The film breathes exhilarating life into its tired premise, thanks to some dazzling action choreography, stylish visuals and–most importantly–a vintage anti-hero performance from Keanu Reeves.
Odie "Odienator" Henderson has spent almost 30 years working in Information Technology. He runs the blogs Big Media Vandalism and Tales of Odienary Madness. Read his answers to our Movie Love Questionnaire here.
A lover of film noir, musicals, Blaxploitation, bad art and good trash, Odie has been a Far Flung Correspondent since 2011. He has written for Slant Magazine's The House Next Door blog since 2006. He is the troublemaker responsible for the annual Black History Mumf series at Big Media Vandalism. His work has also appeared at MovieMezzanine, Movies Without Pity, Salon, and of course, here at RogerEbert.com.
In 2013, Odie entered the world of film festival programming, presenting 9 movies at the Off Plus Camera Film Festival in Krakow, Poland.
Based in the NYC area, Odie enjoys writing code almost as much as he enjoys writing prose. Something is wrong with that guy.
"Cab Calloway: Sketches" premieres at 10 p.m. ET/PT Monday, February 27 on PBS's "American Masters" (check local listings), and PBS on demand after that.
When I was 10, I snuck into my first R-rated movie and caught my first glimpse of Cab Calloway. Mind you, I'd heard him numerous times, as my folks had "Minnie the Moocher" on a 45. But much like the young audience who flocked to "The Blues Brothers" in 1980, I'd never actually seen him before. Until his musical number, Calloway looked like a nice old man. But once the strains of "Minnie the Moocher" started playing, he became something astonishing. He was hypnotic, dressed to the nines, with dreamlike movements and straight hair he shook like no Black person I knew. He was delivered to me the size Cab Calloway should always be delivered: On a big movie screen. I was in awe. 31 years later, I attended a midnight screening of "The Blues Brothers" at the IFC Center in New York City. Despite my familiarity with Calloway's appearance and his other movies, I had the same reaction to seeing him on the big screen. That film remains the only time I've seen him in those dimensions, and he'd lost none of his allure.
Calloway's appearance in "The Blues Brothers" features in the final act of "Cab Calloway: Sketches," Gail Levin's documentary for PBS's "American Masters." Director John Landis and the Memphis musicians who made up the Blues Brothers band discuss their time with the self-proclaimed "Hi-De-Ho Man." Steve Cropper, Donald "Duck" Dunn and Lou Marini speak of Calloway's constant dapperness and the aura any living legend carries around. He told them stories, had a good time with the actors, and scared the hell out of his director during a recording session of the song Calloway pressed to vinyl in 1930. "Sketches" covers the origins of both Calloway and his leading lady, Minnie.
"Sketches" begins B.M., that is, before "Minnie the Moocher," with Cab Calloway at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem. The Savoy was where people went stompin'--it was the biggest Black dance club in town. They called it "The Land of Happy Feet." If you played there, you'd arrived (at least to Black folks you had). Calloway appears with his band, the Alabamians, who, according to historian Gary Giddins, "had nothing to do with Alabama. " Upon arrival, Cab and company got into a "Battle of the Bands" with Savoy favorites, The Missourians. "They got their asses beat, " says Giddens, and Calloway, here in clips from an interview he conducted in his later years, seconds that notion. "But when the Missourians were looking for a new leader, they remembered me, " says Calloway. His career immediately got a boost.
"Raccoon Nation" premieres on PBS's Nature series Wednesday, Feb. 8, at 8 p.m., 7 p.m. Central. Coming on DVD/Blu-ray March 13.
Let's be frank: People watch nature documentaries because they want to see wild animals doing the Wild Thing. This can be shown on regular TV because, as Bea Arthur's Maude famously said, "animals making love is rated G. People making love like animals--that's R " An animal documentary serves to showcase how its subjects survive, hunt, eat, play, and yes, get their freak on. There's a reason the sexiest piece of music Elmer Bernstein ever wrote used to play over footage of animals gettin' bizzy on "National Geographic." A Barry White soundtrack would have been way too hot for TV.
Alas, "Raccoon Nation" is a relatively chaste animal documentary, which is unusual but no less interesting. Its focus is on another popular topic of nature non-fiction: man's effect on the animal kingdom. Our species is usually depicted as destructive, and rightfully so. Forests and wooded areas are disappearing, leaving animals homeless and upsetting the natural balance by misplacing both predator and prey. "Raccoon Nation" takes a different approach, however, suggesting that humans may be responsible for the continued survival of the misplaced animal. The more we try to get rid of raccoons, the smarter they get. It's side hustle disguised as adaptation.
As more and more development occurs, the animals start living closer to us. The urban jungle is now literally a jungle. Deer have been spotted in my hometown, and 10 miles away, Irvington, New Jersey saw an episode of "Bearz N The Hood" when a city block's trashcans were set upon by ursine visitors. My current neighborhood is overrun with rabbits, foxes, possums, squirrels and birds who are decidedly NOT pigeons. I walked out of my house this summer, and there were so many animals in my yard I thought I was in "Song of the South."
"The Black Power Mixtape: 1967-1975" plays on PBS's "Independent Lens" Thursday, February 9, 2012. Check local listings. It is also available on DVD, Netflix Instant and Amazon Instant.
After viewing "The Black Power Mixtape: 1967-1975," I stumbled out of the theater and into a blinding, mid-afternoon New York City sun, every nerve in my body ablaze. All my neurons seemed to be firing at once, and my brain was so full of thought I sought some way to collect myself. I started to walk, focusing more on reconciling my thoughts than a navigational direction. With no destination in mind, I walked for what seemed an eternity, trying to put my emotional responses together. I was jolted from my mental process by an old woman standing next to me on a Manhattan street corner. I must have looked shell-shocked, because she touched my arm as we waited for a Lower East Side traffic light to change. "Honey, are you alright?" she asked, genuine concern on her face.
Fully back in reality, I said "I'm fine, ma'am. Thank you for asking."
My reaction requires an explanation. Swedish journalist and filmmaker Göran Hugo Olsson's documentary took me back to the days when I came to a mature understanding of the implications of being Black, male, and broke. My adolescence was full of reading the speeches and works of Black leaders besides Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I chose to do this after my uncle took me to a Black-owned bookstore and suggested several books I should read. He avoided MLK not out of some form of militant stance, but because footage and information about King were everywhere. He was the star of every Black History Month on TV, and those who rejected the message of non-violence were either marginalized, demonized or ignored. I devoured works by people whose messages were downright terrifying to mainstream America: Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Eldridge Cleaver, and Huey P. Newton.
"Woody Allen: A Documentary" airs on PBS stations in two parts, at 9 p. m. Sunday and Monday, Nov. 20 and 21. Check local listings for airtimes. Also available via PBS On Demand.
by Odie Henderson
I took this gig as a challenge. It's not that I hate Woody Allen; I just don't adore him as much as you would like. Plus, I live in the Bizarro World when it comes to his films, enjoying the ones most people hate and vice-versa. For example, I hated "Match Point," disliked "Annie Hall," and could never commit to "Manhattan" despite its astonishing, heartbreaking cinematography. Conversely, I loved "Deconstructing Harry," found "A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy" amusing, and I may be the only sane person who liked "Hollywood Ending." These confessions may disturb die-hard fans, but before you vow never to read anything of mine again, you should watch American Masters' "Woody Allen: A Documentary." There you'll discover that Woody Allen dislikes most of his movies, even going so far as to offer to make a different movie for free if United Artists used "Manhattan" for kindling. Compared to that, my "meh" reaction to the gorgeous-looking film is a ringing endorsement. We now know who should be getting your hate mail, don't we?
Not that Allen would care. Robert B. Weide's exceptional documentary makes clear that critical opinion is the farthest thing from its subject's mind. The prolific writer-director has been too busy cranking out a film a year for the past four decades to worry about what anyone thinks of them. You'd have to go back to the studio system's heyday for that kind of output, work that produced eleven solo and three collaborative Oscar nominations for writing. That's two more than my beloved Billy Wilder, who coincidentally never got a solo writing nomination. Add to those fourteen writing nods his six directing nominations, sole acting nod and the resulting three wins, and you have one of the most honored filmmakers in Hollywood history. He can expect a 22nd nomination for "Midnight In Paris," which I cop to liking but not with the slobbering praise afforded it by most critics. (It's like a cross between Cliffs Notes, "The Purple Rose of Cairo" and a Tea Party rally, with all that "it's so much better in the past" nonsense.) The fact that awards mortify Allen makes these numerous acknowledgements the kind of ironic, funny joke one would find in, well, a Woody Allen movie.
"The Bengali Detective" plays HBO On Demand, beginning November 16th.
The first thing you need to know about "The Bengali Detective is that Fox Searchlight purchased the remake rights ten months before the general public laid eyes on it. Director Philip Cox's documentary features a charming leading man, adultery, triple homicide, mystery and suspense, a cute little kid, a dying spouse, corrupt officials and unbridled dancing. What studio could resist any of that, let alone be faithful to the darker, sadder grace notes that underscore the source material? The fiction version, due in 2014, will probably replace the casual matter-of-factness of "The Bengali Detective" with overdone "Slumdog Millionaire"-style schadenfreude. Unlike Danny Boyle's popular Oscar winner, this film reminds the viewer that those who cannot afford much should still be afforded dignity without the gaze of pity. Save yourself the three-year wait and watch "The Bengali Detective" now.
According to the film, 70 percent of the crimes in the East Indian city of Kolkata are unsolved. The authorities are either incompetent, corrupt or both. So the citizens turn to one of their own, the local detective who takes their cases. The titular Bengali detective is Rajesh Ji, head of the Always Detective Agency. He takes numerous cases, sometimes more than he can comfortably handle, and his motley crew of assistant detectives conduct surveillance, interview suspects, and shoulder their share of the legwork. During "The Bengali Detective, " Ji investigates three cases: One has a predictable outcome, one is a deceptively trivial crime, and the last is the harrowing triple murder of three best friends. The film gives each case a title so we know which one we're following with the detectives.
"Deepti" follows a middle-aged woman who comes to Ji with the suspicion that her husband of 24 years is cheating on her. Cox interviews her, and she talks of arranged marriage and her spouse's incredible cruelty toward her over the course of their relationship. "Just because he's a man doesn't make him lord and master," Deepti tells the camera. Later, after two of Ji's assistants tail the husband to the expected results, Deepti issues a statement to Ji that is devastating in its descriptive simplicity. "My heart is blank," she tells him, "but at least I know the truth." Cox leaves her story with a quiet long shot of the saddened wife staring at the bright green folder containing Ji's case documentation.
"Killing Bono" available On Demand (through various cable outlets -- check your listings) October 5. In theaters November 4.
by Odie Henderson
"Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little." -- Gore Vidal
I was the only patron at my screening of "U2: Rattle and Hum" back in 1988. Sitting in the cavernous darkness of my old 'hood theater, with its still-unmatched speakers and the ghosts of my childhood movies, I fell in love with the band U2. Beforehand, I had a casual familiarity with their music, and while I liked some of the songs, I wouldn't have considered myself a fan. I went because the black and white cinematography looked gorgeous in the clips I'd seen on TV. I wasn't disappointed. Phil Joanou's documentary is achingly beautiful. That, along with Bono and the New Voices of Freedom gospel choir's performance of "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," cemented my diehard fandom. Once, in a Dublin pub, armed with numerous imbibed pints of Guinness and a dare from the guitar-playing busker who'd been entertaining the crowd, I sang "All I Want Is You" to a crowd of swooning lasses standing in front of me. That evening ended well.
Neil McCormick, the protagonist of "Killing Bono" would hate that I started this piece fawning over the murder victim of the film's title. After all, he feels trapped in Bono's shadow and decides he has to kill him. "Killing Bono" opens in 1987, with a stalkerish Neil (Ben Barnes) driving his car to Bono's latest Dublin appearance. Rambling to the camera that he was originally entitled to everything Bono has, Neil crashes his car before exiting with his gun drawn and pointed at his prey. "I always knew I'd be famous," he tells us.
Cue the flashback machine! Suddenly, it's 1976, and McCormick stands in a high school hallway reading a billboard notice. His classmate, Paul Hewson (Martin McCann), is holding auditions for his new band, The Hype. Despite being in Neil's band, The Undertakers, Neil's brother Ivan (Robert Sheehan) tries out for second guitar. Much to Neil's chagrin, Hewson loves Ivan's work and wants him for his band. Neil objects--Ivan's really good and essential to Neil's success--so he tells Paul no deal.
"Amigo" is playing in selected theaters, including the Siskel Film Center in Chicago.
by Odie Henderson
There is something to be said for the economy in John Sayles' movie titles. He gets his point across in five words or less. The theatrical films he has written and directed bear the names of locations ("Matewan," "Sunshine State," "Silver City," "Limbo") or are deceptively simple descriptive statements ("The Secret of Roan Inish," "The Brother From Another Planet," "Return of the Secaucus Seven," "Amigo"). All 17 titles average out to just under 3 words per movie moniker (actually, 2.5), which means Sayles' 18th movie must star the king of the three word movie title, Steven Seagal. Laugh if you must, but IMDb will tell you Sayles once wrote a film for Dolph Lundgren. Seagal is only a "Marked for Death" sequel away, should Mr. Sayles take my advice.
In the meantime, his 17th film opens September 16th On Demand. "Amigo" follows the path running through much of Sayles' work: It is politically aware, occasionally melodramatic and maintains a certain intimacy despite sprawling across multiple characters and stories. Bitter irony and blatant humanism peacefully co-exist as Sayles' heroes, heroines and villains struggle to maintain the dignity he inherently believes they have. The director's masterpiece, "Lone Star," is the quintessential example of Sayles expressing his themes and ideas in epic format. Anchored by Chris Cooper, "Lone Star" spins a tale of power, race and class across generations, juggling numerous characters with whom the story invests such weight and interest that I could follow any of them out of the film and into their own adventures.
"Amigo" is not as tightly crafted as "Lone Star." It's a messier work whose dialogue is at times a tad too purple, its political allusions a little too obvious, and it has a one-note character that is uncharacteristic of its creator. Much of its plot is predictable in an old-fashioned, yet comforting studio-system way. Reminiscent of a sloppier E. L. Doctorow novel, "Amigo" merges real-life characters with fictional ones while plumbing a bygone era for parallels of today. Like Doctorow, Sayles provides numerous details of the period he depicts, culled from the research he did for his book "A Moment in the Sun." Its U.S. occupation plotline could represent Iraq or Vietnam or Afghanistan, and its soldier characters are good ol' boys found in many an old war movie (and many an actual platoon, as well). What makes "Amigo" engrossing despite its predictability is the object of its gaze: This is an occupation story, but for a change, "the Other" is us. The occupied people are observing the outsiders who have interrupted their life narrative by invading their country. In "Amigo," we are entrenched in the Philippine-American War (1899-1902).
Opening theatrically in New York. Available now through Comcast On Demand, Amazon, iTunes, Vudu. See TribecaFilm.com for details.
by Odie Henderson
"Beware the Gonzo" begins with one of those flash-forwarded scenes where something from later in the film is presented to us as a means of foreshadowing. Being out of context, the scene has the tricky role of piquing the viewer's interest while not being a spoiler. It rarely works, and "Beware the Gonzo"'s opening scene is a big spoiler: a beaten up Eddie "Gonzo" Gilman (Ezra Miller) stares into a video camera and tells us that his actions have cost him his best friends, made him lose his girl, gotten him kicked out of school, and almost caused the divorce of his parents (played nicely by Campbell Scott and Amy Sedaris).
This is supposed to be an apology to all those he has wronged, but instead, it's one of those politician mea culpas, a whiny "my bad if you were upset" speech that never forgets to be more about its subject than atoning for his wrongdoings. Out of context, it seemed pathetic, but I was willing to grant that I didn't have the entire speech at my disposal. However, it hung over the movie, and as I met the interesting and trusting characters, dread crept in; I kept waiting for the moment when Gonzo would stop being the likeable character he is for much of the film and turns into this destructive monster.
This is not a bad thing, mind you, but the film's dark turn treats some rather unsavory matters in eye-rollingly shallow fashion to produce a happy ending. It never makes its case for why we, or anybody in "Beware the Gonzo" should Forgive the Gonzo. If the film were honest, this tale of how power corrupts would have had a bittersweet, life-learning lesson of an ending: The hero learns from his mistakes and carries that lament with him as he moves on. Lacking that courage, director-screenwriter Brian Goluboff should have at least removed the most serious of "Beware the Gonzo"'s sins from the screenplay. The ending would then be easier to swallow. More on that shortly.
Gonzo works for a prep school newspaper run by principal's darling Gavin Reilly (Jesse McCartney). Reilly is a jock who not only edits the newspaper but comes from a long line of school attendees and patrons. Reilly's family has won a prestigious history award for the school two years running, and he is in line to win it its third. Reilly is also a bully (and worse, as we'll discover) who trashes all of Gonzo's article ideas. He and his jocks beat up Gonzo's friend, the wonderfully named Scott Marshall Schneeman (Edward Gelbinovich), giving him an gate-enhanced atomic wedgie. Scott's predicament leads Gonzo to turn his "first day of school" article into an expose on the bullied kids. Reilly edits out all but two paragraphs of Gonzo's article, forcing him to start his own underground newspaper. The first article is all about Scott and his run-ins with the jocks.
Opening theatrically in select cities and available On Demand through Comcast, Amazon, Hulu and other providers. For more information, visit TribecaFilm.com.
by Odie Henderson
The technological weapon of choice is refreshingly analog: Cassette tapes containing the vitriolic, violent rants of two men living together in an apartment in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district. The men, Raymond Hoffman and Peter Haskett, proclaim their disdain for one another in conversations loud enough to wake the dead. Haskett is an openly gay man, Hoffman a raging homophobe, and both are well beyond casual drinking.
The combination of opposites fueled by days of constant boozing provides enough hate to fuel the furnace that heats Hell, all of it recorded on those cassette tapes. The men become celebrities of sorts after their recordings go the pre-YouTube version of viral in the early 1990's. Though Ray and Pete provide the content, the reward goes to the men who recorded them, Eddie Lee Sausage and Mitchell D. The documentary, "Shut Up Little Man: An Audio Misadventure" documents their return to the scene of their run-in with fame, a pink apartment complex they affectionately called Pepto-Bismol Palace.
Ray and Pete lived next door to Eddie and Mitchell from 1987 to 1989. After Eddie signs the lease, their landlord warns them that their neighbors can get "a little loud." When the duo finds out how loud, Eddie confronts Ray. A drunken Ray threatens to kill him before returning his threats to Pete. Neither "Cops" nor "Judge Judy" were on the air in 1987, so the duo didn't realize they could have their blitzed neighbors dragged out into the street on camera before suing the pantyhose off their trifling landlord. Being from a small town instead of a crime-ridden metropolis, Eddie and Mitchell also seem unaware that, if the walls are thin enough to hear the neighbors, bullets will have no problem getting through them. So, rather than call their landlord or the cops, Eddie and Mitchell decide to record Ray and Pete instead.
Mitchell tells us that Ray and Pete are aware they are being recorded, yet they continue to scream obscenity at each other. After collecting 10 or so hours of material, he and Eddie loan some of the cassettes to friends. The friends find the tapes hilarious, and pass them on to other friends who do the same. Soon, Pete and Ray are underground sensations, and Pete's constant refrain of "Shut Up, Little Man!" becomes the catchphrase of the cassette crowd. Comic books based on the material are drawn by Daniel Clowes ("Ghost World"). Puppet shows are performed using dialogue from the tapes. A playwright and future nemesis of Eddie and Mitchell named Gregg Gibbs writes a one act play with Pete and a murderous Ray as characters. Even Devo samples the dialogue for one of their songs.
Fandor.com will present "Sleep Furiously" along with the featurette "Sketchbook for the Library Van," for a free 24-hour On Demand window on July 29th. Details here. Also playing Aug. 12-18 at Facets Cinematheque in Chicago.
by Odie Henderson
"You've got to have characters to make a community."
What does it mean to a community when a school shuts down? Here in the U.S., it means either the state doesn't have any money to run it or the kids have burned it down. In Trefeurig, Wales, however, the dissolution of a school is something far more ominous, especially if it is the only school in town. "Sleep Furiously" uses Trefeurig's school closing as its central event yet only hints at its deeper implications: Youth may be wasted on the young, but the world can't continue to exist without them.
"Sleep Furiously" is not a conventional documentary. There are no talking heads, no narration, and no explicit point of view, pro or con, toward its subject. Like the Ross Brothers' "45365," "Sleep Furiously" is an observation of its director's hometown, specifically the people who inhabit it. They go about their business and the filmmaker records them. It is only after the final frames are projected that we realize this film is depicting the collateral damage that comes with technological change.
Filmmaker Gideon Koppel returns to Trefeurig, where his parents were refugees from Germany during World War II, but he is not there to interview anyone nor is he there to mourn or celebrate the changing of the tide. He's just a fly on the wall as the residents go about their daily routines armed with the knowledge that they may be the last to perform them. We meet the townsfolk, all of whom remain nameless, and follow them through a year of seasons. School events and county fairs are shown. Scenes are cut abruptly, and they are sometimes scored (by Aphex Twin) and sometimes silent. There is no explanation for any of this, and I had to be told by another reviewer that one of the people Koppel follows is his own mother. Viewers may find this narrative minimalism frustrating, or even pretentiously arty, but remember: It's only pretentious if it doesn't hold your attention. "Sleep Furiously" held mine; I was lulled by its meditative quality and taken aback by the director's occasional use of the entire canvas of the screen.