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Islands In The Stream: Week Eleven
by Peter Sobczynski

If you feel like taking a break from watching everything burn to the ground, here is another collection of streaming selections that will be added to each day. If you feel like doing a little more than that, consider donating to one of the many bail bond funds being set up to assist arrested protesters. In Chicago, for example, you can go to and give a few bucks to help.

The original version of "The Blob" (1958) was a low-budget genre film that managed to separate itself from the countless number of similar items that were released around that time for a trio of reasons--it had a cheerfully goofy premise (a giant glob of alien ooze lands on Earth and devours everything in its path) that certainly caught ones attention, the absurdly peppy theme song was was penned by none other than an up-and-comer by the name of Burt Bacharach and the central role of the clean-cut (if a bit long-in-the-tooth) teenager who, when the adults drop the ball, unties the other kids to help stop the creature's reign of destruction, was played by none other than Steve McQueen in his first starring role of his career. Because of these aspects, the film became such a well-known title that when the vogue for remaking old genre favorites took hold in the 1980s, it was not much of a surprise when it was announced that a new version, one that would presumably lean more heavily on gory special effects, would be coming in the summer of 1988. What was a surprise was that this version of "The Blob" turned out to be a genuinely inspired film that pretty much topped its predecessor in all the key areas, with the possible exception of theme song. It starts off pretty much along the same lines as the original--a meteorite crash-lands outside of a small California town containing a mysterious oozing substance that attaches itself to the hand of the hapless old coot who is the first one to discover it. He is found by a trio of teens--clean-cut couple Paul (Donovan Leitch) and Meg (Shawnee Smith) and bad boy Brian (Kevin Dillon)--who take him to the hospital for treatment. It is at this point that the screenplay by Chuck Russell (who also directed) and Frank Darabont drops the first of several inspired twists to the familiar framework that help to update the basic material in ways that do not simply involve amplifying the amounts of on-screen nudity and violence. Suffice it to say, the screenplay actually conjures up an explanation for the existence of the Blob that not only makes some degree of sense--at least by genre standards--but also adds an extra degree of danger to the proceedings that increases the tension and helps to provide a reasonably clever set-up for a sequel that unfortunately never happened because it quickly flopped at the box-office when it came out. Fortunately, this version would eventually develop a cult following of its own later one as people caught it on home video and sparked to the unexpectedly smart and sharp script and direction, the good performances from the cast (especially the late Chicago theater icon Del Close as the town's reverend), the amusing references to the original and, not surprisingly, the gory kill scenes (with the most memorable being one involving a hapless handyman and a sink drain). Hey, I still have a soft spot for the original "Blob" but this was one of those rare remakes where all of the elements simply jelled together far more successfully than they did the first time around. (iTunes. Amazon Prime. Vudu)

Like a lot of white suburban kids of my general age, my first exposure to the legendary entertainer Cab Calloway came from seeing him playing the surrogate father and musical inspiration for Jake and Elwood Blues in the 1980 musical-comedy extravaganza "The Blues Brothers," where his electrifying rendition of his signature song "Minnie the Moocher" was one of the highlights. It was from there that I went back to start looking into his rich artistic legacy and discovered that in addition to his accomplishments as a singer, he also turned up in a number of films long before the arrival of "The Blues Brothers," ranging from the wild pre-Code comedy "International House" (1933), where he managed to steal a film that included W.C. Fields, Bela Lugosi, George Burns & Gracie Allen and others in its cast with an incendiary rendition of "Reefer Man," to the poker drama "The Cincinnati Kid" (1965) to his own low-budget feature, "Hi De Ho" (1947). Perhaps the most memorable of these early screen gigs is "Cab Calloway's Hi-De-Ho" (no connection to the later feature), one of a few musical shorts that he made, this one in 1934 under the direction of Fred Waller (who is perhaps best known for being the man behind the creation of Cinema) that crams humor, romance, jealousy and a couple of musical numbers into a mere 10 minutes of screen time. Playing himself--who else--Calloway and his band are taking the train to their upcoming gig at Harlem's famed Cotton Club when a telegram arrives informing him that he needs a new opening number, which he and his players manages to work out perfectly from the cramped space where their berths are located. When Sam (Sidney Easton), the train's porter, tells Calloway how much his beautiful wife (Fredi Washington) loves going out to hear jazz music, he advises Sam to buy her a fancy radio (he even has the manufacturer's card handy) so that it will feel as if her favorite artists are right there in the apartment with her. The radio is great but you just can't beat the live experience and after seeing him perform at the Cotton Club (sitting way off in the corner, of course) while her husband is out of town, the wife and Calloway wind up back at her apartment for some canoodling when Sam returns unexpectedly. I suspect that this particular example was filmed fairly rapidly and on a relatively low budget (I am going to go out on a limb and guess that the actual Cotton Club was not employed for filming purposes) but it still manages to demonstrate a certain degree of genuine style, especially during the performances of the two featured songs, "Zaz-zuh-zaz" and "The Lady with the Fan." Most of all, it has the undeniably charismatic presence of Calloway himself going for it. Obviously he slays during the musical numbers but he also manages to hold his own during the non-singing portions as well--he hits the comedic marks and demonstrates a compelling screen presence that somehow manages to simultaneously suggest both Prince and Morris Day. Ultimately, "Cab Calloway's Hi-De-Ho" may be little more than a trifle but it is an undeniably entertaining one that will leave you wishing that he had been given more opportunities to strut his stuff in front of the movie cameras than he did. (The Criterion Channel.)

After having already made a handful of documentaries, shorts and experimental films, Cheryl Dunye made screen history when she became the first black lesbian to direct a feature film with the release of "The Watermelon Woman" in 1996. At the time of its release, it received a number of good reviews and would later go on to be considered a key work in the development of LGBTQ cinema. It clearly deserves its place of prominence in the film history books but it also deserves a similar position in your screening queue as well because, as a recent reviewing has confirmed, it is just as audacious, provocative and flat-out entertaining as it was when it first came out. In addition to writing and directing the film, Dunye stars in it as well as Cheryl, an African-American lesbian who works with her friend Tamara (Valarie Walker) in a Philadelphia video store. A student of film history, Cheryl becomes fascinated with black movie actresses from the 1930s and 40s, most of whom ended up in demeaning mammy roles and were rarely even credited under their own names. After watching a film entitled "Plantation Memoires," she becomes determined to look into the life and work of the actress who is billed only as "The Watermelon Woman" for a possible documentary Virtually nothing about her has been published but as Cheryl pursues her investigation, she manages to not only discover her true identity but uncovers other aspects surrounding her life that continue to have reverberations in the present day. While this is going on, Cheryl meets and begins a romance with flirtatious customer Diana (Guinevere Turner), a relationship that Tamra does not approve of and which also proves to share some parallels with the story that she is uncovering. The film deals with issues of race and sexuality--including Hollywood's often shameful treatment of them in its past--and even brings in Camille Paglia as herself to offer up some observations along those lines. On that level, it is undeniably fascinating but Dunye's film is more than just a mere polemic. It is also a smart, funny, touching and occasionally quite sexy love story that does not develop along the expected lines and which benefits enormously from the undeniable chemistry between Dunye and Turner. It also demonstrates a wicked sense of humor and outrage in regards to the career of The Watermelon Woman--the clips that we see of her work are so convincingly cringe-worthy that some viewers may be startled to realize that she never existed and that all of that alleged period materials were actually created by Dunye and photographer Zoe Leonard. Alas, despite the strong reviews that Dunye received for her work, steady work in Hollywood has continued to elude her--after the 2001 HBO film "Stranger Inside," the dreadful 2004 comedy "My Baby's Daddy" and the 2010 thriller "The Owls," she has mostly worked in television, helming episodes of shows such as "Queen Sugar," "The Fosters," "The Chi" and "Dear White People." Yes, "The Watermelon Woman" is a landmark work but don't let that scare you off--it happens to be a terrifically entertaining and thought-provoking one to boot. (The Criterion Channel)

Released in 1943, "Cabin in the Sky" was not the first Hollywood film to be made featuring an all-black cast--King Vidor's "Hallelujah" made its debut in 1929--but in terms of the sheer amount of talent assembled to bring it to the screen, it remains a landmark work in the history of African-American cinema, even if there are a couple of moments in it that inevitably now come across as eminently cringe-worthy. Based on the 1940 Broadway show, this musical-fantasy centers on the goodly Petunia Jackson (Ethel Waters), as decent and Christian of a woman as you can imagine, and her husband, Little Joe (Eddie "Rochester" Anderson), a cheerful reprobate with pronounced weaknesses for drinking, gambling and the charms of one Georgia Brown (and since she is played by Lena Horne, making her screen debut, that is understandable). Little Joe loves Petunia but his aforementioned weakness end up with him being mortally wounded by the slick Domino Johnson ("Bubbles" John W. Sublett) over a gambling debt. Petunia prays with all her heart over his deathbed and her words summon one of Heaven's emissaries, The General (Kenneth Spencer), just as representatives from that there other place, led by Lucifer Jr. (Rex Ingram), are claiming Little Joe for themselves. A bargain is struck--Little Joe will have six more months to live and if he can truly redeem his soul, he will be admitted to Heaven and will be condemned to Hell if he fails. Joe wakes up and genuinely repents, becoming a kind and loving husband marching on the straight and narrow, much to the delight of Petunia. However, Lucifer Jr. is not going to take this lying down and begins manipulating events that threatens to tear Little Joe and Petunia apart and send him into the arms of Georgia and certain damnation.As you can probably tell, the film is not exactly subtle and it is pretty clear that it was being aimed at a primarily white audience that expected any black characters to be depicted as broadly as possible. This is unavoidable, I suppose, but outside of a couple of moments, it never quite tips over into being offensive. This is partly because Vincente Minnelli, making his directorial debut, does not present the material in a condescending manner that constantly reminds viewers of how unique it was. Instead, he handles it in the same way that he would any other musical and lets the material speak for itself. Also helping to sell the film is a cast that brought together some of the most talented African-American performers of the era--besides those already mentioned, the likes of Mantan Moreland, Willie Best, Butterfly McQueen, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington also turn up as well--and gave them material that allowed their talents to fully shine for once. (Apparently too much in one infamous case--Horne shot a musical bubble bath number that was cut prior to release, allegedly for being too sexy for audiences to handle.) Although the uniqueness of the casting has sometimes caused "Cabin in the Sky" to be looked upon as something like a novelty, it is as strong and effective as any other MGM musical made during that period and watching it is still a joyful experience to this day. (Turner Classic Movies)

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originally posted: 06/02/20 01:34:15
last updated: 06/05/20 23:39:48
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