New in Theaters: ‘Harmontown’ Goes Deep Nerd

Dan Harmon gets angry on 'Harmontown' (The Orchard)

Dan Harmon gets angry on ‘Harmontown’ (The Orchard)

In between crafting one of the modern era’s great meta-TV-sitcom gems (Community) and self-destructing on social media, Dan Harmon hosts a weekly podcast that usually starts in drunken tomfoolery and ends with an even more drunken round of Dungeons & Dragons.

The documentary about that highly nerd-centric podcast, Harmontown, has been playing various festival dates and opens next Friday in limited release.

My review is at Film Journal International:

Harmon, who first made his name as co-creator of the famously unproduced Ben Stiller and Jack Black comedy show “Heat Vision and Jack,” was a guerrilla hero to appreciators of his cult NBC sitcom “Community.” Since it began in 2009, the show smuggled meta-fictional memes and a thick webbing of deep-geek culture into a surprisingly emotional show about outsiders struggling to put their lives together at a community college. The low-rated but well-reviewed show was kept alive by its rabid fan base until finally getting the axe this year after its fifth season (a sixth season was picked up for online distribution by Yahoo!). After well-publicized tussles with one of the stars, Chevy Chase, Harmon was fired by the network after the third season. Harmontown picks up with the recently axed Harmon embarking on a 20-city tour with “my intrepid friends” from his podcast. It’s half escape from the two network pilots Harmon is supposed to be working on, and half public-forum therapy in front of his devoted “army of nerds”…

You can see the trailer here:

New in Theaters: ‘The Green Prince’

The art of espionage in 'The Green Prince' (Music Box Films)

The art of espionage in ‘The Green Prince’ (Music Box Films)

Wars aren’t fought just by armies and weapons. They also need intelligence, which requires spies, who often need to betray everyone around them. It’s a tricky business.

The Green Prince, about a Palestinian who risked his life to spy for Israel, opens tomorrow in limited release.

My review is at Film Racket:

Restrained, clinical, and yet full-hearted, The Green Prince is one of the year’s, and maybe ultimately the decade’s, great spy stories. A two-hander about betrayal, shame, honor, and murky motivations, it includes nothing more than two men — one an Israeli intelligence operative and the other his Palestinian source — telling their part of a sprawling and many years’ long operation to undermine Hamas. Director Nadav Schirman stitches together their crisp, well-honed interview segments with a textured mosaic of surveillance footage and the fortunately occasional live-action reenactment into a nearly seamless whole. The result both outdoes the invented drama of many a spy thriller and raises more ethical quandaries than can be easily dispensed with…

You can see the trailer here:

Small Screens: ‘Batman’ Returns!

 

Once upon a time you could safely rely on being able to find a couple things somewhere on TV, if you just flipped around long enough: The Three Stooges and the old Batman series. Running in seemingly near-constant syndication long after its too-brief run (120 episodes over 3 seasons from 1966–68), its Pop Art-mad cheeky humor was the way that most people growing up in the 1970s was introduced to the Caped Crusader. Once Frank Miller and Tim Burton started going all gothic on Bruce Wayne in the ’80s, it was always characterized as a reaction to the camp factor of an Adam West Batman and villains like Liberace, Tallulah Bankhead, and Milton Berle.

But the show has been increasingly hard to find outside of YouTube and black-market dubs, due to a long-running rights dispute. That may soon be over, as it was reported yesterday that the entire run of the series will be released in a box set of DVDs and Blu-ray sometime later this year. The news was broken by … Conan O’Brien. Big fan?

Screening Room: The Academy Awards Are Decadent and Depraved

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So, the Oscars happened. It was difficult to decide what was the more depressing element of the evening: The laceratingly dull ceremony of Tolstoyan length or the fact that Life of Pi took home so many awards?

I try to answer these questions (and many, many more!) in “The Academy Awards are Decadent and Depraved,” now available for your reading pleasure at Short Ends & Leader; here’s some of it:

…Seth MacFarlane was not going to save this year’s Academy Awards from itself.  Nobody could. There is something about the event’s bulldozer quality these days that crushes, folds, and spindles any host who puts themselves in the cross-hairs. A production featuring a reanimated Bob Hope, jokes from Woody Allen and the entire Simpsons staff, 5D special effects by James Cameron, and an original score performed live by the ghost of Bernard Herrmann, would still come off as stiff, unfunny, desperate, and cheap.

That being said, MacFarlane—an exemplar of the having-my-cake-and-eating-it-too school—didn’t help…

But at least the evening featured sock puppets performing their version of the Denzel Washington flick Flight. Enjoy!

Department of Soap Operatics: ‘Downton Abbey’ and Decay

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With the premiere of the third season of Downton Abbey, it has become clear that the rest of the show (no matter how long it remains on the air) is likely going to some extent be centered on one thing only: The fighting of rearguard actions against the inevitable march of modernity, dissolution of class barriers, and the wrecking of aristocratic fortunes and the privileges they once bestowed. There will be more of the expected soap opera theatrics—one hopes for a couple good cases of selective amnesia, perhaps an evil twin to Cousin Matthew who pops up after spending a few years debauching in the Far East and now has eyes for Mary—but in the main it will keep coming back to the house, the staff, and the great tubs of money needed to keep it all running.

downton2It’s now 1920 in the show, with the Irish Civil War about to hot up in earnestness, England still mostly devastated from the losses of war, and the Great Depression and World War II waiting just around the corner to knock off what was left of the nation’s imperial largesse that sustains all those estates and their to-the-manor-born inhabitants. History insists that it will come to an end. But for all the show’s characters who carp from the sidelines about the new era and increasing freedoms, it’s clear that going forward the background emotion will be a reactionary sort of nostalgia for a time when servants and the lower classes knew their place. (For all those pining to work downstairs, PBS’s site has a truly horrible quiz here: “Which Downton Abbey Job is Right For You?“)

James Parker has a short, sharp rumination on the show and its “magnificent badness” in the Atlantic. It’s memorable, among other things, for his take on how Hugh Bonneville plays Lord Grantham (“…he has cultivated a strange, plodding denseness and deliberateness, as if the earl is contending with a minor brain injury”). Parker goes on to note, only partly tongue-in-cheek, that no matter how long the show continues, the end fate is certain. To that point, he pulls out a sad little gem from, of all places, Rod Stewart’s autobiography, where the singer is describing a time in 1971 when he and his fiancée Dee Harrington were looking over Cranbourne Court, a Georgian estate west of London they wanted to buy:

Its owner, Lord Bethell … was an English aristocrat fallen on hard times. As he showed Dee and me around the property one afternoon, Dee nudged me and pointed out quietly that his trousers had worn so thin that you could make out his striped underpants through the material.

Safe to say that the show’s creator Julian Fellowes will give the Crawleys a more dignified exit than that. Whether or not they deserve it is another point entirely.

Trailer Park: ‘The Girl’

Alfred Hitchcock had his issues, no question about that. But although his obsessions with guilt, control, and particularly various of his leading ladies have been well documented in print, outside of the cineaste world those proclivities are not well known. That might change somewhat with the release of The Girl.

Premiering in late October on HBO, The Girl is about the legendary campaign of intimidation that Hitch waged against his star Tippi Hedren on the set of The Birds.  Hedren herself has talked about what a miserable experience it was, calling him an “unusual, genius, and evil” filmmaker.

The film about the film stars Sienna Miller as Hedren and (applause) the great Toby Jones as Hitch himself. The director is Julian Jarrold, who directed the first and best of the Red Riding films back in 2009.

Check out the trailer here:

The Happy, Happy Poors of ‘Downton Abbey’

Danny Boyle’s Industrial-New Wave mashup of an Olympics opening ceremony aside — which, for all the pomp still included strong references to labor struggles and protest that would be unthinkably left-wing were it being held in this country — a yearning for the supposedly simpler and more dignified England prior to World War I still holds a powerful sway. Never mind the brutal working conditions or harsh class divisions, there is a curious nostalgia among Americans (likely the Brits as well) for a time when, for better or worse, everybody knew their place, whether they wanted to or not. Call it the Downton Abbey effect.

Consider this from Judith Flanders’ caustic review of Paul Thomas Murphy’s new book Shooting Victoria:

British television has a lot to answer for. From “Upstairs, Downstairs” to “Downton Abbey,” it has perpetrated an image of “historical” Britain as a country filled with a loved, even revered, upper class that gracefully patronizes the lower orders, who in turn are thrilled to roll over and have their tummies tickled by their social superiors. Absent is any sense of political, much less social unrest—there are no bread riots, no Luddites, no machine wreckers. Thus many PBS viewers might be surprised by the violence that accompanied the 19th century’s extreme political instability. And they might be positively shocked to learn that no fewer than seven of Queen Victoria’s subjects made attempts on her life.

As viewers of Downton Abbey know well, the villains are just about never the well-mannered (if occasionally clueless or bratty) owners of the great house itself. Chaos and distemper always appears in the form of the servant who’s getting above themselves or the nouveau riche interloper who thinks he can simply buy his way into the upper class. This fictional world is not one where the downstairs crew might ever be shown to have a true grievance against a mostly nonworking aristocracy that’s been feeding off their labor for centuries.

But then if BBC America started pitching a series about suffragists and the Jarrow Marchers, it might provide fewer opportunities for petticoat eye candy. So serious, those protesting types.