In Memoriam 1942 – 2013 “Roger Ebert loved movies.”

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Try as she might, Zellweger’s Judy never goes beyond an impression of the multi-talented artist; her all-caps version of acting failing to allow the role…

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Dolemite Is My Name

Dolemite is My Name is a typical biopic buoyed by its unrelenting hilarity, its affection for its subject and commitment to the time and place…

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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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Cast and Crew

* 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.

#354 May 14, 2019

Matt writes: On April 28th, the movie world lost a true giant: filmmaker John Singleton, whose 1991 masterpiece, "Boyz N the Hood," remains one of the most astonishing feature debuts in cinema history. Roger Ebert awarded the picture four stars, writing that it was one of "the best American films of recent years." Roger's thoughts regarding the entirety of Singleton's career were detailed in a special compilation by Nick Allen, while Odie Henderson penned a deeply moving obituary for the trailblazing auteur. I was among the writers at who paid tribute to Singleton in a separate article, "Breaking Barriers."

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Movie culture: The Dead, the Deader and the Deadest

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Oh my. Here we go again with all the deathiness. Movie criticism keeps dying deader and deader. Film itself has keeled over and given up the ghost. Cinema ist kaput, and at the end of last month "movie culture" was pronounced almost as deceased as John Cleese's parrot. Ex-parrot, I mean. Then the movie "Looper" came out, posing questions like: "What if you could go back in time? Would you kill cinema?" Or something like that.

People, this dying has gotta stop.

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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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Your flag decal won't get you into heaven any more

Here I was all set to go Elitist on the country singer Lee Greenwood, and I pulled the rug out from under myself. I shared Rachel Maddow's incredulity that the limping duck George W. Bush had appointed Greenwood to the National Council of the Arts. I even had my first two sentences written in my head: "Remember how the Bush takeover squad at the White House complained the Clintonites had unplugged all the PCs on their way out the door? As he steadfastly marches toward his own sunset, it is Bush himself who seems unplugged."

Zing! Totally unfair, but snappy, Bush had two vacancies to fill on the NCA, one for three years, one for six. Greenwood got the six-year term. He'll be the gift that keeps on giving every day during Obama's first term. The Council's job is to advise the National Endowment for the Arts on how to spend its money. I assume Greenwood will support the endowment's Shakespeare in American Communities Initiative, but you can never be sure about those things.

Da-ding! I was just getting warmed up. I was going to sympathize with Bush because fate has set a limited table for conservatives in the arts department. Liberals get Paul Newman, conservatives get Chuck Norris. We get Bruce Springsteen, they get Cousin Brucie. Does such a thing as a conservative dancer even exist? To be sure, Greenwood was a member of a dance ensemble, but that was when he was nine. Look at Thomas Jefferson, founder of the Democratic party, who was a philosopher, author, architect, violinist , inventor, sketch artist and culinary expert, and still found the time to found another branch of the family. JFK told an assembly of U.S. Nobel Prize winners: "I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House -- with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone." I imagine George whispering to Laura: "Why didn't anyone want to eat with him?"

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He's Here: The Legend of Pete Seeger

View image Pete Seeger singing "If I Had a Hammer" at a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Rally in Greenwood, MS, 1963. From "Pete Seeger: The Power of Song."

(A brief review of Jim Brown's documentary, "Pete Seeger: The Power of Song," opening in select theaters around the country in the next few weeks, and in Seattle September 21.)

I'm a-goin' to Berlin To Mister Hitler's town I'm gonna take my forty-four And blow his playhouse down. -- "Round and Round Hitler's Grave" by Woody Guthrie, Millard Lampell and Pete Seeger (recorded by the Almanac Singers in 1942)

"It’ll be a little soggy but we’ll keep slogging. We’ll soon be on dry ground.” We were waist deep in the Big Muddy And the big fool said to push on. -- "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy" by Pete Seeger (performed on "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour," 1968)

Pete Seeger is an American legend, in a class with Paul Revere (he rang out warning), Johnny Appleseed (he sang out all over this land), and Paul Bunyan (he had a hammer -- and an ax). Like all three, he's attained mythical stature, and like the first two, he's for real.

View image Bob Dylan singing "Only a Pawn in Their Game" at the same 1963 SNCC rally shown above. From "Don't Look Back."

Seeger may not always have been in synch with his times, but he has always been timeless, carrying the American folkloric tradition out of backwoods and into the mainstream. He sang old songs and gave them new life: the 1886 song "Goodnight, Irene" was adapted by Leadbelly and became a surprise commercial hit for the Weavers in 1950; ten years later, "We Shall Overcome" was revived, revised, and sung by Seeger at the first meeting of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Raleigh, NC, and became the anthem associated with Martin Luther King, Jr., and the civil rights movement.

Seeger has been able to take songs of the past and bring them alive in the context of the present. "Round and Round Hitler's Grave" (collected in a songbook, called "Anti-Fascist Songs of the Almanac Singers: Timely American songs based on timeless worksongs, patriotic ballads, cowboy ballads, spirituals, etc., from America's folklore") is of its moment in 1942. (Woody Guthrie later added a verse about Goering.) But "Big Muddy" -- which begins, "It was back in nineteen forty-two" -- was an anti-Vietnam war song, and is now an anti-Iraq occupation song. Could Seeger ever have anticipated that his ballad would become a relevant protest song again in his lifetime? Perhaps only in the sense that he understands mankind's uncanny ability to keep repeating the same historical mistakes.

Seeger's own songs -- "If I Had a Hammer," "Turn, Turn, Turn," "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" -- well, they sounded like traditional classics the first time you heard them, didn't they? Whether speaking (singing) to a particular time and place, or in general about the state of human beings and the planet we live on (and often both at the same time), Seeger's work is ageless.

So, don't expect just the usual muffled, scratchy old clips from Jim Brown's "Pete Seeger: The Power of Song." The images may be from the past, but the sound is vibrant and present. It begins with a quintessential Seeger singalong, and you could swear you're sitting in the middle of the audience, surrounded by voices. As Bob Dylan says, Seeger had the ability to coax out the singer in everybody.

The paths of so many American folk legends cross in this film: Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Johnny Cash, Dylan, Joan Baez, Bruce Springsteen -- and the last four appear in interviews, as do Seeger and members of his family. While the movie is an unabashed celebration of the life, music, politics, and humanitarianism of Pete Seeger, it's just as much a tribute to Toshi Seeger, the Japanese-American woman who married Seeger in 1943. She's the one, as somebody observes, who "allowed Pete to be Pete."

"The Power of Song" reflects the essential qualities of its eponymous hero: enthusiastic, idealistic, patriotic (but not nationalistic), shamelessly earnest, maybe (as the subtitle indicates) even a little corny. And I mean that as an expression of admiration and affection. Seeger may have gone in and out of fashion -- blacklisted from television for 17 years because of his brief affiliation with the American Communist Party, hailed as a prophet during the folk revival of the 1960s -- but he's never been "fashionable." He is who he is. And aren't we lucky to have lived to hear him?

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