How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World
Visually stunning and emotionally satisfying, with a conclusion that may leave the parents in the audience a little tearful.
"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.
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.
Playing in theaters nationwide Thursday, August 4, 2011. Details here.
by Steven Boone
"The Electric Daisy Carnival Experience" captures a dance music scene I tend to find noisy and vapid. But that's me. If you're a big fan of DJ-based acts like 12th Planet, Major Lazer, Moby and will.i.am, or just a true devotee of the rave scene, this film is immersive, passionate about its subject and visually striking. Director Kevin Kerslake seems to have as many cameras on hand as the Beastie Boys handed out to concertgoers in their gonzo 2006 music doc "Awesome; I F----n Shot That!"
It helps that Kerslake is a veteran music video director (R.E.M., Nirvana) whose career is probably older than most of the screaming kids in the crowd. He shows no restraint in dropping the camera deep into the mob like a performer into a mosh pit but doesn't let the chaos take over. It also helps that, right up front, like Michael Bay showing us a Victoria's Secret derriere in 3-D at the start of his last Transformers movie, Kerslake crams as many shots of unbelievably gorgeous girls doing cartwheels in clown makeup and lingerie as mathematically possible.
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.
● Jackboots on Whitehall (DVD/VOD/Digital cable July 26) ● American Grindhouse (DVD/Hulu July 26)
by Steven Boone
The animated comedy "Jackboots on Whitehall" does its best to tweak every British stiff-upper-lip stereotype ever perpetuated in film and popular culture since World War II. This satire employs puppet animation techniques familiar from "Team America: World Police" and classic George Pal puppetoons, but with exquisite production design more akin to Wes Anderson's stop-motion "Fantastic Mr. Fox." Instead of marionettes or stop-motion, however, filmmakers Edward and Rory McHenry employ animatronic dolls enhanced with CGI.
The period detail in this account of Hitler's alt-reality occupation of London is stunning: a convincing re-creation of Whitehall, the road whose major landmarks comprise the seat of British government; the airship Hindenburg, which, in this reality, never blew up and now serves as a Nazi attack vehicle; Hadrian's Wall and the hills of Scotland; vintage fighter planes, palaces, tanks, luxury cars... Equally meticulous is the costuming, from Winston Churchill's pinstriped suit to the Raj soldiers' blue turbans.
While the McHenry brothers' puppets aren't articulated beyond some binary limb and neck movements, they are sculpted with such expressive character it's easy to suspend disbelief. Exuberant character voices help. Timothy Spall as a gruff Churchill, Alan Cumming as a fey Hitler and Tom Wilkinson as a simpering Goebbels play it lip-smackingly broad. Richard E. Grant portrays a tightly wound priest so perpetually furious that its possible he gave his entire performance through clenched teeth. Ewan McGregor lends the unlikely farm boy hero some warmth. Along the way, some downright filthy jokes fly by almost subliminally, under kids' radar (including a visual joke last seen in "Boogie Nights"). In fact, so much of the humor is adult, whether in raunchiness or complexity, that Jackboots on Whitehall is less a family film than one for liberal parents and their precocious teens. The DVD includes a fascinating behind-the-scenes documentary that details just how much love went into this handcrafted epic.
● "Ironclad" (2011) ● "Black Death" (2010)
"Ironclad " is now available on DirecTV and other on-demand providers (check your service listings) and from Netflix (DVD and Blu-ray) starting on July 26th. "Black Death" is available on Netflix (streaming, DVD and Blu-ray) and Amazon Instant Video.
When I was a kid growing up in the Seattle suburb of Edmonds, WA (aka "The Gem of Puget Sound"), my parents did everything that good, sensible parents should do to shield their kids from violence, both real and reel. I remember being innocently intrigued by the furor over "Bonnie & Clyde" in 1967, but they would never have taken me to see it with them (to their credit, since I was only six). The same held true for "The Wild Bunch" in 1969, by which time the debate over movie violence had reached a fever pitch in our national conversation. Over the ensuing decades, that conversation has become a moot point as movie violence proceeded apace, from Sonny Corleone's death in a hail of Tommy-gun fire in "The Godfather" (1972), to the slasher cycle of the late '70s and '80s (when makeup artists Tom Savini and Rick Baker reigned supreme as a master of gory effects) and into the present, when virtually anything - from total evisceration to realistic decapitation -- is possible through the use of CGI and state-of-the-art makeup effects. That's where movies like "Ironclad" and "Black Death" come in, but more on those later.
If you're looking for a rant against milestone achievements in the depiction of graphic violence, you've come to the wrong place. To me, it's a natural progression. Movies and violence have always been inextricably linked, and once opened, that Pandora's Box could never be closed. A more relevant discussion now is how the new, seemingly unlimited gore FX should be used and justified. Horror films will always be the testing ground for the art of gore, and it would be a crime against cinema to cut the "chest-burster" from "Alien" (or, for that matter, Samuel L. Jackson's spectacular death in "Deep Blue Sea"). But it's the depiction of authentic, real-life violence -- in everything from the "CSI" TV franchise to prestige projects like HBO's "Band of Brothers" and "The Pacific" -- that pushes previously unrated levels of gore into the mainstream.
Don't get me wrong: I'm not praising this progression so much as acknowledging its inevitability. If you really love movies -- and especially if you've been lucky enough to make a career out of watching them -- you have undoubtedly seen a violent film that was unquestionably vile, unjustified and miles beyond the boundaries of all human decency. I've seen violent movies that earned my disgust because (1) the context of the violence was as abhorrent as the violence itself and (2) the intentions of the filmmakers were clearly indefensible. (Context and intention: More on that later.) Tolerances and sensibilities may vary, but every critic has seen a film that appeared to have been written and directed by sociopaths. Check out Roger Ebert's review of "I Spit on Your Grave" (the 1978 version) and you'll see what I mean.
• "The Rack" (1956) • "Until They Sail" (1957) • "The Prize" (1963) • "Tales of Tomorrow: Ice From Space" (1953)"The Rack," "Until They Sail" and "The Prize" are now available on made-to-order DVD from the Warner Archive Collection for $19.95 each. "Tales of Tomorrow" can be viewed on Hulu Plus and Amazon Instant Video.
by Jeff Shannon You would think that every film Paul Newman ever appeared in would be readily available on home video, right? Guess again. One of the best films from Newman's early career has managed to slip through the cracks of home-video distribution for decades, and unless you're old enough to have seen it in theaters or on TV over the years, it's possible you've never even heard of it. So when I heard that "The Rack" (1956) was available on home video for the very first time, I couldn't wait to break the news to Stewart Stern.
For anyone who's wondering "Stewart who?" there's a convenient shortcut you can use when discussing the impressive life and career of Stewart Stern. All you have to say is, "He wrote 'Rebel Without a Cause.'" Uh-huh, that one. With a credit like that, any screenwriter could legitimately claim a slice of movie immortality, like James Dean did as the now-iconic star of Nicholas Ray's 1955 teen-angst classic. But to say that Stern only wrote "Rebel" is a bit like saying Frank Lloyd Wright designed a house. In the course of his distinguished, decades-spanning career, Stern wrote rich, psychologically perceptive scripts that were magnets for great actors and great acting: His script for "The Ugly American" (1963) gave Brando plenty to chew on; his Oscar-nominated script for "Rachel, Rachel" (1968) gave Joanne Woodward what is arguably the best role of her career (under the direction of her husband, Paul Newman; they also earned Oscar nods); and Stern's Emmy and Peabody-winning teleplay for "Sybil" (1976) transformed cute TV actress Sally Field into an Emmy winner with a pair of Oscars in her future. A few years later, Stern left Hollywood, weary of the rat race and struggling with writer's block, the delayed effect of post-traumatic stress from service in World War II. In the mid-'80s, Stern relocated to Seattle and never looked back. And while Stern may have been a nephew of Paramount Pictures founder Adolph Zukor, with additional family ties to MGM moguls Arthur Loew Sr. and Jr., his closest Hollywood connection was more personal and more warmly indicative of the man's soul and spirit: For 55 years, Stewart Stern was one of Paul Newman's very best friends.
"How to Die in Oregon" plays on HBO on May 27, 29 and 31 and June 1 and 6. Click here for HBO showtimes.
I've been encouraged to write autobiographically in this forum, so bear with me, dear reader. We've barely been introduced, and this time it's personal. I'll be sharing some thoughts about HBO's extraordinary new documentary "How to Die in Oregon", but first, allow me this indulgence: When my father died four months ago at the age of 79, I sat beside him in my wheelchair as his death drew near. I couldn't hold his hand and he couldn't hold mine, so I gently touched the parchment-like skin of dad's withered right arm while my older brother, standing on the other side of the bed, leaned over and quietly suggested to our father that this was "a good time to go."
Dad must have agreed, because a few seconds later, he did. He went gently and peacefully after many hours of slow, labored breathing. Only three weeks had passed since he'd been definitively diagnosed with bowel cancer. In a case of fortunate timing, we'd brought him home from the hospital about 30 hours earlier; we knew he preferred to die at home. Apart from the morphine drip we'd been trained to operate by compassionate hospice-care advisors, there were no lethal drugs or physicians involved.
(Above: Jerry and Jeff Shannon, 2009)