Heaven Is for Real
Faith-based film tries reaching past its audience, but falls back on preaching to its own choir way too much.
August 15 marks the 20th anniversary of the debut of "The Larry Sanders Show," episodes of which are available on Netflix Instant, Amazon Instant, iTunes, and DVD. This is the first part of Edward Copeland's extensive tribute to the show, including interviews with many of those involved in creating one of the best-loved comedies in television history.
by Edward Copeland
Over the course of my lifetime, I've watched a lot of movies -- an old computer contained a program with an editable database of titles and allowed for the addition of new films. Back when I used that PC, my total hovered in the thousands. "The Larry Sanders Show" produced a mere 89 episodes in its six season run from 1992-1998 that began 20 years ago tonight on HBO. "I know it sounds cliché but -- honest to God -- it seems like it was just about a week ago. It's so odd that it's 20 years," Jeffrey Tambor said in a telephone interview.
Despite the vast disparity between the quantity of films I've viewed and "Larry Sanders" episodes, when I recently took part in The House Next Door's "If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot" series, I found it far easier to prune those pictures down to my ten favorites than I did when I applied the same task to "Larry Sanders" episodes. (Picking a clip or two from each show proved even more difficult as inevitably I'd want to include the entire half-hour.) Three or four episodes I knew had to be on the list, but then it got tough. I considered making a list of the best episode for each character such as the best Brian episode ("Putting the 'Gay' Back in Litigation"), the best Beverly ("Would You Do Me a Favor?"), the best Phil ("Headwriter"), etc. With all the priceless episodes centering on Hank and Artie, I imagined those two characters conceivably filling all ten spots alone.
A series that broke as much ground as "The Larry Sanders Show" deserves a grander tribute to mark the two decades since its birth than just a recounting of a handful of episodes -- and I had that intention. Unfortunately, my physical limitations and time constraints thwarted my ambitions. Rest assured though, that salute shall be forthcoming (MESSAGE TO BOB ODENKIRK: YOU STILL CAN TAKE PART NOW). As with any list, I'm certain my fellow "Larry Sanders" fans shall express outrage at my omissions (I already hear the shouts of "Where is the one with Carol Burnett and the spiders?" "No 'Hank's Sex Tape!' Hey now!"). Believe me, I'm as livid as you are and may join in the comments to give myself the thorough tongue-lashing I so richly deserve for these unforgivable exclusions. First, though, I'm going to fix myself a Salty Dog, using Artie's recipe of course. I want to be able to grab those olives, not fish for them. So, for good or ill, I submit my selections for my ten favorite episodes of "The Larry Sanders Show." Since bestowing ranks only leads to more trouble, I present these ten in chronological order:
In Takashi Miike's "Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai," power and tradition crush good people, just as they did in Masaki Kobayashi's 1962 version. Both films are expressions of social rebellion, but where Kobayashi's conveyed a spirit of righteous vengeance that anticipated the course of its revolutionary decade, Miike's is more plaintive and despairing. There are struggles, but nobody wins, ever. Weak and cowardly people who happen to be tending the levers of power simply carry out meaningless rituals that destroy lives.
As in the '62 film, through flashbacks we get a good, long look at the lives an inflexible Samurai code has destroyed. With the elegance and shyness of an Ozu domestic drama, Miike renders a family formed under bittersweet circumstances: A poor Samurai dies, leaving his son in the care of his old war buddy, a fellow widower with a daughter of his own. Raising these children in early 15th Century peacetime means drawing from meager earnings as an umbrella maker rather than as a soldier of fortune. Hanshiro Tsugumo (Ebizo Ichikawa) might have been tough on the battlefield, but he imparts a gentle nature, not a warrior's stoicism, to the boy, Motome Chiziiwa (Eita). Motome becomes a schoolteacher and, inevitably, marries Hanshiro's daughter Miho (played as an adult by Hikari Mitsushima, the radiant star of Sion Sono's Miike-like masterpiece, "Love Exposure"). He fulfills both obligations with his father's patient, nurturing ways.
"War of the Arrows" is currently available on Netflix Instant, Vudu, iTunes and Blu-ray/DVD.
By Jana J. Monji
A sudden crush of movies is bringing the sport of archery back into the limelight, and the timing couldn't be better for the 2011 costume drama "War of the Arrows" from South Korea. This is like a Western movie damsel in distress scenario transported to 17th century Korea with archery instead of gun sharpshooting. The good guys don't wear white hats, but you'll easily be able to tell the good guys from the bad guys in this morality tale.
European tradition has William Tell and Robin Hood to tantalize young boys into archery. In America, if children still play cowboys and injuns, then one supposes that the Native Americans still use bows, but that's usually just the braves according to old stereotypes that places the squaws in the wigwams. More recently, we've had "The Avengers" with Clinton Barton's Hawkeye.
For girls, "The Hunger Games" have given us an alternative reality with arrow-slinging Katniss who like Annie Oakley learned to shoot in order to feed her family. Disney's newest princess, Merida in "Brave," performs archery on horseback. Has there ever been a better time for archery?
"Stella Days" (87 minutes) available via iTunes, VuDu, Amazon Instant Video and most other VOD providers (check your local listings). It is also playing in limited theatrical release.
by Jeff Shannon
It seems somehow belittling to pigeon-hole the ever-so-Irish "Stella Days" as a comedy/drama or (saints forgive us!) as that dubious hybrid known as "dramedy." It is, more accurately, a heartfelt, thematically ambitious exploration of fragile faith confronted by rigid dogma, and its dramatic substance is leavened by the kind of wry, tenacious good humor that has defined the Irish character for centuries.
That low-key humor prevails throughout the film but is most evident in the opening scenes, as when Father Daniel Barry (Martin Sheen) arrives at the bedside of an old, dying woman on the outskirts of Borrisokane, the tiny town in North Tipperary that is home to Barry's parish. He's there to deliver last rites (not for the first time), but the old lady's as tenacious as a potato in barren Irish soil, and all she wants is to hear Father Barry's mellifluous Latin prayer so she can sleep peacefully and live to see another day.
"The last rites are not medicine," he tells her with fond familiarity, knowing he'll eventually return to deliver last rites for real. "Doctor Brady's your man for that."
"Oh, he could never cure me," says Peggy. "I don't know what I'll do when you go back to Rome."
There lies the rub: Father Barry doesn't know it yet, but he won't be returning to his post at the Vatican any time soon. He's a Catholic scholar, an intellectual desperately eager to finish his thesis on St. John at the Cross. He's far less rigid in his thinking than his uptight superiors, most notably Bishop Hegarty (Tom Hickey), a stern traditionalist who finds it necessary to remind Father Barry that "being an Irish parish priest is not a penance."
"Guilty Pleasures" (60 min.) premieres on the PBS series P. O.V. on Thursday, July 12 (check your local listings). The DVD is available for pre-order on the PBS website. It will stream on the POV's website July 13-Aug. 12.
by Donald Liebenson
"Guilty Pleasures." A documentary. About romance novels. She didn't watch documentaries. She didn't read romance novels. When she agreed to join him for what he called "movie night" ("I'll show you something you've never seen," he had said lasciviously), this is not what she signed up for. Her inner goddess yearned for a shirtless Ryan Gosling.
"Here," she offered, unsnapping "Crazy Stupid Love" from its DVD case. Suddenly, like a coiled snake, he lunged, grabbed the disc from her trembling hand and flung it against the wall, sending it spinning, spinning.
Do you love the nightlife? During hot summers, evening comes like a cool blessing with a promise of good company. But just what do we mean by the night life? Usually we aren't talking about dark streets and even the dimly lit dance venues and bars feature glowing and sometimes pulsing lights. As a woman, I prefer well-lit and well-traveled areas of the city. It's a mattered of safety. Yet in director/writer Ian Cheney's illuminating documentary, "The City Dark, " we learn that having a city that never sleeps comes at a steep price. "What do we lose when we lose the night?" he asks.
For the New York City-based Cheney, who grew up in rural Maine, in a small town of about 4,000 people, his boyhood nightlife was spent gazing at the stars. This 2011 documentary is like a plaintive love song to the night skies of his youth with stunning astrophotography (cinematography by Cheney and Frederick Shanahan). I realized that as much as I love nighttime walks under a full moon, I have never truly seen the sky at night. In most cities there's too much light pollution.
Cheney's previous documentary, the Peabody Award-winning "King Corn" also appeared on PBS as part of the Independent Lens series. Directed by Aaron Woolf and written by Cheney, Curtis Ellis along with Woolf and Jeffrey K. Miller, the 2007 "King Corn: You Are What You Eat," followed college friends, Cheney and Ellis, as they moved to Greene, Iowa to grow an acre of corn and learn about the industrialization of farming and why corn is such a high-demand crop even though it's subsidized by the government.
"Mariachi High" premieres on PBS on Friday, June 29 at 9 p. m.ET (check your local listings). A DVD can be pre-ordered at www.pbs.org for August 14 release. It will also be available digitally in August via iTunes and Amazon.
by Donald Liebenson
Having had the good fortune to attend a high school with a vital arts program, I am a sucker for documentaries about the transformative power of arts and humanities education. "Mariachi High" hits all the right notes: An underdog school district, a dedicated teacher, fiercely talented and determined students, and character-defining setbacks that raise the stakes for those "exhilarating, off the charts" moments of truth.
"Mariachi High" chronicles a school year in the life of Zapata High School's championship varsity-level ensemble, Mariachi Halcon. Zapata, a small Texas border town (pop: 5,089 in 2010 when co-directors Ilana Trachtman and Kim Connell began filming), is somehow "a big talent gene pool for Mariachi," observes the ensemble's director Adrian Padilla.
To say the school of 900 does not enjoy the advantages of big city schools is an understatement. One Zapata student recalls comparing eighth grade school trips with a friend. Her friend's school traveled to Washington, D.C. The Zapata kids visited an aquarium.
But Mariachi is where they make their mark.
"Something's Gonna Live" (78 minutes) is available via iTunes, Amazon Instant, and DVD.
Architecture's loss was the movies' immeasurable gain. Robert Boyle, Albert Nozaki and Henry Bumstead, classmates at the University of Southern California in the 1930s could not find jobs in their studied profession. They wound up at Paramount Studios, where, as production designers and art directors, they set the stage for some of the movies' most indelible images.
Boyle designed Alfred Hitchcock's "Saboteur," "Shadow of a Doubt," "North by Northwest," "The Birds," and "Marnie." And those are the just the Hitchcock credits. Bumstead earned Academy Awards for his contributions to "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "The Sting." He received nominations for his work on "Vertigo" and "Unforgiven." Tokyo-born Nozaki was the art director on "The War of the Worlds" and "The Ten Commandments," for which he was nominated for an Academy Award.
"Walk Away Renee" is available on SundanceNow's new Subscriber Video-on-Demand Program Doc Club from June 27, 2012.
When you were young didn't you think your parents were crazy? Did you swear you wouldn't turn out like them? For filmmaker Jonathan Caouette, those two worries have defined his life because his mother suffers from bipolar personality and schizoaffective disorders, something that he focused on in his award-winning 2003 documentary "Tarnation." In his new film, "Walk Away Renee," Caouette brings us up to 2010 with the focus on Caouette driving his mother, Renee LeBlanc, in a U-Haul from Houston to New York.
For a dysfunctional family, road trips can be filled with emotional landmines. For Caouette, this bonding experience starts out well, but early on, they lose Renee's 30-day supply of lithium. Without her mood stabilizing meds, you know that things can only get worse. For people who have bipolar relatives, this story might seem heartbreakingly familiar.
Caouette's "Tarnation" begins with overexposed grainy images. The highlights are blown out to white; this isn't a technical problem, but an expression of panic. His mother has overdosed and the documentary then shows the events building up to this emergency. Caouette began filming his family in 1984 and in "Tarnation" we see him as a young troubled boy, starved for attention and trying to make sense of his world, his sexual orientation and the mother he loves while being raised by his overwhelmed though well-meaning grandparents, Adolph and Rosemary Davis.
"The Magic of Belle Isle" (109 minutes) is available via iTunes, Amazon, Comcast, DirecTV, VUDU and other outlets. A limited theatrical release begins July 1.
Rob Reiner's "The Magic of Belle Isle" is an Easy Button of a film, as generic and conventional as its title. If you ever wondered what a Hallmark Channel original movie would be like if you threw some A-list talent at it -- namely Morgan Freeman and Virginia Madsen instead of, say, Jeffrey Nordling and Kristy Swanson -- here's your answer.
Freeman stars as Monte Wildhorn, an alcoholic in a wheelchair and "writer (of westerns) nobody reads." His books, once popular, are now out of print. Monte's nephew (Keenan Thompson) deposits him in the idyllic lakeside town of Belle Isle to housesit. Nephew's ulterior motive, of course, is that he will be inspired to stop drinking and start writing again, but the embittered Monte is a hard case. "Toss it in the garbage," he says of his typewriter. "She's a black-hearted whore, and I'm done with her."
So what will it take to turn this curmudgeon into a softie? Guy Thomas' simplistic script leaves nothing to chance. How about saddling Monte with a lazy old dog named Ringo (yes, Ringo) that has a penchant for licking itself? No? Well then, how about introducing a single mother (Madsen) who is going through a divorce with three -- count 'em -- daughters: one adorable, one precocious, and one sullen? Still not enough? Well then how about adding to the mix a mentally challenged boy who hops around the neighborhood and whom Monte takes under his wing as his "sidekick?"