On this CinemaInmind Podcast – Tim talks with veteran filmmakers Neil Cohen and Zack Norman, whose debut film, Chief Zabuwas produced – for the most part – some 30 plus years ago in 1986 – but will be released for the first time this year.
Chief Zabuwas written by Cohen and co-stars Norman – a veteran character actor who you’ve seen in films ranging from Ragtime and Romancing the Stone, to a number of Henry Jaglom productions, including Venice, Venice,Baby Fever andIrene in Time. Interestingly, Zack is also known as film producer Howard Zuker – with over 40 producer credits, including the 1974 Academy Award winning documentary Hearts and Minds.
Chief Zabu also stars the great character actors Allen Garfield, and Allan Arbus among a number of other 70’s and 80’s notables, from Ed Lauter and Shirley Stoler to former Mrs. America contestant and harpist Lucianne Buchanan.
I am not fucking with you – she’s hot and plays the harp.
Chief Zabu is a funny, pointed and suddenly socially relevant film that will be making it’s way to a screening at comedy club year you – which is also a funny story – you can get the gist of it from this great talk with a couple hollywood veterans making their first movie for the second time.
Tim Cogshell, film critic for KPCC’s FilmWeek and Alt Film Guide, and who blogs at CinemaInMind, has another film festival you can put on yourself, in the comfort of your own home.
Lots of filmmakers direct only one movie. Far fewer of them direct a movie that’s in any way notable. And, by notable we mean good, if not very good or better, iconic.
1. Marlon Brando / “One-Eyed Jacks” (1961)
Actors make up most, but not all of this DIY One and Done Film Festival, and first on our list is Marlon Brando, who directed just one movie and was done with the director’s chair. “One-Eyed Jacks” (1961) is more or less a spaghetti western with no Italians. Brando and Karl Malden play bank robbers. Dad Longworth (Malden) leaves Rio (Brando) to rot in prison for 11 years. Bad blood builds.
Stanley Kubrick was set to direct but he and Brando had issues so Brando took over. Yeah, Marlon Brando fired Stanley Kubrick. Crazy.
A number of sources report that Brando was an indecisive and demanding director. His first cut was five hours long. Paramount cut it in half and it did good business, with better than decent reviews. Brando didn’t like it, but Martin Scorsese often calls “One-Eyed Jacks” one of his favorite westerns, and James Caan, who would go on to work with Brando in “The Godfather,” is a particularly big fan.
2. James Caan / “Hide in Plain Sight” (1980)
The second film in our One and Done DIY Film Festival – James Caan’s one and only directorial effort – “Hide in Plain Sight” (1980). Loosely based on a true story, the movie is about a blue collar Caan, who is kept from his children when his ex-wife’s mob-connected new husband is taken into federal protection.
“Hide in Plain Sight” has the tone and timber of a Martin Ritt film – it’s “Hud” meets “Norma Rae.” One person standing up against an unjust system. Critics were mixed: praising the performances but generally suggesting that Caan’s direction was slavish to the true story. But I like it.
3. Dustin Hoffman / “Quartet” (2012)
Most people think Dustin Hoffman directed the 1978 drama “Straight Time,” in which he stars. True, he began the film as director, but soon handed the directing duties over to veteran filmmaker Ulu Grosbard. Hoffman would wait 34 years before giving it another go. His one and only directorial effort is the 2012 film “Quartet,” starring Maggie Smith and Billy Connolly among others.
And it is notably lovely in just about every way.
4. Theodore Witcher / “Love Jones” (1997)
Last in our DIY one and done film festival: Theodore Witcher. I know, you’ve never heard of him. But he did write and direct one iconic film that’s 20 years old this year. “Love Jones” stars Larenz Tate and Nia Long.
The film is about a poet name Darius, played by Tate, and a talented young photographer called Nina, played by Nia Long. Mostly the film is this couple and their friends. They talk about is love and sex and friendship and if all can ever be had together. They do while being black, which was still a big deal in 1997.
I have no idea why a guy who wrote and directed a film as notable as “Love Jones” didn’t take or get another shot at the director’s chair. A buddy was in a Denny’s spot Teddy Witcher directed some years ago. Who knows, maybe there was just more money in commercials.
But if “Love Jones” is the only movie I ever get from One and Done director Theodore Witcher, it will definitely do.
Larry Mantle and KPCC film critics Claudia Puig and Tim Cogshell review this weekend’s new movie releases including: the fantastical legend of “Kong: Skull Island” starring Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson and Brie Larson; Julia Ducournau’s cannibalistic-thriller “Raw;” “Personal Shopper” starring Kristen Stewart in the underground fashion world of Paris; and more.
KPCC’s FilmWeek critics and host Larry Mantle plus an audience of 1,000 gathered at the historic Theatre at Ace Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles to discuss and debate the contenders for this year’s major Oscar categories. There were vigorous deliberations over “Moonlight” and “La La Land” in the Best Picture categories and almost no agreement on the Best Documentary Feature.
Who are you favoring for this year’s Academy Awards?
Justin Chang, film critic for KPCC and the Los Angeles Times
Barry Obama (Devon Terrell) reads Ralph Ellison’s 1952 socio-political novel ‘Invisible Man’ – not to be confused with H.G. Wells’ 1897 sci-fi novel ‘The Invisible Man.’
While thinking about Barry, Vikram Gandhi’s 1981-set film about a young Barack Obama as he arrived in New York City to attend Columbia University, I found myself thinking about me in 1981, as I arrived in New York City to attend Columbia University.
To be frank, I’ve been thinking about President Obama in juxtaposition to myself for years, ever since his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Like many Black folks that evening, I looked up the tall, handsome, well-spoken brotha from Chi-town. Tall and handsome notwithstanding, I found that I had a lot in common with the biracial son of a Kenyan scholar and an American white lady from Kansas. None of those things – but a lot.
An evening in 2004
That evening in 2004, with elegance and verve, Barry, long since Barack, stirred the democratic heart of our nation with talk of hope, change, and one America, built by people like him – literally, a little bit of everyone.
Every word from Obama’s mouth that evening lived in an idea or concept for the kind of world that I wanted for my countrymen, my family, and me. Beyond our politics, there was a deeper identification with the young senator from Illinois – a state in the American Midwest; the Midwest where I was from and knew quite well.
St. Louis, Missouri, my hometown, is much like Chicago with an inferiority complex. Much the same in every way – history and culture and ethnic divides – though St. Louis is less obnoxious regarding its achievements. The Cardinals didn’t need over 100 years to get to several World Series, let alone to win (a few). Still, the cities themselves are much the same.
Mixed genealogical histories adding up to ‘Black’
In 2004, all black Americans watching Barack Obama give that keynote address instantly understood that he was what we called “mixed” – and what white folks called “biracial.” I knew I wasn’t biracial in the terms by which we assess such things in America; terms that are strict and that over the years have often been written into law. However, I also knew that my genealogical history was no less mixed than Barack’s – or that of most black Americans, for that matter.
It’s understood by African Americans that part of our lineage generally runs to white folks. In my family, it accrues to Jewish and Irish bloodlines mostly; some Native American and, obviously, African. I also knew that in America all of that adds up to Black. Full stop.
‘Barry’ movie: Devon Terrell as a young Barack Obama: The ‘brotha’ who could be president.
Unable to fit into race-based identity politics
Here is the place where Barry and I part, at least according to director Vikram Gandhi and screenwriter Adam Mansbach. Barry was unclear about his place in the world of race-based identity politics. He wanted to claim all his bloodlines at once – or none at all – which left both him and most of his acquaintances confused about who or what he was in terms of race.
In the film, Barry Obama is played (quite well) by Devon Terrell, employing just of hint of the president’s very particular accent and halting speech pattern. At one point early on, Barry says to his roommate (laconically played by Boyhood actor Ellar Coltrane), “I don’t fit in anywhere.”
That’s not an original thought for a youth from any background, but Obama ’81 had a pretty good reason for thinking so. It would take some time for Barry to settle into the fact of his “blackness” by American standards – understandable given his specific upbringing, which was hardly typical for American Black folks of our generation.
As a young man Barry Obama hardly knew his Kenyan father or his siblings from his father’s other relationships. When he wasn’t living with his elderly white grandparents in Kansas, he spent time with his scholarly white mother in Hawaii or Indonesia, alongside his half-Indonesian half-sister from his mother’s second marriage.
It’s no surprise it took Barry a bit longer to sort through his understanding of how things work in America before landing on the only race he’d ever be: Black.
The ‘brotha’ who could be president
Black folks watching Barack Obama in 2004 knew then – no matter the mix – he was a brotha. By then, of course, he knew it too. Black folks in ’04 also knew that the brotha with the funny name could be president one day.
We understood it in the same way we understood that Jesse Jackson, for instance, was never going to be president of the United States. Ever. We understood it in the same way we understood Donald Trump could be elected president – even after Barack Obama was elected – twice.
Black folks understand these things about the nature of America – because we do. Admittedly, we weren’t sure Obama would survive being president, indeed we worried that he might not because we really do understand America.
Still, we always knew he could do it. And he did it – twice.
But I digress. The things I have in common with our 44th president are in every way mundane. Indicators of absolutely nothing, either on a practical or a spiritual level. Nevertheless, they resonate, at least with me. After watching Barry they resonated all the more, but are no more meaningful in the larger world, except by way of offering me a window into the way the president interprets it. He sees it the way I do.
Indeed, over the past 7-plus years, I’ve often found myself listening to President Obama speak as I mouthed the very words that would come out of his mouth. Not because he’d said them before, as they were often novel, but because I actually knew what he thought about the subject at hand – because I knew what I thought about the subject at hand. Disappointing for my fans – such as you are – who opposed the president on most issues.
Like Obama, I’m inclined to attempt to bring you around on the subject, to find common ground, because like both Barry and Barack, I too am an optimist. But then again, unlike Barry or Barack, I’m pretty sure it ultimately won’t work.
In truth, my optimism has waned over the years. For Barry, that optimism, backed up by a fearlessness regarding his own physical safety (partially driven by nicotine, as Barry smoked a lot), is what the film Barry is all about. My waning optimism notwithstanding, this too is something we have in common. (Although I never smoked. Well, not cigarettes.)
According to Barry, it was in the fall of 1981 that optimism was solidified in the young Barry Obama. It’s also definitely about the time it was forged in me. These were our foundational moments. The moments in life that establish all of us within ourselves.
They were for Barry the experiences that made him Barack, that made him The President, even before that evening in 2004. They didn’t have that exact effect on me, obviously. I’ve never been the president of anything, though I was a sergeant in the United States Air Force, which, believe it or not, requires a similar set of leadership skills. They are both forms of community organizing, only with the authority to make people do things. Something that, to my mind, good presidents (and sergeants) almost never need to do.
If you’re good at leading people, they follow because they’re with you – not because you give them an order. I never ordered anybody to do anything when I was in the military because I never needed to; I’d just ask and they’d do it. This was something that Barry came to understand in the early 1980s, too. I count it among the things we have in common.
Indeed, in 1981, Barry Obama, as conceived by Gandhi and Mansbach, saw the world much like me. I claim the elder perspective as I’m one month older than the President. We were born in July and August of 1961, respectively. It’s just a coincidence. Not at all important or meaningful in any way.
Nevertheless, in 1981, Barry and me were at that forging age, 20 or 21, experiencing the moments that would make us us. I had been in the United States Air Force since 1979, the year both Barry and I graduated from high school. I went to basic training, he went off to college; our boyhoods ended, ready or not.
Barry was a young man on his own in the world when he headed to Columbia after having spent time at Occidental College in Pasadena. As it happens, I live in Pasadena and taught at Occidental College, though not in association with President Obama, in any way. It’s irrelevant, and means nothing to anyone – except me.
In the film, Barry arrives in New York City to attend Columbia University in August of 1981. As it happens, I was a young airman in New York City in the summer of 1981, attending Columbia while on temporary duty assignment from the 42nd Air Division, 97th Bombardment Division. Point is we both happened to be in New York City in the fall of 1981, studying at Columbia.
We did not meet. This is not important.
Sorting out the ‘why’
The city that both Barry and I were roaming around in 1981 was still wobbling from the bankruptcy of 1975. It was steeped in violence and racial unrest, among other problems, but it was also vibrant with punk and a burgeoning art form called rap that would shape America over the next three decades – and it shaped us a bit, too.
Barry was a young man already formed, yet still evolving – as was I. Already who we would become while still sorting out the “why” of everything. “Why,” in fact, was a central question of 1981 for many people including Barry and me.
In 1981, Barry Obama was in his pre-Michelle Robinson period. Their getting together is all captured in a different 2016 movie called Southside with You, which is also quite good. For my part, by then I’d already met and married my Michelle, so to speak. I’d been in love with her since we were kids and we got married in the summer of 1981 just before I was sent TDY to New York. As noted, that’s all a different movie. Barry and I also have this in common – we are both crazy in love with our one and only wives – and always will be.
Barack Obama movie ‘Barry’ and racial identity: Devon Terrell as the young Obama and Anya Taylor-Joy as his girlfriend.
life in 1981
In 1981, Barry was captivated by but cynical about politics. He argued Plato with the reasoning of Socrates and debated political philosophies with his fellow students on the Right and the Left, while defending the concerns of the minority from the tyranny of the majority under all circumstances. All the while having no idea how or if he would be able to make a difference in any of it.
In 1981, Barry already knew that, unlike most of his classmates and friends from the street, he would not be going for the money. One way or another, everybody in 1981 was going for the money. Some sold junk bonds, others cocaine – and often to each other. Either way, in the 1980s it was all about making a million dollars before you were twenty-five.
Barry knew that there had to be more to life than making money; he knew this from the perch of a poor person, one who could easily go for the money like everybody else and leave all his financial cares behind, forever. But like me, Barry was raised better than that. Score one for the scholarly white lady from Kansas.
In 1981, Barry was going for white girls. These were the ones he dated at the time. Really cute white girls who looked a lot like his mother – because sometimes Freud is right. Not one of the women Barry Obama actually dated is in Gandhi’s movie; instead, one character represents several of them.
Played by Anya Taylor-Joy, she’s called Charlotte in the film; while she’s not given credit for enlightening the still evolving Barry Obama regarding his race, his politics, or even his name (it’s not clear she even knew his real name), she’s not played as irrelevant either. Neither she, nor the women she represents, are essential to Barry’s transformation into Barack, but they did influence him greatly, as girlfriends often do. They were not his Michelle, but they mattered.
Other characters in Barry are also composites of people the president knew during his time at Columbia. They are the result of the filmmakers’ interviews with people he dated and learned from, hung out with and even fought with, during his time in New York. They provide context both for the film’s subtle biographical tributes to the young Barry Obama, and for the more didactic political pitches of the man who would eventually become President Barack Obama. They are not props per se, but they do serve a similar purpose.
Thugs & basketball
When Barry wasn’t smoking and having sex with smart, artsy white girls, he studied hard, partied a little, and played basketball a lot, often with thugs who argued as much as they played ball in raucous neighborhood parks. He almost got himself shanked more than once while acting as the voice of reason, literally standing between angry young men ready to come to blows over a perceived slight during a basketball game.
He lived in an ethnically diverse, low-income community where he was tested by the guys on the block on a daily basis. He made friends – some lifelong – from whom he seeks counsel to this day. Minus the cigs and the artsy white girls, I was doing most of that too back in 1981.
‘Barry’ movie trailer with Devon Terrell and Anya Taylor-Joy.
Among the other features of the president’s time in New York City that Barry highlights are his experiences being “the only.” The only black person in most of his classes. The only poor person in a room full of rich people. The only rational person in a room full of irrational people. The only student to be asked for an ID on a campus full of students with IDs – but who did not look like him.
I deeply identify with being “the only,” as do many others, in one context or another. Perhaps, you…
Indeed, by my measure, if one has never been “the only something” in their life, they likely didn’t vote for Barack Obama to become president of these United States. They probably wouldn’t have liked him much during his college days at Columbia. Nor would they care for this movie about his life in the early 1980s, or my thoughts about the film, particularly as related to me.
Of course those people probably would not be reading this long, overly personal essay on Barry and me, anyway.
But you have been, so you probably get him. And you probably get me.
I’m a sucker for girl talk movies, true love stories, and movies where a lady rides into the sunset after she shoots the bastard who killed her daddy – in the head. This DIY Film Festival is for films that I love, about women that I love, in movies that should have got a lot more love.
1. “Live Nude Girls” (1995)
“Live Nude Girls” was directed by Julianna Lavin, who directed this film, one episode of Party of Five in 1998, and nothing else. This happens in Hollywood more often than you’d think, but it happens to female filmmakers even more often than that. It stars Dana Delany, Laila Robins, Lora Zane, Cynthia Stevenson and, ironically, Kim Cattrall as the over or under sexed member of the foursome – depending on your point of view.
“Live Nude Girls” is a wonderfully funny and intimate movie about four lifelong friends at an all night bachelorette party for one of them who is getting married for the 3rd time. This film is practically a blueprint for “Sex and the City” which started three years later. It’s frank and funny and sexy and filled with a female energy that reminded me of my very cool big sister and her amazing girlfriends, lounging in conversation, as I loitered near, always at the ready to fetch cigarettes and Fresca. It was the 70s.
2. “Living Out Loud” (1998)
“Living Out Loud,” directed by Richard LaGravenese, stars Holly Hunter, Danny DeVito, Queen Latifah and ecstasy – both the emotion and the drug. In the movie, Holly Hunter’s husband abandons her for a younger woman.
Sure, it’s a well worn premise, but it’s considered thru a wide range of emotions, spoken out loud, sung out loud, and even fantasized out loud. Hunter confronts her circumstances with philosophical introspection about the choices she’s made; with direct confrontation of those who’ve done her wrong … and with the occasional hit of ecstasy.
The highlight is this amazing dance sequence that I still find myself fantasizing about from time to time. Occasionally, I’m even in it.
3. “Besieged” (1998)
“Besieged” is a Bernardo Bertolucci film starring Thandie Newton and David Thewlis. This is a love story about truest love. Although, at first glance it might seem like a movie about stalker who plays the piano really well, David Thewlis portrays a man – a passionate composer and pianist – who falls in love with his African housekeeper on first sight. And why the hell wouldn’t he – she’s Thandie Newton – but his adoration is about much more than her beauty.
In her he sees pure intention, resilience, and a strength that his privileged existence could never know. Out of that comes a kind of love that leads him to sell everything he owns, including his beloved grand piano, to give her the one thing she truly wants.
4. “The Quick and The Dead” (1995)
Last in my DIY film festival about women that I love, in films that I love, that need a little more love is “The Quick and The Dead.” This is Sam Raimi post-“Evil Dead” and pre-“Spiderman” directing a wicked Cowgirl movie. It stars Sharon Stone, Gene Hackman and Russell Crowe star alongside a young Leonardo DiCaprio, with Gary Sinise, Keith David, Lance Henriksen, Olivia Burnette, the great Pat Hingle, and the late Tobin Bell of the Saw films.
If you missed this wicked gunslinger revenge flick because you believed the middlin’ reviews from back in the day – you got suckered. It was accused of being too campy. Like that’s a thing.
In “The Quick and the Dead,” the Lady slaps leather with a bunch dastardly bastards, including the one that killed her daddy. Like I said – I’m a sucker for girl talk movies, true love stories and movies where a lady rides into the sunset after she shoots the bastard who killed her daddy – in the head.
Larry Mantle and KPCC film critics Wade Major, Tim Cogshell and Charles Solomon review this weekend’s new movie releases including: in wide release, Kate Beckinsale taking another turn as vampire warrior Selene in “Underworld: Blood Wars;” Jackie Chan in the Mandarin-language feature “Railroad Tigers;” the thriller “Arsenal” starring Nicolas Cage and John Cusack; and more.