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CHASING TRANE: AN ARTIST SUPREME

This has been a rich year for jazz-related documentaries. That happy trend continues with Chasing Trane, a tribute to John Coltrane by filmmaker John Scheinfeld, whose previous credits include The U.S. vs. John Lennon and Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why is Everybody Talkin’ About Him). Denzel Washington reads the words of Coltrane himself, adapted mostly from album liner notes, while family members, colleagues, and a host of admirers sing the musician’s praises (pun intended). When those admirers include such eloquent speakers as Wynton Marsalis, Dr. Cornel West, and President Bill Clinton the results go beyond mere “talking heads.” Any documentary is fortunate to have contributors of this caliber; this one soars on the wings of their words. Coltrane’s children provide some insight into the…

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THE UNSUNG GRANDFATHER OF ‘KING KONG’

Willis O’Brien’s place in movie history is secure. He is the genius who engineered the stop-motion animation that made King Kong come to life in 1933. He made a series of caveman shorts for Thomas Edison in the teens and worked on the prototype for Kong, The Lost World (1925). We’ve always read that he was swindled by Herbert M. Dawley, his partner on an ambitious and widely-seen short called The Ghost of Slumber Mountain (1918). There was even a battle over patents on the armatures that made its prehistoric monsters so realistic. Dawley has consistently been portrayed as the bad guy. Now, thanks to the untiring efforts of the late Stephen A. Czerkas, it is time to rewrite history. A talented artist and sculptor…

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INTERVIEW: Tim Davies, Conductor of LA LA LAND

By Greg Ehrbar Tim Davies doesn’t believe in a narrow focus in music. He can turn with ease from 90-piece orchestras and big bands to rap and hip-hop. As a conductor, arranger and orchestrator, we’ve heard Tim’s work in a variety of film and TV projects like La La Land, Frozen, Jack Reacher, and Ant-Man. He recently turned composer for the Netflix animated series Trollhunters at the request of series creator Guillermo del Toro:   GREG: Just for my own “Music 101” clarification—the arranger decides the flourishes, what the beat is and things like that, right? TIM: It’s changed a lot in recent years. If you’re looking at movie credits right now, in most big budget movies you might see additional arrangers and score arrangements…

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CURIOUS ABOUT ‘THE FATE OF THE FURIOUS’?

It should come as no surprise that this is a big, dumb movie. It’s also old news that the series which began with The Fast and the Furious in 2001 has almost nothing to do with illegal street racing any more. Screenwriter Chris Morgan has turned the recurring characters into archetypes and the action into gargantuan, computer-generated set-pieces that have all the credibility of a Scooby-Doo cartoon. Audiences seem to enjoy this reboot of the original premise, however, so there seems no reason for anyone to steer these Furious films in a different direction. But even the most diehard devotee may have difficulty accepting Charlize Theron as a nasty, psychopathic terrorist…or buying into the concept of nuclear weapons as the ultimate tool for a showdown…

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BUSTER KEATON REMEMBERED AND REFRESHED

A few weeks ago the International Buster Keaton Society (also known as the Damfinos) celebrated the 100th anniversary of Buster’s first day on a movie set: March 21, 1917. They were able to pinpoint the date by consulting Buster’s own hand-written diary! That gives you some idea of the dedication of Keaton followers, who have much to take in right now. Keaton completists will want to check out Notfilm, a highly personal documentary years in the making by Ross Lipman. It is available in a two-disc edition from Milestone Films, with a generous amount of bonus material Lipman accumulated while researching and producing his film. He calls it a kino-essay, which gives you an idea of his approach and the tone of the piece. It…

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GHOST IN THE SHELL

Diehard fans of Ghost in the Shell, in its original Japanese manga form or its feature-length anime and follow-ups, will have their own opinions of this slick Hollywood adaptation. Hormonal boys and young men will be rewarded early on with lingering views of a seemingly-naked Scarlett Johansson. Never mind that her body isn’t real (in the context of the story) or that she’s actually wearing a skin-tight body suit. As it turns out, nearly everything about this movie is surface-thin. Johansson plays Major, a cybernetic character who is supposedly the first of her kind: a human brain and soul (or “ghost”) melded onto a robotic body by sympathetic scientist Juliette Binoche. Major works for Section 9, an elite crime-fighting force in a city of the…

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TWO FANTASTIC JAZZ DOCUMENTARIES

As a lifelong jazz buff I was eager to see I Called Him Morgan to learn more about one of my favorite trumpeters, Lee Morgan. His recordings from the 1950s and 60s still sound vibrant and fresh today. I couldn’t have anticipated that Swedish filmmaker Kasper Collin would provide such a personal and moving portrait of the musician, who died at age 33. He was able to interview a number of Morgan’s colleagues, but he hit pay dirt when he located several people who knew Morgan’s wife in her final years. One of them found her so compelling he recorded an audio interview with her (with no particular purpose in mind) more than forty years ago. Mind you, this is the same woman who shot…

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‘THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE’: A MISSED OPPORTUNITY

It’s never a waste of time watching Jessica Chastain, even if the film she’s in isn’t great. The Zookeeper’s Wife is a perfect example: an earnest historical drama that never scales the emotional heights the real-life story would seem to promise. But Chastain is faultless as Antonina Żabiński, who with her husband Jan ran the Warsaw Zoo during the turbulent years of World War Two. Not only did the couple try to protect their animals from rapacious Nazi invaders; they found a way to shelter several hundred Jewish citizens. Here is the stuff of great drama. Indeed, Żabiński’s diaries inspired a best-selling book by Diane Ackerman. But screenwriter Angela Workman and talented director Niki Caro (Whale Rider, McFarland U.S.A.) have somehow dropped the ball. Their…

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JOAN CRAWFORD: NO FEUD WITH FANS

Like many of you, I’ve been watching Ryan Murphy’s compelling series Feud: Bette and Joan and thinking about the women it explores, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. The other day a lightbulb went off in my head and I dug into my files to find a letter I received from Miss Crawford back in 1973. I had sent her a copy of my magazine Film Fan Monthly where I wrote about  some of her lesser-known films of the 1930s. In my accompanying note I said how frustrating it was not to be able to see movies like Letty Lynton, which was pulled from circulation because of legal issues. Reading it again, more than forty years later, I marvel at how she framed her response. It’s…

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