Stephen Schaefer’s Hollywood & Mine

For his second turn in the director’s chair the multi-talented, multi-hyphenate John Leguizmo has made ‘Critical Thinking’ which is now streaming on VOD.  It’s a classic “teacher takes troubled kids and shows them a better way” movie.  Leguizamo doesn’t try to re-invent anything, he just wants to be as accurate, honest and emotionally connective with this true story about the 1998 Miami Senior High School chess team that became the very first inner-city team to win the U.S. National Chess Championship. In Beverly Hills yet!  Leguizamo also plays the chess coach and critical studies teacher Mario Martinez.  For a movie about chess, ‘Critical’ is surprisingly engaging – and shocking in its occasional, never random violence.
At 56, Leguizamo, who was born in Bogota, Colombia, has credits on 100+ movies and TV shows. Among the many, many entries, I can never forget ‘To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar’ (’95) where he joined Patrick Swayze and Wesley Snipes as bickering drag queens on a road trip (a Golden Globe nomination) and the Baz Luhrmann musical ‘Moulin Rouge!’ where he worked through daily physical pain to play Toulouse Lautrec. He’s conquered the live stage writing one-man autobiographical shows that play Broadway where he’s been honored with a Special Tony Award.  Here are excerpts from a recent interview that was featured in the Herald.
John Leguizamo presents the award for best revival of a play at the 72nd annual Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall on Sunday, June 10, 2018, in New York. It was during this broadcast that he was presented with a Special Tony Award for “Latin History for Morons.” (Photo by Michael Zorn/Invision/AP)Q:  John, one of the points you make casually, briefly in the movie is that history books don’t necessarily tell all of the story.
JOHN LEGUIZAMO: If the hunter writes the story, you’ll never hear the lion’s story. We [Latinos, Hispanics] built this story — and before that some of the greatest civilizations in the world. We fought here, we’re the only ethnic group who’ve been in every single war America has had.  Those are huge staggering numbers of lives sacrificed to save this nation.  Spielberg’s [WWII] ‘Band of Brothers’ — what happened to the brown brothers? Growing up I never saw myself onscreen.  How do others see me in a position of power and success if you don’t see me?

Q: What was your biggest challenge here – making chess come alive for people watching who have no idea how to play?
JL: All that is involved. But it’s more than that, how does the osmosis of that information enter the minds of these young bodies? That’s what I wanted to show. The teacher had the love and was nurturing but how did he get from that book [of chess moves] into your mind? That’s where I spent most of my time crafting. How did you do it! I got them these books and worksheets, these magnetic boards to make it exciting and precise. I wanted the audience to understand how that information got into their mind. By the last championship game, that is 60 moves. These poor actors I made them memorize it.
L to R: Angel Bismark Curiel, Will Hochman, John Leguizamo, Jeffry Batista in CRITICAL THINKING
Q: This was a tough 28-day shoot and you are directing and starring.  Did you worry your performance would suffer?
JL: That happened with the first movie I directed for HBO [the 2003 ‘Undefeated’]. I was too exhausted and didn’t like what I did. So this time now, I wasn’t going to sacrifice anyone’s performance including me. And I’m not in every scene and [the two veterans]  Rachel [Bay Jones, a Tony winner for ‘Dear Evan Hanson’] and Michael [Kenneth Williams, ‘The Wire’] didn’t require any attention. But I had to be director proof — producing, directing.  We’ll have an incredible Behind the Scenes on the DVD which captures what I was doing, along with the real guys [the chess champions].

Q:  What was the reaction of those men when they saw the film?  I’m thinking of the boy in the movie who escaped from a life of dealing drugs with chess.
JL: That’s what happened to the kid, ‘Chess saved my life. It showed me other things in my life.’ He works now for a telephone company. Back then he was a bouncer doing odd jobs and got in with the wrong people.  When the team, a beautiful group of guys, saw the picture they were so moved by the experience. Some are coaches and others went into real estate. You could see they felt their lives had an importance.  Mario Martinez, one thing he did: afterwards chess became really popular through the Florida state school system.

CROOKED COPS, WILY CON MAN & POOR STOOGE               A genuine surprise in its depth, complexity and realism, ‘Most Wanted’ (Blu-ray + Digital, Paramount, R) charts the horrors of institutional injustice, overreaching government agencies and the ‘little people’ who profit or die from drug dealing.  Inspired, as they say, by all too real events, ‘Most Wanted’ sees a dim kid (Antoine Olivier Pilon in a memorable turn) who as a drug addict becomes a patsy for Canadian drug agents and ends up with a 100 year sentence in a Thai jail.
Josh Hartnett in “Most Wanted”Only the commitment of an investigative reporter (Josh Hartnett) to expose this mockery of ‘justice’ saves our little lamb.  With a scene-stealing work from Jim Gaffigan who is hilariously frightening as a compulsive liar, fantasist and wily con artist.

COURAGE WASN’T ENOUGH               A spectacularly involving look at one of the most heroic rescue efforts America has ever attempted, Barbara Kopple’s riveting documentary ‘Desert One’ (DVD, Greenwich, Not Rated) charts what many would consider an inglorious failure.  When the 1979 religious Iranian Revolution deposed the American ally the Shah of Iran, students mobbed the American Embassy and captured 151 hostages.
Barbara Kopple interviews former President Jimmy Carter for her documentary ‘Desert One.’Their demand was that they would only be released when President Jimmy Carter returned the Shah – who escaped to America and was gravely ill with terminal cancer — to stand trial.  As months passed and negotiations stalled, Carter authorized what has been called ‘The most audacious, difficult, complicated rescue mission ever attempted.’  Kopple interviews soldiers (it was an all-volunteer effort), some for the first time, as well as Carter, his VP Walter Mondale and TV journalist Ted Koppel who’s continuous, months long coverage came to dominate perception of the hostage situation.  (The few American Embassy employees who escaped capture, hid in the Canadian Embassy and miraculously escaped in disguise, is a companion story, vividly told in Ben Affleck’s Oscar-winning ‘Argo.’)

NASTY VIOLENCE & SUPER OBSESSIVES               When ‘Killing Eve’ first debuted I wondered:  A dazzlingly beautiful and very young female assassin named Villanelle hopping around Europe to do big bucks hits yet able to elude all security operations??  Too preposterous to be taken seriously?  Some overheated male fantasy?  Well, yes because ‘Killing Eve’ is adapted from Luke Jennings’ Villanelle popular book series.
Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer in “Killing Eve.” (BBC America)That assassin Villanelle (newcomer Jodie Comer) is being tracked by Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh) is another recognizable trope: ‘the country mouse,’ the little intelligence worker whose brilliance is not recognized, until she alone can scope how Villanelle works. ‘Killing Eve’ is a hit because it’s much more than torture-porn and ranks as feminist forward, empowered by its 2 female leads. ‘Killing Eve: Season 3’ (Blu-ray, 8 episodes, 2 discs, AMC Studios, Not Rated) takes risks with the format, bringing Villanelle back to her peasant roots in Russia (which filmed in Romania). New this season is another great British character actress Harriet Walter as Dasha Duzran, Villanelle’s trainer and mentor.  While a 4th season is promised, the wait may be lengthy due to pandemic restrictions.   Special Features: Nearly a half-hour of bonus features: ‘Psychology of a Killer,’ ‘Locations,’ ‘Meet the Team’ and ‘The Bitter Pill.’

BILLY WILDER’S WWII SALUTE                               ‘Five Graves to Cairo’ (Blu-ray, KL Studio Classics, Not Rated) is Billy Wilder’s 2nd film as a director.  This 1943 desert drama came between the writer-director’s hit 1942 debut, the comedy ‘The Major and the Minor,’ and the now classic Oscar-nominated 1944 film noir ‘Double Indemnity.’  Thanks to a brand new 4K Master, ‘Cairo’ has never looked better and film historian Joseph McBride, who is currently writing a book on Wilder, is an invaluable guide to understanding the darkness that seeps through this WWII drama with his audio commentary. 
With ‘Cairo,’ Wilder had updated a WWI play that had already been filmed twice. It depicts the end of Nazi domination of North Africa under General Erwin Rommel (Erich Von Stroheim who would memorably star in Wilder’s ‘Sunset Boulevard’) aka the Desert Fox. Wilder was lucky with his timing – ‘Cairo’ is set a year earlier when the Allies were losing ground to the Nazis but it opened in theaters just weeks after the Nazis ‘s African defeat and an Allied victory.  McBride argues that ‘Cairo’ is haunted by Wilder’s guilt.  In 1933, aware of Hitler’s virulent anti-Semitism, he fled Berlin, first for Paris, then Hollywood.  He begged his mother to go with him – and she refused.  She died in the concentration camp depicted in ‘Schindler’s List.’  The valiant Anne Baxter character in ‘Cairo,’ a prostitute who spits at the Nazis and is murdered, is a salute to resistance.
Director of Paramount’s “Foreign Affair” Billy Wilder, left, directs camera crew in shooting background material for the picture in one of Berlin’s bombed out streets, August 18, 1947. (AP Photo/Wolfgang Sorsche)
BLACK LIVES, LOVES & TEARS                                 Like ‘Dallas,’ ‘Succession’ and ‘Dynasty,’ family squabbles, threats and death are the crux of ‘A House Divided: Season 2’ (DVD, 2 discs, UMC, Not Rated). It all began with Letty Sanders who arrived enslaved in LA in 1821 and died the wealthiest Black woman in the new city.  Today the Sanders family’s contemporaries  are governed by Cameran Sanders Sr. (Lawrence Hilton Jacobs) and his 3 children. ‘Season 2’ begins with family matriarch Pamela deceased and an erupting power struggle.  This is where the outsider Carissa Walker (top-billed Demetria McKinney, ‘Tyler Perry’s House of Payne’) arrives, determined to become the new Mrs. Sanders Sr. Written and directed by Dan Garcia.  UMC is the first and leading streaming service for Black film and television.

AN ANIME CLASSIC RETURNS                             ‘Ghost in the Shell’ (4K UltraHD +Blu-ray + Digital, 6 episodes, 2 discs, Lionsgate, Not Rated) is a 1995 classic of Japanese anime, set in 2029.  Now available in 4K UltraHD this landmark follows a female cybernetic government agent – Major Motoko Kusanagi – who along with the Internal Bureau of Investigations is pursuing ‘The Puppet Master,’ which is actually a computer virus that can infiltrate human – real humans! – hosts.  This cyber thriller is, not surprisingly adapted from a comic book by Shirow Masamune. The 4K offers a full-length audio commentary by the English language scriptwriter, the animation producer/writer, an animation historian and the actor who voices ‘Batou.’  There are 2 brand-new bonus featurettes as well.  Subtitles in English, Spanish.

KING IS KING, RULER, COMMENTATOR                       Settle in for a long night of horror with ‘Stephen King 5-Movie Collection’ (Blu-ray, Paramount, R and Not Rated).  The 5 films here, adapted from King’s formidable powers of invention, include both versions of ‘Pet Sematary,’ the 1989 hit directed by Mary Lambert and the 2019 remake which changed the sex of the kid.  Christopher Walken stars in the 1983 ‘The Dead Zone’ where a years-long coma ends and then real horror begins.
This image released by Paramount Pictures shows Jason Clarke in a scene from “Pet Sematary.” (Kerry Hayes/Paramount Pictures via AP)‘Silver Bullet’ (’85) centers on a terrified town where a paraplegic boy (‘80s teen idol Corey Haim) is certain that a werewolf (who can only be killed by, yes, a silver bullet) is real and working much too hard to dine on available human flesh.  ‘Stephen King’s The Stand’ is the only non-film feature here; it’s a 4-part 1994 miniseries which King scripted involving the 2 tribes that survive a global plague and eventually get down to Kill or Be Killed.  There are numerous Blu-ray Extras, ranging from Lambert’s commentary to a tour of locations by King, deleted and extended scenes. Even an alternate ending.

AUSSIE SCENERY, COMPLICATED LIVES                        From Down Under, ‘Seachange’ (DVD, 8 episodes, 3 discs, AcornTV, Not Rated) is a reboot of a popular Aussie series that’s been compared in its intentional quirkiness and Shakespearean allusions to  the Alaska-set ‘Northern Exposure.’ Sigrid Thornton dominates as lawyer Laura Gibson who with her marriage kaput – her husband was having an affair with her sister! – takes a job as magistrate for the bucolic island town of Pearl Bay which has lost its bridge and is thus separated from the mainland. Gibson’s estranged daughter Miranda is pregnant — and that is merely the start of offbeat plotting and continual surprises. Bonus disc: 4 episodes from the original series.

AN EYE FOR SEXUAL IMAGERY                       Noted for his overtly sexual black-and-white photography ‘Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful’ (DVD, Kino Lorber, Not Rated) was a charming confidant of many of the women he often shot in the nude and celebrated for their power. Born in Berlin in 1920, Newton fled the Nazis in ’38 and ended his colorful life in a freak car crash while driving out of LA’s Chateau Marmont in 2004. He was 83.
German born photographer Helmut Newton holds a camera during a media conference after signing the contract for the Newton-Foundation in Berlin, Wednesday Oct. 22, 2003. In the Newton Foundation will be a permanent presentation of work of Helmut Newton and his wife June. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)Gero von Boehm’s documentary features many of Newton’s ‘swans,’ Isabella Rossellini, Anna Wintour, Charlotte Rampling, Marianne Faithful, Grace Jones, Claudia Schiffer and his widow June.  The filmmaker asks the women to psychoanalyze the man who froze them for posterity. As the documentary asks in this ‘portrait by the portrayed’: Were they subjects or objects?  In English, German and French with optional English subtitles.

MAGNETIC WITH MESMERIZING BLUE EYES                         ‘The Grey Fox’ (Blu-ray, KL studio Classics, PG), a 1992 semi-Western, is about a paroled bank robber in the changing turn-of-the-century frontier who can’t help going back for one more heist.  A wildly and justly praised Canadian feature given a brand new 4K restoration, ‘Grey Fox’ was notable for the unmistakable sex appeal of its blue-eyed grey fox Richard Farnsworth.  Farnsworth, born in 1920 with a hardscrabble childhood when his father died, began as a stuntman doing uncredited work in ‘Red River,’ Brando’s ‘The Wild One’ and ‘The Ten Commandments.’  ‘Comes a Horseman’ in 1979 with Jane Fonda and Robert Redford won him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination, among other awards.
Actor Richard Farnsworth poses with a covered wagon on his ranch near Lincoln, N.M., on Feb. 23, 2000. Farnsworth has received an Academy Award nomination for his role as Alvin Straight in the movie “The Straight Story.” (AP Photo/Michelle Koidin)But it was ‘Grey Fox’ with a Golden Globe nomination as Best Actor that was his breakthrough. In 1999’s low-key David Lynch ‘The Straight Story,’ a true story, Farnsworth was Oscar nominated, Globe nominated as Best Actor and won that award from both the Spirit voters and the NY Film Critics Circle,  I spoke with him at the Nice airport; we were both flying home from the Cannes Film Festival where ‘Story’ and Farnsworth had triumphed. What a down to earth, no nonsense, modest man. What no one then knew, he was suffering from terminal hip cancer and less than 5 months later he took his shotgun and killed himself.  The Special Features include an audio commentary by filmmaker Alex Cox (‘Sid and Nancy,’ ‘Repo Man’), interviews with the producer and composer, and a featurette about the restoration.

BRIGHT BEGINNINGS            ‘Gotcha’ (Blu-ray, KL studio Classics, PG) In 1985 when this espionage comedy/thriller was released Anthony Edwards and Linda Fiorentino were new faces scrambling for high profile careers.  Edwards would have great success as a ‘Top Gun’ costar and then a 14 year run on ‘ER.’ Fiorentino wouldn’t have a breakout hit until a decade later as a magnetic femme fatale in the low-budget noir ‘The Last Seduction,’ followed by ‘Men in Black.’ ‘Gotcha’ screenwriter Dan Gordon would find a groove scripting Michael Landon’s angelic series ‘Highway to Heaven.’  What’s good here are the 2 audio commentaries: The 1st by director Jeff Kanew (‘Revenge of the Nerds’), the 2nd by Bryan Reesman.

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