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ON THE RECORD: BING CROSBY AND MORE…

This is a great time to be a Bing Crosby fan, as the singer’s estate continues to mine the Crosby vaults for rare goodies and releasing them on CD. The latest duo: a reissue of one of my favorite albums by Der Bingle, New Tricks (1957), featuring the Buddy Cole Trio. Bing is completely at ease revisiting such old chestnuts as “Alabammy Bound,” “On the Alamo,” and “When I Take my Sugar to Tea.” They’ve been beautifully remastered and augmented by a dozen equally enjoyable bonus tracks. There’s also a new compilation called Among My Souvenirs: More Treasures from the Crosby Archive. This two-disc album includes promos for such films as The Big Broadcast and Too Much Harmony, radio transcriptions of songs Bing never recorded commercially, private material unintended for public…

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‘EARLY MAN’ ACHIEVES ITS GOAL

I’ve been a sucker for Nick Park’s animated work since I first laid eyes on his Oscar-winning short Creature Comforts more than twenty years ago. (Little did I know that I’d already seen some of his stop-motion work in the “Penny” segments of Pee-wee’s Playhouse.) Wallace and Gromit won my heart soon afterwards, and I’ve enjoyed all of his work since then: shorts, features, and TV specials, all made for Aardman studios. I love the distinctive design of his characters and his signature blend of cleverness and silliness. One could never mistake a Nick Park movie for an animated feature by an American studio. All of that is on display in his new feature Early Man, an endearing story of cavemen who form a football (Americans read: soccer) team in…

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BLACK PANTHER SEIZES THE MOMENT

Marvel’s Black Panther is, culturally and commercially, the right film at the right time. The significance of bringing a black superhero to the screen at this moment cannot be overstated. Nor can the importance of director Ryan Coogler turning this origin saga into a personal statement, embracing both the African and African-American experience. Wakanda may be a fictional (and Utopian) nation but its look, customs and costumes are built on a real-world foundation. The same can be said for the framing story set in Coogler’s home town of Oakland, California. Young people who have never seen a mirror-image of themselves in a comic-book movie will never forget this game-changer. The chameleon-like actor Chadwick Boseman—who has transformed himself into Jackie Robinson, James Brown, and Thurgood Marshall—scores another victory…

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CHARLEY CHASE ON DVD—AND THELMA TODD, TOO

When I set out to write a comprehensive article about underrated comedian Charley Chase decades ago for my magazine Film Fan Monthly there was virtually nothing in print about this talented comedian. Finding copies of his films to screen was another challenge. Fortunately, that has changed in the intervening years. There are several books about him and chapters in other surveys of vintage comedy devoted to him. A number of DVDs spotlight his silent two-reelers for Hal Roach, which are among the funniest ever made. There is even a collection of the comedy shorts he made for Columbia Pictures toward the end of his life. But I never dreamed that anyone would release his Hal Roach talkies, which have seemed destined for obscurity. Enter veteran film distributor…

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REVISITING BETTE DAVIS AND LILLIAN GISH: THE WHALES OF AUGUST

Sometimes the saga of a film’s production is more interesting than the film itself. In the case of The Whales of August (1987) the movie is as every bit as good as its colorful backstory. That’s why the new Special Edition from Kino Lorber is well worth your time. Producer Mike Kaplan has gone the extra distance to find interviews and behind-the-scenes footage shot during filming on location in Maine, conducted new interviews and shared his own vivid memories of making this lovely picture with director Lindsay Anderson and a once-in-a-lifetime cast: Bette Davis, Lillian Gish, Ann Sothern, Vincent Price, and Harry Carey, Jr. Gish was 93 when she worked (without complaint) on the harsh, windy location, playing a woman who cares for her blind sister, Davis…

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STARS ALL AROUND: IT’S OSCAR TIME

Who doesn’t enjoy meeting movie stars and famous filmmakers? Every year there is a window of opportunity to do this here in L.A. called awards season. You don’t just meet these awards contenders once: after a succession of luncheons, dinners, and ceremonies, you greet each other with a smile of recognition and begin to feel as if you know each other. The truth is that you probably won’t see them again for another year, at least. They go back to their careers and you go back to screening films in darkened theaters. Only in Hollywood. One of the highlights of my year is hosting an evening-long tribute at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. This year there was some doubt as to whether the event…

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RARE MOVIE ART BY WALT DISNEY FAVORITE MARY BLAIR

Walt Disney wasn’t known for dispensing compliments but he made no secret of his love for Mary Blair’s whimsical artwork and her innovative use of color. That’s why he commissioned her to create concept pieces for so many of his films, including Song of the South, Alice in Wonderland, and Peter Pan…and why she was the ideal person to design the look for his “It’s a Small World” attraction. Blair died in 1978 but her reputation has soared since then among animation buffs. Her original paintings now sell for substantial sums. No one knows more about this talented woman than animation historian John Canemaker, author of The Art and Flair of Mary Blair (Disney Editions) and curator of an outstanding exhibition at the Walt Disney…

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MOVIES THE OSCARS OVERLOOKED

I hate the term “snub.” The idea that Oscar voters gather in a big tent and decide to ostracize a film or filmmaker is absurd. But when the votes are counted, it’s inevitable that some good movies are overlooked. In some cases, they never found the audience they deserved. This seems like a good moment to recommend some of my favorites from 2017 and remind you to check them out.   Wind River was shut out by the Oscars, alas. Jeremy Renner has never been better, as a professional hunter-tracker who lives and works in Native American territory. He is surrounded by a first-rate cast led by Elizabeth Olsen, Graham Greene and Gil Birmingham. Writer-director Taylor Sheridan draws three-dimensional characters and creates a vivid environment for…

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SMALL TOWN CRIME

There was a time when genre films were a staple of the moviegoing experience. Nowadays the gulf between studio blockbusters and small-scale indies seems bigger than ever. But there is nothing artsy or arcane about the small-scale picture Small Town Crime. It’s an enjoyable film with a strong cast led by John Hawkes, Anthony Anderson, Octavia Spencer, Michael Vartan, Robert Forster, and Clifton Collins, Jr. I’d be tempted to call Small Town Crime a film noir, but it was shot in sunny Utah. Only at the climax does darkness literally set in. Its leading character is a perpetual screw-up who’d be right at home in a hard-boiled melodrama of the 1940s or 50s. He’s an alcoholic ex-cop in need of redemption and (not so incidentally) a job. Given…

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FROM ‘STAGECOACH’ TO ‘SPARTACUS’

When I participated in the second annual Coronado Island Film Festival in November I didn’t expect to come upon a treasure trove of Hollywood history in the town’s public library. I also met the man responsible for it, local resident Phil Garn, the grandson of Oscar-winning art director Alexander Golitzen. Naturally I knew Golitzen’s name, as it appeared in countless screen credits over the years. He was the supervising art director at Universal Pictures from 1943 to 1973—or, to put it another way, from the Claude Rains version of Phantom of the Opera to Earthquake. He was nominated for 14 Academy Awards and won three, for Phantom, Spartacus, and To Kill a Mockingbird, all shared with his colleagues in the art department. One of the Oscar statuettes was on display, which…

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