Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride: Hunter S. Thompson on Film

Many of the anecdotes served up by Thompson’s friends are already well known to avid readers of his work, as there was rarely any story he told that wasn’t worth making himself the lead in. What makes “Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride: Hunter S Thompson on Film” so worthwhile is to hear these stories from other points of view, from his childhood friends in Louisville to his comrades later in life including Johnny Depp and Bill Murray, who, being the two men who have played Thompson on celluloid, not so incidentally get their fair share of screen time. After all, how often are you going to get either man, both notoriously reclusive men who don’t do all that much press, to spend so much time speaking about much of anything publicly? Both Depp and Murray clearly loved the time they had with Thompson, as seemingly did most everyone else whose path crossed with him, including Sean Penn, John Cusack, Gary Busey, former Senators Gary Hart and George McGovern and the recently departed Ed Bradley.

Continue reading “Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride: Hunter S. Thompson on Film”

Rating: A

Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film

Slasher films have ridden a looping, twisting roller coaster of notoriety over the last 30 years. They’ve gone from being the toast of the town with their highly profitable grosses and hypnotic power over audiences to volcanically loathed for their unoriginality and social irresponsibility. “Going to Pieces” expands on Adam Rockoff’s 2002 book to visually explore the history of the genre, including new interviews with some of horror’s greatest artists and forgotten footage of the genre in its throat-slitting prime.

“Pieces” starts off rather erratically, establishing the infamous pictures that played a hand in getting hardcore gore and unforgettable violence up on the screen (“Psycho,” “Peeping Tom,” “Last House on the Left”), but immediately sprints past the details to get to the granddaddy of them all: “Halloween.” Using John Carpenter’s classic as a starter pistol for all bloodshed to follow, “Pieces” hits a splendid stride by being informative about the films discussed and also providing the fun of memory and hilarity with clips of some of the lesser genre offerings.

What delighted me about “Pieces” were the conversations held about movies such as “Prom Night,” “Happy Birthday to Me,” and “My Bloody Valentine.” These are not films discussed often or given proper DVD supplementary attention, and while only minutes are spared to converse about these features, it’s fantastic to see the creators finally get a chance to defend their pictures, along with placing their films in the proper context of the era. Most of the documentary is devoted to lasting powerhouses such as “Friday the 13th” and “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” yet “Pieces” finds insight in making time to spotlight the smaller films that fleshed out both the greed and filmmaking ingenuity of the 1980s.

“Pieces” doesn’t have much running time to do anything more than dip a toe into the extensive history of the genre; it’s disappointing to see the doc rush through ideas on gore and marketing just so the filmmakers have enough time to make room for the already well documented “Scream” boom in the mid 1990s. Tangents following the debacle surrounding the “Silent Night, Deadly Night” release, or Siskel and Ebert’s war against misogyny in slasher entertainment, appear to have enough meat on their bones to pad out an entire film. These sections are breezed through to provide a wider net of the genre, sometimes blocking the natural movement of the documentary storytelling.

The interviews in “Pieces” trot out the usual suspects (John Carpenter, Wes Craven, Tom Savini, Sean Cunningham, Greg Nicotero, Rob Zombie), and to give these talking heads a little more personality, director Jeff McQueen keeps his camera moving while requesting some to stroll through a “spooky” location as they explain their history with slasher films. It’s a potentially cheesy idea, but successful in its attempt to keep the film from getting slogged down in details. Still, it’s hard not to giggle when McQueen captures John Carpenter strolling around a graveyard to give his interview.

The last act of the documentary is devoted to “Scream” and its copycats, leading up to 2006, where “Saw” and “Hostel” are presented as examples of how the genre has slingshot back into another golden age, much to my dismay. I can’t argue the massive box office receipts, but I could spend another 1000 words on the lack of quality of some of the more popular titles.

The summation of the doc is interesting: successful cinematic innovation breeds insatiable greed. “Pieces” touches upon the cyclical nature of horror films and the thirst to capitalize on a trend. So, if you’re like me, and are considerably discouraged for what passes for thrills these days, don’t fear. Hollywood producers have already begun beating the same scary ideas into the ground. See you in 2011.

Since horror films are traditionally overlooked from a historical perspective, “Going to Pieces” is a terrific encapsulation of the era and the product. It’s a lean encyclopedia, but for fans, it touches upon some titles and celebrities that have been long forgotten.

“Going to Pieces” airs Friday, October 13th, on the Starz cable network.

Rating: B+

Edge of Outside: Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe

When one thinks of Frank Capra one does not readily call to mind the image of an independent filmmaker. But like Alfred Hitchcock, Capra was one of the few men of the Golden Age of Cinema who carved out his own path. He may not have made films of an overtly controversial nature, but he did make films his way and followed his own rules.

Because of his early success Capra had the confidence to challenge the boundaries of the studio system while working at Columbia and consequently found himself butting heads with then studio chief Harry Cohn. The popular director was an early champion of the auteur theory, long before it was defined in words. He believed in the concept of the director as author and that a film should be the product of a singular vision by that author. Subsequently, in the early ‘40s, the studio interference inspired Capra to form an independent production unit within the studio (Frank Capra Productions) with frequent collaborator writer Robert Riskin. Believing fervently in creative freedom, Capra went to great lengths to maintain his control, going so far as to use his own home as collateral to get the loan needed to finance Meet John Doe, and thereby participating in the profits generated.

It’s very suitable that TCM should choose to represent Capra’s independent oeuvre with Meet John Doe. The romantic comedy is a timeless fable of a forgotten man reluctantly chosen to represent the little people, and goes on to champion a David vs. Goliath cause, winning the affections of the girl along the way.

This inspiring tale stars two of the cinema’s most popular and enduring screen icons. Barbara Stanwyck is ideally cast as the young and beautiful wisecracking reporter who writes a fraudulent story of a lost soul who has given up on the world and promises to end his life in protest of the nation’s deplorable conditions. A rough and rugged blonde, Stanwyck had the unique quality of believably portraying a gorgeous beauty who, despite meager beginnings never hesitates to roll up her sleeves and take the challenges of life head on. She was American Determination in a 5’ 5” package, able to convey all the contradictions and complications of a depressed country through the expressive eyes of one tough cookie.

Gary Cooper is the incredibly handsome and humble tramp picked from the crowd to fill the hapless role of John Doe, becoming an overnight national hero and the unknowing pawn of big business. Once again, Capra’s talent for casting supports his recurring theme in physical form. There has perhaps never been anyone who so encapsulated all things American as Gary Cooper. Down on his luck and living off of his hopes, he still makes an impressive and striking impression when he first appears, hat in hand. Ultimately, this simple man of the people (a professional baseball player) embraces his destiny with greatness and fulfills the hopes of countless others who have come to depend upon him for inspiration.

Much like an independent filmmaker, this depression-era story illustrates one of Capra’s ever-present themes of the common man conquering the attempts of big money for absolute power. And in a similar parallel to the struggles of a maverick director, the narrative of the film hinges on the protagonist’s ability to speak and have his opinions heard. This idea is not in opposition to his belief in the power of collaboration. The film’s bad guy, Edward Arnold (a wonderful character actor, always dripping with affable charm) represents what could go wrong with America if one focus too much on the needs of the individual. Meet John Doe asserts that we as a nation, as a whole community, need to take responsibility for looking out for each other. It is then that the country is at its best, and therefore gives the individual his greatest opportunity for success.

Frank Capra is considered to be one of the most highly regarded and greatly esteemed classic film directors of all time. During the height of his popularity he received accolades from the press, he was admired by the industry, and adored by audiences. In fact, throughout the 1930s, a film by Capra was either the recipient of the Academy Award (It Happened One Night, You Can’t Take It With You) or the favored nominee (Lady for a Day, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Lost Horizon, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington).

Much like Spielberg today, the Capra name is a recognizable signature ensuring a quality production with a wide appeal. So identifiable is his particular style that his name has become an adjective, like Welles (“Wellesian”) and Hitchcock (“Hitchcockian”), to describe subsequent films that have mimicked his style or include “Capra-esqe” elements. However, during the span of his career he suffered from the extremes of broad and varied criticism, perhaps more than any other major director. It was after WWII when, for the most part, his career went into a serious decline (It’s a Wonderful Life was initially a box office failure) perhaps due in large part to the critics growing intolerance for what some considered unpalatable “Capra-Corn”. His simplistic pre-packaged message was well intended; it just didn’t grow and change with the times. The audience simply outgrew an ideology designed to bolster a less informed public.

In fact, most of Capra’s films are, by today’s standards, excessively sentimental and politically naive. But this opinion trivializes the great director’s immense talents – his affinity with the audience, his ability to inspire actors to give their best, his unwavering eye for framing and his everlasting impact on the lexicon of cinema.

Also showing Wednesday July 12th: Charlie Chaplin’s A Woman of Paris at 5:00pm, Erich von Stroheim’s Queen Kelly at 6:30pm, Orson Welles’ Othello at 10:30pm.

Rating: A+

Edge of Outside

Edge of Outside is a one-hour, original documentary about independent filmmakers (classic and current), their contributions to the art of cinema and the struggles they endure to accomplish their creative vision, evolving the medium in the process.

This well-crafted tribute to the fight for artistic freedom offers an intimate look inside the world of American independent cinema through a series of interviews, film clips and archival footage. Through these intimate moments the most recognizable icons of the independent film world discuss their trials and tribulations and the maverick filmmakers of the past and present that have inspired and influenced them.

Original interviewees include Martin Scorsese, Ed Burns, Spike Lee, Henry Jaglom, Arthur Penn and John Sayles. Other interviews include many of those who worked alongside such notable, original thinkers as Nicholas Ray, John Cassavetes and Sam Peckinpah. There is a satisfying mixture of reminiscence and dissection as all expound on what it means to be independent and the unique qualities inherent to those who have successfully achieved, through uncompromising determination, an enduring artistic vision.

Edge of Outside is clear in the emphasis that an independent film is not simply a low-budget film, but instead, accurately defines the genre by the filmmaker’s ability to convey an individual vision through their creative approach, with limited interference from a higher authority, whether or not working within a studio system.

The number of filmmakers included in the interviews is impressive, although they suffer from a lack of diversity. Edge of Outside could have come up with at least one woman and more than just Spike Lee (kingpin that he is) to represent all of the cultural diversity available in the world of independent film. Still, Edge of Outside is a very intriguing, although brief (running time is just over an hour) look into a fascinating subject. Hopefully this shortcoming indicates that this documentary is just the first in an anticipated series of original programs designed to celebrate the spirit of the independent filmmaker.

The Documentary kicks off a month-long movie festival dedicated to filmmakers who have worked on the edge of Hollywood.

Rating: B+

Tru Calling

While the initial episode of “Calling” does have some moments, it faces a monumental challenge in squaring off against both “Survivor: Pearl Islands” and the final season of “Friends” when it debuts this fall. For this to stick around – especially when its initial episodes begin in the crucial November sweeps period – it needs to up its game, and fast, from the pilot.

Dushku’s name is a great draw for Buffy fanboys and girls, but in order for Fox to gain a foothold on Thursdays the network needs a much stronger series than what was shown in the pilot. Right now it feels largely derivative, borrowing elements from “Six Feet Under,” “Run Lola Run,” “Groundhog Day,” “Hack,” and even “Kim Possible.” Not a good sign at all for a night that has been a sore point in the Fox schedule since it moved “The Simpsons” to Sundays in 1995; since that time the network has often been forced to stick to movies and tired game shows like “30 Seconds to Fame,” like it did this past season.

The series begins with a 12-year-old Tru Davies at her mother’s funeral, where she hears the dead talking to her for the first time. Even though her mother is her murdered right of front of her, her dead mother tells her all is forgiven. She tells this to her older sister, saying she wishes she could go back in time to help her. Her sister tells her that she cannot.

Cue to 10 years later, where we meet an older Tru, who has become a college track star and is dealing with family problems. We first meet her running. And running some more. It seems she’s always running throughout the pilot. She’s late for her college graduation and manages to get there in time to pick up her diploma, naturally. The next day, we see her waking up with her former college professor and the future med school student losing her internship because of dropped funding. Another job is available, though, her would-be mentor there tells her, as a forensic attendant in the city morgue.

“Are you sure you’re interested in working here, because – I’ll be honest – most girls as pretty as you that come here, well, they’re dead” is the response she gets before she’s hired by Mack Davis (played by Zach Galifianakis, the bright star here, albeit an odd bright star). Showing her the “crypt,” he tells her this is where every unnatural death comes to rest initially, be they suicides, murders or otherwise. She’s to begin that night, the graveyard shift.

Viewers then find out more about her family. Her sister is a lawyer with a slight coke problem, while her brother is a deadbeat gambler who has just been beat up for not paying up on a lost couple of hands.

Her first guest to the morgue is a 20-something woman named Rebecca Morgan, who has a hole in the back of her head the size of a baseball. Left alone by the other attendant, Tru hears rumblings coming from the morgue. In one of the stand-out scenes from the pilot (well, the only one, really), the dead girl opens her eyes, turns her head and whispers, “Help me.”

Suddenly, it’s morning. Not the next day’s morning, but the morning she gets the job at the morgue. She’s gone back in time and now has a chance to save Morgan. She re-interviews at the morgue. Asking if there’s something they can do to stop unnatural deaths in a general sense, Davis tells her, “Is it hard to see people dead before their timer Yes. But, Tru, if you’re going to work, you have to accept that there’s nothing you can do about it.”

But Tru has a gift that enables her to help. So she tracks down Morgan through a computer nerd friend (who, interestingly, we see models a video game after her, which are then maddeningly intercut with Dushku running some more), telling her the she is going to die that day, in 10 hours. Morgan, understandably, blows her off. From there, the pilot devolves into a deconstruction of who killed her. Tru begins checking out her friends, centering on the ex-boyfriend and the current married boyfriend. In the end, she finds out that Morgan would have killed herself, but with Tru’s intervention, Morgan lives to see another day. She also finds time to help her brother from the beating he was to take and throws away her sister’s latest package of coke—although we later see her later doing lines in a restaurant bathroom. In the end, we see Tru pledging to help others.

Like I had said above, the pilot needs some work. Although she comes out okay, Dushku looks as if she’s slogging through the sequel to her 2001 film, “Soul Survivors.” The actress really needs to find herself a role that will allow her to shine by showing an evil side and that wicked smile, as she did in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” This show feels tonally wrong for her, judging from the pilot. Going beyond Dushku’s central character, the rest of the supporting cast (save for the goofball Galifianakis) is uninspired.

Still, I think the network realizes that the series needs some quick fixes. The role of Mark Evans, the college professor she previously took classes under and is her current boyfriend, has been recast. Ditto a seasoned forensic attendant who works with her named Guarez, seen briefly in the pilot. In the latter role, Benjamin Benitez joins the cast. There is talk that the pilot will be reshot as well, although it seems most likely that a few scenes will be re-filmed to show the new actors in roles now out of the drama.

As it is here, though, I doubt the show will survive November. But, coupled with “The O.C” as its lead-out, there could be something here for Fox on Thursdays. But I wouldn’t get too attached.

“Tru Calling” debuts on Fox October 30.

Rating: C-

Out of Order

“Out of Order” Cast List
Mark = Eric Stoltz
Lorna = Felicity Huffman
Danni = Kim Dickens
Walter = Dyllan Christopher
Annie = Justine Bateman
Steven = William H. Macy
Zach = Peter Bogdanovich
Frank = Lane Smith
Carrie = Celia Weston
Brock = Adam Harrington
Boston = Aaron Douglas
Liz = Sarah Deakins
Brad = Kirby Morrow
Mary = Karen Holness

We begin with Mark, fantasizing about a beautiful woman in his pool. He explains to us, the audience (yep, this is a “talk to the camera” show) that he’s always felt his life is a movie. Cut to his real life, as Mark feeds the remaining goldfish, flushes the no-longer-living goldfish, feeds the hamsters, feeds the cat and waters the plants, all the while hearing the animals and plants talk to him (yep, it’s also has flashes of fantasy). Mark continues to the kitchen where his son is eating cereal, and he sees his wife Lorna’s discarded drink and joint from the night before. He gets son Walter ready for school and takes him there, comes back home and heads to his office where he writes until he hears faint piano music. Following the sound, he sees his wife is now up and playing the piano. She’s clearly depressed, and Mark ends up holding her as she talks about something terrible that happened to her when she was seven, the same age as their son.

Mark picks up Walt from school and takes him to soccer practice. It’s clear that he must do all the parenting himself. He fantasizes about all the women there, until his eye falls upon a navel ring. He’s lost and goes over to sit next to belly ring soccer mom. Her name is Danni, and they flirt a bit and watch their kids play. I don’t think you need me to tell you where this is going, do your

We get another scene of Mark and Lorna’s home life, as he again comforts her during a depressive episode. We also get a flashback to a happier day, so we can see what their marriage used to be, before Lorna’s depression. Next, we get a few soccer practice scenes, so we can compare and contrast Lorna and Danni, and Mark can compare and contrast himself with Danni’s husband. Nice filler, and thankfully brief.

The next section brings together all of our gimmicks. As we have found out that Mark and Lorna are screenwriters, our fantasy flashes will now be themed to films. And, Mark will talk to the camera to help us all see the film-themed elements, in case there are audience members that aren’t movie people. It’s a family Thanksgiving that begins with “Raging Bullsh*t”, a black and white fight between Lorna and her stepfather. This gimmick actually works well, as the fight announcer fills us in on family history as he calls the fight. We cut between this and the dinner table, where Lorna confronts her stepfather about his years of abusing her, and also tells of how her older brother’s friend raped her when she was a little girl. The fight ends with Lorna in triumph: a K.O.

The night of the dinner also involves extensive fantasy sequences, as Mark continues to imagine how the movie of his and Lorna’s life would play out. He writes several alternate scenes that we see, as does Lorna, none of which are what really happens or happened. It’s here that we truly get a sense of the structure of the show, and how their being screenwriters effects how they think and what we the audience will see. Mark’s addresses to the camera, the classic movie moment fantasies, and the alternate “takes” are all the ways that the audience are being shown the characters’ inner workings. The dialogue is also filled with movie references. Sometimes this can be a little too “clever clever”, but in this media-soaked society, who doesn’t have moments when they think this wayr Who doesn’t play out scenes in their head, complete with camera angles and background musicr When these scenes are exposed as fantasies, it makes what happens in the reality of the show more true to life.

Next we meet the neighbors, Steven and Annie. Steven and Lorna are paired up, having a few drinks and smoking pot. Annie comes onto Mark in the kitchen. Mark’s imaginary film crew holds up a cue card saying “Mark Kisses The Neighbor,” but Mark doesn’t. More scenes follow that show Steven and Lorna bonding over drugs and alcohol, Lorna defending herself saying it’s the first time she’s felt good in ages. We also get to suffer as Mark makes a terribly awkward call to Danni.

Lest we forget that our characters have jobs, Mark meets with a stereotypical director (Bogdanovich) about a script. Lorna is at home sick, well depressed and hung over, in bed. Mark comes home and tells her about the meeting and a suggestion that the producer made that their character should do ecstasy. Mark says that he wants to try X for his birthday, so he can understand the character better. Amy thinks, “didn’t I see this in Anniversary Partyr,” but maybe this is another film reference, as the party turns out just like the film with the partygoers swimming naked in Mark’s pool. Mark finally makes it with Danni, but only for a second, as guilt wins out.

But it doesn’t for long, as Mark and Danni end up in a hotel room after Lorna again stays out all night drinking with Steven. They swear it will be the one and only time, as Mark goes home and tries to continue to be a good dad and husband. The final scene shows Mark, Lorna and Walt on the beach. A voiceover has Mark asking the audience to forgive him as he was only guilty “of being human.” The camera pans over the beach and we see all the show’s characters and hear them say “of being human.”

Despite all the gimmicks, and the over playing of the movie insider card, I really liked this script. There’s a lot of potential in the characters’ dynamics, and the casting is wonderful. So much of what is done has a truth to it, especially the interactions between Mark and his son (which I purposefully left out of this review, as I wanted them to be fresh for you as viewers.) The pets do talk in Mark’s head, he does have his imaginary film crew, there really was an entire section that referenced “Raging Bull,” but on the whole this is a great drama with tons of potential. It’s almost enough to get me to pony up for Showtime.

Rating: B+