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John Wick

The film breathes exhilarating life into its tired premise, thanks to some dazzling action choreography, stylish visuals and–most importantly–a vintage anti-hero performance from Keanu Reeves.

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Low Down

Preiss' movie does a consistently excellent job of explaining the lure of jazz, and the psychology of addicts, their enablers and their children, without explaining…

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Ballad of Narayama

"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

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Monsieur Hire

Patrice Leconte's "Monsieur Hire" is a tragedy about loneliness and erotomania, told about two solitary people who have nothing else in common. It involves a…

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* This filmography is not intended to be a comprehensive list of this artist’s work. Instead it reflects the films this person has been involved with that have been reviewed on this site.

Jeni le Gon: The first black woman signed by Hollywood was livin' and dancin' in great big way

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My good Sun-Times pal from the 1970s at the Chicago Sun-Times, Cynthia Dagnal, wrote me today:

"A friend in London sent me this, obituary from the London indpendent and I was stunned to see that Jeni Le Gon attended the same Southside dancing school in Chicago that I did. It was probably the most reputable one on that side of the "color line," and not very far from my house. So I studied with the younger "protégés" of Mary Bruce, and all those cute pics of me in little but EXPENSIVE tutus and whatnot that I sometimes use on my blogs are reminders of those days! I took tap, jazz and ballet as a wee one, and loved to walk around en pointe all day long in those danged--and also expensive--toe shoes!"

Le Gon (born in Georgia Aug. 24,1916; died December 7, 2012) was the first African-American women to sign with a major studio, but there was more to it that that. From the loving obit by Stephen Bourne in the Independent:

"Following her screen debut, the vivacious Le Gon was signed by MGM and paid the huge sum of $1,250 a week. They gave her a role in Broadway Melody of 1936 but, she said, "MGM hosted a party for the mayors of various cities and the cast of Broadway Melody of 1936 entertained them. Eleanor Powell, the famous tap dancer from Broadway, had also been signed for the movie and after I stopped the show on performance night at the mayors' party, MGM decided they couldn't have two tap dancers in the picture and I was dropped from the studio. If I had been white, they would have kept me because I could have developed into something, but they let me go. While I was at MGM I was told I wasn't allowed to eat in the main dining room. Here, they were paying me $1,250 a week and telling me I wasn't good enough to eat in their dining room. But Hollywood was no different to the rest of the country in that respect."

Also from the obit:

" She played maids to Maria Montez in Arabian Nights (1942), Ann Miller in Easter Parade (1948) and Betty Hutton in Somebody Loves Me (1952). Tiring of maid roles, Le Gon faced humiliation in 1950 when she joined a group of black actors to call on Ronald Reagan, then president of the Screen Actors Guild. They raised their concerns about the stereotyping of black actors, but Reagan showed no interest: "We tried to get him to intervene for us, but he wasn't the least bit sympathetic. He didn't even lie about it."

After moving with her family to Chicago, Le Gon attended Mary Bruce's School of Dancing. At the age of 16, she embarked on a professional career after successfully auditioning for the chorus of the Count Basie Orchestra. After arriving in California in the mid-1930s, Le Gon's energetic and expert dancing skills were noticed by Earl Dancer, a black producer and talent scout. Dancer took Le Gon under his wing and he was instrumental in bringing her to the attention of various Hollywood studios.

She made her film debut in RKO Radio's Hooray for Love (1935), in a lively musical sequence in which she was teamed with Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and Fats Waller. The trio's rendition of "I'm Livin' in a Great Big Way" was sensational and, after Hooray for Love, Fats Waller employed Le Gon as a vocalist and dancer with his band. Le Gon explained to his biographer, Alyn Shipton, how Waller helped to shape her stage act: "I danced like a boy - I did flips and knee drops and toe stands and all that sort of business so, when I had to sing after I'd danced, he gave me these cute little numbers so that I could talk-sing." In 1984, referring to her toe stands, and to Michael Jackson, Le Gon commented: "That Michael fella, they say he invented it. All the girls from my era did that."

Le Gon was warmly received in Britain when she opened at London's Adelphi Theatre on 4 February 1936 in CB Cochran's revue Follow the Sun. Later that year, she was featured as a cabaret dancer in the British film Dishonour Bright. She said: "I experienced being a real person for the first time. On board the ship and in Europe I was referred to as Miss Le Gon and that had never happened to me before."

"On a tour of Canada in 1969 she found herself in Vancouver and agreed to hold a few workshops during the two days she was there, "but the students began lining up before we had even rented space. In Vancouver, I found out I was a person. Period. I didn't have to worry about going somewhere and hearing somebody say, 'No, you can't come in.' That's one of the reasons I stayed in Canada."

Jeni Le Gon with Biill (Bojangles) Robinson and Fats Waller in "I'm Living in a Great Big Way" (1935).

"Swing is Here to Stay" (1937), co starring the zoftig Dixon Sisters. When she leans at the end, they nailed her shoes to the floor.

In "Getting It Right With You" (1939)

Full-length film: "Double Deal" (1939), with Monte Hawley and Edward Thompson

With Cab Calloway in "HI De Ho" (1947)

Jeni performs in "I'm Living in a Great Big Way" in 2007 in the Century Ball Room in Seattle.

Jeni performs her last dance, it says, at the 2008 Masters of Lindy and Tap. Somehow I don't believe this was her last dance.

Jeni at 90

A December 2012 tribute to Dr. Jeni Legon

Photo at top from the London Independent, autographed to Stephen Bourne, the author of the obituary.

...and above is my friend Cynthia Dagnal herself, when she was attending the same dance studio, about 10 and dolled up to look 30.

She writes: "Distinctive "Chicago style" just makes my eyes tear up. Whenever I hear Gene Kelly say, "Le time step," in An American in Paris, I think of that step--everyone does it, but we did it with Chicago swag. Here's a shot of me all dolled up and looking about 30-years-old. "Here's a little blurb piece on both Sadie and Mary Bruce's dance schools from the Chicago Public Library. Both schools were amazing--in fact, when I read this, I thought, "Okay...which one WAS it?" I think I had to go to Sadie's for a while because there wasn't room at Mary's for a wee one, but it was sooooooo long ago, I don't even remember all that very well. http://bit.ly/WUiaOJ "Doesn't matter, they were both amazing women and both schools were a VERY big deal on the Southside. Every parent wanted to get their kids into a class at either one, and I felt so lucky to be able to dance there. We had huge recitals all the time, and I loved every minute of those very serious shows.

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Jeni le Gon: The first black woman signed by Hollywood was livin' and dancin' in great big way

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My good Sun-Times pal from the 1970s at the Chicago Sun-Times, Cynthia Dagnal, wrote me today:

"A friend in London sent me this, obituary from the London indpendent and I was stunned to see that Jeni Le Gon attended the same Southside dancing school in Chicago that I did. It was probably the most reputable one on that side of the "color line," and not very far from my house. So I studied with the younger "protégés" of Mary Bruce, and all those cute pics of me in little but EXPENSIVE tutus and whatnot that I sometimes use on my blogs are reminders of those days! I took tap, jazz and ballet as a wee one, and loved to walk around en pointe all day long in those danged--and also expensive--toe shoes!"

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#123 July 11, 2012

Marie writes: club member Sandy Kahn has found some more auctions! Go here to download a free PDF copy of the catalog.

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Elizabeth Taylor, pagan goddess

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Camille Paglia is known for being both brilliant and wacky (possibly wacko) -- often at the same time, which is probably when she's at her most inspired. A founding contributor at Salon.com (and co-star of "It's Pat: The Movie"), Paglia spoke on the phone to Salon editor Kerry Lauerman yesterday after the news of Elizabeth Taylor's death, and offered up an extraordinary tribute. I just wanted to share some of it with you. Lauerman begins by quoting something Paglia wrote about Taylor in Penthouse in 1992:

"She wields the sexual power that feminism cannot explain and has tried to destroy. Through stars like Taylor, we sense the world-disordering impact of legendary women like Delilah, Salome, and Helen of Troy. Feminism has tried to dismiss the femme fatale as a misogynist libel, a hoary cliche. But the femme fatale expresses women's ancient and eternal control of the sexual realm." Paglia takes it from there:

Exactly. At that time, you have to realize, Elizabeth Taylor was still being underestimated as an actress. No one took her seriously -- she would even make jokes about it in public. And when I wrote that piece, Meryl Streep was constantly being touted as the greatest actress who ever lived. I was in total revolt against that and launched this protest because I think that Elizabeth Taylor is actually a greater actress than Meryl Streep, despite Streep's command of a certain kind of technical skill. [...]

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Replies to Walter Murch on the end of 3D as we know it

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This is the end... Oh. No. It isn't...

Walter Murch rekindled a discussion about 3D, a hot-and-cold topic since "Avatar," with a letter to Roger Ebert, published on Roger's blog under the headline "Why 3D doesn't work and never will. Case closed." Ebert introduced Murch's correspondence with this, accompanied by a recitation of Murch's credits:

I received a letter that ends, as far as I am concerned, the discussion about 3D. It doesn't work with our brains and it never will.

The notion that we are asked to pay a premium to witness an inferior and inherently brain-confusing image is outrageous. The case is closed.

This, of course, generated more discussion -- much of it with an ad hominem slant, signaled by the headlines in Slate ("Two Thumbs, Two Dimensions: Roger Ebert is done talking about 3-D movies. Thank goodness.") and Boxoffice Magazine ("This Week in Cranky: Walter Murch Declares War on 3D"). At the same time, Kristin Thompson published two sequels (produced concurrently, in the modern Hollywood style!) to her August 2009 piece, "Has 3-D already failed?," assessing the argument for the commercial viability of the format, pro ("Part 1: RealDlighted") and con ("Part 2: RealDsgusted").

What Murch contributes to the debate is not substantially different from what I, Kirstin Thompson and many others have been writing about since the release of "Avatar" (see my posts, "Avatar 3D headaches: Look at this! Don't look at this!" and "Avatar, the French New Wave and the morality of deep-focus (in 3D)"). The one thing he does bring to the table is that he's Walter Murch, famous sound designer and editor, who edited the Francis Ford Coppola/Michael Jackson Disneyland 3D movie attraction "Captain Eo" back in the 1980s. (That use of the technology as a theme park-style attraction is, in my view, a stage the technology still has not moved beyond. Even those who don't personally like the hallmarks of the current 3D processes -- the glasses, the flat-planed illusion of "depth," the dim picture -- admit it works just fine for animation and cartoony or CGI-enhanced live-action, where the 3D isn't meant to be "realistic.")

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Beep-beep-m beep-beep, yeah

Over Memorial Day weekend I attended a high school graduation in Albuquerque. One of the graduating senior boys gave a speech in which he used car parts as a metaphor for the components of one's personality or identity. It was a clever piece he'd co-written with a friend, delivered with wry humor. Afterwards, the head of the school -- a man I'd estimate was in his 60s -- took the stage and thanked the student, quipping: "Baby, you can drive my car anytime."

Thud. Thunderous silence mixed with scattered, bewildered titters.

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The cinema of scarred hearts

May Contain Spoilers

I have a friend who walked out of THERE WILL BE BLOOD during that baptism scene, when Daniel Day-Lewis exclaimed, "I've abandoned my child!" My friend was just divorced, lost custody of his children, and was tormented with the remorse that follows these things. As Daniel Day-Lewis shouted, my friend almost needed to cover his ears. He returned to his seat shortly afterwards, but needed that moment to collect himself.

I have another friend who was molested by a family friend. She refuses therapy, but she attributes multiple aspects of her personality, that she herself identifies as disorders - social ineptitude, sexual dysfunction and confusion, chronic despair - to that period of molestation. When she watched MYSTIC RIVER, a movie speaking of the physical and psychological abuse of children and the long term consequences on their hearts and minds, she found herself painfully revisiting those experiences, but not where we might expect.

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"Twilight: New Moon" is processed lunch meat

From Lisa Walden, New Rochelle, NY: The "Twilight: New Moon" DVD was just released last week and I rented it. I am a 52 year old African-American woman who truly enjoys film. I attempt to see as many films in theaters as I can but time may not allow my catching some so I have to make do with rental.

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Art that reaches backward and points forward

Bruce Eaton, in his 331/3 book on Big Star's "Radio City" (2009):

Beyond talent, there's the often dismissed importance of experience -- in music and life. Does an artist have something interesting to say and the ability to say it in a unique and interesting way? The answer is usually "not really." One of the chief reasons that rock and roll from the 1960s and early 1970s still looms large is that its creators had deep reserves of experience to draw upon when the time finally came to go to the well in the recording studio. Take The Beatles or The Stones, Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen. Each knew hundreds upon hundreds of cover tunes -- a disparaged concept today but vital to learning how music works -- and had played endless gigs trying to sell them to indifferent, if not downright hostile, audience. That experience takes patience but it eventually can get you to a point where you can write songs of your own that become a meaningful and permanent part of other peoples' lives.

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Smash his camera, but not immediately

He is a viper, a parasite, a stalker, a vermin. He is also, I have decided, a national treasure. Ron Galella, the best known of all paparazzi, lost a lawsuit to Jackie Kennedy Onassis and five teeth to Marlon Brando, but he also captured many of the iconic photographs of his era. At 77, he is still active, making the drive from his New Jersey home and his pet bunny rabbits through the Lincoln Tunnel to Manhattan, the prime grazing land of his prey.

I had an idea, as many of us do, about Gallela and the species of paparazzi. It was a hypocritical idea. I disapproved of him and enjoyed his work. Yes, he comes close to violating the rights of public people, and sometimes crosses the line. He certainly crossed the line with Jackie's children.

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If David Lynch directed Michael Jackson's life story

Steven Boone at Big Media Vandalism has composed a mesmerizing collage (OK, montage) using text from Jackson's 1988 biography "Moonwalk," audio interviews with MJ, and footage from some of Lynch's films, notably "The Elephant Man," "Mulholland Dr.," "The Straight Story," "The Grandmother" and "Eraserhead" to imagine a biography of Michael Jackson directed by David Lynch. He calls it "Notes for a David Lynch adaptation of Moonwalk."

Boone writes:

It all comes down to what you believe, because none of us knew the man....

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The blogs of my blog

One of my favorite pastimes, especially when I should be doing something else, is moseying around the blogs of my readers. You may have noticed that when the name of a poster is displayed in blue, that means it's a link -- usually to the author's blog, although you might be surprised. Assembled here is a distinctive readership of interesting people, not least because I am vigilant about never posting idiotic or perfunctory comments. A certain civil tone is (usually) maintained, avoiding the plague of flame wars.

More than a year ago, when the blog was somewhat new to me, I wrote: "Your comments have provided me with the best idea of my readers that I have ever had, and you are the readers I have dreamed of. I was writing to you before I was sure you were there. You are thoughtful, engaged, fair, and often the authors of eloquent prose. You take the time to craft comments of hundreds of words. Frequently you are experts, and generous enough to share your knowledge."

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No comment

"Saturday Night Live" piece from 1978 by Walter Williams ("The Mr. Bill Show").

UPDATE 7/09/09: From Time Online:

Michael Jackson would have turned 51 on Aug. 29, and the promoters of his planned This Is It tour are hoping to celebrate with a concert. It would take place in London and feature Jackson's rehearsal footage and appearances by members of his family. In other words, it would be a Michael Jackson concert -- with all the ingredients except the King of Pop himself.

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"Oh yeah? Well, I criticize you back!"

If critics have become irrelevant, it has little to do with how many people say they pay attention to them or how many movies get press screened before they open. No, I submit it's because so many people don't even know what criticism is. They think it means "saying something bad." Listen to the way they reason argue with one another. Watch the talking heads on TV. Listen to the little kids on the playground, or the couple in the bar having a marital spat. News reporting or blog commenting. It's all the same. Critical thinking is not a value prized by our culture.

"I criticize something!"

"I disagree! So, I criticize you back! You are a criticizer!"

Never mind specifics, subtleties, reasons -- they're superfluous. All that matters is point-of-view, pro- something or anti- something else. A "debate" is merely a series of unrelated expressions of agreement or disagreement -- usually expressed as disparaging characterizations of the other person. Republicans say this, Democrats say that, nothing else exists outside of their opinions. In this climate, that quotation from Daniel Dennett in the upper right column is indecipherable. See Monty Python's "Argument Clinic" sketch, where argument is hopelessly confused with abuse and contradiction.

So, say whatever you want about "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" or President Obama or Michael Jackson or Bill Maher (to cite a few recent topics hereabouts). What matters is only whether the remarks are critical (in which case you will be characterized as a naysayer) or approving (in which case you will be characterized as praisegiver). In either case, what you actually said will be considered trivial by many, if it is considered (or noticed) at all.

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Michael Jackson, transformer

I saw "The Wiz" (1978) and I saw "Captain EO" (1986) and I never saw Michael Jackson the movie star. For the longest time, it seemed, he was supposed to grow up to become one, but it didn't happen that way. Not long after 1982's Thriller he began transforming into something almost unrecognizable, unphotographable -- something that allegedly had to do with Diana Ross, hyperbaric chambers and, perhaps, the Elephant Man's bones. Whether an illness or a form of self-mutilation, it was a shame. The appealingly handsome young man on the cover of Off the Wall and Thriller morphed (as in the famous "Black or White" video) into a synthetic science-fiction construction that could only have inhabited an artificial universe like those of his two best-known big-screen appearances. He still worked for large crowds on stage, but -- for cosmetic and psychological reasons we may never understand -- close ups came to seem like a very bad idea.

As alien and unreal as he presented himself by the mid-1980s, the one thing that seemed genuine about him was his damage. His music became as polished and mask-like as his visage, and equally devoid of mature emotion. It may have been pop music for theme parks, but it wasn't for adults -- and he didn't seem to want to be thought of as one.

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Ebert reviews Johnny Depp

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Just think: Johnny Depp could have had the career of, say, Richard Grieco. In 1988, they were both break-out stars, young TV cops working undercover as high school students in the fledgling Fox network's first hit show, "21 Jump Street."

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The Cruise-ible

Tom Cruise with his "Miiii" squeeze.

What do we talk about when we talk about Tom Cruise? What are our images of him really based upon, besides his own publicity stunts and some headlines? And just how did the top movie star in the world become so unlikeable in the public eye, an object of scorn and derision in the media, and a punch line for stand-up comics? Normally, a movie star's fall from gross -- er, grace -- wouldn't interest me much (although I am still trying to figure out how Burt Reynolds' 1970s career flamed out). I've interviewed hundreds of actors and filmmakers over the years and I've always made it a personal policy never to ask them, or speculate in print, about what they euphemistically call their "private lives," mainly because I really don't think it's any of my (or your) business. I'm interested in their work, not in what they do in their off hours.

But the fascinating thing about Cruise is how he's made a public commodity of his so-called "private life" (or his own image-manipulation version of it, presented for your entertainment). You'd think he would have learned something from the tabloid headlines generated by the sudden and mysterious split with his superstar wife Nicole Kidman, and tried to keep his personal affairs as private as he can. But no. When somebody boasts about details of his alleged off-screen love life on the most popular talk show in the world, goes on TV to say a pregnant actress (Brooke Shields) was wrong to seek medical treatment for her postpartum depression, and acts as a public spokesperson for his supposed "religion" in interviews (if you grant Scientology that status) -- even to the point of having Scientology tents set up on the set of Steven Spielberg's "War of the Worlds" in case cast or crew wanted to take a Free Personality Inventory -- well, that's when the "personal" becomes part of the star's public branding. And Tom Cruise is a brand name, every bit as much as Apple or Starbuck's or Subway or Volkswagon.

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Rally 'round the Cruise, boys!

The Attitude in action. (photo: Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)

At first I wasn't going to write anything about last weekend's "disappointing" domestic grosses for "M:I:III" (or, as Stephen Colbert pronounces it, "Miiii"), because, well, who really cares about the box-office numbers of movies like "Miiii" (or Celebs Who Act Out)? Especially when "24" gives you trickier plotting, more believable stunts, top-flight production values, first-class actors (Kiefer Sutherland, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Stephen Spinella, William Devane, Ray Wise, Jean Smart...) and characters for whom you can actually feel something besides an indefinable creepy revulsion (though some have that quality, too), week after week (and in digital surround and HDTV, no less) -- making pre-packaged, pre-fab disposable summer action products like "Miiii" seem as dinosaurish and unnecessary as they truly are. (Note to self: How do I really feel?)

But then I saw this headline above a Reuters story Thursday: "Hollywood friends rally around Tom Cruise." Yes, dear readers, Tom needs some friends just now (if only, evidently, to buy batches of opening-weekend tickets to "M:I:III" at the Scientology Celebrity-Center-adjacent ArcLight Theater in Hollywood). It was too absurd to pass up.

So (he said wearily), let's recap:

His Cruiseness's public "approval ratings" (says a USA Today opinion survey) are way down there with the likes of... George W. Bush:

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A role in a Wonka of its own

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Q. I keep hearing that Johnny Depp based his performance as Willy Wonka on Michael Jackson. I think everyone is looking through the wrong end of the telescope. It has seemed to me for years that Michael Jackson at some point decided, perhaps unconsciously, to become Willy Wonka. It should be no surprise then if Mr. Depp evokes the character Michael Jackson has become. Seth Derrick, Phoenix

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Is Willy Wonka Wacko Jacko?

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Is Michael Jackson one of the not-so-secret ingredients in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory"? Critics overwhelmingly see it that way, even if Johnny Depp and many moviegoers don’t.

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