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REMEMBERING JANE WITHERS

Jane Withers had the biggest heart of anyone I’ve ever met. She remembered details about every movie she ever made and kept in touch with former colleagues—even members of her crew. She still used words like gosh and golly in her everyday speech. Jimmy Lydon, who worked with her in three movies, said the first time he met her he thought she was too good to be true. “I don’t get this girl,” he said to himself, “Nobody can be like that; this is a put-on. Well, I’ve known Jane now for more than 60 odd years and you know, she’s still the same. She’s just a love, she really is.“ Although she started working at the age of six and became a bona fide…

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THE LITTLE RASCALS’ FIRST TALKIES, FULLY RESTORED

Like the rest of the Hal Roach library, the 80 Our Gang talkies have not been cared for, to put it mildly. That’s why it’s heartwarming to see what tender loving care can do with the original negatives and 35mm materials even after decades of neglect. The images are clean and clear, and so is the sound. ClassicFlix has done the seemingly impossible by making these films look and sound nearly perfect. The before-and-after comparison footage on the disc is a revelation. Hal Roach’s enduring comedy series, better known under its reissue name The Little Rascals, debuted in 1922, when movies were silent. Seven years later, when it was clear that talkies were here to stay, the producer nudged all of his stars (Laurel and Hardy, Charley Chase,…

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‘SUMMER OF SOUL’ OFFERS MORE THAN JUST GREAT MUSIC

There are concert films, and then there is Summer of Soul (…or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), a knockout of a movie featuring precious performance footage that hasn’t been seen since it was shot in 1969. Ahmir Thompson, better known as Questlove, has taken great raw material and shaped it into a memorable documentary that offers entertainment and food for thought at the same time. We see Stevie Wonder at his best on stage, but we also hear him look back at this time as a crossroads in his career. His record label didn’t want him to tackle controversial subject matter, but current events weighed heavily on his mind. Ultimately he chose not to play it safe. Reporter Charlayne Hunter Gault recalls that 1969…

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NEW AND NOTABLE BOOKS JUNE 2021

A LOT CAN HAPPEN IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE: THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE MAKING OF FARGO by Todd Melby; foreword by William H. Macy (Minnesota Historical Society Press) Despite the pedigree of its publisher, this book is not an academic treatise. The author is a Coen Brothers fanatic who has spent years examining every detail of their career and Fargo in particular. “In writing this book,” he explains, “I traveled to Los Angeles to read multiple drafts of the screenplay. I talked to actors who got their big breaks in Fargo, and a few who didn’t. I talked to a stuntwoman who bashed her head into a doorjamb while blinded by a shower curtain. I learned about the cassette tapes Ethan gave the film’s dialect coach, then…

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F9: THE FAST SAGA LEAVES LOGIC IN THE DUST

Does a so-called summer movie have to be brain-dead? I don’t believe it. But then, I don’t believe the preposterous goings-on in F9, part of what’s now being called The Fast Saga. The series, which began in 2001 with an action yarn called The Fast and the Furious, becomes more absurd with each new entry, leaving its original premise (about illegal street racing) behind and morphing into a mishmash of car chases, cloak-and-dagger operations, spectacular explosions, and violent fight scenes. People die but show up again intact, like Wile E. Coyote after falling off a cliff. Incoherence reigns supreme. In recent installments of the series Vin Diesel has preached the gospel of family above all. In this entry we flash back in time to learn the events that shaped…

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THE SPARKS BROTHERS: I’M A BELIEVER

I am a newcomer to the Sparks phenomenon. Perhaps that’s because I’m not as cool as Flea, Beck, Jason Schwartzman, Neil Gaiman, or Amy Sherman-Palladino, who are longtime followers…or perhaps I didn’t have someone like Edgar Wright to take me by the hand and induct me into their claque. But now that I’ve seen Wright’s new documentary The Sparks Brothers I’m a believer. Russell and Ron Mael—yes, they’re actual siblings—have been making their own kind of music for almost fifty years. Iconoclasts through and through, they’ve changed their style of music multiple times, refusing to repeat themselves and willing to alienate some fans by adopting radical new ideas. Through it all, they have remained true to themselves, often using sly, satiric humor to deal with…

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SILENT MOVIES FOR A HOME AUDIENCE

There is no substitute for watching a silent movie in a theater on a big screen with live musical accompaniment and a simpatico audience. But last year, as the worldwide pandemic trapped us in our homes, entrepreneurial silent-film accompanist Ben Model devised an alternate plan: screening silent short subjects for a virtual audience online. The Silent Comedy Watch Party has now passed its first anniversary and draws a loyal cadre of fans every Sunday at 3pm EST. Ben doesn’t just compose (and often improvise) piano scores; he is a proactive silent-movie scholar and enthusiast who releases rare shorts and features on his home-grown DVD label, Undercrank Productions. He has even arranged to use the Library of Congress restorations of such rarities as Marion Davies’ early features Beauty’s Worth,…

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