A sprightly children's adventure, set in the land of the dead.
"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.
"The Innkeepers" is streaming online through Amazon Instant and Vudu. It is also offered on some cable systems' On Demand channels and opens theatrically in a limited release February 3rd. The official website is here.
by Steven Boone
The trailer for "The Inkeepers" betrays a basic insecurity common in low-budget indie films nowadays: They want you to think they're as loud and hectic as their big-budget counterparts. They're afraid you won't show up otherwise. And so this horror film which builds its scares slowly, stealthily and through the peculiar quirks of its characters is sold as just another clangy, generic mainstream fright flick. Mercifully, the actual film shows only a little of this poisonous "ambition." It's mostly just a good old-fashioned ghost story, well told.
This film's wealth of personality is apparent early on, as director Ti West takes his time recording the subtle oddball chemistry between Claire (Sarah Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy), the only staff on duty at the Yankee Pedlar Inn. Luke is obsessed with documenting a legendary ghost at the Pedlar for his website. He is surprised to find that Claire, his secret geek-girl crush, is just as fascinated by the subject. For a healthy stretch of the film we just watch them goofing off and pranking each other when not rendering poor service to the inn's only two guests (one played by Kelly McGillis from "Top Gun," appearing about 15 years older than her actual age--the biggest jolt of the movie, for a viewer over 30).
"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 First Grader" is streaming On Demand via Amazon and Vudu, and the DVD is on Netflix and on sale.
by Steven Boone
It doesn't matter that "The First Grader" is as shamelessly, sappily manipulative as that TV commercial where Sarah Mclachlan wails a tune while the camera zooms in on miserable animals peering out of their rescue shelter cages. Nope. It doesn't even matter that the musical score, which I will give the alternate title "Mother Africa Weeps," is the World Music equivalent of an Oreo McFlurry -- a real pancreas-buster. Never mind all that. The imagery in "The First Grader" places it on par with cinema's great sentimental masterpieces, "Umberto D," "Tokyo Story" and "Ikiru." From the first frame, this film warns that it is working in a universe of pure emotion.
The film's true story concerns Maruge (Oliver Litondo), a former Kenyan freedom fighter and political prisoner who has been forgotten in the post-colonial age. He walks around the countryside in rags while the new generation of power brokers benefiting from his sacrifices zip through Nairobi in Benzes. When he learns that the government is now offering free education to all, he tries to enroll in a local elementary school. He's illiterate, it turns out, and he wants to learn how to read an important old letter for himself. Of course, the 84 year-old has a tough time convincing the overcrowded one-room schoolhouse to let him in.
"The Off Hours" is now available on most on-demand platforms including Comcast, Verizon, AT&T and most major-cable services. NOTE: The film is not available through DirecTV. It will be released on DVD in January and will premiere on Hulu and Netflix later in 2012.
by Jeff Shannon
There's never been a better time for filmmaking in the Pacific Northwest. Running the entire spectrum from filmgoers and critics to actors, writers and production talent aplenty, the Seattle film community has always been close-knit and cooperative, and its D.I.Y. resourcefulness has resulted in a slow but steady rise of intermingling talent. (Full disclosure: Several of the creative people mentioned below are casual Facebook acquaintances of mine.) Ten years ago and earlier, you were lucky if your micro-budgeted project got finished and accepted by festivals, and for several years it seemed like the Native American drama "Smoke Signals" (written by Northwest author Sherman Alexie and distributed by Miramax in 1998) would be Seattle's only claim to a locally-produced breakout success.
Undeterred, Seattle's film community continued to percolate like the coffee that stereotypically defines "The Emerald City" for most of the outside world. Abundant indie-film projects, and the passions that fueled their creation, have led to a natural progression of experience and expertise, and this year alone the Sundance film festival hosted four films shot in Washington state. When you consider the local history that led us from "Gas City" (an obscure, no-budget 1978 slacker drama shot among the aging motels and nightspots of Seattle's Aurora Avenue) to the international success of director Lynn Shelton's "Humpday" (2009), it's no wonder that Seattle has become the Northwest's answer to Austin, Texas: A film- and music-loving city (per capita, Seattleites are still the nation's #1 moviegoers) where independent filmmakers can find the talent, resources, and community support to foster their projects from start to finish. Indeed, "Start-to-Finish" is the name of an innovative program, introduced by the Northwest Film Forum in 1998, designed to select and co-produce films with the goal of national and global exposure. Canadian alt-auteur Guy Maddin found NWFF so appealing that he came here to shoot his 2006 film "Brand Upon the Brain!," now available on DVD from the Criterion Collection (and photographed by the gifted Benjamin Kasulke -- see below).
"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")
"Charles & Ray Eames: The Architect and the Painter" (85 minutes) premieres December 19th at 10:00pm on the PBS series "American Masters, " and will be available thereafter on PBS-on-demand. The film will also be released on DVD on Dec. 13th.
The six-DVD set of "The Films of Charles & Ray Eames" is available from Facets Multimedia ($79.99) and a few other online outlets, and each disc can be rented separately from Netflix.
by Jeff Shannon
If I had been a precocious six-year-old with a passion for architecture, I could've told you that my elementary school was an Eames building. It wasn't designed by Charles Eames himself, but everything about it was influenced by the design aesthetic of Charles and Ray Eames, most notably the design of the Eames' own home in Pacific Palisades, California.
A now-legendary structure known in the architecture world as Case Study No. 8, the Eames House (completed in 1949) is a geometrical marvel of steel and glass, squares and rectangles carefully aligned or offset to pleasing effect, with bold colors (Ray being the painter and co-designer, Charles being the architect) to complement the inviting lines of the structure. Like so many public structures built in the late '50s and early '60s, Seaview Elementary in Edmonds, Washington, was a wanna-be Eames House for grade-schoolers, a modest, functional tribute to Charles and Ray Eames and a symbol of their phenomenal influence on the look of the 20th century.
So ubiquitous is the Eames influence that it remains utterly unique, not merely in terms of design but in the grand design of the human species. Stroll through any major city in the world and chances are you'll see the Eames influence everywhere, from the cheap functionality of IKEA furniture to the form-fitting fiberglass of chairs in cafeterias, lobbies and waiting rooms all over the planet. When you realize that the Eames influence is literally inescapable in the lives of city-dwellers everywhere, you don't feel resentful as you might upon finding Starbucks coffee shops on both sides of the same street. Instead, you might register a kind of awestruck gratitude for how Eames designs have improved your life and the lives of everyone you know.
"The Ant Bully" is now available through HBO On Demand and HBO Go until December 18.
A boy, a wizard and a war--that's the basic formula for many children's adventure stories. In "The Ant Bully," as the name suggests, this story takes place in the insect world, but the bully is the boy named Lucas (voiced by Zach Tyler Eisen). This modest morality tale doesn't go for big laughs but does deal with situations that young kids will inevitably face.
Based on John Nickle's 1999 book by the same name, this 2006 feature was the first animated film produced by Legendary Pictures. "The Ant Bully" followed two better known 1998 ant-themed films: DreamWorks' "Antz" and Disney's "A Bug's Life." All three movies have messages, but are aimed at different audiences.
"The Ant Bully," rated PG for mild violence, is definitely targeted at young children--preteen kids who might feel powerless, so far outside of the adult world. In the movie, 10-year-old Lucas has no friends and is the target of the neighborhood bully. He turns his frustrations on the anthill in his front yard, causing the ants to scurry about when he floods the anthill.
"Becoming Chaz" airs Sunday, November 27 6PM ET/PT on OWN before the 8 p.m. premiere of its follow-up, "Being Chaz."
Not too long ago, I was planning to marry a woman who was born a man, so Chaz Bono's story is a bit familiar. It's pretty simple, really, and you've heard it a thousand times by now: A transgender person feels trapped in the "wrong" body. Just for acting upon this lifelong impulse by changing their physical characteristics to better represent their true selves, transpeople are being assaulted and murdered in shameful numbers. The movie "Boys Don't Cry" might have softened a few bigoted hearts around this issue, but the killing continues worldwide.
Chaz, born Chastity Bono to celebrity couple Sonny and Cher, could have lived through his transition from female to male in private, but it's clear in the documentary "Becoming Chaz" that he knew the true cost of invisibility in such a transphobic world. He let the cameras roll during some unflattering, raw moments--the idea being that this story shouldn't idealize his experience any more than it should exploit it for freak show appeal. The aim is to show that Chaz, the man, is as real as you and I, not an illusion to be brought off. It's hard to imagine that the killers out there might be moved by all this candor, but those whose indifference or unawareness helps perpetuate discrimination should at least get a healthy jolt of recognition. "Becoming Chaz" is as much about the kind-faced "Dancing with the Stars" contestant's relationship as it is about his metamorphosis. That was my way into the film: I know a little bit about being "the partner."
"Il Postino" will premiere on PBS at 9 p.m. ET Fri., Nov. 25 as part of the Great Performances series. Based on the 1994 Italian film, it stars tenor Plácido Domingo.
By Jana J. Monji
The opera "Il Postino" in its name shows its curious lineage. While not a great opera, "Il Postino" does feature the performance of Plácido Domingo, one of the great opera tenors, in a role specifically written for him during the world premiere performances at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles.
The opera is in Spanish, not Italian as its name suggests. "Il Postino" is also the name of the much acclaimed 1994 Italian movie that although originally released in the United States as "The Postman," is now referred to as "Il Postino" to avoid confusion with Kevin Costner's 1997 post-apocalyptic movie based on the 1985 David Brin novel.
The movie "Il Postino" was also based on a novel, Chilean writer Antonio Skármeta's 1983 "Ardiente Paciencia" (Burning Patience) which was later retitled "El Cartero de Neruda" (Neruda's Postman). The Italian movie "Il Postino" (Skármeta directed a 1983 Spanish language movie of his novel) transferred the location from Chile to Italy, changed the time period and the ending. As you might expect, the movie was in Italian.