I saw three films at the Castro this month.
Bridge of Spies starring Tom Hanks & Mark Rylance; directed by Steven Spielberg; (2015) - Official Website
Lady Sings the Blues starring Diana Ross; with Billy Dee Williams & Richard Pryor; directed by Sidney J. Furie; (1972)
Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling starring and directed by Richard Pryor; (1986)
With Bridge of Spies I have seen six of the eight films nomination for the Oscar in the Best Picture category. The two I am missing are Brooklyn & The Revenant.
What to say about Bridge of Spies? It's another solid outing by Spielberg and Hanks. I've never been a particular fan of either although they both have strong filmographies. My favorite Spielberg film is Jaws which is over 40 years old. My favorite Tom Hanks performance is Big which was almost 30 years ago. Spielberg and Hanks have collaborated at least four time as director and actor (other titles are Saving Private Ryan, Catch Me If You Can and The Terminal) so they must have a simpatico.
Like many of their films (including their three previous collaborations), I'm mild about Bridge of Spies and I can't really say why. Based on a true story, Hanks plays James Donovan, a NYC lawyer in the 1950s & 60s. Donovan defends Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) who was a Soviet spy. Donovan defends him to the best of his ability but is ultimately unsuccessful. While Abel languishes in prison, Donovan is contacted Allen Dulles (Director of the CIA) to negotiate a prisoner exchange. Not officially sanctioned by the US government, Dulles asks Donovan to negotiate a exchange as a private citizen - Abel for captured U-2 pilot Gary Francis Powers.
The film is divided into two parts - the arrest and trial of Abel and Donovan's negotiations with Soviet & East German quasi-officials in East Berlin soon after the Berlin Wall went up. Tense, occasionally humorous and focusing on the basic perseverance, decency & humanity of Donovan, Spielberg & Hanks do what they do best; which is to create a empathetic character for the audience to root for.
I can't fault the performance or direction but like many of their films, Bridge of Spies lacks that ineffable quality that elevates a film to greatness or even memorable. The Martian and Mad Max have a certain cinematic swagger about them which instantly registers with me and I know that I will recall certain scenes & dialogue years in the future. Bridge of Spies lacks that.
Lady Sings the Blues is a biopic with Diana Ross as Billie Holiday. Putting aside that the film is Ross' first major acting role, she gives a powerful performance as Holiday. Ross was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for her performance (she lost to Liza Minnelli in Cabaret). BTW, two of the five Best Actress nominees and one of the five Best Actor nominees were African American that year.
Anyway Lady Sings the Blues is showcase for Ross (it was produced by Berry Gordy, her record producer, lover and mentor). Ross shows considerable acting range playing the tragic singer Holiday. Confident despite being raped, discriminated against and addicted to heroin, Holiday's downward trajectory is impressively performed by Ross...and Ross does a great job singing Holiday's songs. Richard Pryor holds his own as Holiday's unnamed but steadfast accompanist credited as Piano Man.
Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling is a film I remember from the summer I graduated high school. I didn't see it but I do recall it. Reminding me of All That Jazz, Jo Jo Dancer (Richard Pryor) is a thinly disguised autobiographical character who begins the film by nearly burning himself to death while freebasing crack cocaine. In fact, the film devotes quite a bit of screen time about the process which is not surprising given that Richard Pryor directed the film and almost burned himself to death freebasing crack cocaine a few years before making Jo Jo Dancer.
Pryor turns a critical eye on himself (technically Jo Jo Dancer, fictitious stand-up comedian) and the results are impressive; both Pryor performance as an actor and director. Largely a confessional, Jo Jo Dancer appears to expose Pryor's shortcomings for all too see - born and raised in his grandmother's whorehouse, failed marriages, drug use and the fateful freebasing incident which is portrayed as a suicide attempt in the film. Jo Jo Dancer is very dark film which is balanced by Dancer/Pryor's stand-up routines. Pryor uses the alter ego or disembodied spirit of Dancer as the guide for the audience. Constantly providing commentary on the events, Dancer serves as both narrator and anti-hero.
Paula Kelly (Sweet Charity) as the stripper who takes young Jo Jo under her wing and Barbara Williams & Debbie Allen as wives #2 and #3 are memorable.
I was moved by the film and felt almost a kinship to Pryor which I had never felt before. That's my measuring stick - after the viewing I went from being mostly disinterested to sympathetic towards Pryor.
|Castro Theater Calendar - February 2016|