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OSCARS MAKE HISTORY AGAIN

Every time The Academy presents awards it adds a page to Hollywood history. As we learn in Bruce Davis’s fine new book The Academy and the Award (Brandeis University Press) the institution known for its Oscars has given honorary awards for many years. But in the 1940s the decisions were made rather haphazardly, often the night before the award ceremony. Producer Walter Wanger talked a tired board of governors into giving him such an award in the wee hours of the morning just so they could go home to bed. In more recent times the producers of the Oscar telecast have been under pressure to shorten the event without giving short shrift to the winners of the honorary awards, as so often happens. Thus, in…

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THE FABELMANS: STEVEN  SPIELBERG’S ULTIMATE HOME MOVIE

A handful of directors have given us movies about their youth, but none of their origin stories are as well-known as Steven Spielberg’s. In The Fabelmans the most famous and successful filmmaker of our time offers his version of the events that shaped his life and career. Somewhat surprisingly, he exposes his interior life as well as his narrative. And being Steven Spielberg, he has made certain that the result is a crowd-pleaser. The Fabelmans opens on the night he saw Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth in 1952 and illustrates what motivated him to pick up a movie camera for the first time: he wanted to know how the Old Master staged and edited a heart-stopping train wreck. His father is dismissive of the results but his…

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THE RETURN OF TANYA TUCKER: FEATURING BRANDI CARLILE

Everyone loves a good comeback story, as witness the current buzz surrounding actor Brendan Fraser, who’s been out of the limelight for a while. Embracing an underdog can seem like a cliché but rekindling a show-business career is no easy task. Allowing a filmmaker to document that process takes more nerve than some people could muster. Tanya Tucker has plenty of nerve. She’s seen it all, from hit records to tabloid headlines, in a career that began at the age of 11. What makes her story compelling is that her talent remains intact, a simple fact that inspired her number-one fan, Grammy-winning vocalist Brandi Carlile, to engineer a second act for Tanya’s dormant career. She lured Tucker back into a recording studio for the first…

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TILL: TRANSCENDING THE OBVIOUS

I wasn’t looking forward to seeing Till and being reminded of the horrific fate that befell a 14-year-old black boy in Mississippi back in 1964. I hadn’t reckoned with the worldview of director and co-writer Chinonye Chukyu, who chose not to depict Emmett Till’s unspeakably violent death and decided instead to tell the story through the eyes of his mother Mamie. That doesn’t mean that we are spared the horror of Emmett’s brutal treatment. Till depicts his mother’s decision to hold an open-casket funeral so the world could see for itself what hatred brought about in the Jim Crow South. I wasn’t overly impressed with Chukyu’s earlier feature Clemency, but this film is a quantum leap forward. The director shares writing credit with Michael Reilly and Keith Beauchamp. She takes…

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‘ARMAGEDDON TIME’ IS BEAUTIFUL

The ability to remember details and summon emotions from one’s childhood is a gift, especially in the hands of a filmmaker as talented as James Gray. In Armageddon Time he fearlessly lays bare a crucial incident from his adolescence that haunts him to this day. He relates the story in the larger context of his life in Queens, New York in the early 1980s. His mother is a striver, his father a frustrated working-man; they have no patience for his dreaminess and lack of discipline. He likes to draw but his teachers dismiss his impressive efforts because he isn’t doing his class assignments. The only one who sees the boy for what he is—and what he could be—is his grandfather, a Jewish immigrant who talks straight and…

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HARPO, HITCHCOCK, AND THE OSCAR: NEW AND NOTABLE BOOKS Oct 2022

SPEAKING OF HARPO by Susan Marx with Robert S. Bader (Applause) As someone who gobbled up every word in Harpo Marx’s memorable autobiography Harpo Speaks, I reveled in this posthumous publication by his widow Susan. Where else in the year 2022 could one read fresh observations of Harpo and such fabled cronies as Alexander Woollcott, Ben Hecht, and Oscar Levant? This is catnip to a Marx devotee like myself. Mrs. Marx is especially candid in her thoughts about her husband’s famous brothers. She was exasperated by Chico, had little use for Groucho’s mean-spirited humor, and had no use at all for Zeppo. Significantly, she was a dedicated aunt and sounding board for their offspring and in some cases their ex-wives as well. Susan’s memories of the films…

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AMSTERDAM: AN ALMOST-GOOD MOVIE

Look, I get it. It isn’t easy to craft an original screenplay, introducing an audience to newly-minted characters worth caring about, then building a three-act structure that makes perfect sense. David O. Russell has had more success than many who have tried to pull this off, although his best films have been adaptations (Silver Linings Playbook) or collaborations (The Fighter). His partner in crime this time is Christian Bale, who sat down with the director and tried to think up story ideas five years ago. In the resulting film, Bale disappears into the character of a mentally and physically damaged World War One veteran who now functions on the fringes of legality as a doctor in New York City. The year is 1933, and the…

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