholas Brothers perform dance moves that I never imagined were physically possible. Below is a clip featuring the whole number, you must watch it in its entirety as their climactic dance moves are unreal. Enjoy!

Week Seven: Within our Gates (1920)

•February 13, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Title: Within Our Gates

Tone: A gutsy independent film on race relations from 1920

Who:

Director-Oscar Micheaux

Cast- Evelyn Preer, Flo Clements, James D. Ruffin

When: 1920

What: An independent silent film about the state of race relations in America in the 1920s.

Why:

  • Made during the era of a flourishing Ku Klux Klan, Jim Crow Laws, The Great Migration, and only a year after the Chicago Race Riots of 1919, Within Our Gates stands as one of the gutsiest and significantly important works in the history of Cinema.
  • Thought to be lost for decades until a single print was found in Spain in the 1970s, Within Our Gates is a cinematic treasure. Made in response to D. W Griffith’s astoundingly racist Birth of a Nation (Originally titled The Clansman) and the Chicago Race Riots of 1919, Within Our Gates examines the complexity of race relations, the horror of lynch mobs, and helped break some of the black stereotypes being perpetuated in Hollywood at the time.
  • When Oscar Micheaux originally submitted Within Our Gates to the Board of Censors it was rejected. The board feared that the film would incite further race riots like the Chicago race riot. The film was eventually shown after edits were made, there is no known print of the original cut .
  • During a time when blacks were portrayed onscreen only as savages, sambos, mammies, slaves, butlers, magic negros, uncle toms, minstrels, and so on, Oscar Micheaux created refreshingly non-stereotypical roles for black actors and actresses. One of the most moving moments in the film comes when a local black preacher discusses whether or not blacks should have the right to vote. Just to note, the preacher behaves stereotypically but this is done purposefully. Enjoy!

Week Six: When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006)

•February 6, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Title: When The Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts

Tone: Incredibly powerful and significant documentary

Who:

Director-Spike Lee

Cast- The victims of Hurricane Katrina

When: 2006

What: A thorough examination of Hurricane Katrina and how the government responded.

Why:

 

  • What better way to kick off Black History Month than with one of the most important documentaries of the century, Spike Lee’s epic When the Levees Broke.

 

  • With his uniquely vivid style, incorporating news and amateur footage , interviewing survivors, news anchors, rescue workers, politicians, and backed with a beautiful score by Terrence Blanchard (a Katrina survivor), Spike Lee eloquently conveys the profound impact of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans.

 

  • One of the greatest tragedies of Hurricane Katrina was how it seemed that no one was listening to the victims cries for help, aid, or support. Through this documentary Spike Lee finally gave these survivors a much deserved place to be heard, their stories told, and their experiences documented.

 

  • One of the best aspects of When the Levees Broke is how in-depth it goes into the events before, during and after Hurricane Katrina. Being sure to include some levity in the midst of such a somber documentary, Spike Lee even talks with Kanye West and others about his “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” comment during a benefit concert for relief on NBC. Here is the excerpt below. Enjoy!

 

Week Five: Man of the Century (1999)

•January 30, 2011 • 2 Comments

Title: Man of the Century

Tone: The roaring twenties meets modern-day NYC

Who:

Director-Adam Abraham

Cast- Gibson Frazier, Susan Egan, Dwight Ewell

When: 1999

What: Newspaper columnist Johnny Twennies makes his way through present-day New York with all the slang, style, technology, and chivalry of a man from the 20s.

Why:

  • It’s the last weekend of January and our last gasp of the beginning of the new year. I figured it only fitting to throw in one more light comedy to help keep that bubbly new year feeling going.
  • Man of the Century is a surprisingly underrated indie-gem. Perhaps it’s because Adam Abraham didn’t go on to direct any other films, lack of exposure, or maybe just because it’s shot in black and white, whatever the reason Man of the Century received far less recognition than it deserves.
  • Man of the Century contains some great performances, Frazier’s 1920s demeanor is dead on, and is cleverly filmed, juxtaposing the look of films of the 20s and 30s with present-day New York. Furthermore Matthew Jensen’s cinematography is superb. Again, why this film hasn’t gained a cult following is beyond me.
  • Man of the Century also has a fantastic soundtrack featuring George Gershwin, The Mills Brothers, The Jubilee Orchestra, Bobby Short and so on. Furthermore, Bobby Short actually performs in the film! Below is the only trailer I could scrounge up, like most trailers it’s not so great but it’ll give you a sense of the film, I’d post a clip but I don’t own the dvd. Also, Man of the Century is available to stream on Netflix instant for the time being. Enjoy!
     

    Note: This is a pretty awful trailer, and don’t worry the crappy club-dance version of “Happy Feet” is not in the film (nor any music remotely like it) In other words, don’t judge a film by its trailer.

Week Four: Once Upon a Time in the West (1969)

•January 23, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Title: Once Upon a Time in the West

Tone: The ultimate spaghetti-western

Who:

Director-Sergio Leone

Cast- Claudia Cardinale, Charles Bronson, Henry Fonda, Jason Robards

When: 1969

What: A stranger with a harmonica and an outlaw protect a widow from a cold-blooded assassin working for the railroad.

Why:

  • During the most frigid and blustery days of winter, when the town is blanketed with snow, I’m reminded of the desolate landscapes of the old-west and all the great westerns that take place there, particularly Once Upon a Time in the West. When people think of westerns they generally conjure up images of gunslingers about to duel in the desert, tumble weeds drifting by, and Ennio Morricone’s theme for The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly playing in the background. Sergio Leone created that iconic image of the west and Once Upon a Time in the West is his masterpiece. If you’re going to see only one western then you should make it this one.
  • Henry Fonda, who was typically cast as a protagonist in most films, is cast against type in Once Upon a Time in the West as a villain. Fonda’s performance is by and far the darkest of his career and not surprisingly one of his best. Fonda’s introduction as the villain, an over the shoulder shot which pans around to reveal Fonda’s face, was shot in such a way to make American audiences think “Holy crap it’s Henry Fonda!”
  • Ennio Morricone is the most prominent composer and conductor of spaghetti western soundtracks and his score for Once Upon a Time in the West contains some of his best work. One of the more interesting aspects of Morricone’s score is his use of leitmotifs, a unique theme for each character in the film, Man with a Harmonica being the most recognizable.
  • Once Upon a Time in the West has one of the greatest opening sequences in cinema. Inspired by John Cage’s composition “4’33”, Leone opted to not have music play during the opening sequence but rather to let the ambient sounds of three hit-men waiting for their target to arrive at a train station in the middle of the desert. Below is a clip from the opening with Charles “Death Wish” Bronson in all of his badass glory. Enjoy!