Hidden Netflix Gems – Magic Trip

Hidden Netflix Gems is a new feature designed to help readers answer that burning question, “What should I watch tonight?” It will be updated every Saturday before the sun goes down.

Fans of Tom Wolfe‘s seminal 1968 non-fiction novel The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test have been waiting a long time to see Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood‘s Magic Trip, whether they knew it or not. Though a narrative adaptation of the definitive book on hippie culture is reportedly in the works from director Gus Van Sant and his Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, this is the closest thing to an adaptation we’re likely to see anytime soon. In fact, it’s even better, because the documentary, subtitled Ken Kesey‘s Search for a Kool Place, is assembled almost entirely from the footage Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters shot during their LSD-fueled cross-country road trip beginning in 1964.

This is not to say you have to be a fan of Wolfe’s book to enjoy Magic Trip. Fans of Hunter S. Thompson‘s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and/or Terry Gilliam‘s film adaptation of it, the Grateful Dead, Allen Ginsberg, or Kesey himself will also get a lot of enjoyment out of it, along with anyone who appreciates wild, anarchic adventure. Narrated by Stanley Tucci, the film tells the story of Kesey (best known as the author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and a group of friends who set off for the 1964 New York World’s Fair in a hand-painted school bus and then just kept going, traveling all around the country in an effort to expand the consciousness of the entire United States. Along the way, they threw parties with the likes of Thompson and Timothy Leary, and gave a then unknown band called the Warlocks (who later became the Grateful Dead) their start as an unofficial house band.

Kesey is an extraordinarily charismatic figure, a champion high school and college wrestler who turned his back on athletics in favor of writing and exploring the landscape of his mind. He first began experimenting with psychedelic drugs as a volunteer in a CIA-funded experiment, so it could be said that the U.S. government inadvertently sponsored the madness shown in this film. Another fascinating character is Neal Cassady, the Merry Pranksters’ bus driver, a wildly energetic figure who served as the model for Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac‘s revered 1957 novel On the Road, which was itself a source of inspiration for Kesey and the Pranksters’ trip. Gibney, who won an Oscar for his amazing 2007 documentary Taxi to the Dark Side, and first-time feature director Ellwood, took on the daunting task of crafting a 107-minute film out of the Pranksters’ days of footage, and they succeeded admirably. Magic Trip perfectly captures the unbridled spirit of a once-in-a-lifetime era, and offers a hell of a good ride to anyone who views it.

  

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Thursday night movie news dump

I usually do this on Friday, but the interesting film related stories have been coming fairly hot and heavy all week and it’s time to play catch up. I’m telling you right now, as long as this post is, whatever the most important and interesting story from this eventful week turns out to be, it’ll be the one I skip.

* When I first heard about the project a week or so back, I was taken by the prospect of screenwriter Dustin Lance Black segueing from a biopic about the first openly gay U.S. politician in “Milk” to one about by far the most powerful closeted gay man in American history, J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover was the first director of the FBI starting in 1935 and, in a real blow to our democracy, intimidated several presidents into keeping him in the position until his death in 1972, a shocking 37 years later.

An already interesting project got even more interesting, however, a couple of days back when word got out that none other than Clint Eastwood, who will be joining the very smal club of octogenerian directors this May, might choose to helm it. (The Playlist broke the news on the 10th that Eastwood was “set” to direct; yesterday Borys Kit of The Hollywood Reporter wrote that he was merely “eying” the project.).

Taken together with “Invictus,” this would be the second time the right leaning but independent-minded Republican would be taking on subject matter that deals obliquely with a significant moral failure of American conservatism. Nearly all well-known conservatives tacitly supported both the racist and fascist pre-Mandela South African regime and Hoover’s uninterrupted reign.

In the case of “Invictus,” the idea of him doing it turned out to be more interesting than the film. However, for the man who embodied “get tough” law enforcement concepts as Dirty Harry to take on a law enforcement figure who enjoyed getting tough with anyone who dared to espouse politics he deemed radical — but not the mafia — that’s a horse of a potentially very different color. One to watch.

Clint Eastwood will take your question later

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Monday night and Tuesday morning at the movies

* The Playlist informs us that Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass have pitched a way to keep the “Bourne” options as open as possible. Personally, I think the idea sounds far weaker than I’d expect from either of them. On the other hand, “The Bourne Open Option” sounds like as good a title as any for the proposed reboot.

* A Disney-style title change for Zack Snyder’s upcoming animated family film. Some stories just don’t have good titles.

* After the fiscal success and critical bashing of “Cop Out” and the Southwest Airlines mishegas, Kevin Smith shows his sensitive side to Steven  Zeitchik. But is he really trying to tell us he did a big studio movie to make less money? Really, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a filmmaker making a “one for them” movie for career or fiscal reasons. Many a great movie or book have basically been made for quick cash — though never only for that — and I think he perceived more of a dig from the A.O. Scott review than was really meant, accuracy aside.

* Bill Murray goes on Letterman and spills a little cold ectoplasm over “Ghostbusters 3.”

* Writer Dustin Lance Black took on the first openly gay politician to make his mark with “Milk,” and now he’s apparently about to do a film about without a doubt the most powerful closeted gay man in American political history, J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI. Pajiba has the scoop. The Playlist has some good background, but I didn’t find the humor in Harry Shearer and Tom Leopold’s radio-musical, “J. Edgar” all that “cheap,” well, maybe in a good way.

On an unrelated note, I’m  still trying to figure out a way to claim that I somehow imparted the Westal-bump to Black’s career with this interview back in 2003, but, nah.

* It’s just days until the Oscars, and here’s a look back at one broadcast that didn’t go so well.

* I’ve had more than one person ask me if, as a Jew — and a quite learned one for a Hebrew school drop-out — I had any special clues into just what the Coens had in mind with A Serious Man. I really don’t, not in a literal way, anyhow, though I loved the film. Writer Michael Tolkin, a far more observant and knowledgeable member of the Tribe than I, has an interesting theory about just what’s going on that turns my relatively realist reading of it completely tuchas backward, via Anne Thompson.

  

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New York and L.A. Film Critics make their choices

The two most noted critics groups both gave their awards today and the results are pretty interesting. Just released, we have the winners from New York. Somewhat to my surprise, even though it’s received very positive reviews so far, “Avatar” won for best picture.  Last year’s winner was not “The Dark Knight,” which however did make it into the top 10, but the politically-themed biopic, “Milk.” Genre movies and blockbusters rarely win critics awards.

Avatar

Also, the suddenly more geek-friendly critics group actually gave the most awards to “Inglourious Basterds” which picked up a cinematography award for the always superb Robert Richardson, a best screenplay nod for Quentin Tarantino and, of course, a Best Supporting Actor award and also a Best Breakthrough Performance award for Christoph Waltz’s movie-stealing work as the evil but magnetic “Jew hunter,” Colonel Hans Landa. Another unusual war film, “The Hurt Locker,” picked up the Best Director award for Kathryn Bigelow and, not at all surprising, “Up” won the award for best animation.

Meryl Streep won for Best Actress for “Julie and Julia” and Jeff Bridges won for the not yet released country music drama, “Crazy Heart.” Mo’Nique from “Precious” picked up the Best Supporting Actress award. “The Cove” won Best documentary. ComingSoon.net has the complete list of winners. It’s a pretty interesting group.

The Hurt Locker

Just a bit earlier, the Los Angeles Film Critics, on the other hand, gave the top prize to “The Hurt Locker” (“Up in the Air” was the runner up) and Kathryn Bigelow took another Best Director prize for the thriller. Jeff Bridges, Christoph Waltz and Mo’Nique once again got the Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Supporting Actress prizes respectively. The L.A. crickets took a different path entirely, however, on the Best Actress category and gave it to Yolande Moreau for the French-language biopic, “Séraphine.” (The runner up was Carey Mulligan, whose work in “An Education” has been generating a great deal of buzz.)

They also, interestingly, diverted from the New Yorkers in the area of animation, giving the top prize to “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” another succès d’estime for Wes Anderson. However, they followed the NYC reviewers in giving the nod to “The Cove” for Best Documentary. In a nod to genre, “District 9” got a “New Generation” award for writer-director Neill Blomkamp as well as a production design award. Eugene Hernandez of Indiewire has the complete list.

Oscar-buzz fans take note, critics’ awards are not super-reliable indicators of Academy Awards, which tend to be less genre-friendly but also more prone to award big commercial hits. On the other hand, I think it’s safe to say that Kathryn Bigelow, Jeff Bridges, Mo’Nique, Christoph Waltz, as well as “The Hurt Locker”, “Inglourious Basterds,” and perhaps “The Cove” got a big boost today. (The documentary category is notoriously fraught.) Also, I haven’t mentioned its awards, but the little seen black political comedy and festival hit, “In the Loop,” picked up awards from both groups and could, I imagine, get a very helpful nomination or two in possibly the writing and the newly expanded “Best Picture” category.

  

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Blu Tuesday: Pinocchio, Let the Right One In and The French Connection

Welcome to the latest column on Premium Hollywood, Blu Tuesday, where I’ll be covering some of the best and biggest high-def titles of the week. For those hoping this was a post about a New Order/Rolling Stones tribute band, I apologize, but you’ll have to keep holding your breath for that one, whoever you may be.

You see, when Blu-ray first hit the market, there weren’t very many titles to talk about other than the new releases that were already coming out on DVD. Now that the format is more popular with studios, however, my office has become overrun with high-def titles, and well, I just don’t have the time to cover every one in as much detail as I’d like. That doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to be covered at all, however, and so I’ve created this column to help cleanse my conscience (and some office space) and keep you all in the know on some Blu-rays you might be looking forward to, as well as a few others you should add to your shopping list.

“Pinocchio” (Walt Disney)

One of my least favorite Disney classics after “Dumbo” and “Bambi,” “Pinocchio” is still a no-brainer when it comes to diehard collectors and fans of animated films. It’s been years since Disney last released this from their ominous vault and so they’ve not only put out a new DVD edition to celebrate the occassion, but a high-def version as well. As expected, the new digital restoration is incredible. The colors pop off the screen like they were freshly painted, and were it not for the fact that hand-drawn animation is virtually extinct, you’d swear this was made yesterday. The best part about the three-disc set, though, isn’t the new transfer or the fact that you get three different versions of the movie (Blu-ray, DVD and a digital copy), but the hours of bonus material that have been lovingly crammed onto the disc. You get all the usual stuff that you’d expect from a typical new release (audio commentary, making-of, deleted scenes), but somehow they just feel more special on a movie this old.

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