A Must-See Movie: FIRST THEY KILLED MY FATHER

FIRST THEY KILLED MY FATHER: Loung Ung’s book has been powerfully brought to the screen by Angelina Jolie.

Loung Ung’s fascinating yet horrific book about her survival of the brutal and sick Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, First They Killed My Father, has finally become a movie.

I really have to hand it to Angelina Jolie.  I don’t know her personally, so I’m not shilling, but she’s someone who became a goodwill ambassador to the UN awhile back, which, by the way, was also chronicled in her fascinating book, Notes from my Travels.  She has been raising awareness of the problems in nations like Cambodia ever since.

So it was no surprise when I read the good news online that First They Killed My Father was being made into a movie and that Angelina Jolie was producing it.

The movie follows the story of Loung Ung, age five in 1975 at the beginning, whose happy life with her military man father, mother and several loving siblings in Cambodia is completely disrupted, then destroyed, by the Khmer Rouge takeover of the country.  It’s brilliantly done by showing the bizarre story unfold through Loung’s young and disbelieving eyes.

Wait.  Let me amend that.  Loung is hardly the only one who cannot make sense of what went on when the Khmer Rouge took over.  Neither could the adults who were there at the time, let alone all those of us who weren’t there, thank God, and only heard about the insane events later.

Loung’s gentle father is not the only one the rogue Rouge regime kills.  A quarter of the population of Cambodia did not survive the Khmer Rouge’s psycho system of starving, overworking, and outright murdering anyone who didn’t appear to be in line with their “revolutionary” philosophy, whether they be from the military, educated, in the upper classes, etc.  As seems to be the norm with a lot of the more brutal regimes of the Twentieth Century, this one was obsessed with making everyone into “equals.”  It never works, but those who want it to can go pretty crazy with their ideas of implementation.  The Khmer Rouge went more berserk with that “equality” crap than most.  The entire population becomes enslaved by the Khmer Rouge, who have guns pointed at them as they force them to give up their homes, possessions, former lives, and so on, putting them to work in work camps.  Question, though: how “equal” can people be if one group has guns on the other, then forces them to do all the work?

Sareum Srey Moch does a spectacular job at playing Loung Ung, a child fed with more propaganda than food who somehow manages to hold onto her humanity in spite of every insane thing that is happening around her.  This is a performance worthy of an award, and so is Angelina Jolie’s vivid direction.  As many times as someone can read  about the Khmer Rouge’s takeover of their own beleaguered nation, seeing it played out on the screen packs a wallop.

Get the movie, folks.  It’s on Netflix.  You can see the trailer here:

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Broadway Musical Fans, Here’s a Book Recommendation for You!

SHOWSTOPPERS! by Gerald Nachman: one singular sensation of a Broadway book!

If you love musicals – and I’ve loved them my whole life – then have I got a book for you!  Run, don’t walk, to the nearest bookstore, or better yet log onto your Amazon account, and check out SHOWSTOPPERS! by Gerald Nachman.

I’ve always enjoyed hearing about the back story of how theatrical works are put together.  In this book, Gerald Nachman presents a fascinating, detailed, beautifully researched account of Broadway hit songs and the legions of people who made them happen.

For example, have you ever heard of a 1964 Broadway show called A Damned Exasperating Woman?  Of course not.  That’s because, after Jerry Herman wrote a song that Louis Armstrong liked so much he recorded and released it before the show in question opened.  The song became such a hit it was decided that the show should be named for the song.  Its title?  Hello, Dolly!    The new revival that just opened, starring Bette Midler,  is breaking box office records right now, 53 years later, and while Louis Armstrong is long gone (and missed), we’re all still singing that song.

The back story of the music of Hello, Dolly! is just one of the dozens of fabulous behind-the-scenes-to-before-the-floodlights chapters in this book.  Ever wonder about the differences between the partnerships of Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart, and Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein?  Curious about the real Annie Oakley, who inspired the Irving Berlin musical Annie, Get Your Gun, which was written with Ethel Merman in mind?  Want to find out more about another Annie, the one who was adopted by Daddy Warbucks?  Then this is the book for you.

The chapter that I personally found the most interesting is the one about the song “Wilkommen” in Cabaret.  But let me back up here.  I found the record one day when I was home sick from school as a kid, played the songs and adored them from that point on.  I’ve always particularly loved “Wilkommen,” where the Emcee of a Weimar Berlin cabaret, played by Joel Grey, welcomes the guests in German, English and French.  The song is at once a great show tune and a miniature language lesson in the bargain.  But keep in mind, the first time I played the song, I heard it.  I did not see it acted on a stage.  I didn’t know Joel Grey came out on the stage wearing bizarre make-up.  Until reading SHOWSTOPPERS!, I did not realize that the number, the first in the show, was staged to deliberately set a creepy tone for the audience and let them know what kind of theatrical evening they were in for.  Those who missed seeing many of these classics performed live  the first time around will surely welcome the chance to hear these stories.  They’re certainly giving me a new appreciation of many of my old cast albums.

This book is a treat.  Love Broadway?  Go for it!

 

Lucille Ball Would Have Been Perfect in a Non-Musical Remake of “AUNTIE MAME”

Lucille Ball as the lovable character “MAME.”

Lucille Ball, they say, was terribly miscast in the title role of the movie MAME.  It’s been uttered so many times you’d think it was a universal truth.  “Lucy was too old.”  “Lucy couldn’t sing.”  “Angela Lansbury played it better on Broadway.”  I could  recite the list of reasons why they say she shouldn’t have done it the way she did it in my sleep.

And yet…

If you take away the distracting, and ridiculous, soft-focus shots they used to film her close-ups, which the movie could well have done without,  and if the singing numbers had been dubbed, what would you have?  The lady’s acting in the role of irrepressible, unconventional “Mame Dennis” can hardly be faulted.  She nails every scene, and not as a “Lucy Ricardo” type, either.  If I hadn’t grown up on “I Love Lucy” reruns, I never even would have guessed this part was played by the same actress.

Take the scene where she’s fired from the department store.  She’s tried on the roller skates to demonstrate them for her handsome customer, “Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside.”  She gets fired from the job.  She can’t get out of the skates because she’s knotted the laces.

What does Mame do?  Well, first let’s look at what she ought to do, what anyone else in her position back then would have done.  After all, it’s a scene set in 1929, she’s broke, the world is a different, stuffier place, and to be a lady accidentally on skates out in public in a store is supposed to be mightily embarrassing.  Yet watch the scene.  The character holds herself up high, as if being stuck in those skates is an honor, not a disaster.  She makes it look deliberate, a matter of pride, yet it’s all subtly done.

I imitated her stance for years, after seeing this movie as a child, whenever I got myself into a bit of a jam.  If life gives you lemons, stand tall, even if you’re five foot one, like me, and make some lemonade, folks.  Wherever you are, Lucy, thank you so much for that scene!

I only wish that Lucy had tried to make a remake of AUNTIE MAME, the non-musical movie version of the same basic story that was made in the 1950’s and starred Rosalind Russell.  Yes, Lucy in the musical was a mistake, but if she had starred in AUNTIE MAME, sans the unnecessary gauzy close-ups and songs, I think she’d have been remembered well for it, and rather than going down in motion picture history as something of a bad joke, it would be remembered as a good movie.

And let me add this: I hate it that Lucy took abuse for this movie!  Her version was the very first one I saw of this story, so Lucy was “my Mame.”  The joy and love and fun of this movie gave me a whole new perspective – and even got me through several godawful years at a terrible, abusive school.  Wherever you are, I say, BRAVA, Lucy!  Just wish I could have told you in person.

 

Stunning in every outfit: Lucy as MAME.

Splendiferous Movie Recommendation: HIDDEN FIGURES

Janelle Monae, Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer star in HIDDEN FIGURES.

Janelle Monae, Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer star in HIDDEN FIGURES.

Would you like to see a movie that will make you stand up and cheer, and not just once, but several times?  Then I can’t recommend a better one than HIDDEN FIGURES!

It’s 1961, and the United States is in a mad competition with the Soviet Union to win the “space race.”  Far behind the scenes, three gutsy and incredibly gifted African American women are working as human “computers” at NASA in Virginia.  Their talents are being well utilized by the powers that be…but the unenlightened time period is such that the ladies, and the rest of their friends in the Computing division, are being subjected to one segregated indignity after another…

I never like to include “spoilers” in blog posts about shows and movies so I don’t want to say too much more about the plot of this wonderful and layered film, except that the three lead actresses are terrific.  Katherine, played by Taraji P. Henson, is a mathematical genius and also a widow raising three lovely little girls; that Janelle Monae, as Mary Jackson, dreams of becoming an engineer; and Dorothy Vaughan, played by Octavia Spencer, is already working as her unit’s unofficial supervisor but has yet to get officially promoted.  Oh, and in addition, they’re all part of the team at NASA that’s frantically trying to get a man on the moon…

I’m already planning  to see this movie again, I liked it so much.  HIDDEN FIGURES won the SAG Award for Best Ensemble Cast.  It’s also rightfully been nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, and so is Octavia Spencer, for Best Supporting Actress.  My only wish is that Taraji P. Henson and Janelle Monae  could have been nominated as well, because they were equally superb.  Kevin Costner is also fascinating to watch as Katherine’s initially-remote boss.

Meanwhile, get out of the house and go to see HIDDEN FIGURES.  These ladies will remind you that it’s always a good idea to reach for the stars!

Here’s the trailer: HIDDEN FIGURES

 

Where in the World Is Bob Dylan?

One of the many portraits of Bob Dylan by his old girlfriend, Faridi McFree.

One of the many portraits of Bob Dylan by his old girlfriend, Faridi McFree.

My late, great friend, Faridi McFree, who was one of Bob Dylan’s many girlfriends, wanted to make a cartoon show based on him.  Since his real name was Robert Zimmerman, she decided the main character of the show would be a little “Heartoon” she named “Zimmie the Zipper.”  This was because, she related, he was “all zipped up” when it came to communicating with other people.

I’ll say!  You nailed it, Faridi!  Bob Dylan just won the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature, but the Nobel people can not find him!  Where in the world is Bob Dylan?  And why can’t he simply acknowledge his prize?  Could it be that he really is all zipped up?

You know, it would be great if Faridi’s “Heartoon” about “Zimmie the Zipper” could be considered worth another look by  television producers.  She had a great little idea for a cartoon series there, and it was a shame it was never moved forward.

And by the way, if you’re interested, or were wondering, zipped up or not, Faridi loved Bob Dylan until the day she died.

Now where in the world is he?  Carmen Sandiego would be easier to find…

Faridi McFree, whose cartoon series idea about "Zimmie the Zipper," based on Bob Dylan, deserves another look. Television producers, take note!

Faridi McFree, whose cartoon series idea about “Zimmie the Zipper,” based on Bob Dylan, deserves another look. Hey, Mr. Producer!  I’m talking to you, sir!  Take note!

 

Riveting Movie: SNOWDEN

SNOWDEN the movie.

Poster for SNOWDEN the movie.

As far as movie-going went, this weekend I went from the sublime – QUEEN OF KATWE – to the disturbing.  The second film I saw was SNOWDEN.

SNOWDEN, the new movie about whistleblower Edward Snowden who revealed the extent of American and international cyber-spying by leaking the story to journalists, exceeded my expectations.  I found myself hanging on every word.

Snowden is played beautifully by Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  Rhys Ifans plays Corbin O’Brian, his instructor at a CIA training facility in Virginia.  O’Brian is not entirely honest with Snowden, who doesn’t quite realize what he’s gotten himself into.

SNOWDEN snowballs.  It starts out kind of slowly and just keeps rolling along, gathering steam.  A colleague calls Edward Snowden “Snow White,” and it’s rather fitting, since he doesn’t realize the extent of how far government agencies are spying on people.  The audience will be shocked as well.  Someone sitting at a desk in Switzerland can see into the room where you’ve left your computer on?  Uh-oh!

What elevates this movie beyond the usual techno-thriller is the relationship between Snowden and Lindsay Mills, played by Shailene Woodley, an actress I first became aware of when she was in the American Girls colonial movie FELICITY.  Snowden has to leave his Lindsay if he’s going to warn the world about what’s going on with the NSA and the CIA and a whole host of other organizations and companies.  He can’t tell her much of what is going on or why it’s so disturbing to him.  At times she thinks he’s paranoid, but still, her loyalty to him is just plain beautiful to see.  The two are a great onscreen couple, so the knowledge that Snowden will have to leave her leads you to sit there feeling a great big sense of “ouch” – but keep watching.

Oliver Stone is the director, and as usual he didn’t disappoint.  Be on the lookout for the way that Snowden gets quite a collection of classified info out of the bunker-like facility where he works, too.  This is a movie worth seeing.  If you’re ever in a position where something bad and hidden could use a nice dose of the light of day, don’t be afraid to blow a few whistles yourself!

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Shailene Woodley.  What a great onscreen couple!

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Shailene Woodley. What a great onscreen couple!

Uplifting Movie: Queen of Katwe

Poster for the new Disney hit, QUEEN OF KATWE.

Poster for the new Disney hit, QUEEN OF KATWE.

Want to see a nice, old-fashioned, wonderfully uplifting movie?

Then run, don’t walk, out to the nearest theater that is showing QUEEN OF KATWE  and watch it make your day!

The movie focuses on Phiona Mutesi, a Ugandan child living in extreme poverty.  The family lives in a shack and sleeps on the floor.  She and her siblings don’t attend school. They can’t afford it.  They sell vegetables in the outdoor market to help their mother.  The father is nowhere to be found and has, apparently, abandoned his family.

Enter a chess coach who is working in a “Sports Ministry” while he awaits a better job.  Then watch how the devoted coach, played by David Oyelowo, begins to turn everything around for Phiona, in whom he recognizes a touch of genius…

Phiona is played by a newcomer, Madina Nalwanga.  She’s a luminous child and it’s impossible not to root for her.  I just researched her now and found out that her journey to starring in this movie is similar to that of Phiona.  Both came from poor backgrounds, but look at where they are now!  They’re both an inspiration.

David Oyelowo, by the way, is a phenomenal actor that I’ve written about before.  He was overlooked for an Oscar  nomination when he gave a terrific performance as Martin Luther King in SELMA.  When that happened, I wrote:

As they used to say in Brooklyn when the Dodgers didn’t win the pennant, “Wait until next year!”  The day will dawn when you “go home with Oscar.”  I think it’s inevitable.

Indeed, I still think it’s inevitable!  I’m hoping that this year David Oyelowo gets nominated, and for QUEEN OF KATWE this time.  I’m hoping that Hollywood’s recent newcomer, Madina Nalwanga, gets an Oscar nod this year, too!

Madina Nalwanga and David Oyelowo light up the screen - and the world - in QUEEN OF KATWE.

Madina Nalwanga and David Oyelowo light up the screen – and the world – in QUEEN OF KATWE.