An ambitious, challenging piece of work that people will be dissecting for years. Don’t miss it.
Jana Monji, made in San Diego, California, lost in Japan several times, has written about theater and movies for the LA Weekly, LA Times, and currently, Examiner.com and the Pasadena Weekly. Currently living in LA, she has found her inner Latina dancing Argentine tango. Her short fiction has been published in the Asian American Literary Review.
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.
"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.
PBS's "American Masters" presents "Margaret Mitchell: American Rebel" and "Harper Lee: Hey, Boo," back-to-back documentaries about two white American women who won Pulitzer Prizes for their first and only best-selling novels, Monday, April 2 beginning at 9 p.m. (Check local listings.) Both will be available via PBS On Demand and are currently on DVD.
If you're hoping for the whirling of petticoats, a colorful Virginia reel and the coquettish fluttering of lashes on the old plantation, you might be surprised by American Master's "Margaret Mitchell: American Rebel." By rebel, director Pamela Roberts doesn't just mean Johnny Reb. On the other hand, if you hope that the author of Gone With the Wind is burning in hell for conjuring up a romantic fantasy of slavery and antebellum plantation life, you might be surprised. Mitchell was a wild young woman who did some shocking dances in her day, but eventually settled down and did good in ways that benefited the citizens of her hometown Atlanta and beyond.
What could be rebellious about a woman who romanticized a plantation lifestyle in which women were raised to be pretty ornaments and good wives in her 1936 novel of the Old South, "a civilization gone with the wind..."? Today, millions of women still live out their Scarlett O'Hara fantasies at their weddings with hoop-skirted bridal gowns, and through Civil War or Southern ball re-enactments. Not so many line up to portray slaves. The documentary uses many clips from the blockbuster 1939 movie, contrasted with photographs of Mitchell in her own wild youth. Even as one might enjoy the sweeping romance of the motion picture epic and attempt to ignore the racism, I suspect most people are more politically sympathetic with Alice Randall's 2001 parody The Wind Done Gone, which re-imagined Mitchell's story from the slaves' point of view.
"Redline" is available on demand via Vudu.com and Amazon Instant Video. It is also on DVD/Blu-ray.
There are nights when I love nothing better than dressing up in a T-shirt, my saddle shoes and a poodle skirt like a high school teen from "American Graffiti" and get ready for some East Coast swing. If I could ride in a cherry retro car, that would just make my night perfect. You'd think that the anime "Redline," with its young Elvis-like rebel protagonist who flaunts his need for speed, would suit me just fine. My husband likes women in short skirts like the racetrack babes and bimbos of "Redline," so this anime should have offered something for both of us. Yet we found this futuristic racing anime a hyperactive snore. I'm not saying that 44-year-old director Takeshi Koike is musty, but the characters are dead on arrival and the techno soundtrack during the action sequences made us want to flee their funeral.
"The Captains" is available on Netflix, EpixHD.com, Amazon Instant Video, Vudu and DVD. It will screen on HBO Canada March 21.
Stardate 65630.8 (1 March 2012)
What made "Star Trek" the most "durable and profitable franchise" in entertainment history? In his documentary, writer-director-producer William Shatner makes a convincing argument that it was "The Captains" -- they set the tone and they brought the theatricality and Shakespearean linguistic grace to TV.
"The Captains," appeared in October, 2011, in Canada, had one-night screenings here and there across North America, and helped launch EpixHD.com. That all seems in keeping with Shatner's impressive role as a new-media barnstormer. No, he's not making political speeches, but he's on Google+ and Facebook, and he's traveling around North America promoting and preserving what may be his most lasting legacy, his role as Captain James T. Kirk. He's even returned to Broadway in a one-man show covering his career before, during and beyond "Star Trek." (Yes, "returned.")
In Hollywood, people joke about the William Shatner School of Acting. He's corny. He's melodramatic. And he has a sizable ego. But he's really not a bad actor. We forget that before "Star Trek," Shatner seemed destined to become a fine stage actor. He first made the trip to Broadway from his native Canada in 1956 with a small part in "Tamburlaine the Great" in 1956. The production had two Tony nominations. He scored the starring role in "The World of Suzie Wong," which ran for two years. Both he and the female lead won Theatre World Awards for their work. In 1962, he was one of the main performers in "A Shot in the Dark," for which Walter Matthau won a featured actor Tony. All that momentum got sidetracked when he went Hollywood.
"Raising Renee" premieres on HBO2 Wednesday, February 22 and is available on-demand at HBO on Demand and HBO Go thereafter.
"Raising Renee" is an accommodating look at the relationship between an award-winning painter, Beverly McIver, and one of her two older sisters, Renee. Although Renee is in her forties, she has the mindset of a third-grader. After their mother dies, Renee goes to live with Beverly and Beverly spends about six years "Raising Renee."
This is the third look at a family facing life-changing problems from the husband and wife filmmaking team Jeanne Jordan and Steven Ascher. Their first was the personal 1995 "Troublesome Creek: A Midwestern," in which Jordan's own family attempts to save their Iowa farm. Given the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize for documentary at Sundance, it was nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary feature.
Their second, "So Much So Fast," looked at the then 29-year-old Stephen Heywood who discovered he had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease), a paralyzing neurodegenerative illness. Despite his diagnosis, Heywood gets married to Wendy; they have a child. Heywood died in 2006, but the self-taught architect inspired his brothers to co-found a website for ALS patients and an institute for research into treatment, the ALS Therapy Development Institute.
"Legend of the Millennium Dragon" is available on DVD/Blu-ray and via iTunes and Amazon Instant. In Japanese with English subtitles.
When a movie jumps from one culture to another, especially one with a different language, expect some things to be lost in translation. If you're not up on Japanese history and folklore, you might be a bit mystified by director Hirotsugu Kawasaki's 2011 "Legend of the Millennium Dragon." Based on a two-book novel by Takafumi Takada (with screenplay by Naruhisa Arakawa and Hirotsugu Kawasaki), this engrossing animation with beautifully detailed background paintings whisks us into an ancient war between gods in Heian Japan.
Names are important in this quick-moving adventure. Shakespeare wrote that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but his historical tragedies would hardly make any sense to one who thinks the "War of the Roses" involves Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner. "Holinshed's Chronicles and "Bulfinch's Mythology" won't help you here. Much of what happens in "The Legend of the Millennium Dragon" harks back to two ancient tomes: "Kojiki" and the "Nihonshoki."
The original title, "Onigamiden," means "Legend of the Demon God," but dragons are probably more attractive to an English-speaking audience than demons. A dragon does appear, but the story involves finding courage and a sacred sword. Then there's that age-old question: Just who are the demons?
"American Experience: Billy the Kid" is available on demand at PBS.org after its January 10 broadcast at 9 p.m. (ET/PT). Check local listings.
Who hasn't heard of Billy the Kid? He's often portrayed in Westerns -- sometimes as a blood-thirsty killer -- but the PBS "American Experience" documentary "Billy the Kid" gives us a sympathetic portrayal of an orphan who "became the most wanted man of the west." Instead of drama, blood, and lust in the dust, you'll get a more multicultural view of a homeless kid gone wrong after being wronged.
The one-hour film, narrated by Michael Murphy, begins with a hangman's noose. The date is April 28, 1881 and the 21-year-old man known as Billy the Kid is in the custody of Sheriff Pat Garrett. He escapes his appointment with the hangman, but he won't be alive much longer.
"Man on a Mission: Richard Garriott's Road to the Stars" (83 minutes) will be available On Demand on Cox from Jan. 13-March 12, 2012 and on VUDU, Shaw Video on Demand and others starting Jan. 13. It opens the same day at Facets Cinematheque in Chicago and other theatrical venues.
"Man on a Mission: Richard Garriott's Road to the Stars" begins by asking the question: "Why explore space?" By the end of this somewhat indulgent documentary you may ask, particularly considering these tough economic times, "Why spend $30 million to be the sixth private citizen to orbit the earth?" Is this the story of a quest begun in childhood or part of a publicity ploy?
"The Little Mermaid from San Francisco Ballet" airs Friday, Dec. 16, at 9 p.m. (check local listings) on PBS's "Great Performances." It is currently available on DVD, and will also appear on PBS On Demand.
by Jana Monji
Whenever I say, "Hans Christian Andersen," in my mind I can hear the voice of Danny Kaye singing out the name of the famous Dane. Kaye played the title role in 1952 musical film, "Hans Christian Andersen. " For another generation, the Little Mermaid is part of a Disney franchise beginning with the 1989 animated feature "The Little Mermaid. " Now comes a ballet, recorded for PBS.
Hamburg Ballet director John Neumeier's "The Little Mermaid" is a visually rich, emotionally complex ballet that takes the famous Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale from its Hollywood interpretations back to its origins. This is a "don't miss" production.
In the original story, the Little Mermaid saves and falls in love with a prince. She makes a bargain with a witch, giving up her beautiful voice in order to have legs. The prince likes her, but doesn't love her and marries another. Given the choice of killing the prince or dying herself, the Little Mermaid dies, but is resurrected in another dimension.
How can you have a franchise if the Little Mermaid dies? You can't, of course. In the Disney feature, "The Little Mermaid," Ariel (voiced by Jodi Benson), doesn't die, and instead, does find love with her prince, Eric (Christopher Daniel Barnes). Roger Ebert gave the movie four stars, and called it "a jolly and inventive animated fantasy" that restored the magic associated with animated Disney features from an earlier era. The Academy voters gave the film two Oscars--one to Alan Menken for Best Music, Original Score and another to Menken and Howard Ashman (lyrics) for Best Music, Original Song ("Under the Sea")