Friday, September 03, 2010

Showtime at the Apollo: Louis

At around 7:30 Monday night, I tweeted this photograph, captioned "likely the coolest place I'll ever see a movie":


And, let's be honest, what's going to compete with that? It's the Apollo Theater, for crying out loud! Even if it wasn't an especially apt bit of programming, the sheer bulk of amazing acts that have played there and how it has maintained a distinct identity over generations is impressive. When I was in Washington on vacation this spring, there was an exhibit at the American History Museum, and I did spend an hour or two in that one room, gawking.

In fact, I'm kind of surprised it took me as long as it did to order tickets. I found out about the screening by the rare publicity email that interested me - through eFilmcritic, I'm on an NYC publicity list that is often not very useful to me (I just can't get to afternoon screenings in New York, and kind of fear what a "screening room" is like) - and at first I had the standard "am I really going to spend X dollars and eight and a half hours on a bus and a vacation day on a movie that's just over an hour long" reaction. Fortunately, the publicity folks kept sending me emails, I wavered a little more each time, until finally, despite not meeting up with anyone I know in the city (which makes a fine excuse), I pulled the trigger(s). And it was totally worth it.

It must have been pretty cool for the filmmaker, too - I gather he was in the house but not really looking to come up and take bows - to get to 123rd street and see this:


One thing I was kind of surprised at was just how cozy the Apollo was. It was, in my mind, a palace, but as you can see from that first picture, it's not really a huge building, and once past the entrance, the lobby is kind of narrow. Not cramped, but decidedly not large. Even at the time I got in, around fifteen minutes before show time, it was pretty easy to move around. My delaying on buying a ticket meant I was on the far end of a row in the lower mezzanine:


... and, again, while that's not a small room, the other end of the row didn't see to be waaaaaaaaaaaaaay over there. Still, that's not a bad thing - even for a movie, unless you've got an absolutely gigantic screen, it's not good to be too far back, and I can hardly imagine seeing James Brown at his peak on that stage.

At this point, I was politely asked to turn the camera off, which was fine. I did sneak it out for one picture as the credits rolled, of course, although for the most part I was too busy clapping:


So, there's the end of a pretty good event. I hope that this movie gets to Boston at some point - maybe as part of the Cooldige's "Sounds of Silents" program, maybe at the Brattle. Even without the live ensemble, it's a pretty nifty movie. I also hope to see Bolden! sometime next year - that biography of the man who invented jazz (but from whom no recordings remain) shares the same cast and crew, although I gather it's neither silent or particularly comedic, which in a way makes it even more interesting; how will that cast change things up for a different sort of movie?


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 30 August 2010 at the Apollo Theater (Special Screening)

When I mentioned to a friend that I was planning a trip to New York to see a new movie inspired by the early life of Louis Armstrong, I asked him to guess what sort of movie it was. Well, he figured, since we wouldn't be playing guess-the-genre if it were obvious, that left out the musical. It took some time to get to "silent comedy", which in 2010 has be considered an unusual (if attention-getting) choice.

It's 1907 New Orleans, and young Louis (Anthony Coleman) is already working as a barker on a coal wagon, longingly looking at the cornet in a pawn shop window. But before meeting him, we're introduced to Grace Lemannais (Shanti Lowry), a talented dancer who, like the other girls in Mahagany Hall, is expected to do more than sing for her supper - with the occasional result being a baby girl like Grace's. The father is Judge Perry (Jackie Earle Haley), the corrupt justice who collects the "tax" from the local brothels. He's also running for governor, and doesn't need word about this to come out. Lucky for Grace, then, that a certain little boy has something of a crush on her.

There aren't a whole lot of silent films made today; when one does appear, it's usually the product of someone like Guy Maddin, intent on making his film look like something from another era to the point of fetishizing imperfect lighting and decaying film stock (I love Maddin, but he does lavish attention on surface details which can push people away). From the very start, it's clear that co-writer/director Dan Pritzker is not taking that tack. The picture is crisp and sharp; it doesn't throw a bunch of primary colors in the audience's face, but it is in color; skin tones are warm browns rather than near-blacks that blend into the shadows. Modern digital effects are used on occasion, and the movie is paced and cut quickly, though without scenes looking sped-up as can be the case with pre-sound films. Pritzker avails himself of twenty-first century technology to make a silent film for a twenty-first century audience.

Full review at EFC.

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