Tag Archives: Alex Gibney

Random Thoughts on Force Friday, Idris Elba as Bond, Other News of the Week

Some random, movie-related thoughts on the entertainment news of the week:

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Fans, savor Force Friday

Midnight marks the arrival of “Force Friday,” the official beginning of the merchandising bonanza leading up to the Dec. 18 release of “Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens.”

If you’re one of the fans staying up late and venturing out to your local Target or other stores for the unveiling of toys, collectibles, and other tie-ins to “The Force Awakens,” I salute you. As the parent of a toddler, I value my sleep too much to join you, but I’ll be with you in spirit.

At the risk of sounding like a nostalgic grandpa — “When I was a boy, we used to walk to school in 7-foot snow drifts …” — I remember a time when there was virtually no Star Wars merchandise to be found on shelves.

I was introduced to George Lucas’ space opera at the relatively late age of 12. It was the end of the ’80s and though people remembered “Star Wars” fondly, everybody was kind of over it.

The only option for watching the trilogy was renting the movies on VHS. Few people owned VHS players or video tapes back then, so you’d most likely have to rent them.

As a passionate, young convert to the “Star Wars” universe, I would scavenge for memorabilia wherever I could. There was no Internet, no eBay, no easy way to connect with fellow collectors. My prized possessions were a “Star Wars” poster, a spiral notebook from the dollar store, and a color still of Princess Leia chained to Jabba the Hutt, discovered at a creepy Hollywood souvenir shop. That was it.

It wasn’t until the release of those infamous prequels in the late ’90s that “Star Wars” merch became readily available again. Now, of course, you can find items everywhere, from T-shirts to toys, but it wasn’t always this way.

So remember that, Star Wars fans, while you’re doing your Force Friday shopping. Savor this moment.

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A cure for dismal Labor Day viewing

Speaking of the weekend, if you’re planning to see a movie over the Labor Day holiday, there aren’t many options. We’re in the thick of the end-of-summer doldrums and it’s looking pretty depressing out there.

Unless you want to sit through yet another mediocre video game movie reboot (“The Transporter Refueled,” coming on the heels of “Hitman: Agent 47”), there aren’t many cinematic choices to get excited about.

My advice? Skip what’s playing at the cineplex and take this opportunity to catch up on your documentary viewing.

BLVD Cinemas in Lancaster is playing two intriguing docs this weekend: “Meru,” about climbers tackling formidable challenges in the Himalayas, and “Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine,” from Alex Gibney, director of the provocative “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief.”

If you’d rather stay home, some recent, critically successful titles include “Red Army,” “Citizenfour,” “Art and Craft,” “Last Days of Vietnam,” “The Salt of the Earth,” “National Gallery,” “Yves Saint Laurent,” “Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger,” and “Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon.”

When it comes to movies, fact is often more entertaining than fiction.

Wes Craven’s ‘Nightmare’ lives on

I was sad to hear of the passing of director Wes Craven, who died Sunday at the age of 76.

I’m a lightweight when it comes to horror flicks and though I was too much of a scaredy-cat to watch many of Craven’s movies, the filmmaker made a strong impression on me.

When I was a kid, my family often walked past the neighborhood video store, where a cardboard stand-up of Freddy Krueger peered menacingly from one of the windows. I had no idea at the time who Freddy was, but I was mesmerized by his shredded face, razor claws, and Christmas-colored sweater. I’d never seen “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and already he was haunting my dreams.

Since then, Freddy Krueger has taken his gruesome place as one of the most terrifying villains of all time. Craven also directed several other seminal and, for the time, transgressive horror films, including “The Last House on the Left” and “The Hills Have Eyes.”

In the mid-’90s, he laid the foundation for a 21st-century rebirth of horror with the “Scream” franchise, wittily deconstructing genre cliches and paying tongue-in-cheek homage to the classics. His influence can still be felt in recent horror films, like “Cabin in the Woods” and “It Follows.”

It seems Craven had ambitions to move beyond the horror genre, which despite being extremely lucrative, never earns a director much respect.

He helmed the drama “Music of the Heart,” helping star Meryl Streep to an Oscar. Though he never really moved past his role as a horror meister, his approach to his career was admirable.

“I come from a blue-collar family, and I’m just glad for the work,” Craven said in an interview quoted by the Hollywood Reporter.

“I think it is an extraordinary opportunity and gift to be able to make films in general, and to have done it for almost 40 years now is remarkable. If I have to do the rest of the films in the genre, no problem. If I’m going to be a caged bird, I’ll sing the best song I can.”

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Idris Elba as Bond? Hell, yes!

The Internet has been all riled up since Anthony Horowitz, author of the latest James Bond novel, declared that British actor Idris Elba should not play 007 in a future film.

Elba’s name has long been bandied about as an ideal replacement for Daniel Craig, who is a wonderful Bond but can’t very well portray the secret agent forever. In an unfortunate turn of phrase, Horowitz said Elba was “too street” to be a convincing Bond.

Elba’s fans were outraged by the author’s statement and the insinuation that the star of “Luther” and “The Wire” isn’t suave enough to slip into Bond’s tuxedo.

I have only one question for Horowitz: Have you seen Elba?

And, more importantly, have you seen Elba act? The man is the embodiment of cool, British charm and self-possession. He oozes sex appeal, experience and the ability to inflict violence on over-the-top baddies threatening to blow up the world. And he’s a brilliant, underrated performer who deserves to finally be a leading man.

Maybe when Horowitz said Elba was “too street,” he meant that if you ask any woman — or man, for that matter — on the street who should be the next James Bond, the answer would be “yes.” (Sigh. Only in an ideal world perhaps, but still … .)

By the way, Elba’s perfectly composed Twitter response to the kerfuffle offers further proof that he is the best man for the job.

“Always keep smiling,” he said. “It takes no energy and never hurts! Learned that from The Street!”

Photos: sundance.org; o.canada.com; bbcamerica.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

HBO’s Scientology Documentary is Credible, Astonishing

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief
Three stars (out of four)
Not rated
119 minutes
(HBO has been rerunning the documentary for those who missed Sunday’s premiere. The film will inevitably be released for home viewing, although no date has been announced.)

I’ve never been a member of the Church of Scientology. I’ve never been “audited.” I’ve never been compelled to part with large sums of money so I can move up “The Bridge.” I’ve never been intimidated or abused or harassed by disciples of that dubious religion.

Despite my lack of firsthand experience, for most of my life, I’ve been riveted, with a mixture of fear and fascination, by the sensational rumors that swirl around Scientology. So, of course, I couldn’t wait to see HBO’s documentary, “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief.”

In the late ’80s, my dad took the family on our first official sightseeing trip to Hollywood. Among the bizarre points of interest we encountered were friendly people armed with funny-looking gadgets, offering free “stress tests,” or E-Meter readings, to passersby.

In response to our questions, my father regaled us with tales of the mysterious religion/cult known as the Church of Scientology. During a career in advertising, he’d met several former members who recounted harrowing tales of harassment after “escaping” the church — bullets left in mailboxes, shady characters lurking in cars outside suburban houses, sinister acts that sounded like something from a movie.

Later, as an entertainment reporter, I had my own brief but strange encounter with Scientology.

The newspaper I worked for received a press release announcing an event at Willow Springs International Raceway featuring the Dianetics motorcycle racing team. I was dispatched to cover the event because several celebrities were expected to attend, including “King of Queens” star Leah Remini. (Remini has since become an outspoken critic of Scientology.)

Despite the fact that it was Saturday and I was sick and the raceway was no short distance from my home in Lancaster, I dutifully dragged myself to Rosamond to interview Remini and friends. When I arrived at the track, there were no celebrities to be found, only a cheery publicist who handed me a free copy of Dianetics and explained that Ms. Remini was stuck in traffic.

As the minutes ticked by with nary a recognizable Hollywood personality in sight, she suggested I interview some of the racers instead. Out of politeness, I agreed, listening to enthusiastic personal testimonies detailing how Scientology had helped these guys overcome problems, like conquering fear and tight curves on the racetrack.

After several hours passed, it became apparent that Leah Remini was never going to show up, despite the publicist’s insistence the actress was only a few minutes away. I began to wonder if the promise of her appearance was a lie from the very beginning.

As one church member after another was trotted out to recount to me the life-changing benefits of Scientology, I was overcome with the suspicion that the entire event had been staged simply for the purpose of proselytizing unsuspecting rookie journalists.

After what seemed like an eternity, I managed to make my excuses and break free, hightailing it back to the office with a story to tell my editor and the lingering sensation that I had only narrowly escaped this unexpected, vaguely creepy situation.

Maybe that’s why I found it easy to give credence to the bold, often horrifying allegations in “Going Clear.”  Based on a book by Lawrence Wright, the documentary first created a stir in January at the Sundance Film Festival. After a limited theatrical release, it premiered Sunday on HBO to a viewership of 1.7 million. That’s the biggest audience for one of the network’s docs since 2006’s “When the Levees Broke,” according to the Hollywood Reporter.

The fact that most of the accusations in “Going Clear” cannot be corroborated, thanks largely to the Church of Scientology’s notorious secrecy, doesn’t make the film any less credible or shocking.

Veteran documentarian Alex Gibney has a way of quietly creeping up on his topic, saving the more astonishing revelations for the end of the film. It’s an insidiously clever approach. The film’s gradually escalating flow of revelations is calculated for maximum impact.

“Going Clear” begins predictably with a history of Scientology and its creator, science-fiction author L. Ron Hubbard. Gibney’s portrait of Hubbard relies heavily on the recollections of the writer’s ex-wife, Sarah Northup, who claims her former spouse once kidnapped her child and kept the girl in a cage. Northup also recalls that Hubbard was obsessed with creating a religion so he could enjoy the profits tax-free.

Gibney paints a colorful picture of Hubbard that is so bizarre, it’s difficult to deny the man was anything but completely bonkers. It makes director Paul Thomas Anderson’s roman a clef “The Master” seem tame in comparison to the apparent reality.

If you’ve spent any time reading about or researching Scientology, there’s nothing terribly surprising about much of this information, or the details of the religion’s wackier tenets, including a creation myth involving an alien overlord named Xenu and extraterrestrial spirits that cling to human hosts, causing them psychological trauma.

“Going Clear” really starts kicking butt and taking names when Gibney delves into a series of face-to-face interviews with eight former high-level members of the church. On-camera appearances by present or past members are a rarity and these “talking heads” have a lot of damning things to say about the religion’s alleged history of abuse, physical violence, manipulation, blackmail, fraud and cult-like lack of transparency.

“Crash” director Paul Haggis recalls being innocently sucked into the church while beginning his screenwriting career, claiming that members are kept in the dark for years about Scientology’s absurd core philosophies.

A publicist who was once a respected member of Hubbard’s elite Sea Org operation and a friend of celebrity Scientologist John Travolta remembers undergoing weeks of church-mandated rehabilitation that involved imprisonment and forced labor. She was pregnant at the time.

Several former church officials admit to participating in lies, intimidation, cover-ups and blackmail using scandalous personal information culled during the intense auditing sessions members are encouraged to undergo.

The jaw-dropping highlight of the film comes when Gibney actually has the guts to call out two of Scientology’s most famous ambassadors — Travolta and Tom Cruise — for their complicity in the church’s corrupt practices.

The doc goes so far as to allege that Scientologists conspired to break up Cruise and ex-wife Nicole Kidman and entertainingly addresses some of the crazier rumors that surfaced shortly before Cruise’s infamous couch-jumping phase.

“Going Clear” also goes after Hubbard’s successor, Scientology’s current leader, David Miscavige, a charismatic figure of controversy whose alleged ruthless and paranoid tactics are credited with filling the church’s coffers even while depleting its membership.

If even a handful of the misdeeds described in “Going Clear” are true, then the Church of Scientology’s tax exempt status should be revoked immediately, as suggested in the film.

And we, as a society, should scrutinize this so-called religion with sharper eyes, instead of dismissing it as merely harmless and eccentric.

Photo: http://www.sundance.org