“Dawson City: Frozen Time” – Amazing!

Dawson City: Frozen Time is unlike any film you’re likely to have seen before. The discovery and subsequent restoration of 533 reels of 35mm nitrate film prints buried as landfill in a swimming pool provides the way into director Bill Morrison‘s astonishing new documentary. The film is a multi-layered study so densely packed with information that it had my head spinning. The cast of characters includes the Lumière Brothers, Thomas Edison, photographer Eric Hegg, newsboy Sid Grauman, “Klondike Kate” Rockwell and Alexander Pantages, poet Robert Service, William Desmond Taylor, Apple Jimmy Oglow and Chief Isaac, Robert Flaherty, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, sports promoter Tex Rickard, and Alice Guy-Blaché, who directed over 1000 films from 1896 to 1920. These are but a few of the people we encounter along the way; there are many more. The stories weave in and out of each other and connect, often in surprising ways, part of a little-known history. It’s like reading E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime.

Dawson City is in Canada, in the Yukon, approximately 173 miles below the Arctic Circle. In 1978, while digging up ground to start construction of a new community center, reels of film were found buried. They’d been in the ground for 50 years. These represented 372 silent films from the 1910s to the 1920s. On one level, Morrison’s film is a history of Dawson City at the turn of the 20th Century, told through the use of many clips from the recovered films, as well as archival news footage and still photographs, to give a sense of the time and place. It’s also about the early years of cinema, loss, recovery, and memory.

Per Bill Morrison: “It is an amazing story in and of itself, the rediscovery of 533 film reels that were preserved in permafrost while all other known copies perished from fire or neglect. But that discovery was only part of a larger and perhaps even more compelling story – the story of the gold rush town of Dawson City and how it went from a sleepy fishing camp of First Nation Hän-speaking natives, to a town of 40,000 gold-crazed stampeders within two years, and then how it then reverted back to a town of 1000 where it weathered out the century. And then it contains many more stories, those specific to this town and its unique relationship to cinema, and those stories told in the newsreels and features that were recovered in 1978. It is literal time capsule of histories converging on each other, layered and self-referential, silver film having been returned to the same earth that gold was removed from. The role cinema played was central and essential to the telling of these stories. For me, you only come across a film story like this once in a lifetime. It is my Titanic. It is a perfect distillation of the 20th century.”

Dawson City was the last stop on the film distribution circuit. Many of the films didn’t play there until two to three years after their initial release. Studios and distributors didn’t want to pay to have the films returned, so hundreds of them piled up, many to be later dumped into the Yukon River after talkies came on the scene. I didn’t recognize any of the films Morrison included here. They had titles I’d never heard of before, such as The Bludgeon (1915), The Purple Mask (1916), and The Recoil (1917). Later, when I saw the listing of the films in the end credits, there was a film directed by D. W. Griffith (Brutality – 1912), and The Half-Breed (1916), directed by Alan Dwan, starring Douglas Fairbanks. But these were mostly films that hadn’t lived on because they’d disappeared.

Information is conveyed through on-screen titles rather than spoken narration. Of the 372 films from the collection that were preserved, 124 titles are presented in this film. An example of a device the film frequently uses is that when we’re told that Pathé introduced the Newsreel in 1911, this is accompanied by clips of characters reading newspapers from different recovered films. I feel that sometimes this goes on too long, with too many clips, but the opportunity to see more footage from these films outweighs that reservation. The extremely effective music score by Alex Somers conveys a sense of great expectations, of something always building.

Dawson City: Frozen Time begins with the discovery of the buried film, then flashes back in time. I was startled to see actual footage of the Lumière Brothers themselves, and then later, Thomas Edison. We then get a history of nitrate film, how it was discovered and how it was made. Nitrate stock is extremely volatile, it can burst into flames at the slightest provocation. It’s difficult to store and dangerous to handle. No one in their right mind would use it, and yet it was the standard. As the film tells us, after decades of warehouse fires, it was finally replaced by acetate safety stock in 1949. The irony of this is that a safety film was developed in 1910, but studios continued to use nitrate stock because it was cheaper to make. In an interesting side note we learn that in 1913 in Toronto, Robert Flaherty accidentally ignited the first 30,000 feet of Nanook of the North with a lit cigarette. In 1914, Thomas Edison’s film manufacturing plant spontaneously exploded. These are but two examples cited in the film. Nitrate films were bursting into flame and exploding all over the place. A tag line on the Dawson City: Frozen Time poster is “Film was born of an explosive.” After arrangements were made to restore the recovered films, the problem was how to get it to the National Archives of Canada in Ottawa. No one was willing to transport nitrate film, though the Canadian Air Force agreed to take the films on a C-130 cargo plane.

I mentioned earlier that Dawson City: Frozen Time is densely packed with information. Dawson City becomes a kind of nexus of people and events that radiate out from Dawson itself. Sid Grauman, a newsboy in Dawson, moves to Hollywood and builds several movie theaters, including Grauman’s Chinese Theater. Tex Rickard, who promoted boxing matches at the Monte Carlo, the largest hotel-casino-dancehall in Dawson, later founds the New York Nets and re-builds Madison Square Garden. “Klondike Kate” Rockwell and bartender Alexander Pantages rebuild the Orpheum Theater in Dawson and begin showing motion pictures. Pantages later became a great movie tycoon with over 70 theaters in North America, including the RKO Pantages in Hollywood, where the Academy Awards were presented for many years. William Desmond Taylor worked as a time keeper on a mining dredge from 1908 to 1912, then moved to Hollywood where he directed 60 films before his still-unsolved murder in 1922. There’s more. I saw the film again and took seven pages of notes, but this is enough for now.

There are clips at the end that take Dawson City: Frozen Time to a powerfully moving climax. Two of them really got me. The first, from The Butler and the Maid (1912), shows a woman’s arms extending out of a swath of water damage on the right half of the frame toward a man clearly seen in the left half of the frame. The man suddenly sees her and reaches back, but they do not touch. It has a very mysterious feel, a kind of longing. For me it begins to suggest the presence of something Other trying to break into the film.

Most of the recovered films exhibit some degree of water damage to the image. Rather than detracting, it adds something hard to define, a weird beauty all its own.

The final scene in the film, from a 1912 newsreel, is of a woman dancing with frenzied abandoned on a stage, her head and face wrapped in a diaphanous scarf, fighting to survive as she’s nearly consumed by the erupting clouds of water damage. It’s haunting, moving, and sad.

Earlier I found myself writing the title as Dawson City: Frozen Dreams, instead of Frozen Time. That would work as well. – Ted Hicks


Dawson City: Frozen Time is playing at the IFC Center in New York City from Friday, June 9 through Thursday, June 15. Additional playdates and locations can be found here. When the page opens, scroll down and click on “playdates.”

A Film Comment interview with Bill Morrison last October when Dawson City: Frozen Time was shown at the New York Film Festival can be accessed here.

Here is a short interview with Bill Morrison at the 54th New York Film Festival, where Dawson City: Frozen Time was shown.

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Movie Tie-Ins: Novelizations & Comic Books


Film novelizations have been around since the 1920s, but it was in the 1950s, with the proliferation of mass-market paperbacks, that they began to appear in large numbers. This is when I started reading them. Novelizations, as you would suppose, are written versions of popular motion pictures. They allowed you to revisit a movie you’d seen and liked, to re-experience it in a way. Novelizations still appear, but with the advent of home video in the 1980s and subsequently streaming to TVs, computers, and mobile devices, the demand for them has declined. If you can simply re-watch a film anytime you’d like, then why read a book of the movie? Though there’s something to be said for imagining the movie in your head while you’re reading it.

The first novelizations I remember reading were, predictably, of science fiction and horror films. Here are some of them.








I read Forbidden Planet years before actually seeing the movie, which was released in 1956. Since it hadn’t played at any of the theaters accessible to me in small-town Iowa, reading a version of the movie was better than nothing. The Brides of Dracula (1960) had the distinction of being a Dracula movie without Dracula. I don’t remember much about the novelization, except that Van Helsing has a sex scene that’s not in the film, and reveals to the young lady that his first name is Lee. Dean Owen, the author, either didn’t know that Van Helsing’s name is Abraham, or didn’t care. I’d already seen King Kong (1933) many times on television before buying the novelization copy pictured above. This paperback edition was a reprint of the original book version, which was one of the first talkies novelized. The earliest novelization I could find record of was for Tod Browning’s London After Midnight (1927). Both can be seen below.

This edition with scenes from the film would be particularly valuable now since London After Midnight has long been considered a lost film.

Another paperback novelization I had was for The Man Who Could Cheat Death (1960). Like The Brides of Dracula, this was a Hammer Films production, and I was obsessed with all things Hammer. The cover of the paperback showing a still from from the film’s climax, compares badly to the stunning British poster for the film. I remember nothing from the book version, but the film starred Anton Differing in the title role, an actor who turned up more frequently portraying Nazi SS officers in World War II films, and Christopher Lee, who, with Peter Cushing, more or less defined Hammer horror films.


More recent novelizations include the following, from 1976 to 2002. With the exception of Taxi Driver, all were written by either Max Allan Collins or Alan Dean Foster, who have created a kind of cottage industry for this work. Road to Perdition is interesting in that the film was based on a graphic novel, also written by Collins.














In 1977 Berkley Books published a set of six titles based on classic horror films from Universal Studios. They are all attributed to Carl Dreadstone, a pseudonym of horror writer Ramsey Campbell, and possibly one other writer. Yesterday I ordered a copy of The Mummy from a used bookseller. I’m curious to see what it’s like.

The Bride of Frankenstein had previously been adapted by Michael Egremont in 1935. Here are the covers of two editions.



Dell Comics published comic books from 1929 to 1974. In the 1950s & 60s, Dell had pretty much cornered the market on comic book versions of motion pictures. The covers would typically be photos of the stars in poses from the films. I don’t remember what the inside artwork was like, but Dell wasn’t very edgy, so it was probably fairly bland. Movies adapted were primarily Westerns, science fiction, war, adventure, and, oddly enough, a number of Poe films directed by Roger Corman. Even more oddly, I found one adapted from Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965). I’d like to see what that one is like. Here’s a sampling of titles from Dell’s “Movie Classic” series.



























Comic book versions of motion pictures existed long before the 1950s. Movie Comics #1 hit the stands in April of 1939. It was one of two titles published by All-American Publications, which was founded by Max Gaines. Gaines has been called the “inventor of the modern comic book format.” In 1944, Gaines sold his interest in All-American Publications and started Entertaining Comics, which became Educational Comics, finally known as just EC. After Gaines was killed in an accident in 1947, his son William took over. Under his guidance, EC became famous (and notorious) for publishing Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, The Haunt of Fear, Weird Science, Weird Fantasy, and finally, the monumental Mad. (I wrote about Al Feldstein, Mad, and the EC titles in a previous blog post, which can be accessed here.)

The first issue of Movie Comics had adaptations of Son of Frankenstein, Gunga Din, The Great Man Votes, and Fisherman’s Wharf. It differed from other comics in that it used stills and publicity photos to create illustrations. Speech bubbles and captions were added. This is the “photonovel,” or “fumetti” style. It’s not entirely successful, but it is unusual. I found the entire 8-page Son of Frankenstein online, and thought it interesting enough to include here. Below is the cover of the first issue of Movie Comics, followed by Son of Frankenstein. Behold!


Still with me? Congratulations! I hope you enjoyed the ride. – Ted Hicks

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Jonathan Demme & Talking Heads – Burning Down the House

Until this past Sunday, the last time I’d seen Stop Making Sense in a theater was in 1999 during a 15th anniversary re-release at Film Forum. At that showing I looked around to check out the audience before the lights went down. It was a weekday matinee and a small crowd, but I noticed to my surprise that Jonathan Demme was seated a few rows back with two kids. All through the film I was sharply aware that the director was watching it with the rest of us. This definitely added another layer to the experience. Stop Making Sense was even better than I’d remembered. Afterward I jokingly asked him how he thought it held up. He was very nice. It gave me a kick that apparently only a couple others in the audience had realized he was there.

Jonathan Demme

Last Sunday I saw Stop Making Sense again for the first time in years. The Film Society of Lincoln Center was showing it, along with Married to the Mob (1988), in a tribute to Jonathan Demme, who’d died on April 26 at age 73. I loved it just as much as I had when I saw it several times during its initial release in ’84.

Stop Making Sense was filmed with seven cameras over three nights in December of 1983 at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood. Released in October 1984, the film received wide acclaim. Leonard Maltin described it as “brilliantly conceived, shot, edited and performed…one of the greatest rock movies ever made.” I can’t argue with that. The music and performances by Talking Heads are rapturous and transcendent. I continue to be in awe of David Byrne, a truly singular presence. His often strangled vocals and body language that suggests a marionette receiving electroshock are all part of a uniquely eccentric style. It’s quite odd, but great. And whatever else, Stop Making Sense really ROCKS. Here are some numbers from the film that illustrate that better than anything I could say. In particular, backup singers Lynn Mabry and Edna Holt pumping their legs up and down in unison with David Byrne in “Slippery People” knocks me out. It’s beautiful.

And the full-bore finale, where we finally see audience members.

While David Byrne was certainly the focal point and central intelligence of Talking Heads, he didn’t do it alone. Everyone on stage in this film was at the top of their game. There are the core band members — Tina Weymouth on bass, Chris Frantz on drums, Jerry Harrison on guitar and keyboards — and also Steve Scales on percussion, Alex Weir on guitar, Bernie Worrell on keyboards, and Lynn Mabry and Edna Holt on backing vocals, all adding to the drama and complexity of the music.

If you’ve never seen Stop Making Sense, I strongly recommend that you do. It’s a sustained rush of positive energy that’s almost impossible to resist. In fact, a close friend was here on business in ’84 and we saw the film together. I wanted to see it again, and I knew she’d like it, too. She was pregnant with her first child. She told me later that the baby had really kicked during the film. So Stop Making Sense makes everybody want to dance! – Ted Hicks



Jonathan Demme interviewed in 2007.

David Byrne interviewed following a screening of Stop Making Sense at the Walter Reade Theater in 2014.


Stop Making Sense is available for streaming or purchase from Amazon. Play it LOUD.

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Men’s Adventure Magazines: Weasels Ripped My Flesh

I often find some very interesting stuff when I’m doing a search for film posters, stills, and other materials. Recently the cover for a men’s adventure magazine from the 1950s popped up. I dropped what I was doing and started looking for more of them. The ones I found are mostly from the 50s and 60s. I remember seeing these at news stands when I was a kid, but that was as close as I got. My dad regularly bought True, Argosy, and Saga, which I got to look at when he was done with them. Those were fairly rational publications, but these others were another thing entirely, more like the National Enquirer compared to the New York Times. There’s no denying the disturbing Stone Age attitudes and macho fantasies reflected in these covers, but they’re so ridiculous it’s hard to take them seriously. Though that might be a mistake, given the current climate.

The cover at left illustrates the story “Trapped in a Sea of Giant Crabs,” while the one at right features “Chewed to Death by Giant Turtles.” As you can see, “Man’s Life” had a thing about rugged shirtless men —  who all appear to be the same guy — being attacked by man-eating rats or “Eaten Alive by Killer Pigs.” That’s one unlucky dude. It’s hard to imagine anyone reading this stuff with a straight face, but what do I know?








I was startled by the cover below that illustrates “Weasels Ripped My Flesh,” which is the title of a Mothers of Invention album of the same name. The record jacket drawn by Neon Park has always been one of my favorites, one of the greatest album covers of all time. Frank Zappa had to have seen this magazine.

Many of these magazines feature scantily-clad young women being tortured by Nazis or Communists or attacked by large snakes. I’m not sure what this snake motif is about, but I suspect Freud might have an idea.














 The cover at left shares DNA with the EC Comics cover at right. This sensationalistic approach can also be seen in exploitation and science-fiction/horror films of the period.



There were occasional surprises in what I found. The Hemingway cover below may have been an attempt to appeal to a more literary crowd (though I doubt it), while the tiger reflection cover below that is subtler than most. It’s almost poetic by comparison to the usual lurid presentations.

My favorite of the covers I found has to be this one showing a guy with his arm shoved half-way down the throat of a leopard. Good luck, pal. Any bets on how that would turn out in real life?


There’s probably a limit to how much of this a person wants to look at, and I may have exceeded that here. Believe me, I didn’t have the nerve to include some of the more extreme examples. If, however, you haven’t had enough and would like to see more, you can do that here. – Ted Hicks

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Best Docs 2016 – Update

When I wrote my recent post on the best documentaries of 2016, I hadn’t yet seen three films that I thought would have made my list based on what I’d heard about them.: Fire at SeaI Am Not Your Negro, and O.J.: Made in America. I’ve since seen them, and was duly provoked and amazed. Here are some of my thoughts.


fire-at-sea-poster3Fire at Sea (Gianfranco Rosi, director)  Thousands of people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean from African nations in recent years. Many of those who survived were brought to the small Sicilian island of Lampedusa. Fire at Sea is an impressionistic account of this situation. It’s definitely not a conventional documentary. Except for brief on-screen details about Lampedusa at the beginning, the film provides no information about what it shows us, other than to show it. There are no voice-overs or interviews. It’s interesting that I have no problem with this approach when it’s a Frederick Wiseman film, but with this one I did at first. However, it differs sharply from the Wiseman approach in that shots are artfully composed and even staged at times. This is not exactly cinéma vérité. I’m not saying this style can’t work, because in this case I think it does. I’d heard about Fire at Sea for months, but had passed up numerous opportunities to attend press screenings. When I finally saw it two weeks ago, I had an ambivalent reaction. I didn’t like it, but felt I should. It’s stayed with me; there are scenes that are hard to shake. The interview below with the director at the New York Film Festival has made me more open to the film as well.

Fire at Sea has been critically well-received; it won the Golden Bear — the top prize — at last year’s Berlin International Film Festival and is up for an Academy Award this Sunday in the Best Documentary Feature category. Meryl Streep, who chaired the Berlin Festival jury, described Fire at Sea as “…a daring hybrid of captured footage and deliberate storytelling that allows us to consider what documentary can do. It is urgent, imaginative and necessary filmmaking.” Who am I to argue with Meryl Streep?

Here is a post-screening interview with Gianfranco Rosi at last year’s New York Film Festival, moderated by Dennis Lim.


I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck, director)  Haitian director Raoul Peck has fashioned an extremely important, necessary piece of work, a document that’s just as timely today as it was when James Baldwin was writing the powerful words we hear throughout much of the film. After we saw it, I watched the Civil Rights Roundtable again, which had been broadcast the same day as the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Baldwin was a participant in that program, and I remembered how strong his voice had been. The words we hear in I Am Not Your Negro are taken from an unfinished work by Baldwin titled Remember This House, and are spoken by Samuel L. Jackson. There is also archival footage of Baldwin on talk shows, speaking at colleges, and elsewhere, along with news footage of the Civil Rights struggle. He speaks as honestly and directly on race as anyone I’ve heard. He puts it right in your face. Baldwin closed out the Civil Rights Roundtable with this stunning statement:  “The nature of the problem is so complex that one can’t simply say ‘jobs’ or ‘schools’ or ‘houses.’ It’s a whole complex of things. Jobs alone won’t solve it; schools alone won’t solve it. It’s in the social fabric. It isn’t anything, it’s everything. The first step has to be somewhere in the American conscience. The American white republic has to ask itself why it was necessary for them to invent the nigger. I am not a nigger. I have never called myself one. The world decides that you are this…for its own reasons. It is very important for the American that he face this question… that he needed the nigger for something.” This is from 1963. I mentioned how timely Peck’s film is, over 50 years later, which is somewhat depressing, though in the film Baldwin  says he has hope.

I Am Not Your Negro was shown at last year’s Toronto and New York Film festivals. It had an Oscar-qualifying release last December, and officially opened on February 3, 2017. It’s still playing here in New York City at Film Forum and the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center. It broke house records at both theaters on opening weekend and continues to do sell-out business. I was at Film Forum a week ago to see another film. The lobby was crowded with what I assumed were high school students. They were there on a class trip to see I Am Not Your Negro. I thought this was great. A film like this can start a dialogue or continue one, which can only be good. It’s extraordinary that three of the five films nominated in the Best Documentary Feature category of this year’s Academy Awards have race as their subject: 13th, I Am Not Your Negro, and O.J.: Made in America. I’d like to see all three win, but that can’t happen, so I’ll be happy if just one of them does.


o-j-made-in-america-posterO.J.: Made in America (Ezra Edelman, director)  We saw this two weeks ago in a single eight-hour screening with two intermissions, in at 11:00 am, out at 8:00 pm. It was shown last year on ESPN in five parts, which is probably a more civilized way to view it, but I liked the idea of total immersion. It’s a monumental achievement. If it was just about the O.J. trial, that would be one thing, but it uses O.J. and the trial as a springboard to examine issues of race then and now. It’s of a piece with 13th and I Am Not Your Negro.

Having watched The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story mini-series last year, the story of the crime and the trial was fairly fresh. What was new to me in O.J.: Made in America was the story of O.J. Simpson before and after that trial. I’ve never followed sports, so the footage of Simpson in action during his football career was jaw-dropping. His skills were supernatural. I probably knew him more from his Hertz commercials and his role as the hapless Nordberg in the Naked Gun movies. His life after the acquittal becomes increasingly tawdry, culminating with his arrest and conviction in Las Vegas following an attempt to retrieve at gunpoint memorabilia he said had been stolen from him.

"If it doesn't fit..."

“If it doesn’t fit…”

Hearing the verdict - F. Lee Bailey, O.J., Johnnie Cochran

Hearing the verdict – F. Lee Bailey, O.J., Johnnie Cochran

O.J.: Made in America interweaves archival footage and new interviews with most of the surviving participants, including Marcia Clark, Gil Garcetti, F. Lee Bailey, Barry Scheck, Mark Fuhrman, and many others. The Rodney King beating and subsequent acquittal of the police officers involved provide background to the mood of the African-American community during the O.J. trial. A huge amount of material is edited together to give a coherent picture of all that happened. The resonance with current events is unmistakable.

Here is Ezra Edelman talking about O.J.: Made in America in a directors’ roundtable discussion hosted by The Hollywood Reporter.


Fire at Sea is available for streaming from Amazon. I Am Not Your Negro is still playing in theaters and will be available on home video on June 13th. O.J.: Made in America is available for streaming from Amazon and Hulu. – Ted Hicks

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What I Watched Last Year: Best TV 2016









billions-posterBillions (Showtime)  Paul Giamatti plays Chuck Rhodes, a U.S. Attorney obsessed with taking down hedge fund manager Bobby “Axe” Axelrod, played by Damien Lewis. It’s nice having Lewis back after seeing him on the first three seasons of Homeland. For me, there’s something unpleasant that Giamatti frequently brings to his roles, and that’s definitely the case here. So I’ve been pulling for Axelrod to get the better of Rhodes, even though Axe is a ruthless, entitled rich guy who does whatever he wants and mostly gets away with it. It’s a compelling series with a great cast and a twisty story line. The second season premieres on Sunday, February 19th.


Bosch (Amazon Prime)  I love this one. One of the reasons I signed up for Amazon Prime was to see this series. Season 1 had already been released and season 2 was about to be. I ended up watching them back to back and got that satisfied feeling I get when I see something that works on all levels. I’ve been reading Michael Connelly’s crime novels about LAPD detective Harry Bosch for years. I had a problem when I first heard that Titus Welliver had been cast as Bosch, because he didn’t fit my image of the character from the books. It didn’t take _V9A5813.CR2long bosch-harry-irvingfor Welliver to wipe out any doubts I’d had. He’s perfect. I first recall seeing him in Brooklyn South, a cop series from 1997-98, and then Deadwood and The Good Wife, as well as Sons of Anarchy. The entire cast is excellent; it’s especially nice seeing two actors from The Wire (still my favorite series of all time), Lance Reddick and Jamie Hector. Reddick, who’s also been in the series Fringe and the John Wick films, is Deputy Chief Irvin Irving. He’s been totally convincing in everything I’ve seen him in. Hector is Det. Jerry Edgar, Bosch’s partner. Their conversations, natural and very real, reflect the excellence of the writing. Bosch was developed by Eric Overmyer, who was previously involved with Homicide: Life on the Street, The Wire, Treme, Boardwalk Empire, The Man in the High Castle, and The Affair. These are serious credits. Seasons 1 and 2 are currently streaming on Amazon Prime, which season 3 scheduled to be released on April 21st. Below is a trailer for season 2, followed by the complete first episode of the first season.


doctor-thorne-posterDoctor Thorne (Amazon Prime)  Written and executive-produced by Julien Fellowes, this is an adaptation of a novel by Anthony Trollope. The involvement of Julien Fellowes makes comparisons to Downton Abbey unavoidable, though Doctor Thorne is set in the 1850s, 60+ years before Downton begins. And with only four 45-minute episodes, it’s pretty light on its feet. With a large cast of characters and numerous complications, it’s also deeply satisfying. Tom Hollander as the title character is the moral center of the story, a truly decent and extremely patient man. Ian McShane plays Sir Roger Scatcherd (great name). Whenever I see McShane I always think of his iconic Al Swearengen from HBO’s Deadwood (2004-2006). He’s played a lot of larger-than-life characters since then. They suit him well. Fellowes introduces each episode. His avuncular presence makes you feel that nothing too terribly bad is going to happen. You want it to end well, and it does.


Goliath (Amazon Prime)  I like this series as much as I do Bosch, and for a lot of the same reasons. It’s just so well done from top to bottom and side to side. Co-created by David E. Kelley (L.A. Law, Boston Legal, Picket Fences, etc etc), Goliath concerns Billy McBride, a down and out lawyer in Los Angeles, played to perfection by Billy Bob Thornton, who frequently has roles where he looks like he just stepped out of a Sam Peckinpah movie. McBride, despite a dependency on alcohol, cheap motels and bars, decides to go up against the powerful law firm he founded with his former partner, Donald Cooperman, where he was once a star. Cooperman is played by William Hurt in a performance that gives new definition to the term “creepy.” This is the last thing McBride wants to do. He’s comfortable with his tattered life, but he gets a taste for the fight and digs in his heels. There’s an aspect to this that reminds me of Better Call Saul, but Goliath is its own thing. Billy Bob Thornton received a Golden Globe for his performance. The series got a lot of attention and will probably return for a second season, though that hasn’t been verified yet. In the meantime, all ten episodes are available for streaming. Below is a trailer followed by the complete first episode of the series.


homeland-poster4Homeland (Showtime)  We finally caught up with Homeland. Friends had told me repeatedly how great it was. We didn’t have Showtime when it premiered in 2011. We got Showtime a couple years later, but I wanted to see Homeland from the beginning, so we kept putting it off. Finally enough was enough. This past December we bought the first four seasons on DVD, which we burned through in a couple of weeks. We loved it. If you get on the ride, it’s totally addictive. Showtime ran the entire series earlier in 'Homeland' takes filming to Cape TownJanuary in a run-up to season six, so we recorded season five and watched it in a couple of days. Now we’re watching season six the old fashioned way, one episode a week at a time. I think the series lost some snap with the departure of Damien Lewis at the end of the third season, but it’s still extremely good. The show clearly revolves around Claire Danes’ Carrie Matheson, but Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend) has been my favorite character since he first appeared in season three. Mandy Patinkin is great as Saul Berenson, and F. Murray Abraham is quite scary as Dar Adal. Even his name is scary. So everyone was right, Homeland is terrific. We were late to the party, but we’ll stay to the end.


Luke Cage (Netflix)  Like Daredevil and Jessica Jones, this is a series based on a character from Marvel Comics that’s darker and grittier than you might expect. All three series are set in a “real” world where some people have superpowers. Luke Cage was the first black superhero to headline his own comic book in 1972. What sets Luke Cage apart is that it presents a very black-centric world. The action takes place mainly in the Harlem of today. Except for the fact that Luke is bulletproof and has super strength (the result of illegal experiments performed on him while he was in prison), the stories, people, and relationships are very much real-world. The excellent cast includes Mike Colter as Luke Cage (previously seen as Lemond Bishop on The Good Wife), Mahershala Ali (House of Cards, Treme, Moonlight, Hidden Figures), Alfre Woodard, Rosario Dawson (repeating her role from Daredevil), and Frankie Faison (another graduate of The Wire).

The Night Of  (HBO)  Created by writer Richard Price and director Steve Zaillian, this limited series follows a young Pakistani-American college student from his arrest for the murder of a young woman, through his time in custody at Rikers Island, the subsequent trial and after the verdict. Anyone familiar with the work of Richard Price — the novel Clockers, writing episodes of The Wire, to name two of his many credits — won’t be surprised at how precisely detailed The Night Of is. He goes deep. The show takes its time; it’s in no hurry to get where it’s going. Along the way we get a sense of the profound and likely permanent changes experienced by someone caught up in the criminal justice system. Innocent or guilty, he’ll never be the same.

the-night-of-turturro-in-chinatownThe cast is excellent. Riz Ahmed is the student, Nasir “Naz” Khan. Ahmed is seemingly everywhere these days. I remember first seeing him in Nightcrawler in 2014. Last year he was in Jason Bourne and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and so far this year he has a recurring role on the final season of Lena Dunham’s Girls. John Turturro plays his defense lawyer, John Stone, plagued throughout by excema on his feet and ankles. Stone knows he’s an ambulance chaser, but he’s smart and stubborn; he wants to do right by Naz. This role was originally intended for James Gandolfini when the series was first in development. When he died, Turturro took the part. Michael K. Williams (The Wire again!) plays Freddie Knight, an inmate at the-night-of-bill-camp2Rikers who’s kind of the mayor on the cell block. He helps guide Naz through his long days there, though he has his own agenda. A revelation for me was Bill Camp as Dennis Box, the homicide detective on the case. I’ve seen him for years in supporting roles in feature films and on TV. I didn’t always know his name, but I do now. Recently he’s appeared in Midnight Special and Loving (both directed by Jeff Nichols last year), Jason Bourne (2016), and the series Manhattan (2014-2015). His Dennis Box is in dogged pursuit of the truth. All the circumstantial evidence points to Naz. It seems like a slam dunk, but something doesn’t feel right to Box. This isn’t exactly a feel-good story, but it’s really great.


people-vs-oj-simpson-posterThe People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story (FX)  Based on Jeffrey Toobin’s book, The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson, this award-winning mini-series is nothing less than riveting. The series follows the prosecution and defense of the “trial of the century.” The writing and production are top-notch, with a great cast to bring it to life. Sarah Paulson is excellent as prosecutor Marcia Clarke. Courtney B. Vance is equally strong as defense lawyer Johnnie Cochran. He’s the leader of the so-called “dream team,” which includes John Travolta as Robert Shapiro, Nathan Lane as F. Lee Bailey, David Schwimmer as Robert Kardashian, and Rob Morrow as Barry Scheck. Co-counsel for the prosecution is played by Sterling K. Brown; I was unfamiliar with him, but he’s a revelation in the role. The one weak link for me in the casting is Cuba Gooding Jr. as O.J. Simpson. He lacks the physical stature and charisma to be convincing as O.J. I’m more certain of this having recently seen the eight-hour documentary O.J.: Made in America. Gooding Jr. is a good actor, but he just doesn’t compare to the real thing. That aside, The People v. O.J. Simpson is a great series, well worth seeing. All ten episodes are currently available for streaming from Netflix.


last-week-tonight-posterWe’re regular watchers of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO), Full Frontal with Samantha Bee (TBS), and Real Time with Bill Maher (HBO). We sorely miss Tonightly with Larry Wilmore, which was abruptly cancelled last year by Comedy Central for reasons I’m still unclear on. John Oliver and Samantha Bee are our favorites. He’s very sharp, impassioned, and extremely funny. She’s all that, and fearless. Both were regulars on The Daily Show during the Jon Stewart years. Bill Maher can be off-putting; he’s a bully at times and his jokes have a sledgehammer quality. But we watch him every week regardless. Of course, in these post-election times, the humor on these shows has a very dark strain, not so much ha-ha.

Real Time With Bill Maherfull-frontal-agghhh________________________________________________________

The following titles are carry-overs from last year.

americans-season-5-posterThe Americans (FX) — Season 5 premieres March 7th

Better Call Saul (AMC) — Season 3 premieres April 10th

Bloodline (Netflix) — 3rd and final season release date TBA

Dicte (Netflix) — Season 3 is currently streaming on Netflix

Downton Abbey (PBS) — Last year was the 6th and final season

The Fall (Netflix) — No word as yet on a 4th season, but season 3 is currently streaming on Netflix

Grantchester (PBS) — Season 3 premiere TBAhouse-of-cards-poster3

Grace and Frankie (Netflix) — Season 3 will be released March 24th

Happy Valley (Netflix) — 3rd and final season release date TBA

House of Cards (Netflix) — Season 5 will be released May 30th

The Man in the High Castle (Amazon Prime) — Season 2 is currently streaming

Masters of Sex (Showtime) — Last year was the 4th and final season

Mozart in the Jungle (Amazon Prime) — Season 3 is currently streaming

Orange Is the New Black (Netflix) — Season 5 will be released June 9th

Penny Dreadful (Showtime) — Last year was the 3rd and final season

Silicon Valley (HBO) — Season 4 premieres April 23rdveep-poster

The Simpsons (Fox) — 28th season is currently airing

The Strain (FX) — 4th and final season premiere date TBA

Transparent (Amazon Prime) — Season 4 release date this Fall TBA

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix) — Season 3 will be released May 19th

Veep (HBO) — Season 6 premieres April 16th


Too much to see. Just keep watching. – Ted Hicks


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What I Saw Last Year: Best Documentaries 2016


13th, By Sidney Lumet, and The Witness are my top picks for 2016 documentaries, but the rest of the titles on my list are very strong as well. Note that I have not yet seen O.J.: Made in America( a nearly eight-hour study of O.J. Simpson directed by Ezra Edelman), Fire at Sea (directed by Gianfranco Rosi), or I Am Not Your Negro (directed by Raoul Peck from writing by James Baldwin). By all accounts these are excellent and would likely be on my list. Also note that the descriptions for a number of the titles below were included in a post I did last June called “Varieties of Human Experience: Recent Documentaries,” which can be accessed here if you’d like to see the additional titles I wrote about.


13th (Ava DuVernay, director)  The importance of this film cannot be overstated. Its starting point is the 13th Amendment to the Constitution passed in 1865 that emancipated slaves. It states the following: Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist with the United States, or any other place subject to their jurisdiction. The film is densely packed with information and it took me awhile to understand how the “except as…” qualification in this amendment was used to imprison vast numbers of people, the overwhelming majority of whom were African-American (and still are). We learn that while the United States has five percent of the world’s population, it has a whopping 25 percent of the world’s prison population, the highest rate of incarceration on the planet.

I was stunned to learn about the practice of “convict leasing,” which provides prison labor to outside parties. Sounds a little like slavery to me. This is one of many revelations in 13th. It covers so much ground and ties it all together in a way that’s kind of staggering. If you haven’t seen this, you really should. It’s available for streaming from Netflix.

Here is a panel discussion on 13th hosted by the New York Film Festival last Fall. 13th was the first documentary to open the NYFF in 54 years. It has also been nominated for an Academy Award in the documentary feature category this year.

An interview with Ava DuVernay in Film Comment can be accessed here.


The Beatles: Eight Days a Week — The Touring Years (Ron Howard, director)  An incredible amount of fun and nostalgia overload. There is a lot of footage here I’d never seen before. A moment I particularly liked was a shot of Ringo beating the hell out of the drums, his hair flying. There are some present-day interviews with Paul and Ringo, but the heart of the film is in the performance footage. The film took me back with a rush of feeling.


sydney-lumet-photo-collageBy Sidney Lumet (Nancy Buirski, director)  There have been a number of documentaries recently that have been treasure troves for film buffs. I’m thinking of Listen to Me Marlon (Stevan Riley, 2015), De Palma (Noah Baumbach & Jake Paltrow, 2015), Hitchcock/Truffaut (Kent Jones, 2015), and now Nancy Buirski’s By Sidney Lumet. This is a major addition to films that focus on individual directors and actors and their filmmaking process. In both De Palma and By Sidney Lumet we have two directors just talking and taking us through their careers and process, illustrated with clips. For the Lumet film, Daniel Anker shot 14 hours of interviews over several days in 2008 in a project initiated by Susan Lacy of American Masters. Anker passed away in 2014. Nancy Buirski was approached to make a film out of his footage. The result is spellbinding. Lumet is a fascinating storyteller, enthusiastic, articulate, and direct. There’s an intimacy to the  way he speaks that drew me in close. I was completely engaged. The clips chosen by Buirski expand on Lumet’s remarks. What struck me was that Buirski let the clips run at some length, which gave a greater sense of the scenes they were taken from, and the work Lumet had done. An interview with Nancy Buirski about the making of By Sidney Lumet can be accessed here.

When we saw By Sidney Lumet last October, Nancy Buirski was in the theater for a Q&A after.  Christine Lahti, who acted in Lumet’s Running on Empty (1988), was also there to talk about what working with him had been like. I hadn’t realized it then, but Buirski had made The Loving Story (2011), an excellent documentary about an interracial marriage in the South in the late 1950s, which became the basis for Jeff Nichols’ equally fine feature, Loving, released at the end of last year (currently available for streaming on iTunes and Amazon). She’s a producer of Nichols’ film as well.

By Sidney Lumet played theatrically last Fall and was aired on American Masters (PBS) earlier this January.










Cameraperson (Kirstin Johnson, director) This is a film that snuck up on me. I first saw it at a press screening last March. That was nearly a year ago, but I recall that Cameraperson, which is very much first-person for Kirstin Johnson, skipped from location to location and subject to subject in a way that initially seemed scattershot to me. This is footage that Kirstin has shot on various projects over the years. The film loops in on itself, returning again and again to the same locations. The accumulation of all this detail finally comes together in a powerful way. The sense of humanity it reflects is very strong.

An in-depth article about Cameraperson in the September/October 2016 issue of Film Comment can be accessed here.


Danny Says (Brendan Toller, director)  “You could make a convincing case that without Danny Fields, punk rock would not have happened.” This was written by Charles Curkin in the New York Times in 2014. It may seem like an extravagant statement, but Danny Says shows why someone would say that. Danny Fields was manager and publicist in the music industry in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Along the way he managed the Ramones and worked on behalf of the Doors, Lou Reed, Nico, the Modern Lovers, MC5, the Stooges. He wrote about the scene for Cream magazine. Danny Says vividly takes us through this. I moved to New York City in 1977 when the downtown music scene was in full flower, so this flashback to that time and place was a real rush. Danny Fields, who still walks among us, is an irrepressible raconteur, an amazing story-teller. He’s a dynamic character and was a key figure on the scene. And the music will knock you out.

Don’t Blink: Robert Frank (Laura Israel, director) My previous post on this terrific film can be accessed here.

Eva Hesse (Marcie Begleiter, director)  I’d never heard of Eva Hesse before seeing this film, but despite my ignorance, it turns out she’s an important figure in the art world. In the photographs and archival footage we see, she seems unassuming, smaller than life, yet she created amazing work. This film makes me want to know about her and her art.


Gleason (Clay Tweel, director)  Steve Gleason, a former professional football player for the New Orleans Saints who retired in 2008, revealed in 2011 that he had ALS, known as Lou Gherig’s disease. With he and his wife Michel expecting, Steve began making a video diary addressed to his unborn son. He wanted his child to get to know who his father was before he got sick. The film includes these video entries. Gleason is powerful and moving, but basically clear-eyed in its presentation. It’s not sentimental, but is filled with feeling.


Francofonia-poster3Francofonia (Alexander Sokurov, director)  Sokurov is probably best known in this country for Russian Ark (2002), a time-travelling wonder set in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, famously shot in a single, 99-minute take. It’s amazing. But the first of his films I saw was Mother and Son (1997), a slow-moving but far from boring film comprised of long takes in which virtually nothing happens on screen, but it’s mesmerizing all the same. Francofonia isn’t easy to pin down; it’s a mix of fact and fiction, history and imagination, with the Nazi occupation of Paris during World War II and art works from the Louvre at the center. There’s something very moving about it that’s hard to describe.


The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble (Morgan Neville, director)  Neville has a strong resumé; his previous films include Best of Enemies (2015) and the Oscar-winning 20 Feet from Stardom (2013). The Music of Strangers is just wonderful. The music is rapturous and transporting. The musicians profiled in the film come off as genuinely solid, firmly grounded people. They include Kayhan Kalhor of Iran, Wu Man of China, the awesome Cristina Pato of Galicia in Spain, and Kinan Azmeh of Syria. As Wu Man says at one point, “There’s no East or West, it’s just a globe.”


Nothing Left Unsaid: Gloria Vanderbilt and Anderson Cooper (Liz Garbus, director)  Garbus has had a long, impressive career. Last year she gave us the extraordinary What Happened, Miss Simone?, and years before the equally strong The Farm: Inside Angola Prison (1997), both of which are available for streaming on Netflix. Nothing Left Unsaid (great title) is sharp, witty, and powerful. Gloria Vanderbilt, who I knew little about other than her name and that she had a line of jeans, has had an amazing life. She was married to Leopold Stokowski (!) and Sidney Lumet (news to me). Her last husband, Wyatt Emory Cooper, who died in 1978, was Anderson’s father. Gloria is 92 and sharp as a tack. Her relationship with Anderson is beautiful to see. Besides being mother and son, they seem to be really good friends. My friend Judith Trojan wrote perceptively about the film on her blog, FrontRowCenter, when it was first shown on HBO this past April. You can read that here.


Presenting Princess Shaw (Ido Haar, director)  This film is a rush of positive energy. Samantha Montgomery, aka Princess Shaw, lives in New Orleans where she cares for the elderly at an assisted living facility during the day and posts her songs on YouTube at night. Ophir Kutiel, aka Kutiman, is a musician who lives in Israel and creates new compositions from musical clips he finds on YouTube. The film shows how he utilizes Princess Shaw’s music and the profound impact this has on her life when he releases it on the Internet. Presenting Princess Shaw is available for streaming on Amazon.

Director Ido Haar, Princess Shaw, Kutiman

Director Ido Haar, Princess Shaw, Kutiman


Uncle Howard (Aaron Brookner, director)  This is an affectionate and engaging study of the director’s uncle, Howard Brookner, who made Burroughs: The Movie in 1983, a highly-regarded film about William Burroughs. In 2012, much of Howard’s film archive (prints, outtakes, sound tapes, etc.) was found to be in William Burroughs’ apartment on the Bowery, known as the “Bunker.” Much of Uncle Howard shows us Aaron’s retrieval of the archive materials, aided by director Jim Jarmusch, who recorded sound for the Burroughs documentary. Plus there’s lots of footage of Burroughs, who is always interesting to be around.

Howard Brookner is a gentle, appealing presence here. He died of AIDS in 1989, three days short of his 35th birthday. I hadn’t known anything about him before seeing Uncle Howard, and though the film leads us to his death, it’s a gut-punch when it comes. There’s a real sense of loss. He had a great quote taped to his refrigerator door: “There’s so much beauty in the world. That’s what got me into trouble in the first place.” I love that.


Weiner (Josh Kriegman & Elyse Steinberg, directors)  I suspect that Anthony Weiner now regrets giving Kriegman and Steinberg as much access as he did for the making of this film. I’ve read that Weiner still hasn’t seen it, which is too bad, because he might learn something about himself. Weiner is an extraordinary film, stunning at times. The tragedy of it is that if Weiner didn’t have a weird sex addiction — albeit one that doesn’t involve actual physical contact with another person — he could have been a strong politician, an impassioned guy fighting for the right causes. Throughout we see his wife, a mainly silent Huma Abedin, who does not look amused, standing by his side. It’s hard not to think of Alicia Florrick on The Good Wife. Seeing Weiner is like watching a trainwreck at times. He makes one bad decision after another, but just keeps plowing forward. In spite of everything, I find it hard not to like Anthony Weiner. I’m just glad I’m not him. ** Since originally posting this, it came out that Weiner was still sexting. This is still a terrific documentary, but I’m no longer willing to cut him any slack. He’s sick. What a shame.


The Witness (James Solomon, director)  After Kitty Genovese was murdered on a New York street in her neighborhood in 1964, the story by A. M. Rosenthal that appeared in the New York Times stated that thirty-eight residents had witnessed the multiple attacks on Kitty from their apartments and did nothing, despite her screams for help. This quickly became the accepted version, as if written in stone. Rosenthal, interviewed in the film, sticks by the story. Kitty Genovese became the symbol of urban apathy, specifically in New York City. This extraordinary film follows Kitty’s younger brother, Bill Genovese, in his efforts to learn more about who his sister was and what really happened that night, a quest that consumed him for years. What emerges is a major revision of the original story. Bill tracks down and interviews as many of the original witnesses as he can. He lost his legs in Vietnam, and if anything, this makes Bill seem that much more determined. The film plays out like a thriller of the highest order. Near the end, Bill hires a young actress to go on the street late one night where the original attack occurred and scream as Kitty did that night. This will have you clawing the armrests. The Witness is a gripping detective story. I think Bill Genovese is the true witness of the title.

Judith Trojan wrote at length about this film on her blog, FrontRowCenter, when The Witness was recently shown on the PBS series Independent Lens. You can read that here.


These films are all available for streaming or rental from various sources. – Ted Hicks

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