Screening Room: ‘The Witches’

Back in 1990, Nicolas Roeg directed a gruesome, jauntily black-humored adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches. It had its flaws but … Anjelica Huston.

Robert Zemeckis’ new take for HBO premieres next week. And, well, Anne Hathaway… My review is at Slant:

For anybody arguing that the grand potential for boundary-breaking entertainment in 2020’s wide-open world of content-hungry streaming services has produced more mediocrity than anything else, Robert Zemeckis’s take on Roald Dahl’s dementedly fun short novel The Witches could serve as a key piece of evidence. While there are some elements to admire in this adaptation, particularly its being cast with mostly black performers, much of it falls into the category of Competent But Unnecessary Remake. In other words, another piece of family-friendly-ish content to fill the yawning hours of pandemic confinement…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Charm City Kings’

Back in 2013, the documentary 12 O’Clock Boys looked at Baltimore’s subculture of daredevil dirt-bike riders. It was surprising, unpredictable, and utterly fresh. Now comes Charm City Kings, a nice-looking but somewhat muddled dramatic interpretation of the same landscape.

It hits HBO this Thursday. My review ran at Slant:

One segment where the bikers and onlookers crowd together for an impromptu street party and display of tricks draws on a long lineage stretching from Rebel Without a Cause to The Fast and the Furious (and if wheelie-popping dirt bikes are not incorporated into the Fast & Furious series at some point, then its producers are failing at their job)…

Here’s the trailer:

TV Room: ‘Lovecraft Country’

HBO’s latest entry into politically relevant genre adventure is Lovecraft Country, an ambitious and messy 10-part series that bites off far more than it can chew but deserves some applause for trying.

Lovecraft Country starts this Friday. My review is at PopMatters:

Based on Matt Ruff’s 2016 novel, it keeps one foot planted firmly in the real (Black characters trying to make their way in segregated 1950s Chicago) and another dipping into various pools of the unreal (sorcerers, Lovecraftian beasts, haunted houses). The combination makes sense more than it should, at least at first. That’s largely because while head writer Misha Green (Underground) is exquisitely aware of the ways race factors into nearly every aspect of its characters’ lives, she doesn’t allow that to define them entirely…

Here’s the trailer:

TV Room: ‘The Plot Against America’

In Philip Roth’s 2004 novel The Plot Against America, it’s 1940 and Hitler is rampaging across Europe. Only in America, Franklin Roosevelt is facing serious political competition: fascist sympathizer and popular hero Charles Lindbergh. A Jewish family in Newark, drawn in part from Roth’s childhood, starts realizing they may have to chose between fleeing to Canada or facing pogroms in New Jersey.

My review of HBO’s The Plot Against America, a six-part adaptation by David Simon (The Deuce, The Wire), ran at PopMatters:

in 1940, the idea of a white supremacist president in league with a fascist foreign power was hard for many to contemplate. Even a fully-fledged racist like Woodrow Wilson had not colluded with enemies abroad. And nobody truly imagined the likes of Donald Trump as president until The Simpsons Movie in 2007. It was a different time. The Wire was only in Season 3.

TV Room: ‘Watchmen’

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Regina King as Sister Knight in ‘Watchmen’ (HBO)

Damon Lindelof’s wonderfully strange and deeply political Watchmen series is more interested in exploring the further ramifications of Alan Moore’s groundbreaking graphic novel than producing a faithful reenactment. It’s a high-risk move but one that appears so far to be paying off.

My article on Watchmen is at PopMatters:

The first episode, a direly ironic hour, kicks off in Tulsa during the 1921 massacre in which whites rampaged through the black neighborhood of Greenwood. Jumping to an alternate-historical 2019 Tulsa, Oklahoma, in which the racially-mixed police wear masks to protect their identity from a murderous white-supremacist underground called the Seventh Kavalry (for Custer’s unit decimated at Little Big Horn), the episode uses the massacre less as plot point and more as ominous overture…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Write, Write, Talk, Write, Get Lucky

Image result for Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight buffy graphic novels

Among the many questions that young writers have, besides “How do you make a living at it?”, is what they should do and what should they read to help them hone their craft.
There is no good answer. But embedding yourself in an ecstatically committed community of writers or at least people who love writing is a good way to start.
It has been a long time since I dared reread any of the wish-fulfillment stories I scribbled in my lonely teenage notebooks, but I suspect if I did, they’d contain something a little like this: You’re a freewheeling political reporter on assignment on a ship in the middle of the Mediterranean, covering a tech conference full of Ukrainian models, when Joss Whedon calls and asks if you’ve ever thought of writing for television. Of course you have, but only in the way that you’ve thought of being an astronaut. Six weeks later you’re in California, sitting in your first writers’ room, on Whedon’s new sci-fi show for HBO, The Nevers, and it turns out that the evenings you spent at college arguing about Buffy with your best friends were a better use of your time than you realized…
Sometimes writers get lucky. Very lucky. But for that luck to mean something, they have to have spent years preparing. Even if that means spending years writing, debating, and absorbing cultish fan-fiction. Whatever it is, commit yourself totally. It helps to be prepared.

Screening Room: ‘The Inventor’

(Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Drew Kelly)

The latest documentary from the ever-prolific Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, Going Clear) digs into the dark, weird, and ultimately all-too-familiar story of a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who promised a miracle.

The Inventor premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and will be broadcast this Monday on HBO.

My review is at Slant:

Elizabeth Holmes, the Steve Jobs-aping wunderkind who launched the radically innovative and radically deceptive blood-testing company Theranos when she was just 19, claimed to have a thing for Thomas Edison. Most inventors do. “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” This Edison quote is one that director Alex Gibney puts on the screen in his substantively hard-edged, if somewhat generically constructed, documentary The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, to remind his audience of at least one source from which the dogged Holmes drew her inspiration…

TV Room: ‘Fahrenheit 451’

Michael B. Jordan in ‘Fahrenheit 451’ (HBO)

Indie director Ramin Bahrani (Goodbye Solo, 99 Homes) takes a detour into the land of splashy classic literature adaptations with his take on the great Fahrenheit 451, which premieres on HBO this Saturday.

My review is at The Playlist:

There’s a lot left out in this noisy and luridly shot but thin adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s novel. A prescient fable about the death of the imagination and individuality in the postwar war, it imagines a world where the houses have all been fireproofed and firemen race through nighttime streets looking for books to burn..

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: DOC NYC 2017

The eighth edition of the DOC NYC film festival starts tomorrow. Among the 250-odd movies screening over about a week and a half are movies about Dutch nationalists, the Russian athletic doping conspiracy, high school dance teams, a cult leader named Father Divine, and CIA experiments with LSD (the last is Errol Morris’ killer four-hour epic Wormwood, image at bottom).

Tomorrow’s opening night movie is The Final Year, a behind-the-scenes look at the last year in office of President Obama’s foreign policy team (that’s them, above) which plays out with unexpected drama against the darkening shroud of Trump’s rocketing rise to the presidency. It’s getting released either later this year or in January and will show up eventually on HBO.

My preview of the goodies on show at DOC NYC is at Film Journal‘s Screener blog:

Today there seems to be a film festival for almost every taste and locality. In addition to the grand dames of the festival circuit like Toronto, Venice, Cannes and Telluride, with their red-carpet premieres and B-list stars getting A-list attention, there are more tightly focused cinematic gatherings, from Los Angeles’ Screamfest to the Ottawa International Animation Festival (both just what they sound like). So it can be refreshing to find a festival that simply wants to show as many amazing movies as possible…

More to follow next week.

Notes: Not All Alternate Histories are Equal

Ta-Nehisi Coates explains why, in quite simple terms, any comparisons between The Man in the High Castle and the upcoming HBO series Confederate don’t hold water:

It is illegal to fly the Nazi flag in Germany. The Confederate flag is enmeshed in the state flag of Mississippi.

In one conflict, the defeated acknowledged their loss and paid a price. In the other, the defeated quickly got back to their old tricks. 

In other words, imagining a world where the white Southern racist establishment won may not be far different enough from reality to warrant the term “alternate history.” 

TV Room: ‘The Night Of’

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Riz Ahmed in ‘The Night Of’ (HBO)

night_of-posterA long-in-development, eight-episode miniseries, The Night Of has the heft and snap of that rare crime novel which seems to have been written by somebody who has actually talked to a few cops and crooks in their time. That’s because it’s written by Richard Price, whose gritty, funny novels from The Wanderers to The Whites provide a kind of alternate history of New York.

What’s it about? In short, a good kid from Queens (Riz Ahmed) goes out when he shouldn’t, hangs out with a girl who fairly screams bad news, and ends up in a police station. For murder. John Turturro plays his low-end lawyer with a heart of gold; in a role that James Gandolfini originated not long before his death.

The Night Of is on HBO Sunday nights; check it out. My review is at PopMatters:

The world of cops, judges, and lawyers is one that sorts the people who come within its grasp. That’s at least the case in crime fiction like HBO’s darkly sparkling new noir miniseries The Night Of. It’s generally a binary thing, without much shading…

Here’s the trailer:

TV Room: ‘Vinyl’ Misses a Step With Punk

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The newest Martin Scorsese/Terence Winter series Vinyl is in many ways like their last one, Boardwalk Empire: A pulpy concoction of jagged historical anecdotes thrown into the HBO antihero blender. This time, instead of bootleggers and crooked politicians conniving during Prohibition in a glitzed-up Atlantic City, it’s an origin story for punk (and potentially hip-hop) set in a rotting 1973 New York.

vinyl-posterVinyl is running Sunday nights on HBO. My review of the two-hour Scorsese-directed premiere is at PopMatters:

It’s easy to see what’s grabbing the attention of cocaine-dusted record exec Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale) at the concert that bookends the two-hour premiere episode of Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger’s HBO series Vinyl. First, he’s watching the New York Dolls, slashing and burning their way through “Personality Crisis” at the downtown firetrap Mercer Arts Center before a crowd of rangy and be-glittered kids with the look of fervent religious converts. Second, although his company, American Century, seems to have once had a few hits, it’s now a creatively irrelevant laughingstock (nickname: “American Cemetery”) that he’s trying to unload to a cabal of clueless Germans before they realize just how cooked the books really are. His life is unraveling, and his juices are dry (more on that in a minute). The guy needs a fix. Rock and roll is there to save him, for the first time in far too long..

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Entourage’ on the Big Screen

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Four years after HBO’s dude wish-fulfillment series Entourage ground to a generally unloved conclusion, the far-from-inevitable film follow-up comes to a theater near you.

My review is at Film Racket:

If the question of what would happen to the big-dreaming boys from Queens occupied you for one minute after Entourage finished its eighth season in 2011, then Entourage the movie might be your kind of superfluous entertainment. If not, then stay far, far away. After all, this is not a film so much as it is a shrugging “Sure, why the hell not?” afterthought of a media brand extension…

Here’s the trailer:

Now Playing: ‘Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck”

Young Cobain (HBO Films)
Young Cobain (HBO Films)

Even though it was produced in association with Kurt Cobain’s family, the new documentary about his tragically short life has a bracing honesty that makes it required viewing.

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is playing now in limited release and also on HBO. My review is at Film Racket:

Brett Morgen’s deft and fascinating documentary about America’s last true rock star is shot through with inevitability. But that never detracts from the raw emotional power of a film made up mostly of Kurt Cobain’s nakedly confessional journals and recordings. The film’s story can’t help but carry a mythic quality. That doesn’t mean that Morgen, working with the authorization of Cobain’s family, created a worshipful monument to genius. It’s true that to appreciate Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, it certainly helps to at least approve of a Nirvana song here and there. But this isn’t a fan’s valentine. At times it feels closer to hate mail from the artist himself…

Here’s the trailer: