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BLUE NOTE RECORDS: BEYOND THE NOTES

As a jazz aficionado I expected to hear a lot of good music in this documentary and anticipated a certain amount of archival footage and interviews with some of the great musicians who appeared on the Blue Note label over the years. But I never could have guessed where Swiss filmmaker Sophie Huber would take me, or that I would be willing to go along for the ride. Blue Note was the invention of Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, boyhood friends who escaped from Nazi Germany and came to New York City. They pooled their meager resources and relied on their enthusiasm to entice musicians to record for them. Their groundbreaking boogie-woogie discs featuring Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson put them on…

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FRED AND GINGER, FILM NOIR AND HAROLD LLOYD ON CRITERION

Three recent releases from The Criterion Collection have appeared on home video before, but the new Blu-ray/DVD editions are so good they make a strong case for upgrading these titles in your library. One reason is the exceptional quality of essays the company commissions for each film. (Criterion also publishes these on their website, where you can read them for free: https://www.criterion.com/current/category/2-essays.) I love good writing, and if you feel likewise I recommend Carrie Rickey’s splendid piece about Harold Lloyd’s The Kid Brother, Imogen Sara Smith’s worshipful essay about Swing Time, and critic/poet Robert Polito’s eye-opening take on Detour that includes nuggets of information I’d never known before.     As to the discs themselves, Swing Time offers a mini-documentary featuring jazz and film critic Gary Giddins, dance critic Brian Siebert, and…

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LATE NIGHT: SMART COMEDY, PERFECT CAST

Mindy Kaling has written perfectly-tailored starring roles for herself and the great Emma Thompson in Late Night, a smart comedy that manages to be relevant without forgetting to be funny. Thompson is thoroughly believable as the longtime star of a late-night TV talk show—the only woman to hold that kind of job, we’re told. But her ratings have been falling off as she has become distant from her audience and unwilling to court younger viewers. Kaling plays a would-be standup comic and comedy writer who lands an interview with Thompson’s producer (Denis O’Hare) just as the host, who’s under the gun from her network boss, demands that he hire a woman to augment their all-male, all-white writing staff. Thompson is imperious and inflexible, yet there is…

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NEW AND NOTABLE FILM BOOKS – June 2019

As always, books arrive on my doorstep at a faster pace than I can possibly read them, so with a few exceptions these are not reviews but a survey based on browsing. I look forward to spending more time with many of them.   HOLLYWOOD’S LOST BACK LOT: 40 ACRES OF GLAMOUR AND MYSTERY by Steven Bingen with Marc Wanamaker, Bison Archives; Foreword by Ron Howard (Lyons Press) Having chronicled the back lots of MGM, Warner Bros., and Paramount in a valuable series of books, Steve Bingen has now tackled one of the least celebrated but most colorful locations in Hollywood history: the studio and tract of land known as “40 Acres.” The studio portion was built by silent film pioneer Thomas Ince in 1915…

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GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS

Two hours wasted: that’s how I feel after watching Godzilla: King of the Monsters. This bloated production starts out as an enjoyably tacky monster movie but doesn’t know when to quit. Every pseudo-scientific explanation (and there are plenty) has a counter-explanation in order to keep the story going…and every apparent climax leads to another climax. There’s even a post-credits scene, as if we needed one. We don’t. As for the story, suffice it to say that forces have awakened Mothra. When soldiers foolishly fire on it, a two-hour chain reaction is set into motion around the globe that threatens to wipe out humanity. The monsters involved—here called Titans—all happen to be owned by Japan’s Toho movie studio: Godzilla, Ghidorah (also referred to as Monster Zero), Mothra,…

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THE SPY BEHIND HOME PLATE

If someone submitted this story as a piece of fiction, no one would believe it. The notion that a popular baseball catcher had a superior intellect and wound up spying for the U.S. government is simply too outlandish…but it’s true, and that one-line summary doesn’t begin to tell the tale. Moe Berg was the son of Jewish immigrants and loved baseball almost as much as he did studying. He held degrees from Princeton, Columbia Law School, and the Sorbonne. He spoke many languages—including Sanskrit—and wrote erudite essays for The Atlantic and other literary journals. He also traveled to Japan in the 1930s with an all-star team of players including Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and took home movies which later figured in his espionage activities. He…

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THE FALL OF THE AMERICAN EMPIRE

The gifted Quebecois writer-director Denys Arcand has only himself to blame for the slight feeling of disappointment that his new film engenders. The man who gave us such provocative films as Jesus of Montreal, The Decline of the American Empire, Stardom, and the beguiling Oscar-winner The Barbarian Invasions has nothing to apologize for. The worst thing I can say about his new release The Fall of the American Empire is that it feels inconsequential alongside his other work. But then, as the great Ernst Lubitsch once remarked, it can be said of a mediocre talent that he always lives up to his potential. Not that The Fall of the American Empire is mediocre; far from it. In fact, it’s an entertaining, surprisingly lighthearted satire that illustrates the power that money has to…

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