God knows how many millions of dollars and hours of manpower went into making and remaking Geostorm but it turns out to have been all…
"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.
"Bill T. Jones: A Good Man," premieres nationally Friday, November 11 at 9 p.m. (ET/PT) on PBS. Check local listings.
by Steven Boone
Bill T. Jones looks like an epic hero of dance. His cheekbones are as intricately chiseled as his sable Jack Johnson physique. When working as a choreographer-director, he projects artistic heroism, naturally striking poses of sage leadership straight out of Classics Illustrated. Having created a show celebrating Africa's great musical activist, Fela Kuti ("FELA!"), to worldwide acclaim and Tony awards, he wasn't yet done with the subject of heroes when it struck him to complete a long-gestating piece about Abraham Lincoln titled "Fondly Do We Hope/Fervently Do We Pray."
"Bill T. Jones: A Good Man" is a documentary about Jones's attempt to understand his lifelong hero-worship of The Great Emancipator, using an entire dance company as his investigative tool. Many of the dancers grew up idolizing Jones the same way he has bowed to Lincoln since childhood -- an ingenious meta-reverberation of theme that's clearly intentional. Jones wants to know if Lincoln was, indeed, the "good man" official history portrays. Leadership in times of war and social upheaval entails traversing a minefield of cynical agendas. Jones wants to know if idealism can truly flower in such a toxic climate.
A day after bitching at many of his collaborators well into rehearsals, Jones gathers the company to apologize, but also to confess: He needs their help. Wearing dancer's tights and no shirt rather than his usual sweats and t-shirt, he appears as vulnerable as his performers. He's one of them for a moment, and he admits to having been puzzled about where he was steering this artistic ship. Now he realizes that the show isn't about Lincoln but about Bill T. Jones and his unfashionable beliefs.
With the exception of "The Woman" (which is still in limited theatrical release), all of the films from "Bloody Disgusting Selects" are currently available on multiple platforms including Netflix (DVD only), Amazon.com and most VOD providers including Comcast, DirecTV, Amazon, iTunes, CinemaNow, VuDu and Verizon FiOS. Check your VoD provider listings, or go to www.bloodydisgustingselects.com for more information about the films and where to find them.
On DVD, all of the foreign-language films reviewed here include an optional English-dub dialogue track for viewers with an aversion to subtitles.
by Jeff Shannon
Historically and statistically, the most abundant, profitable, and creatively expressive movie genre has always been horror. It has consistently been the most viable proving ground for new talent and a focal point for the most obsessive movie fans on the planet. It's the most purely cinematic of genres, playing to the strengths of an artistic medium that has shock, surprise, dread, fear, and bloodletting built into every molecule of its DNA. It's a realm of expression that challenges masters and amateurs alike.
Of course, there's always a downside: The record-setting $50 million opening weekend of "Paranormal Activity 3" (which earned a one-star review from Roger Ebert) -- and Paramount's immediate strategy to keep that franchise booming -- provided a stark reminder that, more often than not, horror is where commerce almost always trumps art. It's the favorite plaything for copy-cats and money-grubbers. The genre's blood is frequently tainted by fast-buck pretenders and greedy opportunists who care more about profit than the genre's history, which is the worthy subject of some of the finest film scholarship that's ever been written.
"Lives Worth Living" premieres on the PBS series "Independent Lens" on October 27th at 10:00 p.m. (ET/PT). For more information, visit the film's PBS website and filmmaker Eric Neudel's website.
by Jeff Shannon
To be disabled in America, in 2011, is to occupy the midpoint of a metaphorical highway, some stretches smooth and evenly paved, others rocky and difficult to navigate. When you look back at the road behind, you feel proud and satisfied that people with disabilities (PWD) have made significant progress since the days when we had no voice, no place in society, no civil rights whatsoever. Looking ahead, you see fewer physical obstacles but other remaining barriers, in terms of backward attitudes and ongoing exclusion, that society is still stubbornly reluctant to remove.
Like those of us with disabilities, Eric Neudel's documentary "Lives Worth Living" is situated at that halfway point on the rocky road of progress. In just 54 inspiring and informative minutes, Neudel's exceptional film (airing Oct. 27th at 10pm on the PBS series "Independent Lens") provides a concise primer on the history of the disability rights movement in America. The film culminates with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush on July 26th, 1990.
And yet, it's only half the story. In a perfect world, PBS would immediately finance a sequel so Neudel (who has devoted his career to documenting political and civil rights struggles) could chronicle the first 20 years of the ADA. That history is still unfolding, and the struggle to enforce and fully implement the ADA is just as compelling as the struggle for disability rights throughout the 1960s, '70s and '80s.
(I'll go a step further and say that the subject is worthy of a multi-part Ken Burns approach, echoing the sentiment of veteran disability-rights advocate Lex Frieden, who observes in "Lives Worth Living" that "If you have a good story to tell, it's not hard to get people to watch or listen to it." And the tale of pre- and post-ADA disability in America is a very good story indeed, as packed with human drama as any other fight for equality in all of American history.)
"Pearl Jam Twenty" is available On Demand (check your satellite or cable listings) and premieres on the PBS series "American Masters" at 9 p. m. (ET/PT), Oct. 21. It will be released on Blu-ray and DVD Oct. 25. For additional viewing, the grunge documentary "Hype!" is available on Netflix (DVD only).
by Jeff Shannon
Here in Seattle, we think of Cameron Crowe as an honorary native. When he married Nancy Wilson in 1986, he married into local rock royalty: Nancy and her sister, Ann, are the pioneering queens of rock in Heart, the phenomenally successful and still-touring Seattle-based band that is presently nominated for induction into the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame. It wasn't long before Crowe became a kind of de facto ambassador of Seattle-based rock.
At the time, the rest of the world still knew Crowe as the rock-journalist wunderkind who started writing for Rolling Stone at age 15 (an experience Crowe would later dramatize in "Almost Famous") and the author-turned-screenwriter of Amy Heckerling's 1982 high-school classic "Fast Times at Ridgemont High." You could reasonably speculate that the seeds of the Crowe/Wilson romance were planted in "Fast Times": Nancy Wilson makes a cameo appearance in the film as "Beautiful Girl in Car," catching Judge Reinhold's character in yet another moment of humiliating embarrassment. One can imagine Crowe thinking "I'm gonna marry that girl." When he actually did, countless male Heart fans turned green with envy.
(By sheer happenstance, I made a friendly connection with Crowe three years before we actually met. Shortly after the newlywed Crowe moved to the Eastside Seattle suburb of Woodinville, he and Nancy placed a mobile home on their rural property to accommodate visits from Wilson's mother. At the time, my father was running a mortgage business specializing in mobile/land sales in Snohomish County, and he closed their deal. When my dad informed Crowe that I was a Seattle film critic and an admirer of his, Crowe sent me a signed copy of Fast Times at Ridgemont High to my dad's office. It was a completely unsolicited gesture of kindness, and a pleasant precursor to later encounters.)
"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.
• "The Outer Limits" (original series) is available on Netflix (DVD), Hulu Plus and Amazon Instant Video. • "In Cold Blood" is available on Netflix (DVD and Blu-ray) and Amazon Instant Video. • "Cool Hand Luke" is available on Netflix (DVD and Blu-ray) and Amazon Instant Video. • "American Beauty" is available on Netflix (DVD and Blu-ray) and Amazon Instant Video. • "Road to Perdition" is available on Netflix (DVD and Blu-ray).
by Jeff Shannon Eyes Wide Open: A Single Artist's Vision
Ask anyone who's devoted their life to the study and appreciation of movies and they can probably tell you exactly when they were "bitten by the movie bug," that moment of personal epiphany that sparked an all-consuming passion for what is arguably the greatest, most powerful medium of artistic expression.
In my case, it was Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" that literally changed my life. That's an influential milestone I share with many cinephiles who came of age in the 1950s and '60s, especially those "movie brats" (among them James Cameron, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg) who were drawn to imaginative visions of the future. Because I'd spent most of my childhood outdoors or casually enjoying Disney films and other kid-friendly fare, I didn't see Kubrick's visionary masterpiece until it played a return engagement at Seattle's glorious Cinerama Theater, in 1971, when I was nine years old.
(With its huge, curved Cinerama screen, the Cinerama is still the only theater in Seattle capable of showing "2001" as Kubrick intended. It exclusively hosted the film's original 77-week Seattle run beginning in April 1968, and the fully restored 70-millimeter print of "2001" had its world premiere there, appropriately enough, in 2001, two years after the aging cinema was purchased and beautifully renovated by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. It's now one of only three theaters in the world -- along with the Cinerama Dome in Los Angeles and the Pictureville Cinema in Bradford England -- equipped to exhibit three-panel Cinerama, requiring three synchronized projectors for the only seven films created in the three-strip Cinerama process, including 1956's "This Is Cinerama" and 1962's "How the West Was Won." Starting this week [Sept. 30th] and running through mid-October, Seattle's Cinerama is hosting a "70mm Festival" of 15 films, including "2001," that originally premiered there.)
Like no other film before it, "2001" opened my eyes to the power of a single artist's vision and led me to understand the supremacy of a great director. I didn't know it then, but I'd discovered the basis of auteur theory, and while it would be foolish to deny that film is (to echo that award-acceptance cliché) the most collaborative of all art forms, it's no contradiction to embrace the Kubrick quote that greets all visitors to kubrickfilms.com, Warner Bros.' authorized Kubrick website: "One man writes a novel. One man writes a symphony. It is essential for one man to make a film." (Disregard "man"; Kubrick would've been the first to include female filmmakers in his statement.)
"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).
Marshall Curry's "If a Tree Falls" premieres on PBS's "POV" series Tuesday, September 13, 2011.
by Steven Boone
Terrorism is plain stupid. I reaffirmed this belief halfway into "If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front", a documentary chronicling the titular organization's rise and fall. It's one thing to protest in the streets, sit down in front of bulldozers and stage direct "actions" to draw media attention to a particular issue; it's another thing entirely to commit violent crimes with the same ends in mind. But did the Earth Liberation Front actually perpetrate any terrorism? Their 1200 or so "incidents," as a lawyer representing some members calls them, resulted in zero deaths or injuries (other than maybe a booboo sustained while vaulting a fence before the cops came). The violence was restricted to private property.
But the crimes covered in this film were prosecuted in the wake of 9/11, when its principal subject, radical environmental activist-arsonist Daniel McGowan, found himself branded a terrorist in the media and on trial. "I think people look at my case and think, 'What if that motherf**ker burned down my house?'" he says in the film. "They think it's just a bunch of young crazies walking around with gas cans, lighting shit on fire and that pisses them off."
"These facilities" were the offices of park rangers, loggers, an SUV dealership and a horse slaughterhouse. In the '90s and '00s, the E.L.F. targeted a range of businesses and organizations it saw as powerful agents of environmental destruction. The members were mostly very young protestors radicalized by brutal police response. Footage of cops beating and pepper-spraying non-violent activists who refuse to disperse does resemble classic civil rights/counterculture tumult. (Scenes of confrontation with loggers, from an E. L.F.-made documentary ostensibly shot in the mid-90s, look as if they could have been shot in the late '60s.) This was a classic, bright-eyed, idealistic strain of the environmental movement, led by resourceful twenty-somethings.