Friday, October 31, 2014

Daniel Radcliff sprouts HORNS in Alexandre Aja's well-cast and -acted, genre-jumping misfire

A train wreck of a film -- but oddly enough one that's not unpleasant to view -- HORNS seems to want to be every kind of movie imaginable: love story, murder mystery, thriller, horror film, allegory (with the emphasis on the word's third and fourth syllables) and more. That it succeeds at not a single one of these may be some kind of record. But, hey, it stars Daniel Radcliffe, who is turning out to be a very brave little actor, and is directed by French slasher-meister Alexandre Aja (shown below, of High Tension), in what has got to be the biggest budget he's yet been allotted. We get vast Pacific Northwest visuals, copious special effects, a game and relatively big-name cast, with the combination providing simultaneous eye candy and brain sedation.

What were they thinking? comes pretty quickly to mind as the movie rolls to its conclusion, with the villain unmasked (and don't tell me you're hadn't figured the identity out an hour earlier) and the ending coming full circle back to the beginning. One problem is that movies like this one usually last 90 minutes or less. Horns one goes on (and on) for 120 of them. Still, the cinematography is gorgeous and often aptly skeevy (there's an OD-ing drug scene that works squeamishly well and snakes are used to scary effect), so the Halloween opening of the film would seem on the mark.

The story? We learn at the outset that Ig (Mr. Radcliffe, above) has lost the love of his life, one Merrin Williams (Juno Temple, below, right, and if you're a bigtime Temple fan like me, don't worry: The actress makes beaucoup flashback appearances). So Ig is grieving heavily, and the fact the his entire town is certain that he himself murdered Merrin makes his life particularly crappy.

One day, out of the blue, Ig grows a pair of horns that protrude right out of his temple. (Huh? Yes. Don't ask They must be part of that aforementioned allegory.) The effect the horns have upon the town's populace is diverting, to say the least -- especially fun is how they effect the reporters and newscasters! But not everyone can see them, which is even weirder. His best friend (Max Minghella, below), for instance, seems blind to the curly little cuties.

We meet Ig's family (mom, dad, bro), a sleazy diner waitress (Heather Graham, below), some cops, and other assorted townspeople, all of whom act just as the screenwriter (Keith Bunin, from the novel by Joe Hill -- whom I'd prefer to remember as the Swedish-American Union-label songwriter/cartoonist) seems to have wanted them to behave. This town is full of fools and hypocrites, which is undoubtedly the Bunin/Hill point.

You may want to pass the time by counting the Biblical references, or wondering why the snakes attack certain people but not others. Or you might just appreciate the fact that the movie made a place for actors like Kathleen QuinlanJames Remar, and David Morse (excellent!) while giving Kelli Garner the chance to do some very nice acting as the town slut. Or perhaps you'll give over to the genre-jumping silliness of it all and wonder why the filmmaker didn't also include a war film and a soap opera among the genres.

Horns -- from Radius/TWC -- opens today, Friday, October 31, in various cities. Here in NYC, it plays at the Village East and AMC Empire 25; in Los Angeles, look for it at half a dozen theaters around town, some of them Laemmle's. Elsewhere? Yes, it's playing at cities all over the place. Keep looking, or click here, scroll down and put in your own zip code under TICKET AND SHOWTIMES, and see what comes up....

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Des Doyle's SHOWRUNNERS: The Art of Running a TV Show opens in L.A. at the Arena Cinema

We've heard the word bandied about a lot lately, where network and cable TV series are concerned, but what exactly is a Show-runner? According to SHOWRUNNERS: THE ART OF RUNNING A TV SHOW (written and directed by Des Doyle, shown below), which defines the term upfront before the movie begins, the word -- which is a relatively newly-coined one -- offers "an industry term describing the person and/or persons responsible for overseeing all areas of writing and production on a television series and ensuring that each episode is delivered on time and on budget for both the studio that produces the show and the network that airs it." OK: Fair enough.

What this has come to mean for the industry, however, seems to be that, for TV series, this showrunner (often doubling as the major writer) has taken the power place at the head of the table. (We almost never think of the director of these TV series because that director is likely to change, maybe several times, within the course of a series, even within a single season of a series. What a director has historically been seen to represent for a movie, the showrunner now represent for the TV series. Further, as TV series grow ever more talked-about and popular with both mainstream audiences and our cultural gatekeepers, the showrunner is very likely to eventually eclipse everyone else regarding the power place, both critically and economically, in Hollywood's and the media's hierarchy.

Sure, this day may be aways away, but it does appear to be coming. Which makes the debut of Mr Doyle's quite interesting film worth noting and the film itself worth seeing and thinking about. In it has been collected quite a number of "showrunners." How these were chosen is not addressed. Only two of them, Janet Tomaro, and Jane Espenson, are women, and I dearly wish the film had included Theresa Rebeck, showrunner (for a time) on the ill-fated series, Smash. I think Ms Rebeck might have had some smart and telling stuff to add. What's here, however, provides plenty of fodder to give the faithful a pretty good idea of what goes into being a showrunner. As one of this chosen group explains, "You know that you’re doing something right if just about everyone connected with the show is annoyed with you."

Among the chosen, Matthew Carnahan (above, of House of Lies and Dirt) gets a lot of screen time, and he proves worth it, as he is smart and funny and seeming pretty honest. He turns out to have been a protégée of  Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman. "They didn’t want any of their protégées moving to Hollywood and working out of TV. But of course nearly all of us did." Also along for the ride is actor Anthony LaPaglia, who has some funny things to say about actors reacting to these writers/producers (and vice versa).

While many of the shows mentioned or described -- such as Bones -- sound like soap operas, you'll realize once again why, for all their "pushing the envelope," it's often the tried and true that brings home the bacon. Popular showrunner Josh Whedon explains why he will protect “moments’ at all costs but give up a good “move” in a heartbeat: “A move is ‘Oh my god, it was his evil twin!’ which gives you nothing. A moment is that something relatable that all of us have gone through and that you can mine in regard to the evil twin: that’s your moment.”

And if the film is mostly talking heads, at least they’re saying some interesting stuff. Early on, Ronald D. Moore (above, and a staple from the days of Star Trek: The Next Generation up through the current Outlander) realized that he had killed off his lifelong hero (from Star Trek), while Ms Tamaro talks about how she went from a job with ABC News to being a scriptwriter.

Along the way we get some funny gems:  “More serial killers have been caught in a single season of TV that ever actually roamed the streets.” As to helpful hints, there are a number of these offered: "Choose your battles carefully: Is this the hill you want to die on?" is one of the smartest. "The single thing that makes TV show take so long to get done is … meetings!" And here's Mr. Carnahan on Dirt: "The pilot and first season were great." The second season? "I’ve never seen it and I don’t want to.” We even get a Les Moonves story, but come on now, he can't really be that dumb...?!

There's an interesting discussion of Cable vs Network and where you want to work and why. Is there actually more freedom on cable? "Well, you've really got to take this on a case by case basis," notes one fellow. Managing is so important to showrunning that some showrunners split the duties into two jobs. "Writing and managing take such different skills," explains one fellow. "Sometimes it doesn't pay to try to do both yourself." Concerning contemporary shows vs period stories: "With period tales, you have to realize things like 'Every actor and every extra will need a special haircut.' There are all kinds of stuff you don’t usually think about."

Mike Kelley of Revenge says some smart things (some of it funny and knowingly hypocritical) about ratings and how and if one should even pay attention to them. Interestingly, this job, while too good to quit, is also too hard to do. "Almost all showrunners stop in their 50s," we're told. "It’s just too much." On that subject, Josh Whedon (below) talks about having to run three shows simultaneously. Actor Jason O’Mara (Terra Nova, The Good Wife) explains his theory about the actor being the guardian of the character, and one of the showrunners gives a smart timeline for how, eventually, the actor finally controls the character.

Race and color comes to the fore with Ali Le Roi (Are We There Yet?), who admits, "Sure the white suits think I’m going to bring in the colored audience. But really, I would just like a shot at bringing in 'the audience.' The importance of ComicCon (for some shows), how smart content is now appearing on The Web, and -- oh, yes --  failures, too, as J.J. Abrams and others confront their own. "Even showrunners on the successful shows," one points out, "sometimes leave -- or are asked to....
Paging Ms Rebeck!

Showrunners: The Art of Running a TV Show -- an Ireland/USA co-production running 90 minutes -- open tomorrow in Los Angeles at the Arena Cinema in Hollywood. Elsewhere? Who knows? But it will certainly make it to DVD and streaming eventually, we hope.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Brothers & lovers in WWI: Pat O'Connor's film of Michael Morpurgo's novel, PRIVATE PEACEFUL

A lovely example of the kind of movie-making we don't see all that often, PRIVATE PEACEFUL is a British film set about 100 years back during the lead-up to World War I that holds a mirror to life among the titled gentry, as well as those who labored for them. As my spouse noted about halfway along, "This makes a nice antidote to Downton Abbey." Indeed. In fact, I don't think I noticed a single "overheard conversation" in the entire film.

As directed by veteran filmmaker Pat O'Connor (shown at right), with a screenplay written by Michael Morpurgo, the author of the novel on which the film is based, Private Peaceful -- surely an ironic title, except that the family name of the central characters is Peaceful -- the movie is old-fashioned in a good sense: It tells a easy-to-follow story well, with good dialog and fine performances and visuals that do all they should to carry us along and make the trip a worthwhile and often quite beautiful one. We spend most of the film in the lush British countryside on the estate of a nasty, entitled Colonel (the last performance caught on film from the late, rotund actor Richard Griffiths, below) who rules with a stupid iron hand, has an ailing wife and makes eyes at Frances de la Tour (shown at bottom) -- who plays either the aunt or grandmother of the Peaceful family (I was never quite sure which).

The film begins with a Court Martial of one of the Peaceful brothers, Charlie and Tommo, during the War, and then cuts back to their childhood to tell us the story of the pair -- played as children by Hero Fiennes-Tiffin and Samuel Bottomley, shown respectively, left to right, below --

and the young girl -- Izzy Meikle-Small, shown below, right, tugging -- that both boys fall in love with almost upon meeting her.

Quite soon, we're with the adult version of the brothers, now played by the suddenly ubiquitous Jack O' Connell (below, left, of 300: Rise of an Empire and Starred Up) and George MacKay (below, right, of Pride and For Those in Peril), both of whom do a fine job in delineating character and growth.

Maxine Peak (below, from Silk, Run & Jump) plays the Peaceful mom, Hazel, and does her usual commendable job or providing love, reassurance and a strong, female figure.

O'Connor and Morpurgo easily weave past and present into the story so that we're back and forth on the battle field, or in military prison, or home with the family as the story unfolds. The tale is full of beauty and sadness, and although I'm told that Morpurgo wrote this as a young adult novel, the movie does not seem skewed to that age-range at all. It is simply adult. (That's John Lynch, below, who plays the Peacefuls' -- as well as the viewer's -- military bête noire.)

The themes of love of family and country, of the waste of war, and the unfair divisions produced by class are all brought to the fore. Toward the end  the movie seems to deliberately obfuscate identity -- which brother is actually being court-martialed. Or are both? -- and whether this is due to faulty editing or the filmmaker's attempt to show us that, where family love is concerned, everyone is equal, I'm not sure.

In any case, this confusion finally comes clear, and the movie ends as a strong and moving anti-war/anti-class tale. Made in 2012, it has taken the film some time to reach these shores, but Private Peaceful -- released through BBC Worldwide North America, and running 103 minutes -- opens this Friday, October 31 in New York City (at the AMC Empire 25) and in Los Angeles area at Laemmle's Playhouse 7 and will expand to other markets as the weeks and months pass.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Jeremy Workman's provocative, enriching documentary, MAGICAL UNIVERSE opens

A surprise gift to the viewer, in rather the same manner as was the initial introduction, over a decade ago, a "gift" of outsider artist Al Carbee to documentarian Jeremy Workman by a journalist friend, MAGICAL UNIVERSE is proof plenty that Mr. Workman did not look the proverbial gift horse in the mouth. Instead, he and his girlfriend Astrid befriended Mr. Carbee, and out of this odd, endearing friendship has come one of the best documentaries of the year (hell, the decade, even the new century).

When I tell you that Carbee's claim to fame is creating environments using Barbie dolls which he then photographs, you may need to suppress an urge to run for the hills. Please do. For if you stick with this amazing documentary for even a few minutes, you'll be nailed. As it moves quickly along, it just gets better, deeper, more resonant and profound, more humane, moving and encompassing of so many important things that its title -- Magical Universe -- will not only refer to the world of Carbee and his Barbies but to the state you'll find yourself in by movie's end.

Back when I was a kid, big-budget films, in their advertisements, loved to brag about having been "ten years in the making!" or some such time frame. Oddly, this tiny little 80-minute documentary actually took ten years to complete. The photo of the filmmaker, at left, is perhaps how he looked before beginning work on his movie -- which he and Astrid never imagined, I suspect, would take so long nor
encompass so much. The photo at right, offers up Mr. Work-man now, speaking at one or another of the many festivals at which his film has been part. In telling the tale of Al Carbee, recently a widower when Jeremy and Astrid first met him, the filmmaker shows how a man with a lot of artistic talent (but perhaps not a lot of social skills) can turn that talent in on itself until it seems in danger of suffocating, maybe even dying out. And yet, as Carbee keeps telling himself and Workman, "Creative people just have to create!"

The filmmaker allows us to see a lot of Carbee's output -- from those Barbie creations to early work that shows the man to have been a terrific, if somewhat more conventional, artist (he loved the work of and wanted to become another Norman Rockwell).

Notes a New York gallery owner, a tad mystified, as Workman begins fishing for a possible showing of Carbee's work, "It's clear that he wants to offer pleasure to the viewer..."

"He's an eccentric," notes another person, who knows Carbee. "But he's a genuine eccentric!" I think you'll agree. Especially when the fellow get around to showing, telling, and writing copious letters and making long and bizarre videotapes sent to Jeremy and Astrid about the alternate universe he imagines. Or maybe lives in.

The odd and increasingly appealing thing about Carbee is that, although under other circumstances he might seem creepy and way too off-kilter, because the filmmaker care so much about him ("He seems like he could be my grandfather," Astrid notes), we come to feel the same thing.

Workman's film is quite homemade. That accounts for much of the feeling we get of honesty and odd beauty. If at first it seems all over the place, slowly, the more we learn, the more it all comes together. We've seen over the years a lot of docs about artists and art -- this year two particularly good ones have been Art and Craft and Fifi Howls from Happiness -- but few I think have taken us this far into the mind, the universe of the artist as well as Workman's does. His film, like its subject, is an original.

Mr. Carbee understands that he seems strange to most people. "War is stupid," he notes at one point. "Does that sound weird?" But as someone else points out, regarding this odd fellow: "Craziness is only what you expect it to be."

I don't want to go into all that happens in the course of the film, for you deserve to experience it first-hand. There is a kind of crowning achievement here, however, and when Carbee is asked if this has made him happy, he tells us: "It frees me. It makes me part of the world of reality."

You'll have to see the movie to understand the ramifications of what the man's words mean. Can art accomplish anything -- other than what it achieves for the artist -- until it is seen and appreciated? The photographs of Vivian Maier make the case for the negative answer, just as Carbee's story underscores the positive aspects of sharing.

Magical Universe, quietly stunning and endlessly thought-provoking, calls to mind the purpose(s) of art and its worth -- to the artist and the viewer -- along with what it means to be creative, and how art can both cordon off the artist and make life open up. Of course, one man's art may be another man's hogwash. The film understands this, too, and so, I think did Carbee, whose story Workman has brought to such immense life -- and in the process, produced some art of his own.

The movie -- from Sundance Selects -- opens this Friday, October 31, in New York City at the IFC Center, and will hit Los Angeles at the wonderful little Arena Cinema the following Friday, November 7. Elsewhere? Not sure, but you'll certainly be able to see it on DVD or some streaming source, and eventually, I imagine, via the Sundance Now Doc Club

Update on the BP Gulf Oil Spill in Margaret Brown's new doc, THE GREAT INVISIBLE

The publicity material for the new documentary, THE GREAT INVISIBLE, directed by Margaret Brown and detailing the results of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, tells us that this is "the first film that goes beyond the media coverage to examine the crisis in depth through the eyes of those who experienced it first-hand and were left to pick up the pieces while the world moved on." Sorry, but this is definitely not the first film to do this. It is simply the most recent to cover people who live & work in the gulf.
Back in 2012 Bryan D. Hopkins' Dirty Energy did exactly this and managed the job in even better fashion. The lesser but still worthwhile doc, The Bix Fix from Joshua and Rebecca Harrell Tickell, alerted us to what BP was not doing to clean up its mess, and what our own government was doing to camouflage what was going on. And Jennifer Baichwal and Margaret Atwood explored the post-BP mess as part of their interesting but not entirely successful doc, Payback, based on Atwood's book. So this subject has indeed been covered by intelligent and passionate movie-makers, of which Ms Brown, shown at right, is certainly another. Each filmmaker seems to have found his or her own special charac-ters to highlight. Here, they are Doug Brown (shown below, and no relation to the filmmaker, so far as I know) and Stephen Stone, two men who actually worked aboard the Deep Horizon oil rig and managed to survive the explosion and fire, along with some entitled, self-satisfied oil executives, whose conversation Brown (and we) sit in on and grow angrier by the word and minute.

Ms Brown also pays attention, as have the other filmmakers, to the kind of compensation BP has promised local residents and that does not in many cases appear to be forthcoming. We bounce back and forth from compensation meetings to interviews with Brown, Stone (shown below) and a few others, and listen in on those oil execs (shown at bottom).

Overall, there is enough information, obfuscation, and sadness here to rile us up and even occasionally empty our tear ducts. Brown does not go into much about how BP pretended to "clean up" its mess, nor about government intrusions on the media's ability to report what was happening, nor give us much info about what is happening to local sea life. The other documentaries do a much more thorough job of all this. What Brown does do -- and this is a first -- is to talk to some of the men who worked on the rig itself (including the family of one of the men who died) to get their stories -- which lay the guilt directly on BP, the rig operator TransOcean and the contractor Halliburton (yes, that last name does sound familiar...)..

What Brown has accomplished is certainly worth hearing and seeing. The gulf remains a disaster area for those unfortunate enough to work and live there; compensation is barely evident; nothing has been done by our government to insure stricter safety regulations; and many more oil rigs and drilling are now in evidence throughout the gulf. The movie will anger you all over again, as have the earlier documentaries. Oil still rules (just listen to those executives!) and its money buys all our politicians lucky enough to live in the states where oil is found. It's disgusting. But that's America -- and Capitalism -- today.

The Great Invisible, from Radius-TWC and running 92 minutes, opens this Wednesday, October 29, in New York City at the Village East Cinema and in the Los Angeles area at the Sundance Sunset Cinemas

Monday, October 27, 2014

The latest in a series: Jean-Luc Godard's spastic but fun-to-watch-in-3D GOODBYE TO LANGUAGE

Well, he likes dogs, at least (see poster, right). Which is better than he's done with women over the years. Yes, Jean-Luc Godard is back, this time in 3D. And if 3D seems the least expected format for a filmmaker such as this, that is probably the entire point. Ever the provocateur, M. Godard intends to show us what we don't understand. And if this leads to the pitter-patter of pretension, all the better. That just adds to the fun of yet another increa-singly spastic movie from the "master."

As much as I consider Godard ( in chair at left) to be the epitome of The Emperor's New Clothes -- come on now: he was only half-dressed back in the days of Breathless, which gave us something new, yes, but beyond that, simply attitude over content -- I must admit that I had no trouble watching most of GOODBYE TO LANGUAGE, silly as some of it is. This was due mostly to the quite ravishing 3D cinematography (by Fabrice Aragno, who also worked on the director's also pretty Film Socialism). Watching this movie is often pure dimensional pleasure.

Not that Godard and Aragno give us stuff jumping out of the screen. Please. There does seems to be one segment in which there is a kind 3D within the 3D ("6D?" as a friend of mine questioned). But mostly, this is just nice cinematography with the extra addition of "space"

You can see, nearly feel, the planes here. Branches of trees against the river bank, nature in its glory, even a pair of very attractive breasts protruding toward you and a cock bouncing its way along (yes, there's some full-frontal nudity, too).

A story? Not really. There's a man and a woman present, so you can maybe find one if you look hard. But it doesn't count for, or come to, much. There is that lovely dog who appears almost throughout. And the usual late-Godardisms: dialog that sometime goes untranslated, or even unheard (Goodbye to Language, indeed!), as the director seems to be tweaking us but good.

I took a few notes at the screening I attended, but they appear now to have disappeared, but I am recalling my viewing experience as not at all a bad one. Still, I am either too dumb to get on this guy's wave-length, or maybe, as I suggest, it is one that offers neither much intellectual nor emotional reward.

Goodbye to Language 3D -- from Kino Lorber and running just 70 minutes -- opens this coming Wednesday, October 29, in New York at the IFC Center and the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center. Elsewhere? Actually, yes: In another eight cities across the country. (But not, I notice, anywhere in the Los Angeles area. Those cretins! Or maybe they're just too smart for this con job.) You can view all currently scheduled playdates by clicking here and scrolling down.