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KING SIZED LAUGHS FROM TEX AVERY AND BUGS BUNNY

Tex Avery’s cartoons don’t look or sound like anyone else’s. I haven’t laughed out loud so much since I watched Warner Archive’s first collection of Avery shorts last year. There may not be as many bona fide classics in Volume 2 but that doesn’t mean it’s any less valuable. Laughter is a tonic and if there were ever a time we all needed that it’s right now. Tex Avery Screwball Classics Vol. 2  opens with one of his masterpieces, Little Rural Riding Hood. This was the apotheosis of his shorts featuring a randy wolf responding to a sexy, red-headed nightclub singer. Every time you think he’s gone as far as he can go with the wolf’s wildly exaggerated responses he goes further. That was Avery’s stock in trade…

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‘COMING 2 AMERICA’ DELIVERS THE LAUGHS

There’s never a good time for a bad sequel, and goodness knows we’ve seen plenty. But Coming 2 America manages to revive the central characters from Eddie Murphy’s 1988 megahit with surprisingly good results. Murphy remains a comedic force to reckon with. Working with Craig Brewer, who directed him in Dolemite Is My Name, and two of the writers of the first film (Barry W. Blaustein and David Sheffield, whose relationship with him began on Saturday Night Live) along with Black-ish creator Kenya Barris, he is showcased at his best, even reprising the salty barbershop denizens from Queens, with acknowledgment to now-retired makeup master Rick Baker, who created them with Murphy so many years ago. How audiences will respond if they’ve never seen the original, directed by John Landis, is an open…

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THE REAL BILLIE HOLIDAY

Billie Holiday lived long enough to make a handful of television appearances in the late 1950s. She was no longer in peak form, but these performances reveal her passion for the music she sang…and the bond she shared with musicians she admired. There is a marvelous rendition of “I Surrender Dear” led by underappreciated guitarist Mary Osborne on YouTube, from a 1958 show called Jazz Party. Despite the iffy quality of the kinescope, the music swings and no one is enjoying it more than Holiday, who is revealed part-way through the song, seated on a stool right next to Osborne. First she nods in time to the uptempo chorus Osborne is playing; then you can actually see her face come alive. That’s what music can do.…

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THE UNITED STATES VS. BILLIE HOLIDAY

The more you know about legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday the more trouble you’re likely to have digesting Lee Daniels’s punishing new biopic. While it is less fictitious than the glossy 1972 Diana Ross movie Lady Sings the Blues, it remains a frustrating patchwork of fact and fabrication. This much is true: Billie Holiday’s life was a mess, from childhood on. She was born out of wedlock and never knew her father. Raped at a shockingly young age, she worked odd jobs at a brothel before reaching adolescence. Her one refuge, outside of drugs, was music. But this film is more interested in depicting all the different ways that Holiday was brutalized than showing us how music enabled her to transcend—however briefly—the misery she endured from men…

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NOMADLAND: WORTH WAITING FOR

Filmmaker Chloé Zhao opens Nomadland on a tight closeup of Fern’s face—a woman we might chance to meet any day of the week.  Because she is played by Frances McDormand there is no better way to establish a connection between her and us in the audience. We know she is genuine; there is no artifice here. Fern is leaving a town so desolate (since the closing of a factory) that its zip code has been retired. She puts in time at the local Amazon warehouse, collects her pay and retreats to a modest van. She’s not homeless, she explains; she’s houseless, and there’s all the difference in the world. Fern has learned to survive on her own since the death of her husband. She keeps to herself…

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A MEL BLANC DISCOVERY

Sometimes a gem can be hiding in plain sight—or within hearing distance. A few weeks ago I turned on Turner Classic Movies (my go-to channel) and watched part of Alexander Korda’s 1942 production The Jungle Book, starring Sabu. I hadn’t seen it in a while and it’s very entertaining. But when Mowgli encountered the giant snake Kaa, I listened carefully to the voice and realized it belonged to Mel Blanc. It had never occurred to me before; he’s speaking in a very low register so it isn’t immediately apparent. Then I thought of him performing his parody of a popular radio commercial in a Warner Bros. cartoon, saying, “Beee-Ohhh” and I was certain. The best way for me to confirm this, since neither Mel nor any…

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‘MINARI’ IS AN ARTISTIC TRIUMPH

To have won both the Grand Jury prize and the Audience Award at last year’s Sundance Film Festival indicates, correctly, that Minari is an artistic triumph as well as a crowd-pleaser. Clearly a passion project for writer-director Lee Isaac Chung, inspired by his own life, it traces a star-crossed Korean family’s experiences trying to work a farm in Arkansas during the 1980s. If the story isn’t unusual, the details are, and it is those moments of sharp observation and unique behavior that set the film apart. Steven Yeun and Yeri Han play a married couple who are raising two young children when they follow his dream (not hers) to the middle of America, where their new home is a cramped trailer in the middle of a barren…

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