SHOWRUNNERS (2014, doc)

October 30, 2014

showrunners Greetings again from the darkness. It’s simultaneously “the best job and the worst job”. While not a definition of a TV Showrunner, that is certainly the best description. With the recent renaissance of TV, and the competition between networks, cable and the internet, an incredible level of creativity and freedom has produced a more cinematic effect on the small screen. Whose broad shoulders are responsible for what we watch? The Showrunners, that’s who.

This is a behind-the-scenes look at the process of getting a show to air, and then struggling to keep it there … it takes an enormous amount of talent and a ton of good luck. We learn that 84% of new TV shows fail, and it’s important to note that good shows often fail – not just bad ones. Director Des Doyle presents an extremely impressive succession of interviews. These are the writers, producers and showrunners of some of TV’s most innovative shows: JJ Abrams (“Lost”), Joss Whedon (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer”), Terence Winter (“The Sopranos”, “Boardwalk Empire”), and Janet Tamaro (“Rizzoli & Ives”) just to name a few. This who’s who of showrunners generously share their insight and observations on the business that more than a few call “a grind”.

Especially interesting is the concentration on the writing process. We go inside the writer’s room and hear discussions on the importance of looking at the entire season, rather than a specific episode. We learn the importance of “quality scripts on time”, meaning the writing must be good and must come fast – episodes frequently air within a month of filming. Joss Whedon advises writers to focus on moments, not on moves. Collaboration is crucial, and while nothing beats an actor who embodies a particular role (Michael Chiklis in “The Shield”), never lose sight that writing is the heart of TV shows.

Discussion of the various outlets (networks, cable, internet) leads to an explanation of how TV writing has evolved. Some shows are now designed for the increasingly-popular “binge watching”, while network shows are still in the business of “selling ads”. Another significant shift is due to Social Media. TV is described as now being like the theatre – immediate feedback is available (Twitter, Facebook). While ratings are still important, interaction between the industry and viewing public is now standard operating procedure.

It’s not often we are allowed behind the curtain in the entertainment business, but this one should be mandatory viewing for anyone with an itch to become a TV writer. You should know the stress and insecurities that accompany the talent and ego. You should understand the time pressures and the lack of recognition that often follows even those who prove successful. You should also know that for those who have it in their blood, nothing else compares. This is truly “the art of running a TV show”.

watch the trailer:

 


BIRDMAN or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)

October 28, 2014

birdman Greetings again from the darkness. Hollywood versus Broadway. Screen versus Stage. It’s always been a bit Hatfield’s and McCoy’s. The basic argument comes down to celebrity versus artistic merit. Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu blurs the lines with his most creative and daring project to date. It’s also his funniest, but that’s not really saying much since his resume includes Babel, 21 Grams and Amores Perros.

The basic story involves a former Hollywood actor well known for playing a superhero (Birdman) many years ago. Riggan is played by Michael Keaton, who you might recall garnered fame playing Batman many years ago. While the parallels are obvious, it’s quickly forgotten thanks to a majestic performance from Mr. Keaton. Riggan is trying to prove something to himself and the world by writing, directing and starring in a stage production of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”.

Riggan’s quest runs into every imaginable obstacle, not the least of which is his own internal struggle with his ego … voiced by his former Birdman character. This could have been a more detailed exploratory view of the creative ego, but we also have money issues, casting issues, personal issues, professional issues and family issues.

Zach Galifianakis plays Riggan’s best friend-agent-lawyer, and is the film’s most grounded character. Yes, you can read the sentence again. A slimmed down Zach perfectly captures the highs and lows of the guy charged with juggling the creative egos and the business requirements of the production. Naomi Watts plays the exceedingly nervous and emotional film star making her stage debut, while her boyfriend and co-star is played by Edward Norton who, well, basically plays Edward Norton … a critically respected method actor who is known to be a royal pain in the keister. Riggan’s current squeeze, who is also an actress in the play, is played by Andrea Riseborough who gleefully blindsides him with an announcement that is unwelcome and untimely. Riggan also receives visits from his ex-wife (Amy Ryan) and is employing his fresh-from-rehab daughter (Emma Stone) in an assistant role. As if all of this wasn’t enough, a tipsy Riggan botches a pub interaction with an all-powerful stage critic (Lindsay Duncan), and the two trade incisive insults regarding each other’s vocation. So all of these characters and worlds collide as the production nears the always stress-inducing opening night.

After all of that, it’s pretty easy to state that the script is somehow the weakest part of the film. Instead, the directing, cinematography, editing and acting make for one of the most unique movie experiences of all time. Director Inarritu and famed cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and the editing team, deliver what appears to be a single take for mostly the entire run of the film. Of course we know it can’t possibly be a single take, but it’s so seamless that the breaks are never obvious to us as viewers. We have seen a similar approach by Alfred Hitchcock in his 1948 film Rope, but this time it’s a frenetic pace, and the maze-like setting in the bowels of NYC’s St James Theatre that makes this one a spectacular technical achievement.

Lubezki won an Oscar for his camera work on Gravity, and he has also worked on multiple Terrence Malick films, but this is the pinnacle of his career to date. It’s impossible to even comprehend the coordination required for the camera work, the actor’s lines and marks, the on que jazz percussion score from Antonio Sanchez, and the fluidity of movement through the narrow halls and doorways of backstage. It’s truly a work of art … whether a stage critic thinks so or not! Most every cinephile will see this one multiple times, but mainstream appeal will certainly not grab ahold. Reality, fantasy, insanity, and morbidity all play a role here and frequently occupy a character simultaneously. These aren’t likable people, and the film’s crucial scene forces Mr Keaton to speed-walk through Times Square in only his tighty-whities, leaving his character in the proverbial “naked on stage” situation. It’s rare to see such unflattering looks at both the stage and screen worlds, and it’s also rare to see such fine performances. Three standouts are Keaton, Norton and Stone. If the industry can avoid presenting awards to itself for “cartoons and pornography“, these three should all capture Oscar nominations.

Beyond that, director Inarritu, cinematographer Lubezki, and composer Sanchez deserve special recognition for their incredibly complex technical achievements. For those who complain that Hollywoood only produces re-treads, sequels and superhero movies, take a walk on the wild side and give this one a shot. You may not love it, but you’ll likely admire it.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: it’s creative filmmaking you seek OR you want to see a tour de force performance from Michael Keaton OR you seek the challenge of identifying the scene cuts (good luck)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you hear enough voices in your own head and prefer not to take on those from Birdman

watch the trailer:

 


HORNS (2014)

October 28, 2014

Horns Greetings again from the darkness. Every once in awhile a movie comes around that seems to have all the markings of a cult film that could become a midnight movie favorite. Since I can best describe this one as “a darkly comedic supernatural horror film”, its only real hope for staying power is that teens and young adults embrace the outlandish look at good and evil, and make it a regular on the midnight movie circuit.

Director Alexandre Aja (The Hills Have Eyes) has long been part of the “splat pack” and this time his source material has good genes. The popular book was written by Joe Hill, son of the great Stephen King. It’s an oddly atmospheric and sometimes funny film with theological undertones, and Aja stays mostly under control until the ultra-violent ending sequence.

Daniel Radcliffe stars as Ig, a young man widely suspected by his fellow small town residents of murdering his true love (Juno Temple). After a visually creative opening that turns Ig’s world upside down and moves us from heaven to hell, we follow Ig’s attempt to solve the murder with the help of his attorney and long time friend (Max Minghella). And then one morning, things get really weird. Ig sprouts devil horns from his forehead. Things also get fun. This devilish look has the effect of causing people to confess their darkest inner thoughts … those thoughts we don’t even admit to ourselves!

Much of the movie plays as a basic whodunit, and the entire thing has a “Twin Peaks” feel to it … right down to the diner (Eve’s Diner with an apple logo). There are flashes of satire aimed at the news media, the drug culture, religion, and parenthood; and its core is a theme of “every devil used to be an angel“. With the satanic element, you can be sure Rock ‘n Roll comes into play (David Bowie, Marilyn Manson, The Pixies), and it’s actually kind of fun to watch Ig take advantage of his supernatural powers with a combination of evil and charm.

Radcliffe takes the role seriously and his approach adds some bite to the humorous elements. Juno Temple has limited screen time as his love interest, while Heather Graham goes full out nutso as the publicity seeking waitress, and Kelli Garner has the most frustrating role (her talents are wasted, except for a bizarre donut scene). Minghella doesn’t bring much to a role that had some potential, but Joe Anderson delivers as Ig’s drug addicted trumpet playing brother. James Remar and Kathleen Quinlan each have an extended scene as Ig’s parents, and David Morse delivers as the angry dad who has lost a daughter.

Mr. Aja throws a mixture of style and elements as he takes full advantage of the gloomy and colorful Pacific Northwest setting. Numerous flashbacks are utilized, including some childhood events that impact the current situation. The pitchfork, horns and serpents are there to distinguish good versus evil, but mostly you better be prepared for a twisted hoot that reminds a bit of Bubba Ho-Tep in the outrageous blend of comedy and horror … yep, the makings of a midnight cult favorite.

watch the trailer:

 

 

 


CATCH HELL (2014)

October 28, 2014

catch hell Greetings again from the darkness. Ryan Phillippe has hit the big Four-O, so it makes sense that he would want to explore the other side of the camera with writing, directing, and producing. He’s had a pretty successful acting career given what could be termed a minimal lack of range and a quiet screen presence. His feature film directorial debut (Direct-To-Video) utilizes a script he co-wrote with Joe Gossett, capitalizing on Phillippe’s lot in Hollywood right now … the once promising star looking to recapture the magic with a “game-changer”.

The film opens with a dramatic shot of actor Reagan Pearce’s (RP … get it?) stunning mansion. We see him catch a flight to Shreveport, Louisiana and take a meeting with a slightly spastic director and blow-hard producer. He decides to stick with the project in an effort to re-establish his career … he’s just out of rehab (of course). The next morning, things go really badly as Reagan is kidnapped by a couple of Louisiana hillbillies and locked up in a swamp cabin.

Brutal torture scenes follow and we soon enough learn that one of his captors (Ian Barford) is seeking revenge for Reagan’s dalliance with his wife on the set of a movie. The plan is to destroy Reagan’s reputation and then kill him once he is hated by all. The script attempts some Hollywood satire and makes some obvious commentary on the whole tabloid and celebrity world, but mostly it comes off as a bit self-indulgent for Mr. Phillippe.

There are some flashes of interesting moments, mostly involving Stephen Grush as the second hillbilly with homosexual overtures towards Reagan. Unfortunately, the film does not take advantage of the colorful swamp setting and instead takes place almost entirely within the run down cabin. You will note dashes of Deliverance, Black Snake Moan, and Misery, but this one isn’t at that level. Instead it comes off like a bucket list item for Phillippe … director/writer/producer/star of his own film.

watch the trailer:

 


WHIPLASH (2014)

October 26, 2014

whiplash Greetings again from the darkness. The pursuit of greatness is not always pretty. No matter if your dream is athletics, dancing, music or some other; you can be sure hard work and sacrifice will be part of your routine. You will likely have a mentor, teacher or coach whose job is to cultivate your skills while pushing you to new limits. This film questions whether the best approach is intimidation or society’s current preferred method of nurturing.

Miles Teller plays Andrew, a first year student at an elite Manhattan music conservatory. Andrew dreams of being a great jazz drummer in the vein of Buddy Rich. When offered a rare shot at the top jazz orchestra, Andrew quickly discovers the conductor is a breed unlike anything he has ever encountered. The best movie comparison I can offer for JK Simmons’ portrayal of Terence Fletcher is R Lee Ermey’s Drill Instructor in Full Metal Jacket. This is no warm-hearted Mr Holland’s Opus. Fletcher bullies, intimidates, humiliates and uses every imaginable form of verbal abuse to push his musicians, and especially young Andrew, to reach for greater heights.

Andrew and Fletcher go head to head through the entire movie, with Fletcher’s mental torment turning this into a psychological thriller … albeit with tremendous music. We witness Andrew shut out all pieces of a personal life, and even take on some of Fletcher’s less desirable traits. Andrew’s diner break-up with his girlfriend (Melissa Benoist) is much shorter, but just as cold as the infamous opening scene in The Social Network. At a small dinner party, Andrew loses some of the sweetness he inherited from his dad (Paul Reiser), and unloads some Fletcherisms on some unsuspecting family friends.

Writer/Director Damien Chazelle has turned his Sundance award-winning short film into a fascinatingly brutal message movie that begs for discussion and debate. The open-ended approach is brilliant, though I found myself initially upset at the missing clean wrap that Hollywood so often provides. What price greatness? Is comeuppance a reward? Are mentors cruel to be kind? For the past few years, I have been proclaiming that Miles Teller (The Spectacular Now) is the next John Cusack. Perhaps that bar is too low. Teller just gets better with each film. His relentless energy draws us in, and we find ourselves in his corner … even though this time, he’s not the greatest guy himself. Still, as strong as Teller is, the film is owned by JK Simmons. Most think of him as the dad in Juno, or the ever-present insurance spokesman on TV, but he previously flashed his bad side as the white supremacist in “Oz“. Even that, doesn’t prepare us for Simmons’ powerhouse performance … just enough humanity to heighten his psychological torturing of musicians.

You should see this one for Simmons’ performance. Or see it for the up-and-coming Teller. Enjoy the terrific music, especially Duke Ellington’s “Caravan”. See it for the talking points about teachers, society and personal greatness. See it for any or all these reasons – just don’t tell director Damien Chazelle “good job“.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see JK Simmons in a likely contender for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar OR you have been waiting for someone to prove a drum solo can actually be worthy of your attention

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you have no interest in exploring what is involved in attaining greatness, regardless of the talent or skill

watch the trailer:

 

 


STONEHEARST ASYLUM (2014)

October 23, 2014

stonehearst Greetings again from the darkness. A surefire indication that a movie is a must-see for me are the words “based on a story by Edgar Allan Poe” … no matter how loosely. Then, set the film in a creepy turn of the 20th century insane asylum, and cast Ben Kingsley, Michael Caine and Brendan Gleeson, and consider me exceptionally excited.

From the opening moments, there is a certain nostalgic or throwback feel.It recalls the “B” movie feel of so many from the 40’s and 50’s that I grew up watching on late night TV. Imagining the production in Black & White rather than color, and picturing Vincent Price as one of the leads, probably give this one more credit than it earns. Despite the stellar cast – also featuring Kate Beckinsale, Jim Sturgess, David Thewlis, and Sinead Cusack – it doesn’t manage to generate any real suspense or feeling of danger.

Director Brad Anderson works mostly in television, but has kicked out some films of interest along the way. These include Session 9, Transsiberian, The Call, and especially The Machinist. Here, he has an exceptionally deep and talented cast, yet manages to waste Mr. Caine and Mr. Gleeson with minor roles. Even Ms. Beckinsale is treated as simple eye candy with a stunning wardrobe that defies logic, given the circumstances.

Three characters that deliver some fun are Sophie Kennedy Clark as Millie (the nurse), David Thewlis as the comically named Mickey Finn, and of course Sir Ben Kingsley as Silas Lamb. Kingsley is one of the few actors who can walk the fine line between elegance and madness, and leave us wondering (even if we really know). He thrives on scenery-chewing roles and this one definitely qualifies.

The script avoids any real insight or statement on the cruel treatment of the mentally afflicted from the pre-psychoanalysis days brought on shortly thereafter by Freud. Allowing the inmates to run the asylum does make it clear that insanity comes in many forms with differing degrees. In fact, I would challenge viewers to name one truly sane person in this film. Loosely based on Poe’s short story “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether”, what the film lacks in tension and terror (it’s not Shutter Island), it mostly makes up for in production design and nostalgia.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: a throwback to the asylum movies of the 40’s and 50’s brings you a warm nostalgic feeling

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF:  you prefer not to see electro-shock therapy administered to Michael Caine

watch the trailer:

 


THE MAGIC OF HEINEKEN (2014, doc)

October 21, 2014

heineken Greetings again from the darkness. The iconic green bottle is from Holland, not Germany. It’s a product of which the Dutch are proud. Founded in 1864, the family was forced to sell in the aftermath of WWII, and thanks to Freddy, the family bought it back and remains in control today. Heineken … it’s all about the beer.

An archival opening statement from Alfred (Freddy) Heineken speaks about his grandfather and father, who founded and helped build the family business. We then move into a musical montage of advertisements old and new, footage of breweries and bottling plants, and many Heineken images – some familiar, others not. The movie then takes us through four generations of the family who have run and influenced the global growth.

Some pieces of this story are quite interesting. Running through 70 operating companies covering 180 countries, we share the globetrotting trek through breweries in Amsterdam, Europe, the Congo, Vietnam and Poland. Especially fascinating is the grand opening of a huge facility in China. Chemistry plays a role in the success of the beer as we learn in the segment about Heineken “A-yeast”, as well as the company’s approach to hops and barley farming. There is even a kidnapping that made international news.

This family owned business is presented as the ultimate socially responsible organization. Their Heineken Foundation helps the underprivileged in Nigeria, plus running numerous other medical clinics around the world. They are also committed to recycling and encouraging socially responsible drinking.

Even learning about the “smiling e’s” in the logo, and the marketing commitment to social media, sports, music and other cultural events helps us understand what makes the company successful. What never quite clicks is the purpose of director Michael John Warren’s film. Is it a recruiting film for the firm? Is it purely propaganda? Is it an ego piece for the family?  It could even be an attempt to drive up the price of a possible sale of the company?  As viewers, we can’t answer these questions, as we are just supposed to accept this love fest as proof that not only is the beer tasty, but Heineken is a friend to the global economy.  Maybe it’s not all about the beer.

watch the trailer:

 


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