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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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NOIR CITY AND BEYOND

I was startled when Eddie Muller reminded a packed audience at Hollywood’s Egyptian Theatre that the annual Noir City Festival was marking its 19th year. My wife and I have attended at least a handful of shows every one of those years, and it was heartwarming to see a packed house for opening night on Friday. Eddie, the Czar of Noir who runs the Film Noir Foundation (and hosts Noir Alley every Sunday morning on Turner Classic Movies), his partner-in-crime Alan K. Rode, and the American Cinemathèque’s Gwen Deglise started out by showing 35mm prints of classic, must-see movies in this ever-popular genre (Double Indemnity, Detour, Out of the Past). Then they went after unseen films and rarities even if their connection to noir was a…

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‘LIFE’ SHOCKS AROUND EVERY CORNER

If you’re going to be derivative, you might as well emulate something great. Life bears more than a passing resemblance to Alien but skillfully captures much of that film’s horror and suspense, so it’s difficult to complain too much. It’s been almost forty years since Ridley Scott’s movie was released, so a fairly potent echo of it will almost certainly play with younger audiences. Director Daniel Espinoza (Safe House, Child 44) brings a confident approach to this project. He shot most of it on two large sets, holding CGI in reserve for the depiction of his monster—a Martian organism that gets loose and wreaks havoc on the crew of the International Space Station. Ryan Reynolds and Jake Gyllenhaal lead a diverse, globally-sourced cast including Rebecca…

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CHiPS: ESCAPISM ON THE FAST TRACK

While it may not make the short-list for Oscar consideration this year, CHiPs is definitely fun to watch. Unlike some contrived or cynical rehashes of old TV series, this one has no pretensions. It’s escapism with a capital E: a funny, energetic, enjoyably ragged buddy movie with lots and lots of car-chase action. It also serves as a showcase for the charismatic Dax Shepard and the always-impressive Michael Peña, whose comedic chops are put to great use. The story is pretty basic: hardened Florida FBI agent Peña is sent to sunny Southern California and planted undercover in the Highway Patrol in order to ferret out some dirty cops. He’s teamed up with a rookie fresh out of the Academy–who happens to be a former motocross…

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CHAPLIN AND ORSON WELLES’ ONE-HIT WONDER

Few actresses have had a mentor as notable as Charlie Chaplin or a launch-pad as prominent as Citizen Kane, yet the name Dorothy Comingore is as little-known today as it was when that milestone movie was released. I was reminded of this when I stumbled across a rare, early photo of the actress with its original Warner Bros. caption intact. Like every blurb over the next few years, this one predicts great stardom ahead. The publicity prose credits Chaplin with discovering her, which is true; he saw her on stage in Carmel, California while vacationing there. She was already married to screenwriter Richard Collins, so this may have been a rare case of actual talent-spotting for the celebrated Mr. Chaplin. The Warner Bros. entree led…

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BEAUTY AND THE BEAST: PLEASANT BUT POINTLESS

First, the good news: Beauty and the Beast is better than I expected it to be. I still don’t understand why Disney insists on recycling its most popular and beloved movies, but when the public repeatedly responds with box-office dollars it’s hard to argue this policy. Barnum had it right. Director Bill Condon has created a visually extravagant movie and cast it well enough. Emma Watson is a likable Belle and Dan Stevens a convincing Beast. Luke Evans is ideal as the handsome but unheroic Gaston, and Kevin Kline is a joy to watch as Belle’s warm-hearted father. But the hurried introduction of live-action figures who are about to be transformed into household furnishings does no one any favors. A fleeting glimpse of Audra McDonald…

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KONG: SKULL ISLAND

This is the best monster movie I’ve seen in years. I was not optimistic, having been burned before; what’s more, I still hold a special place in my heart for the original 1933 King Kong. But this movie adds new energy and excitement to a storyline that incorporates the ingredients we all expect. After all, when someone explores an unknown spot on the map populated by prehistoric monsters there are only so many ways you can go. Kong: Skull Island scared the bejeezus out of me but enabled me to enjoy the experience. It made me jump repeatedly but didn’t gross me out. I salute director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, whose varied experience in non-horror TV and movies (like The Kings of Summer) benefits this ambitious endeavor.…

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MOVIES WORTH SAVING—AND SHOWING

My Dad always loved my definition of a film buff: someone who will intentionally watch a bad movie. My wife and I put that to the test Monday night when we attended the UCLA Film and Television Archives’ Festival of Preservation. We were treated to a double-bill: crisp, newly-struck prints of the all-star horror cheapie Vampire Bat (1932) with Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, and Melvyn Douglas—with a re-creation of its hand-colored fire-torch scene—and the least-known film directed by the great William Cameron Menzies, Almost Married (1932). Menzies’ granddaughters were there along with his biographer James Curtis, who explained that the 51-minute film (yes, 51) brought derisive laughter when it was previewed in December of 1931. This caused Fox to commission Menzies and co-director Marcel Varnel…

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