Screening Room: ‘Best of Enemies’

William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal think of new insults for each other. (Magnolia)

William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal think of new insults for each other. (Magnolia)

In 1968, the third-place network ABC wasn’t sure how to make a splash with its presidential convention coverage. Since they didn’t have much money, they went for a gimmick. Over the course of ten nights, Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley would debate the issues of the conventions. Or just throw insults at each other.

Best of Enemies is playing now in limited release. My review is at PopMatters:

Best of Enemies is a fascinating film about brilliant people behaving stupidly. It would be reassuring in a way to think that in the distant past, there was a time when American intellectuals could duke it out on the public stage before a mass audience held rapt by the sight and sound of ideas being wrestled into coherent form. We know such things don’t happen anymore. How many Americans can even name two intellectuals to have such a debate?…

Here’s the trailer:

TV Room: ‘House of Cards: Season 3′

“That damned, smiling villain…” Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in ‘House of Cards’ (Netflix)

The third season of House of Cards is out now on DVD for those of you out there not streaming. My review is at PopMatters:

When last we left Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey) in the frenetic second season of House of Cards, he had bested all challenges and ensconced himself in the Oval Office. It was a thunderclap of a climax, his school ring rapping on the desk like a gunshot, the echo calling to mind the long line of rivals he had run over on the way there like human speedbumps. You almost expected the story to end there. But as every striver for the throne from Macbeth back to the Roman emperors discovered, staying in power is as much or more of a struggle than getting there in the first place…

Here’s a trailer, to catch you up:

On the Media: ‘The Jinx’ and Confessions

thejinx-posterCuriously enough, there is actually a precedent for the news that broke over the weekend with a blockbuster HBO documentary playing an outsized role in an ongoing media sensation of a criminal case.

Decades before Andrew Jarecki’s The Jinx played a (as yet not fully clear) role in the arrest of the perennial murder suspect and troubled millionaire Robert Durst, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s true-crime classic Paradise Lost (about the West Memphis Three) bumped up against the realities of an ongoing criminal investigation. While filming the proceedings, Berlinger was given a bloody knife that was similar to the murder weapon:

Berlinger told Rachel Maddow on MSNBC on Monday that he immediately went to HBO, and together they decided to turn the knife over to investigators, even though it put their film at risk.

He said he would like to think that he would reach the same conclusion today, but noted the increased pressure to make films as entertaining as possible.

It’s not entirely clear what responsibilities the filmmakers of The Jinx had when confronted with potential evidence of Durst’s culpability some time ago. But the fact that Durst wasn’t arrested until just the day before the miniseries’ last episode on Sunday is being seen by some as a media-manipulated event.

I reviewed the first couple episodes of The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst for PopMatters here.

 

On TV: ‘The Jinx’

'The Jinx': Kathleen and Robert Durst (HBO Films)

‘The Jinx': Kathleen and Robert Durst (HBO Films)

Tonight, HBO is premiering the first episode in its six-part true-crime documentary The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst. It’s a stranger-than-fiction tale from director Andrew Jarecki (Capturing the Friedmans) who first tried to tackle the curious case of Durst with 2010’s fictional film All Good Things, where Ryan Gosling played Durst, heir to a massive Manhattan real-estate fortune, who was accused of killing his first wife Kathleen, who disappeared in 1982.

thejinx-posterMy review of the first two episodes is at PopMatters:

There’s no straight line through Robert Durst’s story. Instead, there is a curlicue leading from a privileged Manhattan childhood to Dynasty-style power struggles, a lengthy stretch of cross-dressing, and potential connections to three murders. The baffling particulars of Durst’s case and his resolute odd-man-out nature come with the added coating of unreality provided by a life of extreme wealth. It’s a captivating story, and a difficult one to tackle without succumbing to its and his Sphinxian spell. Fittingly, the first two episodes of Andrew Jarecki’s six-part documentary, The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, don’t reveal whether or not it will succumb…

Here’s the trailer:

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?