Daily Sketch

15 years ago today, Halle Berry and Denzel Washington both won Oscars at the 74th annual Academy Awards ceremony.

 

 

© 2017

 

I Love Lucy (Who Doesn’t?)

Today is “I Love Lucy” Day. On October 15, 1951, I Love Lucy made its television debut. To celebrate the 60th anniversary of I Love Lucy, I decided to share this article again!

The Tempo

Lucille Ball (colored pencil)

Every morning when I wake up (usually between 6:30-7:00 am) it’s 1951, telephones have rotary dials not apps, televisions are black and white not HD, people are reading the newspaper not their lap tops, and husbands and wives are sleeping in separate beds with matching pajamas and are happily wed.  If you haven’t guessed why yet, I’ll tell you now; it’s because I’m watching I Love Lucy.  A tougher question to answer is how come?  How come I watch this show each and every morning while eating breakfast, ironing my clothes and getting ready to head out the door for work?  I live in the 21st century and wasn’t even born when the show was originally on the air.  In fact, my parents were kids when I Love Lucy took America by storm and became a television phenomenon.  I think the answer lies in the personalities behind the characters…

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The Strokes: Comedown Machine

The Strokes silhouette (Oil pastels)

Comedown Machine is the fifth studio album released by The Strokes, and the third I have purchased.  When The Strokes released their critically acclaimed first album titled Is This It  in 2001, I missed it.  In fact, I still have not heard it.  Why?  Because…well, I don’t really have a good answer for that question.  In fact, it’s pretty much a musical anomaly that I would even be interested in The Strokes given that:  a. I was not allowed to listen to any type of music other than gospel music when I was a kid, and b. when I finally did begin to listen to secular music, I was drawn to r&b and hip-hop.  Later, I got interested in the sampled music that rappers and singers were incorporating into their music, which lead me to caches of jazz and soul catalogues.  Put quite simply, I had yet to cultivate an ear for rock music by the beginning of the last decade.

Sometime in 2003, a feeling of restlessness overcame me.  Every time I went into a music store to rummage through vinyl crates and CD bins, I found myself repeating the mantra encapsulated in The Strokes’ debut album title: “Is this it?”  I needed to get out of the monotony of listening to the same music over and over again.  So I turned to MTV and started paying attention to all of the videos that, before, I would have normally dismissed with the click of a remote either because the artist didn’t look like me, or wasn’t rapping/singing over a melodic, hypnotic head-nod commanding beat.  Yes that’s right, I started watching rock videos.

One day, during my strange journey through all things contemporary rock, a band managed to catch my attention.  Here were these 5 guys, with this sort of nonchalant attitude that said “we’re cool without trying to be cool.”  The lead singer’s voice was equally reserved, collected and placid.  Their name was The Strokes and their latest album was titled Room on Fire.  I went out and bought it.  The rest is history.  Well, sort of.

After skipping out on 2006’s First Impressions of Earth, I caught up again with The Strokes in 2011 for their fourth album Angles, a delightful patchwork of upbeat, and mid-tempo songs that are rock at the core, but with elements of soul (and I guess what could be considered techno) slightly detectable below the surface.

Comedown Machine pushes back against the pervasive pressure applied to artists, by management and fans alike, to churn out spotless melodious widgets.  The second song on the album titled All The Time, is capped off with 30 seconds of pianissimo intermittent guitar strokes and background noise.  At 3 minutes and 28 seconds into the accordion parodied effect and distorted break infused song 80s Comedown Machine, fidgety rustlings of what could be door keys or coins piled in an ashtray bleed through the recording for a full 25 seconds.  After 4 minutes and 5 seconds into Slow Animals, the song concludes with an explosion from a geyser of guffaws.  Were The strokes prematurely laughing at their critics, (most of whom wrote less than favorable reviews of this album) or just having a blast making music?  Either way, this worked for me.

Julian Casablancas’ creamy falsetto on One Way Trigger succeeds with bursts of 3 syllable exhortations:

Find a job
Find a friend
Find a home
Find a dog
Settle down
Out of town
Find a dream
Shut it down

He then goes on to curiously ask “What kind of asshole drives a Lotus?” in the Nikolai Fraiture bouncy bass line driven Welcome To Japan.  Casablancas’ questioning of societal practices always seems to sneak up on you, when you least expect it, like on the last song on Angles titled Life Is Simple In The Moonlight when he sings:

Making fools out of the best of us

Making robots of the rest of us

Innocence itself in America today

Is a crime just like Cornel West would say

 On Call It Fate, Call It Karma, Casablancas’ falsetto returns as an echo of Billie Holiday’s shrill, haunting vibrato that sort of dangled off the edge of a cliff until it succumbed to the next measure, when he asks, “Can I waste all your time here on the sidewalk?”.

On the self assured song 50/50 Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond, Jr. compliment each other with searing, steadfast guitar riffs.  And drummer Fab Moretti’s rolling tom-tom work on Partners In Crime  heralds a midi-like background vocal overlay like a medieval ambassador would a wizard.  Prepare to be enchanted!

When you open the CD booklet for Comedown Machine, don’t expect credits or lyrics.  Instead, all that is printed are the silhouettes of the 5 band members against a red backdrop.  In the internet age, you can always go online to get lyrics.  Hell, you can go online and get the music.  But then you miss out on some of the creativity that the artists wish to pass on to you by hand.  The personality of Comedown Machine retains the same attractiveness as The Strokes possessed when I first encountered them in 2003.  Their music hasn’t changed, but it has grown.  In fact, taking Comedown Machine into consideration, perhaps the proper word is flourished.

© 2013

Oz the Great and Powerful

The Wicked Witch of the West (Oil Pastels)

Quadlings, tinkers, and a china doll join the familiar cast of Munchkins, flying monkeys, and witches to conjure a tale of a conniving carnie named Oscar Diggs’ rise to power in Oz the Great and Powerful.  This prequel, of sorts, to the 1939 film titled The Wizard of Oz is based on works by L. Frank Baum who wrote the original book titled The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which was published in 1900.

Oscar “Oz” Diggs (played by James Franco) begins his journey in Kansas as an unsuccessful carnival magician who pulls upon more strings attached to women’s hearts than upon rabbit ears from out of hats.  Oz yearns for greatness instead of the mediocrity he sees within his own existence.  He despises his assistants and highlights their faults by angrily shouting insults at them.  The sullen tears of a disabled girl (Joey King) who believes his powers will make it possible for her to walk again have no effect on him.  Even the news from Annie (Michelle Williams), his beloved girlfriend from years passed, that she has received a marriage proposal from another suitor, does not persuade him to choose the promise of fulfillment that stands in front of him, that of a family life, over his dubious prospect for prominence.  Enter the gale!

I will stop short of sounding a spoiler alert for all you stragglers out there who have not yet seen the movie.  Giving away the details of a story’s denouement is wholly unforgivable.  I’m still pissed off at the guy in front of me in line for Attack of the Clones who, talking to his buddy, loudly informed him and anyone else within an earshot that “Anakin gets his arm cut off in this one.”  Thanks Jerk!  But what I will say is that the extra few dollars to see the majestic Land of Oz in 3D is well worth it.  The classic corridor themed opening credits are equally phenomenal, as is the water-spewing river fairy which made me blink, the storm of raining spears which made me flinch, and the billowy entrance of the Wicked Witch of the West which made my inner child cower.

The Wizard of Oz has always been a character that I’ve struggled to view as favorable.  He is after all, a “humbug,” as the Scarecrow played by Ray Bolger in The Wizard of Oz put it.  The genius of Oz the Great and Powerful lies in its ability to convince us to trade the trickery for the ingenuity, and to overlook the dastardly for the stealthy.  With wicked witches in pursuit and the precious china in pieces, haggling over the would-be wizard’s virtuousness may not be the wisest course to take, depending on the seriousness of the character flaw in question and provided that he can indeed rid the land of the greater evil.  And of course, for all of his slyness, we do need the Wizard to rid the land of the greater evil.

But for all the genius Oz the Great and Powerful exudes, one thing it cannot do is replicate Judy Garland (Dorothy), Ray Bolger (the Scarecrow), Jack Haley (The Tin Man), Bert Lahr (the Cowardly Lion) and Terry (Toto) on the yellow brick road.  Though I’m told a sequel is in the works that may reprise The Wizard of Oz characters we all have grown to love over the years, nothing will ever compare to their songs.  The innocence of Judy Garland’s voice in Over the Rainbow, Ray Bolger’s whimsical If I Only Had a Brain, the tenderness of Jack Haley’s If I Only Had a Heart, and the hysteria of Bert Lahr’s If I Only Had the Nerve and If I Were King of the Forest are what I would have asked the Wizard for if I was a Hollywood director in Emerald City.

© 2013

Searching For Sugar Man: The Music of Rodriguez

Rodriguez (Graphite pencil, color pencil and oil pastel)

The story of Rodriguez, the folk musician from Detroit, Michigan, whose music in America laid dormant for 4 decades, continues to amaze me.  If you’re a music fan like me, you already know the story of how his albums released in the 1970’s sold poorly and he subsequently vanished into the unassuming life of a construction worker in the “Motor City.”  He earned a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy, and while he was going about his life after music, unbeknownst to him, thousands of miles away in South Africa, his music was being celebrated.

His fans in South Africa reportedly sang his songs with the same fervor as any Elvis or Beatles enthusiast.  A persistent rumor circulated amongst his fans that Rodriguez had committed suicide.  But after a while his fans managed to track him down and disprove the rumor, and what happened next would seem like pure folklore if it wasn’t true.  The obscure American folk musician whose music was largely ignored in his own country became a living legend and his career was resurrected.

The documentary Searching For Sugar Man released in 2012 chronicles this modern day legend.  The movie was shown in select theaters around the country and I did not get a chance to see it.  However, I have plans to watch it on DVD very soon.  In the mean time, I’ve read several articles about it and caught the 60 Minutes broadcast in which Rodriguez was featured.  I also caught Rodriguez’s performance on the Later…With Jools Holland program.

Every time I watch video of Rodriguez walking around his inner-city Detroit neighborhood, I can’t help but envision him as some sort of musical superhero, merely wearing the disguise of an everyday Joe.  If Rodriguez walked by you, you wouldn’t think he was capable of superhuman feats, sort of like if Clark Kent or Bruce Banner happened to stroll by you on the sidewalk.  But instead of being able to fly or lift automobiles over his head with his bare hands, Rodriguez does the impossible with an acoustic guitar; he inspires the poor who are victims of economic injustice and gives a voice to the voiceless in the presence of deafening tyranny.

I purchased a copy of the soundtrack to the Searching For Sugar Man documentary, and I love how on the back of the CD it says: “Rodriguez receives royalties from the sale of this release.”  It feels good to see an artist of Rodriguez’s stature finally get his just due.

The CD includes 14 of Rodriguez’s songs, heavy anti oppression anthems rich with imagery and metaphors.  In the song titled Cause, Rodriguez sings,

Cause I lost my job two weeks before Christmas

And I talked to Jesus at the sewer

And the Pope said it was none of his God-damned business

While the rain drank champagne…

Rodriguez’s songs like this, the ones that call in to question everything I learned about religion, cause me to think about the world today.  It makes me think about Pope Benedict XVI retiring and the news about fresh scandals in the church.  It makes me think about unemployment and the millions of people who live in poverty in America – the wealthiest nation on earth.   It makes me wonder how these songs could have been written 4 decades ago and yet sound like they were inspired by today’s newspaper headlines.

It is thrilling to be a part of a generation in America that is just now getting acquainted with the music of Rodriguez.  A story like this doesn’t come along all that often.  We’re a little bit late on this as Americans, but as the old saying goes, better late than never.

Have you seen Searching For Sugar Man or listened to the soundtrack?  If so what did you think?

© 2013

Hitchcock

When I first heard about Hitchcock, the film starring Anthony Hopkins as the famed eccentric film director, I was excited to see it.  Then I found out that the movie was only going to be released in select theaters around the country.  Unfortunately, none of those select theaters were in reasonable driving distance from where I live.  When the movie was finally scheduled to be shown nearer to where I live, for some odd reason, I had lost the initial desire I felt to watch the film.  Maybe it’s because trailers from other movies clouded my brain and sponged up whatever anticipatory residue Hitchcock’s preview had first left behind…weeks ago.  Then I found out Ralph Macchio had a part in Hitchcock, and I began to get interested again.  It feels like he’s been away from movies for far too long, and I was eager to see him in something again.  Then I found out Scarlett Johansson was also in the film when she graced David Letterman’s Late Show, in a stunning dress, appearing from the guest stage entrance as if floating on a cloud, serenaded to the dreamy Paul Shaffer rendition of Chaka Khan’s Sweet Thing.  One adult ticket for Hitchcock at 1:30 pm please!

I found the interpersonal dynamics between Hitch (Alfred Hitchcock liked to be called Hitch) and his wife Alma Reville, played vigorously by Helen Mirren, fascinating.  To watch the lives of both Hitch and his wife exposed on the screen was voyeuristic, likened to a fly on the wall amidst the most intimate situations involving a genius filmmaker husband at work and an assistant director wife, equally as brilliant; managing constant challenges ranging from her husband’s obsessions with his leading ladies to fine tuning production on studio sets.  Often times the tension in their marriage seems to have teetered toward the boiling point, yet each, with respect to their filmmaking craft, remained sharp enough to produce some of the greatest art ever brought about in film.  Watching Hopkins and Mirren as actors, wading through the waters of this marital psychological passive aggressiveness, at times, is as suspenseful, and thrilling as any Hitchcock film.

The part of Janet Leigh handled wonderfully by Scarlett Johansson exuded everything the leading ladies of Hitchcock films are notorious for: elegance, grace, sex and sophistication.  It’s forgivable, as an audience member watching the movie, to see how Hitch becomes obsessed with his leading lady, less so when we find out what extreme measures he vainly employs to get what he desires.  Yet I couldn’t help but conclude that this enigmatic spell that seems to have been unwittingly, continuously cast on Hitch by his leading ladies, as ominous as its effects were as evidenced by his inexcusable resulting behavior, somehow, also ironically helped to add the irresistible appeal to his films.  In the presence of the violence that ensues in a Hitchcock film, is always found the charm of a gorgeous woman that stirs up a storm in the heart of a man which cannot be placated.  Who better to play this part than Scarlett Johansson?

When I was a teenager, my parents took my brother and I to Disney World for a family vacation.  I remember the Hitchcock exhibit at Universal Studios being one of my favorites.  For the first time ever I sat in a movie theater, and this was truly something magnificent for me because at that age, I had never been in a movie theater before due to our strict religious upbringing that forbade going to movie theaters.  But since technically this was an exhibit and not an official movie viewing, I was aloud to sit in the movie theater.  There, I learned all about the special effects that Alfred Hitchcock used in his movies, from chocolate syrup used as blood in Psycho to how he got all of those winged creatures to attack in The Birds.  They even showed segments of some of his films in 3D, which was the most amazing thing I had ever seen at that age.  Ever since then, I’ve been an avid Hitchcock film fan.  I love the nostalgia, music and clothes from the 1950’s and ‘60’s eras that his films capture.  The artistic direction of his films is often overwhelming to my sight as I take in all of the splashes of color from each object and wall, meticulously fussed over, frame by frame, that all come together to warm or cool the screen.

If I had to undertake the arduous task of picking out my favorite Hitchcock film from all the rest, I guess, reluctantly, I would choose Dial M for Murder.  I say that reluctantly, because Vertigo is also my favorite.  What’s your favorite Hitchcock film?

© 2013

Rock Bottom Burlesque: Striptease, Fire Dancing and More!

A couple of weeks ago I attended my first ever burlesque show.  To be honest, other than striptease, I have to admit that I knew nothing about burlesque.  I’ve been to my fair share of gentlemen’s clubs over the years and seen everything from exotic dancers putting on shows in the shower to the “hush-hush” of the VIP rooms.  And yet nothing I’ve ever experienced at Rachel’s compares to the level of artistry combined with sensuality that I witnessed watching the Rock Bottom Burlesque troupe perform their show called Swamp Town.

In order to fully appreciate Swamp Town, I decided to go online and research the history of burlesque.  I didn’t want to be the guy in the crowd who only showed up to see beautiful girls dancing in revealing costumes and sticking out like some sore thumb pervert.  In my crash course on this art form, I learned that burlesque involves many things including, but not limited to: music, theater, literature, dance, humor, political satire, puppets and yes, of course, striptease!  No longer could I reduce burlesque to just corset skirts, lingerie and bordello shoes (although I was pleased as punch to see them…don’t get me wrong, I am a man after all) because, as I found out, burlesque has a rich history and tradition going  all the way back to the 17th century.

Rock Bottom Burlesque’s Swamp Town is a story about a rural community facing impending dangers which include greedy real estate business men hell-bent on development and commercialization, encroaching winds and water from hurricanes, trigger happy law enforcement, and the dreaded alligators which have been banned from Swamp Town, as can be seen by the sign that welcomes visitors: No Gators Permitted!  The show begins with a trio of musicians; a banjo player, guitar player and washtub bass player who offer Bluegrass and Folk renditions of songs in between acts which include classic tunes like Cab Calloway’s Minnie the Moocher.  As the drama ensues, we meet church ladies on porches, drunkards in bars, a fire dancer, cryptic oracles predicting storms, bible toting preachers and lovelies baring it all –  well not really because pasties were used, sorry guys!

By the time of the curtain call when the show ended, I felt really appreciative of having been invited out to watch Swamp Town.  The rest of the crowd shared my sentiments, evidenced by the applause.  Suddenly all the books I had read in the past of my favorite actors and musicians who performed Vaudeville and on the Chitlin’ Circuit flooded my mind, and I realized that I had just witnessed a very unique show that came out of that same tradition.  The music of Swamp Town kept my head nodding and foot tapping to its energetic beat and the actors made me laugh out loud from beginning to end.  The creativity of the set and costumes took us back in time to the early 1900’s where the play is set, and the dialogue was engaging; often prompting people in the audience to yell out at the players which allowed the members of the troupe to display their sharp improvisational skills.  And I’m happy to report that no gators followed me home; only fond memories to last a lifetime.

From left to right: Rock Bottom Burlesque’s Bear on banjo and actor Tuesday Lee Afton

© 2011

 

I Love Lucy (Who Doesn’t?)

Lucille Ball (colored pencil)

Every morning when I wake up (usually between 6:30-7:00 am) it’s 1951, telephones have rotary dials not apps, televisions are black and white not HD, people are reading the newspaper not their lap tops, and husbands and wives are sleeping in separate beds with matching pajamas and are happily wed.  If you haven’t guessed why yet, I’ll tell you now; it’s because I’m watching I Love Lucy.  A tougher question to answer is how come?  How come I watch this show each and every morning while eating breakfast, ironing my clothes and getting ready to head out the door for work?  I live in the 21st century and wasn’t even born when the show was originally on the air.  In fact, my parents were kids when I Love Lucy took America by storm and became a television phenomenon.  I think the answer lies in the personalities behind the characters of the show, and the era in which it is set; a time less concentrated on technology and more centered on traditional family values.

After reading Ball of Fire: The Tumultuous Life And Comic Art of Lucille Ball by Stefan Kanfer, I began to appreciate the lives of each cast member and the impact they continually have on my life as a present day viewer of the show.  Watching Desi Arnaz perform at the Tropicana Club as Ricky Ricardo keeps me dreaming of being a professional musician when I’m lugging my conga drums up and down flights of stairs and across town to gigs.  Watching Lucy and Ethel (Vivian  Vance) make up after feuding over something trivial reminds me of how special a true friend is, and how nothing should get in the way of that friendship.  The same can be said about Ricky and Fred (William Frawley), although what do they really have to argue about when they share the same interests like hitting golf balls on the fairway and listening to boxing on the radio?  I found it amusing to know that when I Love Lucy first debuted on October 15, 1951, and the whole cast went over the Arnaz’s ranch to watch the televised episode, everyone was in attendance accept for William Frawley, who instead opted to go home and listen to the heavy weight fights on his radio.  Now there’s a man who loved boxing as much as I do!  (RIP Joe Frazier)

Now every time I have a rum and coke at a bar I’ll think of Desi Arnaz, whose mother’s grandfather was a cofounder of Bacardi Rum, thanks to reading Stefan Kanfer’s book.  I’ll also remember how Lucille Ball answered 2,867 letters sent to her from concerned fans after her miscarriage, how she survived antagonism from the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) who threatened to end her career because they labeled her a communist, how she endured losing her father to Typhoid fever when he died at the age of 28 (she was only 3 years old), and of course, how she overcame ridicule after ridicule from drama school instructors and Hollywood executives who thought she wasn’t good enough to make it in the business.  How wrong they were!

I Love Lucy also keeps me dreaming of the prospect of romance, in addition to fulfilling my dream to become an artist.  In a day and age of constant sexual scandal, misconduct, abuse and dysfunction, it’s a real relief to see a healthy relationship played out on screen.  Of course, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz’s marriage was not perfect, but watching them on screen, imparting the best of what brought them together in the first place; the love they shared for one another, gives the viewer an experience and enjoyment unrivaled by any other television show to date.  Put quite simply, I always feel good after watching.  I always feel like there is hope of recreating the beautiful harmony of their relationship that comes through in every line spoken and display of affection.  And until I can do that, the Hallmark channel has me covered every single morning!

© 2011

 

The Top 10 Gangster Movie Roles of All Time

“As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster…”  Every gangster movie fan will recall that quote from the film Goodfellas delivered ominously by Ray Liotta.  American society’s  fascination with violence and power did not escape me as a child, and as far back as I can remember, I was always a fan of the Gangster movie genre.  I watched gangster movies so much as a kid, I felt like some of these characters actually resided with me in my living room, or could have been members of my family-La Colesa Nostra has a good ring to it don’t you think?  So I thought it was time to compile a top ten list of my favorite gangsters in cinema.  (Number one being my favorite, in descending order).  So ladies and gentlemen, I hope you brought your bullet proof flash drives with you and remember not to sit with your backs facing your web portal, because this could get ugly…

10.  Chazz Palminteri as Sonny LoSpecchio in A Bronx Tale:  Everything about Sonny is cool, from his suits, to the way he talks with his fingers, to the way he drives his car in reverse around the block.  I have to admit, I took my vehicle for a spin in reverse around a block or two after watching this movie over and over again.  Fortunately the police didn’t catch me acting out my gangster fantasies of being Sonny the mob boss in my 1994 Ford Escort Sport.  Those were the days, when I could follow Sonny’s advice about dumping a girl on the spot if she was too selfish to reach over and unlock my door from the inside after I extended the courtesy of opening and shutting her car door for her.  Now that philosophy is obsolete because of electric and remote access locks.  But one of Sonny’s maxims, “Sometimes hurting somebody ain’t the answer”  still rings true today, as he schools Calogero AKA “C” during his frustration over an attempt to collect $20 he lent to a friend of his.  Sonny tells him, “He’s outta your life for $20, you got off cheap, forget it,” after convincing C that violence is not necessary to solve such a small problem.  Who says gangsters can’t be diplomatic?

9.  Gregory Hines as Goldy in A Rage in Harlem:  The virtuoso of Tap dance scores big time in this mad rush for gold gangster story in which  Mississippi and New York mobsters clash over loot and booty.  One of the best chase scenes ever filmed features Gregory Hines’ Goldy dashing up flights of stairs, flying from roof top to roof top, and in and out of get-away-cars.  Goldy’s footwork is as fanciful as the real life Hines’ dance choreography and his timing with his gun as sharp as the moves he flashed on Broadway.  Any good crime and suspense drama is always enhanced by comic relief, and Goldy wisecracks with the best of them!  Never once is he fooled by a pretty smile or intimidated by an opponent, be it crook or copper.  The gold is what is eminent, hence the appropriate moniker – Goldy.  From his first appearance on screen, groovily strolling out of a ballroom where later Screamin’ Jay Hawkins will perform at the Annual Undertaker’s Ball, momentarily pausing to greet a pretty girl on the sidewalk, and seconds later warding off a mob boss, all within a couple of strides, Goldy makes a memorable impression.

8.  Joe Pesci as Tommy DeVito in Goodfellas: The character of Tommy is more like the Terminator than a button; a true maniac that somehow in his madness conjures up wit and charisma that makes you laugh seconds before or after he’s just totally annihilated somebody for no reason at all.  But I’m not going to lie.  If I had to go to war and I was in the trenches on a battlefield, there’s no doubt I would be calling Tommy to come to my aid.  This guy is a machine, a time bomb just waiting to explode.  Don’t ever remind him he used to shine shoes before he wore silk suits, forget to serve him a drink at a game of cards, or embarrass him in public.  Because if you do, believe me you’re asking for trouble…and lots of it!

7.  Tupac Shakur as Roland Bishop in Juice:  It’s been 19 years since Juice was released in theaters and I still haven’t forgiven Bishop for killing Raheem.  I mean everything was going as planned: they got in the store, they successfully held it up, they were on their way to proving they belonged in the same league as Radames, and then BANG!  Bishop becomes the neighborhood’s worst nightmare.  Q couldn’t even finish his set at the DJ contest with a clear conscious, and he had been waiting for that moment his whole life…Queen Latifah was hosting man!  But I thought Bishop was the definition of cool when I was a teenager: The Gumby box fade, the flowing hoody, the baggy jeans and boots, and the machine gun necklace charm.  Bishop turned me on to James Cagney movies like White Heat (“Made it ma, top of the world!”) and made being an outlaw look like a never ending adrenaline rush.  Tupac proved to be the quintessential artist, having certainly acquired his acting chops at the Baltimore School for the Arts as a teen.  As Bishop, he sums up his significance within his crew and in Hollywood with the now infamous line, “I’m the one ya’ll need to be worried about, partner!”  Classic!

6.  Calvin Lockhart as Silky Slim and Biggie Smalls in Uptown Saturday Night and Let’s Do it Again:  Both of these Sidney Poitier directed films starring him and Bill Cosby were second to none in my household growing up as a kid.  Calvin Lockhart’s portrayals are consistently as gangster as it gets and it’s difficult to choose one role over the other in each of the films, so I had to pair his characters together in the number 6 slot.  When Silky Slim holds up Madame Zenobia’s establishment, he delivers the smoothest line I’ve ever heard in my life.  With a machine gun clutched in his hands and mask over his face, he thanks the crowd for their cooperation by saying, “Never before have so few owed so much to so many.”  Whew!  It get’s even better in Let’s Do it Again when he and John Amos who, cast as Kansas City Mack, gets an honorable mention in this top ten list, go at each other’s throats over gambling territory in New Orleans, LA.  Lockhart’s Biggie Smalls (Yes that’s where The Notorious B.I.G. got his alias) is cooler than cool, with a gritty baritone voice best described as unearthly, and wardrobe including leather jackets, platforms and berets.  He looks like he could have just finished a set with Curtis Mayfield, who provides the masterful score for Let’s Do it Again, as he collects and pays off.

5.  Robert De Niro as Vito Corleone and Al Pacino as Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part II:  Another tandem this time fills in the 5th spot on this list, appropriately so, as there is no way for me to choose between these two phenomenal actors portraying two memorable roles.  The Godfather Part II and it’s two main protagonists simply are a cut above most gangster films because of the way the past tale of Vito Corleone is intricately woven into the present story of Michael Corleone.  Vito’s rise to power is chronicled by his emergence as a man of the common people, standing up to tyranny and economic exploitation.  Michael is left to struggle with his own demons in his attempt to establish his family’s business as legitimate.  From Vito insisting a neighbor’s rent be reduced by a greedy landlord, to Michael’s chess match with hypocritical government representatives who rendezvous in fancy hotels with mistresses, the Corleone men aim to find their place in world full of deceit, tricks and lies.  And they do it often by making offers others seldom can refuse.

4.  James Cagney as Eddie Bartlett and Humphrey Bogart as George Hally in The Roaring Twenties:  The Depression era takes center stage in this gangster film where Eddie and George, former soldiers in World War I, find themselves interlocked in another war when they return home over bootlegging, prohibition.  If  you’ve  never seen this one, James Cagney’s Eddie Bartlett will dazzle you with right hand hooks that level two brutes with one punch, fits of controlled rage that leave pretend tough guys with their cigars smashed in their faces, and one of the best gangster end scene chase sequences of all time, probably only second to White Heat.  Humphrey Bogart’s George Hally is no slouch either, with an itchy trigger finger and dialing finger, never hesitating to put in his own work or telephone someone else to carry out his orders.  The two characters combine to produce something really special in this timeless tale of early 2oth century America.

3.  Denzel Washington as Frank Lucas in American Gangster:  I literally watched this movie every single time it was broadcast on HBO when it was first released on cable, for like three weeks, or so it seemed.  Wow!  I understand this was a biopic and horrible events occurred in the real life account of Frank Lucas, but didn’t Denzel make you want to fill out a job application for his organization in this one?  Maybe it’s just me, but I definitely wanted to go along on the ride to meet beautiful Puerto Rican beauty pageant winners, sit ringside at heavy weight championship bouts, fly to Vietnam and tell kingpins and warlords, uninvited, that I didn’t need anyone’s permission to run my own business in the states, and hold serve in a game reserved for Anglo Saxons and Italians.  This character was some sort of three-part Molotov cocktail made up of politics, entrepreneurship, and racketeering.  And he knew how to properly maintain carpet, as he emphatically reminded us when his was stained during a party, to use club soda and blot…never rub!

2.  Samuel L. Jackson as Jules Winnfield in Pulp Fiction:  “The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men.  Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness.  For he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children.  And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers.  And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee.”  -Jules Winnfield.  Um…Mr. scary  hit man with the curly afro who just ate my Big Kahuna burger and drank my Sprite, I know I offended your boss and that I am guilty.  But could you please just have mercy on me and kill me without reciting that Bible scripture first, because, I’ve never heard such a frightening thing!  I think that’s how I would have responded to Jules Winnfield’s soliloquy if I was Brett, the victim, right after I lost control of my bodily fluids, and in between my tears and snotty, running nose.  I honestly don’t know of a scarier hit man in the movies than Jules, who is more like a wandering philosopher.  One minute he has me cracking up with laughter, the next minute contemplating miracles, and the next, double checking to make sure my door is locked.  And no gangster has ever had better hair, period.

And the number 1 gangster movie role of all time is (drum roll please)…James Caan as Santino “Sonny” Corleone in The Godfather:  I believe, way down in my heart, that as a child, I was immediately traumatized when I saw Sonny mowed down like wheat in a field at that tollbooth.  At that young tender age, I knew nothing about stunts, special effects, blank ammunition, and fake blood.  All I knew was that my hero, who saved Rocky Balboa’s wife Adrian (Talia Shire) from a physically abusive husband Carlo, by giving him the ass whipping of his life, which included punches to his face, knees to his midsection, biting his knuckles, and hitting him with his own shoe, a garbage can, the lid of the garbage can, and finally kicking him into a spewing fire hydrant, was just shot with a zillion bullets.  I honestly thought it was real the first time I saw it.  What are we going to do about this, I wondered?  Is there anyone we can report this to or can we just take up arms to avenge this?  I was ready to go after those thugs, even if it meant something bad might happen to me, like getting punched or having my toys stolen or something.  But anyone who can hand out a beat down like the one Sonny, my all time favorite cinematic gangster, gives Carlo, and do it without their loose tie strung around the collar of their shirt falling off, has to be the greatest of all time.

© 2011

“She’s Gay?” The Night Homophobia Almost Ruined The Color Purple Musical

“She’s Gay?”  The words penetrated my concentration like a linebacker through an offensive line hell-bent on sacking the quarterback on a Sunday afternoon.  There I was, enjoying a production of Oprah Winfrey’s The Color Purple musical at the Raymond F. Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, in downtown West Palm Beach, FL, when a fellow theatergoer sitting amongst us in the loge couldn’t help himself but blurt out his thoughts for all to hear.  Obviously, he was taken aback by the scene he had just witnessed in which Celie and Shug Avery shared affection.  Obviously, he hadn’t read the book written by Alice Walker.  Perhaps he had seen the movie?  What followed his short two word utterance was abhorrent.

Apparently, he and several other people thought what he had just said was the funniest thing they’d ever heard.  His unfortunately timed question was met with uproarious laughter that ushered in what would turn out to be three to five minutes of wholly unacceptable behavior for the theater.  The laughing splintered off into annoying fits of giggles, chuckles, snickers and shrieks.  What must have been the more mature persons in their group then resorted to “shooshes” in order to extinguish the fire of hee-hawing rapidly spreading from their row into the next.  Regrettably, the noise was so disturbing that the dialogue of the actors was completely drowned out for us to hear.

Now if this were to happen at a movie theater, as it did when I went to see Eddie Murphy’s version of The Nutty Professor back in 1996, I would be more forgiving.  Why?  Because I paid $10 for a movie ticket and, yes, Eddie Murphy is the funniest comedic genius to appear since Richard Pryor.  He’s supposed to make us laugh and fall out of our chairs and miss parts of the dialogue because of his humor; and he did.  But when I pay $62.00 to go to the theater every once or twice a year (because that’s as often as I can afford to go), dammit, I expect quiet from the opening scene until just before the curtain call.  Sure, occasional clapping and appropriate laughter is expected to show the cast your appreciation and support, but not to the extent where a whole portion of the drama is lost upon the audience.

But I fear the brunt of this rude awakening I experienced that night was not the face of immaturity, or a lack of theater decorum.  I’m afraid homophobia, once again, reared its ugly face in our divided society.  It could be that this young man, cursed with impetuous speech, was just so enthralled with the musical that he simply forgot he was in a theater surrounded by people hanging on every word spoken and lyric sung by the awesome cast.  Yet, the emphasis he put on the word “gay” was so accented in a manner that overwhelmingly hinted at his disapproval of what he had just seen.  And, really, the scene was more about the importance of being loved, accepting love, and feeling loved than anything else.  That Celie’s love was given to her by Shug Avery, another woman, shouldn’t matter because here was a woman who was raped, beaten, and abused for the better part of her life.  Her children were taken from her and the only other person who ever loved her, Nettie her sister, was also forced out of her life.  So when Shug and Celie embrace each other, kiss one another, and experience the ultimate intimacy that lovers share, her wounds are healed.

I am not naive to the point to think that a drama of this level of excellence and literary sophistication as The Color Purple is, will be objectively entertained by all who encounter it; especially those who are more conservative in their thinking.  Such open and honest expressions of sexuality are not everyone’s cup of tea.  But on behalf of civilized lovers of art and theater around the globe, please keep your antiquated, pre 21st century, divisive, stereotypical, close-minded, rude comments to yourself the next time you are in the theater…at least until the show is over.  Then by all means, feel free to be as ignorant as you so desire; to your little heart’s content, in utilizing your right of free speech.  Because, of course, this is America!

© 2011