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O.J.: Made in America (2016)
Excellent documentary which shows how celebrity and reality TV drive the US
I wanted to watch Made in America not because of what the show said about OJ, but for what it revealed about American society and how it's changed- or hasn't changed- since the early 1990s. Made in America tells several stories, beginning with the story of how OJ rose from his upbringing in public housing in San Francisco to become a sports star. I wasn't convinced by the show's portrayal of OJ as a legend beloved by the whole country. I was in primary school when he was making his name in football, and I wasn't a sports fan. I heard about the Juice from my older brother. In the early 70s though the big event for us was the Perfect Season Miami Dolphins. I spotted the name Mercury Morris in one of the newspaper articles shown on camera, and I hit pause so I could read it.
While I grew up in Miami in the 70s and 80s the city had several riots sparked off by police officers being acquitted for shooting and killing African Americans. My parents lived in an affluent suburb and they didn't pay much attention to the race problems, except to advise me not to drive downtown when the problems were happening. I recognised the feelings of anger and frustration expressed by the African American community and the people interviewed for the film.
I don't know if it was possible for OJ to have a fair trial. I sensed that LAPD and Los Angeles city officials were terrified that a guilty verdict would result in more riots and city wide destruction. While I was watching the footage in the episode about the verdict, I was struck that as the crowds in the streets shouted in joy when they heard OJ had been found not guilty the police horses whinnied in fright and the officers riding them struggled to keep them from bolting. I was shocked to learn that one of the jurors, who raised his hand in a Black Power salute, had been a member of the Black Panthers. Why didn't the prosecution ask for a mistrial? At any rate, OJ's expensive lawyers decided to play the race card from the start. I thought it was despicable, and Made in America's revealing that Simpson had distanced himself from the Civil Rights struggles made me feel it was even more despicable.
Most of all OJ Made in America revealed the fascination that riveted the media in the US to the Simpson trial, and the fascination that the world media had as well. They weren't concerned so much about race-- the trial took place in Los Angeles, and discussed the racism of the LAPD, in the Rodney King case and many others, but above all it was all about Brentwood and Hollywood, celebrity, fame, and money. The People vs OJ Simpson showed that from the very beginning witnesses and people who claimed they they knew the truth were selling their stories to tabloid newspapers and trash TV shows. I wonder if Simpson would have had as much support from the public if he were rich- rich enough to hire big name attorneys- but not a celebrity.
It was the slow chase down the LA freeways that grabbed everybody's attention- here was a celebrity who might blow his brains out on live TV, because he had killed two people - or maybe he was being set up by LAPD because he was black and the victims were white. It was a great show. I don't understand why the prosecution didn't ban cameras from the courtroom like the civil trial did, or why, if they wanted to use cameras, they didn't make them unobtrusive so the people in the courtroom couldn't see them. The trial became the media circus of the century. The last episode, with clips from Simpson's bizarre reality TV show, shows how celebrity and notoriety drive the consciousness of American life. It's significant that Simpson's ultimate downfall took place after an armed robbery to gain control over his memorabilia, which not only has great personal meaning to him, but is worth millions of dollars.
I had to ask myself, why did I watch Made in America? I felt sorry for Nicole - she must have found it difficult to make a life for herself apart from OJ, who not only gave her fame and money, he supported most of her family. I felt sorry for Ron Goldman for being caught up in OJ's rage because he was seen a rival for Nicole's affections, and sorry for Ron's family who saw OJ walk free from a double homicide. I felt empathy for people who felt they had been denied the justice that was given to other Americans (I felt however that the film could have included how other people of other races have been treated by the white majority- there was nothing said about how the Hispanic community felt about how they were treated by the LAPD and the US government) Mostly I was appalled by how Simpson went back to a luxurious life after the trial, selling his autographs for 3 million dollars while in jail, and was still schmoozed by people who wanted a piece of his fame. It's telling that the Goldmans struck back with court orders grabbing Simpson's money, yet Simpson managed to make more sliding into sleaziness in South Miami Beach with coke addict blonde girlfriends. People wanted to keep watching him, keep collecting his signed footballs and t shirts, and keep trying to be associated with him. Made in America holds up a mirror and finds disturbing portraits: not just of OJ, and OJ's actions, but American society's obsession with wealth and fame.
Powerful remake weakened by gratuitous violence
When I heard that a new version of Roots was going to be broadcast this year I was excited (I watched it on BBC4 here in the UK). I was 12 when Roots was shown on TV as a mini series. I remember everyone talking about it, including the other kids in my school, so I started watching it, I joined the show just after Kissy was sent to Tom Lea's farm.
I enjoyed most of the new series. It featured outstanding performances especially Malachi Kirby as Kunte Kinte, Forest Whitaker as Fiddler, and Emyri Crutchfield and Anika Noni Rose as the young and older Kizzy. In the first three episodes, there was only one white character who wasn't a racist and treated the black characters with some kindness and sympathy: Missy (while her uncle was relatively considerate he struck Kunta Kinte and called him a black ****). Jonathan Rhys Meyers did a fine job at conveying Tom Lea's insecurity and drive for social acceptance: he made Kizzy's master into more than a one dimensional sadistic alcoholic. The final episode, alas, let down the series. I didn't know anything about the The Fort Pillow Massacre, and it shocked me to learn that over 300 African Americans were killed because the victorious Southern army units wouldn't accept them as prisoners of war. (Growing up in the US I had so many lessons about the Revolutionary War and Civil War in school they bored me rigid. In my own reading I learned things we didn't learn at school, that there were spies on both sides, and many Northern prisoners of war treated brutally and were allowed to starve to death in Confederate prisons). I thought that Franklin would have never got away with hanging a white woman, even if she was spying for the North. The consequences of killing her would catch up with him by the end of the war, particularly once Reconstruction was established. The scene did establish the extent of Franklin's violence and hatred and how his father was afraid of him. Even so, the family never would have allowed Chicken George to walk away after shooting Franklin, even if Chicken George shot him to protect his son from being shot by Franklin, and even if Franklin survived the bullet wounds. It was completely unrealistic, and felt like more gratuitous violence and wish fulfillment for the audience to take revenge on the evil slaveowners. The ending, showing the narrating Alex Hailey meeting his ancestors, ending of course with Kunta Kinte, was schmaltz. Shame that such a powerful show ended with a descent into sentimentality.
Deep in My Heart (1999)
Poignant movie with excellent acting
I stumbled across the opening of "Deep in my Heart" one afternoon on the True Movie channel here in the UK. I think it was at the end of a recording I made of another movie. Anne Brancroft's monologue captivated me. I couldn't forget her character's story of how she was attacked as a young married woman, walking home late one night from a movie, the first night she left the house after having a baby, now four months old. "They said there must have been another man, and there was... his name was Elvis". I was also captivated by her character's proud statement that she wasn't just another Boston Irish... she was part French. It's unfortunate that the movie has a title that suggests it's sentimentalized and cliché ridden. What could have been a sensationalized, melodramatic "true life story" reveals the life of the child that was born after the attack, with sympathy for all the main characters. The series of monologues of each of Barbara Ann's mothers works well to give their viewpoints, reveal their characters, their hopes, and how each sought to do the best they could to give her a good life. The last monologues by Gloria Reuben as the adult Barbara Ann are poignant as they depict how she learns about her origins, finds her birth mother, comes to terms with her estranged adopted mother, and strives to come to terms with her heritage from her white biological family and the issues that affected the direction of her first years. My parents grew up in Boston in the 1930s and 1940s, and I often visited the city's neighborhoods and suburbs on family trips (I grew up in Florida, where my parents moved in the 1950s). "Deep in my Heart" reminded me of what the city was like when my cousins and I were young. Cara Buono's performance as the young Gerry made me cry. I was deeply moved by her courage to stand up to the racism of the era. I knew from my parents' stories of what happened to their old neighborhoods that many areas of Boston were torn apart by racism, riots, urban renewal, and manipulation by real estate sellers. My parents once drove through Roxbury with me during one of our visits and my father pointed out the areas that he knew as a child, that were once seen as well off and now were deprived and neglected.
I was riveted too by Lynn Whitfield's portrayal of Corrine and her love for her foster child. I felt deeply for her when she was denied the possibility of adopting Barbara Ann, and when Barbara Ann had to leave her care for adoption in Wisconsin. I found the social agency's thinking hard to understand. I suppose they believed that Barbara Ann would be better off with professionals as parents in the Midwest rather than living with other foster children in a poor family in Roxbury, an area that became known for crime and violence.
I felt for Alice Krige's Annalise, who wanted to give a loving home to a needy child. She was caring but was let down by her husband deserting her and their adopted child- Albert Schultz shows the husband's flaws and his inability to put the child's needs first without making him look like a complete jerk or a villain. I empathized with Annalise and Gloria Reuben's teenage Barbara Ann: I could see how Annalise struggled to make a better life for both of them, and how Barbara Ann, feeling lonely and abandoned, cold shouldered her, believing that the time Annalise spent studying and working was an indication of her indifference, and turned to her boyfriend for the love she missed, longing for Corrine.
The movie ends with a four handkerchief family reunion scene that does seem idealized- I wondered why Annalise was attending a reunion party of the Cummins family in Boston, when she and Barbara Ann hadn't communicated in decades. The highlighting of Barbara Ann's three mothers at the event is a little cheesy, especially at a gathering for the entire Cummins family.
But overall "Deep in My Heart" considers the difficult and complex issues of racism, the civil rights struggle, single mothers, discrimination of lower income families, and the changing attitudes towards them without allowing them to dominate the movie or allowing the characters to be determined simply by their response to them. I wish more of the movies based on real life stories would reflect their eras and the history behind him as respectfully and thoughtfully.
Wish I Was Here (2014)
A Pleasure to See Fandom and Jewish Culture in a movie
When I saw a trailer for Wish I was Here on a DVD my husband and I watched last week I knew I wanted to see it. On our trip back to the library I was delighted to find Wish I we Here on their DVD shelves. I enjoyed the film tremendously.
I grew up in Miami in a large Jewish community in the 1970s and 1980s. The story of the Bloom family- Aidan, Noah and their father- brought back a lot of memories for me. When they turned the pages of the family photo album I had to click pause on one picture, because it looked just like the pictures of my family at weddings and social events. Same colors, same hairdos, same fashions. The palm trees of LA reminded me of South Florida too.
My relatives and the people I knew in school are not religious and feel like Aidan when it comes to religion: skeptical. I enjoyed the scenes of the religious school and the scenes with the rabbis.
I appreciated that while Aidan didn't agree with his father about sending his children to a yeshiva the movie didn't criticize Grace's beliefs, the school, and the rabbis. I didn't mind the poking of the elderly rabbi: the sequence where he rides a segway in the hospital and crashes into a wall was hilarious. I'm glad that the movie didn't show Noah and Aidan rejecting their religious background in favour of being completely secular. Wish I Was Here could have just shown Aidan telling his children to forget about the yeshiva and religion and embrace "normal" contemporary life. I appreciated that Aidan found guidance from the younger rabbi, and Grace found ways to carry on her beliefs while adapting to their new lives after Aidan's father passed away. The pink wig was a nice symbol of her growing more confidence and openness to new experiences while maintaining her values: she was wearing a wig like a religious married woman, but it was bright pink.
I'm a big fan of comics and I've been to the San Diego comic con a few times. It was great to see the convention in the movie and see the cosplayers walking outside the center and around the rooms, taking pleasure in showing off their costumes. Noah's space man costume was terrific. I saw a lot of amazing costumes at San Diego- I would have loved to see more cosplayers, especially the Star Wars costumes and the people dressing up as superheroes and supervillians.
It's wonderful to see movies being made now that celebrate fan culture like the cosplayers and Comic Con. It's a pleasure to see a movie that presents growing up in a Jewish family, and explores aspects of Jewish identity, how adults and parents like Aidan and Noah feel about their heritage, and passing on values to their children.
Entertaining documentary but doesn't put the Lampoon in the context of its times
I've given National Lampoon: Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead a 5 out of 10. It's entertaining to watch: I was happy to find it on the Sky Arts channel here in the UK. But while the film traces the history of the magazine and its creators, and richly describes how the success of the magazine led to its expansion into radio comedy, comedy albums, stage shows, and movies, its images and interviews fly past quickly without the film explaining what factors led to the creation of the magazine and how it was related to other magazines, newspapers, comics, and cultural products of its time.
As the documentary pointed out, the magazine grew from the Harvard Lampoon, a Harvard humour magazine that didn't reach a national audience. In the 1920s there were nationally published magazines that collected articles and cartoons from universities around the US: "College Humor" was probably the largest, and was published from 1920 to the 1940s. These college humor magazines were aimed at a young but mainstream audience.
It surprised me that Drunk Stone Brilliant Dead didn't mention Mad magazine. It was Mad. first published in 1952, that brought radical and subversive humour that poked fun at authority figures to a country wide audience. Without Mad, there probably wouldn't have been a National Lampoon. It also surprised me that the documentary made no mention of the Underground press and Underground comics of the 1960s. The art style of the first issues of the Lampoon looked very reminiscent of the style of Robert Crumb and other artists from Zap.
I didn't like National Lampoon very much in the 1970s. I read my older brother's issues. Even back then, I thought they were indulging in printing pictures of naked girls and making jokes about drugs and sex simply for the sake of it. They didn't have the force of the Underground comics, which were breaking ground in discussing subjects that before then couldn't be mentioned, and were using the archaic spirit of Mad to take apart the establishment and cultural heritage of the era. I remember the issue of National Lampoon that printed a spoof of Mad, taunting that Mad was stuffy, middle aged, and had long forgotten the meaning of satire. I thought that while Mad didn't print cartoons of naked women and guys smoking pot and snorting coke, it still featured strips that aptly commented on society: strips that have been reprinted and discussed in many studies about US history and the growth of graphic novels.
I thought while I was watching the documentary that National Lampoon branched out very quickly into other media and became a brand: while Saturday Night Live wasn't officially associated with National Lampoon the show clearly stole their talent and their style of satire. I think the magazine pulled its punches keeping an eye on their advertising revenue and growing empire. I'm not saying it wasn't funny- I thought the record albums and movies were funny- but I think the humour of the magazine was aimed at pleasing its creators and audience of liked minded readers, rather than exposing the darker aspects of its targets. The publisher of Mad, William M Gaines, didn't allow advertising in the magazine because he said a satire magazine couldn't make fun of an advertising campaign and then print an ad a few pages later for the same product or a similar product. He also saw it as a practical issue, saying that the magazine would then try to attract more advertisers, and if it started losing some of its advertisers and the advertising income, the readers would still expect the same fancy package, but without the advertising income to pay for the higher production costs, the magazine was sunk. Which it seems, along with loss of readership, was what ultimately happened to National Lampoon.
Better than the novel
I want to add my review of NW because I read Zadie Smith's novel a few years ago. I've just watched the film and enjoyed how it captures Smith's portraits of life in a working class area of North London. The film aptly condenses the book's events and highlights further Smith's comments on life in modern Diversity Britain.
The film made clearer that the tension in Leah and Natalie/Keisha's relationship now they are adults is mostly due to class difference. They were from the same background, the same estate, the same school, and still lived in the same area. Natalie managed to become a Oxbridge student, attend law school, become a barrister and marry a man from a wealthy family (the film doesn't show that her husband's parents were an African student and the daughter from a rich white family but the character is played by a man with a light complexion). Leah was troubled by how her friend had changed, and how she was perceived by Natalie's new friends, particularly at her dinner parties. She worked in social care, was married to a ambitious man, but still felt, comparing herself to Natalie, she had achieved nothing, and she was trying to figure out how to live her life.
Zadie Smith's novels also reflect on race, and the fact that Natalie's fortunes rose, while Leah's didn't, and her (white) family was also still living in council housing, added more tension to their relationship. Leah was by no means racist, but both Leah and Natalie remembered their growing up together and fancying the same boys at school. Natalie feels guilty that she was now socially above her school friends and people she had known all her life. Shar's comment about her being up herself and a coconut- black on the outside and white on the inside- is included in the opening scene of the film. The film elaborates further on how Natalie, at the start of her professional career, is advised to tone herself down so she won't be threatening to white judges and white barristers. One of her older white colleagues squeezes her breasts and apparently she feels helpless to complain.
In the book and the movie all of Leah and Natalie's school friends became criminals, drug addicts, or both. In the book Natalie's mother lost all the money the family had because she gave it to a project building churches in Africa that turned out to be a scam. The movie made me realize how much both Natalie and Leah were anxious and felt guilty about trying to rise above the people they grew up with. I think Leah didn't want children out of fear she would become like the people around her - the movie suggested that Natalie emotionally neglected her children sometimes, and left them in care of the nanny.
The film made me empathize more with Nathan, as it makes him more sympathetic than the way he is portrayed in the novel (the film cut a long sequence where he visits a female friend in Soho before he travels back and is killed on his way home). He struggles to improve his life and tries to help his troubled father, but ultimately he falls victim to a local thug (Nathan is his accomplice). I appreciated the portraits of strong and kind black men: both Leah and Natalie have partners who care for their families and work hard to provide for them and protect them. Nathan's killing is a memento mori for Leah and Natalie, and by informing the police they rise above the violence that was part of their background growing up. Nathan's killing also shows how vulnerable life is for them and the people they live with: Natalie cries when she sees how the little boy she passes in the street is already used to seeing murder sites in their neighborhood.
The film's ending is much more powerful than the book's: it eliminates part of the encounter between Natalie and Nathan I found hard to believe. I still don't understand Natalie's attraction to internet sex sites and sex with strangers. Perhaps she felt that her new life and new identity was so unreal she had to mix with people like the ones she grew up up to atone for it, or to feel more like she did when she was growing up in an area surrounded by drug use and constant danger. I appreciate how the film doesn't capitalize on her sex addiction for sensationalism. It's a moving account of individuals who are stuck between bettering themselves and allowing themselves to become resigned to their difficult environment and backgrounds.
Loving Leah (2009)
Okay, so it's a corny love story, but it's a pleasure to see a portrait of Jewish life
So "Loving Leah" is a little schmaltzy, even for a love story. I loved it anyway. It's a real pleasure to watch a movie that is respectful of Jewish customs and presents a non sensationalized, exploitative, or prejudiced view of Jewish religious practice. Usually the only portraits of Jewish life I see on TV are tragic stories set during the Holocaust or comedies. I appreciated that Leah's mother was strict and scared her daughter enough for her to put up a show of the pretend marriage, but ultimately she cared for Leah, wanted her to be happy, and encouraged her to go back and make up with Jacob, even if he wasn't Orthodox, and even if he and Leah would attend a Reform Temple with a woman rabbi. I appreciated that none of the characters were stereotypes or played for laughs. Well done Hallmark!
The Humbling (2014)
Another misguided adaption of a Philip Roth Novel
I was excited when I heard that Al Pacino was going to star in a movie based on Philip Roth's novel The Humbling. I've read all of Roth's novels and I was hugely impressed by the film version of his first, Goodbye Columbus. Alas, the other film versions of Roth's novels have been disappointing, from the miscast Human Stain, the lackluster Elegy (from his novel The Dying Animal) to the ineptly terrible Portnoy's Complaint. I hoped that Pacino would help make The Humbling memorable.
Pacino is great in the movie. So is Greta Gerwig, whose magnetic personality revives Pacino's aged actor and draws her female and transsexual exes back to her, despite her starting a new relationship with a man.
What lets the film down is the script. Several people have commented here on the Last Act's similarities with Birdman. I don't know who came up with the idea first of having a troubled older actor having a breakdown on the stage and confusing fantasy and reality. Roth's Simon Axler is aware of what's happening to him and around him. He doesn't have any illusions about Pegeen and her past: as in the film, her ex lover, the dean, warns him constantly that Pegeen uses people and dumps them when she's through with them. He knows he's bankrupting himself by buying her expensive clothes (it would have helped the film to show them going around Prada stores in New York rather than an ordinary looking clothing store near Simon's house.) In the book Simon doesn't return to the stage. Pegeen comes to spend the weekend at his house. He's ready to tell her that he can father a child, after meeting with a doctor and having a fertility check. Before they can have dinner and talk, Pegeen appears with a packed bag and tells him it's over. She takes her expensive clothes and he suspects she's leaving him for the woman they picked up at the restaurant. I was let down that the threesome scene, so pivotal in the book, is revealed to be a fantasy sequence in the movie- we see Simon waking to find Pegeen and the woman hand in hand, ignoring him. The novel's Simon enjoys Pegeen's audaciousness, and despite his back problems encourages her in exploring her desires. The sex toys make an appearance in the film too, but as a symbol of Simon's not being able to satisfy her. Pacino's Simon isn't anywhere as adventurous as Pegeen, and it's no wonder when she leaves him.
I was also surprised by Sybil's speech to Simon revealing that she discovered her husband abusing her 8 year old daughter. She's tragic in the book, and ends up killing her husband, then killing herself. In the film the abuse is brushed away and quickly forgotten. Like Sybil's family, Simon and the audience see her as a deluded character who's fixated on Simon's acting as a hit man to shoot her husband, as he once played a Death Wish type role in a movie.
The movie begins with several promising themes about losing one's gift, one's way in life, and fantasy being taken for reality, then reality as fodder for sensationalism- Sybil turns into another hot story on True Crime TV programs. The movie would be far more powerful if it followed the novel more, if it ended with Simon alone, with his life empty, turning to a Hemingway style suicide, thinking of Sybil as a last inspiration. Instead, there's a final scene derivative of Birdman's real gun being fired on stage that is utterly unconvincing. Surely if an actor stabs himself with a real knife the other actors wouldn't continue with the final lines of the play but would call an ambulance instead.
The Last Act is worth watching, but I recommend that people read the book before they see the movie, and think of how it could have been a heartbreaking view of a man who like King Lear, has to face his hard existence after he has lost his power and the one who he loves.
The Jazz Singer (1927)
A movie very much of its time, and yet timeless
In a review here on IMDb of Jerry Lewis' 1959 TV version of the Jazz Singer a reviewer stated that the Jazz Singer is a film very much of its time. I've now seen four versions: Lewis' TV adaption, the original with Al Jolson, the 1952 Danny Thomas version, the Neil Diamond 1980s version, and Jerry Lewis' TV adaption. I now understand why the Jazz Singer belongs to its original time period. It's not a story about a jazz singer - though all the versions over the years have kept the title. At first I thought it was Jolson's personality and performance that made the story legendary. Certainly the power of hearing Jolson sing was instrumental in making the original movie a sensation.
The story is about the old clashing with the new: it's apt that it was chosen for Jolson's vehicle, part silent mixed with the scenes of Jolson singing (as I remember it, none of the scenes with sound were all dialogue: all featured singing, and two of the singing voices weren't Jolson's).
It's also about the old generation clashing with the new generation: the father's old world cantor struggling with the son's new world show business song and dance man.
The story doesn't really work in the later versions. Jerry Lewis was a good singer and he's fantastic in the opening sequence. But his version is really more about him as a comic. The Thomas version is bland and pedestrian. The Neil Diamond version is cheesy and unconvincing: for one thing, he's not a jazz singer, he's a pop singer.
The later movies are dominated by the echoes of the elements of the Jolson movie, already clichés by the end of the 1920s: the big show, the big chance, the call to his father's deathbed, and the last scene with the son honoring the father.
The original is charged by its reflections of Jewish culture: the big chance comes on the evening of Yom Kippur, and the son's reconciliation comes through performing his father's role of singing Kol Nidre and leading the evening services. For me one of the most powerful sequences of the movie doesn't feature Jolson singing: it's the scene in which his character hears Yossele Rosenblatt singing- in a theater, note, not in a synagogue.
I realized that the Jazz Singer also echoes the anxieties of the first European born generation regarding the American born second generation: will they keep the traditions, or reject everything, including morality and religious belief. The 1950s versions- both the Thomas movie and Lewis' TV play- have a father who is evidently American as well. Hence the story doesn't have the resonance of the fears of adjusting to a new country and the freedom it brings. (Diamond's version features a father who is a Holocaust survivor, but as I remember it the movie doesn't greatly explore the father's ambivalence towards the openness of American society.)
The later movies are also dominated by the echoes of Jolson's performance, not just his singing, but also in the scenes in which he pays tribute to his father and his heritage by leading the Kol Nidre service. It's both interesting and bizarre that in the closing of the Lewis version, Jerry Lewis is wearing cantor's robes and his clown makeup in the synagogue before the congregation- a reference to Jolson as a show business legend and to Jolson's performance as Jack Robin, the son conquering the new world with its modern new media, and at the same time continuing the culture of his heritage. The movie still has much to say to modern audiences. And despite the limitations of the early sound technology the outdated conventions of silent film acting and storytelling, and the numbers in blackface which are now seen as offensive, Jolson shines in the performance of his life.
Startime: The Jazz Singer (1959)
Missed opportunity: This Film would have been great as the Comic, not the Jazz Singer
I agree with the previous reviewer that the Jazz Singer is a film very much of its time. I've now seen four versions: the original, the Danny Thomas version, the Neil Diamond 1980s version, and Jerry Lewis' TV adaption.
I now understand why the Jazz Singer belongs to its original time period. It's not a story about a jazz singer - though all the versions over the years have kept the title. At first I thought it was Jolson's personality and performance that made the story legendary. It's interesting that Jerry echoes Jolson's makeup in the last part of the TV version (it's very strange seeing Lewis in the closing scene, in the synagogue wearing cantor's robes and his clown makeup) Certainly the power of hearing Jolson sing was instrumental in making the original a sensation.
The story is about the old clashing with the new: it's apt that it was chosen for Jolson's vehicle, part silent mixed with the scenes of Jolson singing (as I remember it, none of the scenes with sound were all dialogue: all featured singing, and two of the singing voices weren't Jolson's).
It's also about the old generation clashing with the new generation: the father's old world cantor struggling with the son's new world show business song and dance man. The story doesn't really work in Jerry's version. Jerry was a good singer and he's fantastic in the opening sequence. Lewis' Joey Robin has elements of Buddy Love, the suave, successful, gifted conceited smart Aleck. It would have been captivating if Lewis had been given the opportunity to expand on his portrait of guy who has made it but forgotten all the human values of his parents and his upbringing. Alan Reed is brilliant as the uncle, but it's a shame that Molly Picon and Eduard Franz aren't given the possibility of expanding their roles beyond brief clichés.
The movie is tied down by the elements of the Jolson movie, already long standing clichés in the 1950s: the big show, the big chance on Yom Kippur, the call to his father's deathbed, and the last scene in the synagogue singing Kol Nidre for the father.
I realized that the Jazz Singer also echoes the anxieties of the first European born generation regarding the American born second generation: will they keep the traditions, or reject everything, including morality and religious belief. The 1950s versions- both the Thomas movie and Lewis' TV play- have a father who is evidently American as well. Hence the story doesn't have the resonance of the fears of adjusting to a new country and the freedom it brings.
Lewis' Jazz Singer is entertaining, but the last two acts are badly handled: the sequence of Joey's daydream could have been come from one of Lewis' screen farces. If the play had been better directed, and focused on Lewis' character as a comic struggling with his father and his family's religious values this would have been a powerful film.