Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Los Angeles Cinema: A Better Life, Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Schulman

A Better Life. This drama from 2011 is a flawed, but well-intentioned, film from director Chris Weitz [About A Boy, American Pie] that attempts to tell about a less-glamourous part of Los Angeles--the margins of society that illegal immigrants from Mexico exist in. Weitz tries his darndest to move us with the plight of his main characters, but the film lacks enough gritty desperation and dangerous choices that the father and son must face to truly move us as an audience.

The script from Eric Eason borrows heavily in story from the 1948 Italian neo-realistic classic Bicycle Thieves, as father and son band together to search for something they both need to make it the harsh city. Geez, guys, at least try not to steal from a far superior movie without giving it some kind of shout-out. I didn't sit through the end credits, so, maybe they give a nod to Vittorio De Sica? They should at least put in a "thank you" at the tail end as there were some major elements to A Better Life's story that was unmistakeable in their origin. I did enjoy the performance of Demian Bichir [Weeds, Che] as the hard-working father trying to do what he can to make his son's life better. He's an honest man who only wants his son to learn right from wrong, yet realizes the path to adulthood for his teenage son is fraught with dangers. A Better Life is just a little too earnest and a little too heartfelt for me. Those are things I generally don't respond to in a movie. Wietz is trying hard, but that's part of the problem--he's trying too hard. The film feels too forced, too fabricated to move me with their story.
Rating **1/2

Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Schulman. Los Angeles seems to be a never ending treasure trove for the architecture that I am most fond of. People who say that the city is an urban blight really are misguided when it comes to architecture. Sure, it's a sprawling metropolis of streets, concrete, congestion and people. There's also some lovely architecture if you want to find it. Spanish mission? Check. I'm living in a building from the 1920s in that particular style. Art Deco? Check. Los Angeles is rife with examples of Art Deco from the 1920s and 1930s. Modernism? Check. Many people feel that modern architecture best sums up the soul of Los Angeles culture.

The man who is chiefly responsible in capturing the look and feel of modernist architecture, in both Los Angeles and the world, is undoubtedly Julius Schulman. Not only is he considered the most well-known photographer for modern architecture, many consider him to be the pre-eminent architecture photographer of all-time. Being a photographer and a big fan of this style of architecture, it's needless to say how much I enjoyed this documentary. Visual Acoustics looks into Schulman's career, influence and importance during his nearly seven decades as a working photographer and makes me want to go take some city tours and see some of the houses and buildings that Schulman photographed.

I admire Schulman's photographs and anyone who has spent anytime with my work [go here to see my photo blog!] can see that his style relates to my own. I love to take photos of buildings and architecture and feel much more comfortable when that is my subject rather than humans. Schulman believes in the power of the simplicity of the image and that's something that I believe in as well. When photographing architecture, the structure is the most important element of the image, why try to jazz it up or make the image about something else? Beautiful, powerful architectural photography must have that simplicity to it that Schulman made a career of. It looks easy, but I can promise you, it is not. Achieving simplicity, or directness, in photography takes as much skill and thought as so-called "fine art" photography.

Visual Acoustics is appealing on many fronts. It has photography, architecture, design, modernism, Los Angeles and a host of other things that come up during the documentary. Pretty much all of those things are topics I like to learn about and watch. How wonderful are Schulman's photographs in Visual Acoustics? Even if you think you don't like modern architecture, after you see this, you might have a new appreciation for it. After watching Visual Acoustics, I want to get out my Hasselblad and walk in Schulman's footsteps and photograph some of these places for myself. Rating ****

Sunday, November 27, 2011


Film: Melancholia [2011, denmark]
Where I saw it: Los Angeles @ Nuart Theatre
Who with: SJ
Rating: ***
Rating for Los Angeles rainstorm during viewing: *****!

Los Angeles cooperated weather-wise as we drove to the Nuart to watch Melancholia, Danish director Lars von Trier's latest opus to depressing cinema. Black clouds crept over the city and a tremendous downpour  began shortly before we made it to the theatre. Perfect. How can you be expected to watch a movie about a woman's battle with depression and the end of the world if the sky is blue and wisps of fluffy clouds hover above the theatre? You can't. Melancholia, an art film meditation on the hopelessness of life, needs gloomy storms to help drive home the point. A rainy, cold day provides the perfect backdrop to watch a movie such as this. Even the rain couldn't make me love the film though, but imagine my reaction to it if I'd walked out of the Nuart blinded by the bright as diamond-glare Southern California sun? That would have been a painful experience. I'll take those comforting grey skies any day, even if I wasn't watching a movie such as this.

Melancholia opens with a jaw-dropping, amazing sequence of various slow-motion and freeze frame images backed by a glorious, swelling score of strings from composer Richard Wagner [1865's "Tristan und Isolde"]. I wasn't expecting something so breathtaking, immediate, colorful and in-your-face stunning from von Trier. This opening salvo is the best moments in the film for me and it seems as if von Trier has watched Terrence Malick's Tree of Life and decided to one-up Malick in regards to filming beautiful shots of nature and the universe. It's a shame this uber-art style of the first sequence didn't carry over into the rest of the movie, as von Trier quickly reverts back to the style and look that comprises the majority of his films--hand-held cameras and photography with washed-out hue.

Kirsten Dunst plays "Justine" and we first meet her as she is sharing a limo with her new husband "Michael" [Alexander Skarskgard] as they head to the post-wedding shindig in a remote, gorgeous hotel owned by her sister and brother-in-law. "Justine" is all smiles and laughter when we first meet her, but things are going to change as we begin to see that the smiles are not authentic. The true "Justine" is lost in a haze of never-ending depression and this wedding? Just an attempt to knock her out of her crippling malaise. She's got a supportive sister in "Claire" [Charlotte Gainsbourg], a dashing groom, a good job, but it's not enough. She'd rather slump off to have a hot bath in private than mingle with the guests, or the sister, or the newly christened husband.

If we think that "Justine" is depressed in the first segment of Melancholia, just wait until we get to the second when we all know that the end of the world is nigh. There's a rogue planet dubbed Melancholia that's making a pass through our solar system and it is on a collision course with this little planet called Earth. Faced with only a few days to live, people react differently. For "Justine", it's time to sink further into the abyss of the quagmire of her depression and considering the ramifications of impending death, that depression is understandable. Who wouldn't be just a little down-in-the-dumps if there was a large planet about to crush the planet we all live on?

Lars von Trier has been a filmmaker that hasn't given a damn about the audience's discomfort since the mid-1980s with Element of Crime. He's repeatedly made films that challenge, punish, annoy and exasperate as much as they enthrall, move and intrigue. His films often explore heavy themes such as suffering and abuse, and while I would hesitate to label von Trier an entertaining director, I would call him an important filmmaker. He's probably the best example of what the term "auteur" means for well-known, global directors making movies in 2011. A controversial figure [his rant about Hitler and Nazis at the Cannes film festival earlier this year got him banned from Cannes and criminally charged by French authorities], but a talented one, whose films are hard to watch and then be passive about it when they are over.

Melancholia is another of those kinds of movies from Lars von Trier. Not a lot of fun to sit through, it dazzles, frustrates, irritates, enraptures and pulls you in while keeping you at an arm's length at the same time. I found the wedding segment of "Justine" kind of a pointless part of the film that pales to the intimate, emotional wrenching second part. Had the entire film been set among just the few characters that comprise the "Claire" portion of the film, I would have liked Melancholia more. There's genuine dread conjured up in the film's waning moments as a small group of people face certain death in different ways. The wedding sequence comes off as pale and inconsequential when paired with the raw sadness that is exposed as the film unfolds. Dunst is being lauded for awards and she is different than we've seen her as an adult. She gets to play happy [not often] and gets to play miserable. Those who hand out awards love this kind of role.

I'm certainly glad I saw Melancholia, but I couldn't help disappointed as I walked the wet Los Angeles streets. It is just the usual kind of film from von Trier: uneven, provocative for the sake of provocation, ponderous and, yes, thrilling. It's Lars von Trier. I'm not sure why I was expecting anything other than that when I bought my ticket.

Friday, November 25, 2011

The end of film is nigh

If you haven't noticed, theatres have rapidly been converting to digital over the past few years. The recent overdose on 3D has only heightened exhibitors frenzy to go digital and foist the latest bloated blockbuster onto the gullible public for as much as they can fleece some sucker of. If you held out an assemblance of hope that film would somehow prevail in the end--think again, dear reader. As painful as it is for me to admit, it looks like the distribution of film prints in theatres will die sooner than I thought.

I believe movies will still be made using film, so that's not ending anytime soon. Maybe I'm being optimistically naive about this too? Digital just doesn't have the naturalistic warmth of tone that film has. Did you see Michael Mann's 2009 release Public Enemies? That should be the pinnacle of just how awful digital moviemaking looks, as that was truly one of the worst looking movies I've ever sat through. No, after a movie has been shot in film, it will be given washes of digital treatment and then projected digitally into your favorite cinema. There will be no more flickering light from a projector. There will be no more scratchy reel changes. The prints you see in the future will be sterilized of all its quirks and flaws and possibly its life.

To make sure that theatre owners get on board with studios cost-cutting ways [it's cheaper for all involved to not have those bulky film prints to ship out to thousands of theatres], a recent missive was sent out from Twentieth Century Fox with gentle reminders that exhibitors need to convert to digital sooner rather than later. It's a sad day reckoning for those of us who truly love the look of film. My question to Fox and all the movie theatres that will continue to raise prices even after the conversion to digital: Shouldn't prices be lowered since by going all digital you are saving millions of dollars by not transporting film prints to and from studios? I think we all know the answer to that question, don't we? Audiences will keep getting stiffed as the prices will continue to inflate. Read the letter from Fox yourself below.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Into the Abyss

Film: Into the Abyss [2011, usa]
Where: Los Angeles @ Arclight Hollywood
Who with: SJ
In attendance: Werner Herzog
Rating when I saw it: ***
Rating after a few days of contemplation: ****

Werner Herzog. Just his name alone shoots rapture into the heart of any self-respecting film geek. Who would have thought when SJ and I drove into Hollywood to see Into the Abyss, I would soon find myself standing next to Mr. Herzog, carrying on a conversation with him? Not me. We knew he was going to make an appearance at the screening, but didn't know if it would be a quick intro or a Q and A or what. In classic, populist Werner fashion, he gave a 30 minute, unmoderated Q and A after the movie that was better than any of the post-screening Q and A sessions we've been watching that have been getting a lot more press. I think Werner would have answered questions all night long if there wasn't another film to show.

My first thoughts about Into the Abyss were that Werner has made just an average movie, but as the hours went by and I thought more and more about the film, it got more powerful to me. There is definitely a lot of philosophical ideas being broached on the screen and the conversations between Herzog and his subjects. Into the Abyss is something that stays with you long after it ends. The film is a meditation on violence and the after effects of the senseless, unexplainable acts that occur, based around a triple homicide in texas. The murders, perpetrated by a couple of teenagers for nothing more than so they could have a car for a few days, destroys everyone connected to the violent act. The guilty party are serving life in prison or about to be executed, family members have entered a waking state of never-ending emotional turmoil. Herzog talks to a death row chaplain and correction officer as well to further delve into the topic of violence, redemption, God and the death penalty. He tries to make sense of it.

Or does he? What gives Into the Abyss its power is that Herzog can't make sense of it. No one can. This crime, heinous and despicable, is so beyond figuring out guilt or innocence that Herzog dispenses of all that and just concentrates on the numbing after-effects of violence. There's a lot of psychological damage done to survivors of such mindless violence and Herzog hones in that with his usual individual style of questions and narration [in his usual thick, Bavarian accent that is the trademark for all his documentaries] as we get to view the collection of shattered lives on display. Below the surface is where the weight of Into the Abyss lies, all the small moments of torment and suffering being vocalized by person after person. Into the Abyss is an intense, sad, powerful exploration of the horror of violence.

After the film, Herzog handled his own Q and A without a moderator. He said that the film had played at some festivals, but that he doesn't "care about festivals, I care about real people watching my films." The funniest moment in the Q and A was Herzog's confession that bank robberies look like a lot of fun and if he could get away with it, Herzog claims he'd like to rob a few banks. Awesome.

When the Q and A was finished, SJ and I happened to be exiting the theatre near Herzog so I just told him who I was a programmer at Circle Cinema in Tulsa, Oklahoma and how I'd love to arrange a Skype interview with him when we show Into the Abyss. He politely said he was about to head off to Venezuela and where he was staying, there would be no electricity, it would have to be after he got back from that. Fine with me. After I mentioned Oklahoma, he told me, "I love Norman, Oklahoma and my daughter has been telling me how much she loves Omaha, Nebraska." Well, I went to OU so thought that was wonderful to hear. Werner likes Norman? Well, Boomer Sooner! This post-screening conversation certainly was more positive than the downer of a documentary that I had just seen. But, that's Werner Herzog for you--part weirdly comic, part seriously intense, all original.

Monday, November 21, 2011

I Heart Gene Wilder

I recently listened to Gene Wilder's 2006 memoir Kiss Me Like a Stranger while driving around Los Angeles. This is not a traditional life story memoir, but a series of moments that Wilder has chosen that exemplify the lessons of his life that taught him about two specific subjects: acting and women. Wilder honestly depicts how these two things have criss-crossed that made him the actor and man that he is. I'm not a big memoir fan, so was kind of into the non-traditional set-up of this rather than if Wilder went through all the parts of his life in order of small to large. There is still a chronological bent to this, it's just done so in short little bursts.

As soon as I started listening to the book, which is read by Wilder in a gentle, warm tone, I quickly remembered just how much I loved him as a comic actor growing up. Like many people, I got my first taste of Wilder in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory [1971]. I am pretty sure I saw it before I turned ten and promptly went out and got the book. In my teens I discovered other classics starring Wilder in the 1970s. He had an amazing stretch in the 1970s: Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex * but Were Afraid to Ask [1972], Blazing Saddles [1974], Young Frankenstein [1974], Silver Streak [1976], The Frisco Kid [1979] and Stir Crazy [1980]. Let's not forget Bonnie and Clyde in 1967 and The Producers in 1968 either. Not too shabby, huh?

When I was going over his IMDB resume, I was kind of shocked at how few movies he has actually done. I count only twenty-one films. While the quality of Wilder's work dipped as the 1980s wore on, it's hard to argue against his particular brand of comedic genius. By the time I saw Stir Crazy in a theatre in 1981, I was a bonafide fan, having seen him in most of the previously listed movies, even if some of the humor was way over my head or the sort of thing I needed to wait a few years to see to fully grasp. I thought Stir Crazy was the funniest movie I had ever seen for years after I saw it. Paired with Richard Pryor for a second time [Silver Streak was the first; he'd appear with Pryor in four films], the duo are mistakenly sent to prison and have to depend on their wits to survive the hostile situation. Gloriously low-brow and full of physical comedy, this was directed by Sidney Poitier [another surprise] and it has an unbelievably raucous, fast-paced and hilarious first hour before it becomes a completely different film in the prison escape sequence toward the end. Stir Crazy is still one of those films that I completely love even though I was only 11 when I first saw it. Here's an hilarious scene when the duo first get sentenced. Wilder's manic improv yelling is pure comic gold.

I consider myself a Wilder fan, but I knew very little about his upbringing or life. The most public element that I was aware of was his marriage to Gilda Radner when she died of cancer in 1989. I didn't know his original name was Jerome Silberman or that he was raised in Milwaukee. I had no clue that his early years as an actor he was dedicated to a more serious vein of theatre acting that involved membership into the Actor's Studio [when it was much, much more than a crappy TV interview show] and studying under Lee Strasberg. I had no clue how he met Mel Brooks and was cast in his big break in The Producers or that he wrote Young Frankenstein. I wish Wilder would have included even more movie stories from the production or from the set. It has stories, just not enough of them. Kiss Me Like a Stranger goes into the things I didn't know while also delving into his romantic life with a surprising level of intimacy and really gave me insight into the Wilder I knew and the Wilder I didn't know.

***If you are reading this post via e-mail, the imbedded video[s] in this post might not work with your particular e-mail account. Click on the post title and you will be taken directly to CineRobot to view the video.***

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Live reading of The Apartment screenplay

Last month I wrote about LACMA's new series of live script reads curated by director Jason Reitman, as a group of actors took on the script for the John Hughes '80s classic The Breakfast Club. Well, a couple of nights ago was the second installment as another group of actors climbed on stage to read something from writer/director Billy Wilder, The Apartment. In the 1960 original, the lead roles went to Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine and Fred MacMurray. On this night in Los Angeles, those roles went to Steve Carell, Natalie Portman and Pierce Brosnan. Other actors were Ken Jeong, Mindy Kaling, Nick Kroll, Jake Johnson and Collette Wolfe.

As with the first live read, this isn't a performance of the script with the actors trying to recreate the physicality of the film on stage. No, the actors are seated, lined up in a row and do a basic table read, while incorporating their own style and quirks into the script. This is a fun little project, but I think it will have a very short shelf-life after seeing the read of The Apartment. There's something lacking in such a basic reading where there's only minimal "performance" involved among those on the stage. They are performing, but it's a dialed back performing taking place. Such a creative endeavor lacks the depth and power of the actual original film, or if it was a theatrical performance. It's still a fun way to re-visit a great piece of Hollywood's history, but how don't know if it will be as fun if it goes on month after month.

The Apartment highlights were Steve Carell, as the lead role was tailor made for his sweet, yet smart, style, Nick Kroll and Pierce Brosnan. Kroll repeatedly reaped big laughs despite having one of the lesser characters by giving perfectly timed lines. Ken Jeong got the biggest laugh of the night when he forgot he was up during the scene at the Chinese restaurant and then delivered some wicked stereotypical lines from the Asian waiter. Least up to the task? Natalie Portman. She basically flatlined the entire reading, almost never changing her tone, volume and emotion. Sorry, Natalie.

There's another reading in December and I'll post a report of that one too. The script? The Princess Bride.

***Left to right in photo: Jake Johnson, Mindy Kaling, Pierce Brosnan, Natalie Portman, Steve Carell, Nick Kroll and Collette Wolfe. Sorry the photo isn't better!***

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Movie tickets #26

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Los Angeles Cinema: Los Angeles Plays Itself, Blood Beach, Straight Outta L.A.

After my first "Los Angeles Cinema" post, a reader [Cassie] pointed out the documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself in the comments and I immediately regretted not mentioning it in my first post. The 2003 documentary from director Thom Anderson is the ultimate in uncovering the way that Los Angeles has been portrayed throughout movie history. It's an exhaustive, comprehensive, nearly three hour film that will likely not be surpassed on the subject. It's recommended if you really want to experience these films rather than just read about the ones I'm watching that will go into these posts. Since I'm just randomly watching Los Angeles films however the mood strikes me, Los Angeles Plays Itself is better if you want to see a larger, cohesive viewpoint of the city. I don't think it is available on DVD, so you might have to be on the lookout for it on TV. Below is a sequence of this essential essay documentary that looks at how mid-century modern homes have been used in a variety of films for the bad guys to live in.

Blood Beach. As I mentioned in my first post in my "Los Angeles Cinema" series, every single genre of film is represented in the geographic sub-genre. In this post, there are two documentaries and a B horror movie from 1980 that is kind of a cheeky Jaws rip-off that doesn't really fool with the ocean being dangerous. No, it's the beach's sand that you have to worry about in Blood Beach. Check the awesome tagline out in their poster. Pretty clever. John Saxon even gets to deliver the line in the film [and in the trailer below] to really hammer the point home. 

Equal parts silly, scary and with a dirty edge, Blood Beach is the sort of film I loved when I was growing up. While my tastes changed as I got older, my enjoyment for low-budget, exploitation films is still there. I'm grateful for that as there is so much fun to be had in these kinds of films and I often find myself enjoying something like Blood Beach more as pure entertainment than the prestige pictures that get accolades. This is my roots as a film lover and to turn my back on films like this would be to reject film as a whole. It's kind of comforting to watch these kinds of films as it takes me back to when I was young and just watching everything I could even though I hadn't learned much about movie history. I pride myself on being culturally well-rounded, so why can't you love Blood Beach AND the serious stuff?

The plot of Blood Beach is absurd--an unknown creature is killing people who venture onto the Santa Monica beach. The kills are mostly bloodless, as the sand sort of just sucks the victim into it as they are screaming and thrashing about heedlessly. The script, from writer director Jeffrey Bloom, has its witty moments that were a little unexpected and the cast plays it serious, which makes these films more comical. How can you go wrong when John Saxon and Burt Young are two of the lead actors? The actual monster is ridiculous and Bloom admitted so in a lively post-screening Q & A [also in attendance was Saxon and the film's DP Steven Poster]. Bloom said that no one really even planned or thought out the creature and no one was happy with it. Producer Sidney Beckerman kept yelling out that the monster looked like a "giant shvanz" when it was revealed on the set. It did kind of resemble that part of the male anatomy. I loved seeing the old Santa Monica pier setting as it was in a decrepit state in 1980. SJ and I went there a few weeks ago and it is touristy and scrubbed clean now. I would loved to have gone there when it was empty and forgotten, ramshackle and falling down, a ghost of its former glory. Rating ***

Straight Outta L.A. We've been slowly going through ESPN's documentary series "30 for 30" and most have been worth watching, but Straight Outta L.A. fell flat for me, despite what should have been an entertaining topic: the Oakland Raiders' connection to the city of Los Angeles and its importance to early gangsta hip-hop culture. Directed by Ice Cube, a man who should know the topic back and front as a lifelong Raider fan, original member of NWA and early creator of the whole West coast gangsta rap aesthetic [who now does family movies!]. The problem is Cube might be less a documentarian than he is a storyteller and the film devolves into a disjointed collection of interviews, archival footage and a self-importance [regarding both the football and the hip-hop] that feels too much like a mish-mash of material. Only an hour in length, it felt longer and should have been cut to make it both more cohesive and entertaining. Even though I'm a lifelong Pittsburgh Steeler fan, I do love seeing footage from the rogue Raiders of the 1970s. That never gets old and that era was true football for me. Rough and tumble, full of characters, violent and raw, grass fields of mud and blood and amazing teams. Professional football now? Don't even get me started. Rating: **1/2

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel

Film: Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel [2011, usa]
Where I saw it: Los Angeles @ LACMA
Who with: SJ
In appearance: Roger Corman, Julie Corman, Alex Stapleton, Elvis Mitchell
Rating: ****

In a few days I write about Blood Beach in a "Los Angeles Cinema" post and will talk about how B films from my youth were so comforting and fun for me to watch. Well, Roger Corman is the undisputed king of the B film in modern cinema [although, he doesn't really want that title]. While Corman has made a long career out of B movies [and you can even go down a letter or two with some of the budgets he's dealt with], he's also been involved in the early development of some of the most important names in film over the past few decades by giving them chances to make movies before anyone else will. Do the names Peter Bogdanovich, James Cameron, Francis Ford Coppola, Jonathan Demme, Ron Howard, John Sayles and Martin Scorsese mean anything to you? All of them were given film projects of varying budgets very, very early in their careers. Corman's involvement with young filmmakers has been dubbed the "Corman Film School" because so many people have worked with Corman.

Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel is a new documentary that chronicles Corman's career and legacy in his six decades in the movie business. Corman has been involved in so many films it is hard to keep track of the number. It is roughly 400 movies as director and producer with a couple of my favorites, Cockfighter [1974] and Death Race 2000 from 1975. Pretty much everything Corman has ever been involved in has involved sensationalist titles, lurid posters and adult subject matter. Corman films aren't subtle, that's for sure. They are marketed to a particular kind of film fan that wants sex, violence, revenge, murder and monsters--often all in the same film!

The documentary has most of the previously mentioned names as well as Corman fans and friends such as Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro, Eli Roth and others as they recount what it was like to work on the Corman set. The early portions of Corman's World is pure fun, as we get a crash course in what it was like to make no-budget movies in the 1950s and 1960s. It looked like so much fun. The film moves into the 1970s when Corman's company, New World, unleashed primal exploitation cinema into the grindhouse and drive-in. Wow, a lot of those 1970s films I missed, but really need to watch now. Check out the trailer for 1972's The Hot Box to see what I'm talking about. This film has sex, lots of nudity, violence, shootouts, romance, revenge, torture, rape, and who knows what else, all in the trailer!

What's surprising about Corman is just how nice and professorial he comes across when he's talking about his films and life. He seems like the perfect gentleman, but he did produce some intense stuff over the years, so there must be a darker demon lurking beneath the surface. There's a rawness to the 1970s exploitation films that will never be re-created. Never. These filmmakers pushed the boundaries of the amount of sex, violence and cinematic mayhem they could film. In these years before mass-produced pornography, exploitation films titillated audiences who were interested in entertainment from the margins of society. Corman's New World was one of the key pervaders of this kind of cinema and Corman's World is the extremely entertaining documentary that looks at his career and legacy.

***Left to right: Roger Corman, Alex Stapleton, Julie Corman, Elvis Mitchell; Los Angeles, California @ LACMA; November 2011***

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Beyond the Black Rainbow, Carre Blanc and Rampart at AFI Festival

The American Film Institute [AFI] film festival hit Los Angeles this past week and they have something that is about as populist as it comes for a film festival: free tickets! Yes, all screenings are absolutely free. I couldn't believe it when I found out about that fact. I just wish I'd have known about it earlier, as I waited too long to reserve some screenings and couldn't get into to a bunch of films I wanted to see due to other people already snatching up available tickets. Here's some short reviews of the films I did get to see--two out of the mainstream, visually extravagant science-fiction films and Rampart, a dirty cop in Los Angeles film starring Woody Harrelson that I didn't like so much.

Beyond the Black Rainbow. I read about this mind-bending, dark, science-fiction film from Canada and director Panos Cosmatos a few months ago. The trailer is an indecipherable series of outlandish visuals and that pretty much sums up the entire film. There's not much of a plot to Beyond the Black Rainbow. It's set in 1983, in what feels like an alternate and futuristic world at the same time. There's a mad doctor type of guy who is keeping a young woman in an empty, start room and interegating her repeatedly. The woman can't talk, but can transfer her thoughts via telepathy. That's as much plot as you are going to get from this puzzling, uber-art film exorcise. I actually enjoyed the movie as a pure form of science-fiction in design, style, photography and all-out weirdness. I also really loved the score from Sinoia Caves [Jeremy Schmidt from Black Mountain], a collection of washes, pulses and throbs using analogue synthesizers circa the late 1970s and early 1980s. Incredibly out of the mainstream, Beyond the Black Rainbow is one of the most gloriously weirded-out movies I've seen in a long while. The programmer who introduced the film described it accurately as "an injection of cinema into your eyeballs." Then, Cosmatos gave a brief, cryptic hint at the mindset it takes to get into the movie by saying, "I hope you are as screwed up in the head as you watch this as I was when I made it." Check out the amazing poster and the trailer below for evidence of that. I'm going to try and book this for a midnight screening at the Circle in March or April when the film makes it to theatres. Rating ***1/2

Carre Blanc. After watching Beyond the Black Rainbow the previous night at midnight, I thought I was done with the edgy, not-so-commercial filmmaking. I was wrong. Carre Blanc, a French film from director Jean-Babtiste Leonetti, is an intense, uncompromising vision of an urban, dystopian future society, where the population is controlled by authorities and all facets of society is regulated. Work, leisure, socializing and even who can and when to have children for the state [the earlier the better!] is all tightly monitored by the unseen level in power. Thankfully, there's more of a plot to Carre Blanc than in Beyond the Black Rainbow [not a knock against Beyond the Black Rainbow, it's just nice to have a little bit of plot some of the time], but it is still a quagmire to mentally wade through as it unfolds. This is not an easy film to watch, with its overt brutality punishing the characters [and the audience as well], but there is a surprising layer of dark humor running through the film. Uneasy laughter could be softly heard from the crowd, unsure of they should be laughing at such material. I happen to really love dystopian set literature or cinema, so Carre Blanc is right in my sweet-spot. I loved the unrelenting shades of grey in the film's photography, the empty, artificially lit concrete buildings and streets and the never-explained series of "games" that selected citizens might be forced to endure that could literally kill them. Carre Blanc is relentlessly bleak, stylish and directed with a raw intensity by Leonetti and it's not for everyone, but this is my kind of hopeless, Orwellian style film that I love. Trailer below if your interest is piqued. Rating ****

Rampart. Oren Moverman's first directorial effort was 2009's much lauded drama The Messenger. I liked that film as it looked into the emotional destruction endured by a pair of Army officers tasked with notifying a soldier's families that someone has been killed in action. It was a simple, direct, spare, no-frills production that rightfully concentrated on the power in the story and the quality of the acting [Woody Harrelson, Ben Foster]. In the short span between The Messenger and Rampart, it seems someone has been whispering in Moverman's ear telling him he needs to be a "real director" and drastically change the style he employed. Maybe I'm completely remembering The Messenger wrong? Well, if you want to watch a movie that is unbelievably over-directed, is Rampart ever the movie for you. Moverman takes every opportunity to use unnessecary camera movement, distracting lengthy shots of reflections and even obscuring the actor's faces during scenes. I couldn't believe what I was watching as Moverman's horrible choices were invading scene after scene after scene. It's too bad as Harrelson gives an epic performance of self-loathing as a rogue Los Angeles cop whose life is spinning out-of-control in a downward spiral. The rest of the cast [Robin Wright, Ned Beatty, Steve Buscemi, Sigourney Weaver and others] are all people I want to see act, not keep getting distracted by flashy direction by Moverman. The script, penned by crime writer James Ellroy and Moverman, also feels overly-written all too often. Had Rampart utilized a spare hand, letting the story and actors carry the weight, it would have been light years better. The best thing about watching this film was I got to see it in the amazing Grauman's Chinese Theatre. Wow. Built in 1927 and one of the most famous movie theatres in the world, it's a glorious place to see a film! Even watching Rampart in such a setting couldn't save it from being a near total dud.     Rating **

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

J. Edgar

Film: J. Edgar [2011, usa]
Where I saw it: Los Angeles @ LACMA
Who I saw it with: SJ
Rating: **
Rating for being in the presence of Mr. Clint Eastwood: *****!

If I were to list my three least favorite film genres, it would go something like this: action films, drug-related  films and the bio picture. I've kind of sworn off the drug movie as I have just had enough of seeing junkies and other addicts destroy their lives while they battle their weakness for whatever chemical they desire to have running through their veins. While I'll watch an action film every so often, I tend to avoid the vast majority of them, whether they are the endless releases connected to comic book heroes or straight up explosion fests. Michael Bay? I think you've heard me refer to him as the anti-christ of cinema at least once or twice. He's the devil!

J. Edgar is the sort of biographical history of a famous person that makes me loathe the genre so intensely. Directed by Clint Eastwood, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and attempting to tell five decades in the life of J. Edgar Hoover, the film is a bloated, lifeless, dull and unfocused story of Hoover's life. How can any two hour movie tell the story of a man such as Hoover without feeling like a cribbed-note exercise? As I often do in these films, I just kind of sit and wait for all the key moments that I know about to make it to the screen. When that happens, I check that off and wait for the next big moment that is surely coming. J. Edgar, like others in the biopic genre, is so weighed down by the formulaic parameters of having to tell the "greatest hits" of a person's life that its lost in a predictable quagmire that never surprises, moves or pulls the viewer in.

Another problem with a biopic such as J. Edgar is the fact that actors have to play a character with a wide-range of ages. DiCaprio plays Hoover in the 1920s AND 1970s and had to endure 5-7 hours in a make-up chair for the varying ages he was playing. Co-stars Arnie Hammer and Naomi Watts also underwent extensive make-up work to give them appropriate ages. The older the characters get, the more make-up seems to be applied to give them jowls, wrinkles, sun spots or other characteristics of old age. Unfortunately, with each layer to the actors' faces, it seems to limit their ability to talk and move their faces naturally. By the time Hoover is near death, DiCaprio's face is a mess of prosthetics that allows pretty much just his lips to move as he says his dialogue. The same can be said for Hammer's scenes as an old man. It's distracting to say the least.

The only thing that made up for the fact I didn't like this movie very much was the post-screening Q & A with Clint Eastwood, Leonardo DiCaprio, Arnie Hammer and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black. I could leave three of those folks, I was there to bask in the close proximity of Eastwood as he took the stage munching on a cookie picked up backstage. Eastwood is one of my all-time cinematic heroes, so even though I didn't like the film he just directed, I was happy to see the man from a fairly close distance. 81 years old and he's still a bad-ass.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Los Angeles Cinema: L.A. Story, The Cool School + Valley Girl

Ever since SJ and I decided to move to Los Angeles, we've decided to try watching movies set in and around the city we now live in. Considering Los Angeles is home to the movie industry, and has been since the late 1910s, there's going to be a lot of choices for us. What's cool about watching these movies is they run the genre gamut from drama to horror to comedy. Every kind of movie has been made using Los Angeles as a backdrop and we're going to drown ourselves in some locational method viewing. There's the obvious choices that we'll watch [Chinatown, Blade Runner, Pee Wee's Big Adventure] and the not-so-obvious [documentaries]. This is the first installation of a series of posts that I'm cleverly dubbing: Los Angeles Cinema. Very creative, I know. Check out a couple of trailers below for two of the films in this post and you might have to consult a glossary when you read my Valley Girl review as I do the review in "valspeak"! If you leave comments about Valley Girl, please do so in the appropriate vernacular for all to read.

L.A. Story. We might as well start off with a real Los Angeles charmer from renaissance man Steve Martin [comedian, novelist, playwright, actor, art collector and banjoist] penned this gentle satire set in the city he's lived in his entire live. Since Martin has such a long-term relationship with Los Angeles, he's got a lot of material to put in regarding the quirks of local culture and people. Martin mainly mines the 1980s fads that are natural targets [explosion of popularity of plastic surgery, nightmarish traffic on the freeways, never being on time, fashionable foods] while telling his story of a zany weatherman [Martin] who meets two opposite romantic partners. There's the buzzing with youthful energy in SanDeE* [Sarah Jessica Parker; yes, that's how she spells her name in another jibe at the locals] and the quirky, English appeal of a woman closer to his age in Sara [Victoria Tennant; Martin's wife off-screen from 1986-1994]. While L.A. Story has conventional romantic comedy roots, it has elements of fantasy [a talking electric road sign!] and is chock full of so much clever satire that the romance is used many times just to knock the way Los Angeles residents live. I loved the combination of elements and probably enjoyed the movie more this time than when I originally saw it in Tulsa in 1991. I'm going to have to re-watch a lot of these "Los Angeles Cinema" series and hope the second viewing of other films will be as rewarding as this. L.A. Story is a delightful and enchanting movie. Rating: ****

The Cool School. Los Angeles has always been in the shadow of New York City when it comes to art. New York, as it often does with other topics, likes to inflate its importance as the epicenter of the cultural world. "If you aren't an artist in New York, you can't be a real artist," that kind of mindset. Well, a group of artists in Los Angeles in the 1960s rejected that idea and stayed in their hometown and made the same sort of work that would have greatly increased their stature had they been in NYC. The Cool School is an entertaining documentary that looks into this all-male group of artists, the era they created in and the groundbreaking gallery [Ferus] that exhibited their work. I've missed out on knowing who any of these guys are, I'd only heard of one of them: Ed Ruscha. I know who he is because he's a fellow Oklahoman. The rest of them I hadn't the foggiest who they were, yet the documentary does a terrific job blending their life story, their style and their personality with the larger focus of the collective. There's also a lot of archival footage of Los Angeles in the 1950s through the 1960s that give a flavor of the city at the time. It's a much different place now than then and I wish I could have been around it when it was less compact, less crowded and much more of a cultural wasteland. Being from Oklahoma has instilled in me an attraction to places that are off the grid, forgotten, ignored or seen better days, and Los Angeles in the 1950s/1960s had pockets of the city that were definitely connected to those elements. It wasn't all glamour, glitter, reality shows, wealth and Hollywood stars on every street corner. It's probably not like that now, but perceptions of the city are kind of overwhelming. The Cool School is recommended for art fans and people who want to see a different side of Los Angeles portrayed than what bombards current popular culture. Rating: ****

Valley Girl. Now here's one I haven't seen since the mid 1980s that is about as good example of what "80s culture" is all about: valley girls! Released in 1983 and directed by Martha Coolidge, Valley Girl capitalizes on the craze at the time regarding "valley girl" slang known as [like totally awesome you know?]. It was the first Hollywood release to tap into the world of "valspeak" and is the quintessential movie for this sort of thing. Valley Girl is more than a document of "valley" culture though, it's a molotov cocktail of pure '80s culture that sent me back to moments of my youth that I could not believe I was witnessing. The hair, the clothes, the accessaries, the music, the slang! This movie could be viewed as a documentary it nails the early 1980s teenage lifestyle so completely. Like, seriously, you know? Here's my short review, in appropriate language for the "vals" who read CineRobot religiously.

So, like, Nicholas Cage [like, before he got his teeth done. His teeth used to be so grody! Gag me!] plays the totally bitchin' punk rocker "Randy." He's a gnarly dude with a boffin' bod who meets "Julie" [Deborah Foreman] and they start a romance despite the fact that she's from the valley and he's, like, from Hollywood. I'm so sure. Anyways...this is an epic romantic culture clash that rates right up there with what it would happen if, like, a Jew dated a Muslim in Jerusalem, like, during an intifada, for sure, you know? Totally. "Julie" is torn, there's her ex mang "Tommy" all her ditzy friends [like, whatever!] want her to get back together with to be tre Mr. and Mrs. Popularity, or the totally radical "Randy"? What's a girl to do, you know? Oh my God! So, like, how could "Julie" stay with "Tommy" when "Randy" is around? Like, barf me out! As if! I'm, like, freakin' out just thinking about it. Seriously, so this is a way cool movie that shows a certain segment of '80s culture with awesome tunes, bitchin' slang, tubular fashions and it will make you feel, like, awesome when it ends. For sure? Totally. Rating: ***1/2

Valley Girl trailer

The Cool School trailer

Thursday, November 03, 2011

The Tingler

Film: The Tingler [1959, usa]
Where I saw it: Los Angeles @ Cinefamily
Who with: SJ
Rating for complete film experience: *****!

For film lovers, the name William Castle should conjure up visions of the B-movie era of the 1950s and 1960s when there were a glorious slew of low-budgeted films marketed toward the young-adult matinee audiences. I've been waiting to see a Castle movie the way they are meant to be seen for decades. I finally got to knock that small goal in life from my list of things I want to do before I die. Small victories! Castle was the master of what could be thought of as "gimmick" cinema. Interactive movie watching is in vogue right now with sing-a-longs, quote-a-thons and there's even the text-friendly program MUV Chat that let's the audience's texts appear on-screen as the film runs. Castle should be thought of as the godfather of interactive movie watching.

It helped Castle's Vincent Price starring The Tingler that it was being shown at Cinefamily on Halloween night. The house was stuffed with 175 people with at least half of them in costume which added to the festive atmosphere. I saw "Frank Booth" from Blue Velvet, lots of zombies, members of the SAMCRO motorcycle gang Sons of Anarchy, the Black Swan ballerina, a human beaver creature and an assortment of naughty costumes with [mostly] female flesh on display. A movie like The Tingler is going to be a lot more fun with a crowded theatre full of rambunctious people ready to have a good time, and this audience was ready to laugh, scream and enjoy the campiness of The Tingler.

The Tingler was one of Castle's early gimmick pictures known for being filmed in "Percepto". That pretty much means that the seats of the theatre were rigged with electric shocks that go off during specific moments of the film to really rile up the audience. It doesn't hurt, at least these at Cinefamily didn't. It's just a slight buzz of electricity vibrating from the seat. Had I not known it was going to come at some point and if I would have been a teenager in 1959, I can only imagine the sheer fun and delirium in the audience when the theatre is urged to scream together as the electric shocks are going off on the seat.

Some of Castle's other gimmicks he did to bring people to the theatre and whip them into a frenzy were taking out $1,000 life insurance policies from Lloyd's of London in case anyone died from watching the Macabre [1958]. He really ramped this one up as he'd have nurses in the lobby and even hearses outside the theatre to haul off the dead if someone died of fright during the screening. House on Haunted Hill [1959] was filmed in "Emergo," a glow-in-the-dark skeleton that floated over the audience on wires during key moments. "Illusion-O" made an appearance in 13 Ghosts [1960] and involved colored strips that could remove the ghosts if you were too frightened. 1961's Homicidal had Castle coming up with the "Coward's Corner," which was a series of public humiliations administered by bewildered theatre employees. Castle's movies might not have been actually "good" in the old-fashioned sense of the word, but you can not deny the fact that events such as these were tremendously fun.

At least I finally got to see a Castle movie, as I've longed dreamed of, and it was everything I expected and more. The Tingler is actually a very clever movie the way it engages the audience to pull them into the film with a twist that involves a projection booth, an on-screen movie theatre and theatre goers screaming their heads off. Cinefamily did this screening right by having an audience member go nuts during one key scene. The house lights come on as a old-school, dressed in white nurse comes running down the aisle to help this person to their feet so the film can start again. Castle was known for pulling stuff like this and encouraged it as the film goes black with a voice over urging the audience on in their shared frenzy.

The Tingler was such a fun experience, I wish that Cinefamily would try a few of Castle's other interactive films that I listed earlier. Check out Joe Dante's 1993 film Matinee if you want to see a semi-recent movie that uses Castle as inspiration as John Goodman plays a Castle-like film maker who has brought his film to Florida during the Cuban missile crisis. I had such a great time at this and loved the spirit of the event, I'm probably going to become a member of Cinefamily even though I'd need to go 2/3 times a month to screenings to make it worth it. They seem to have a bunch of interactive styled screenings and bring in a lot of guests and it's very close to where I live. Now, I'll have New Beverly and Cinefamily to tempt me regarding how I spend my time.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

October movies

October was more like it after seeing only six films in September. That was one of the all-time low total months since I started tracking my movie watching in 1998. Throw in the fact I got to see some unique movies or stuff with the cast present--Martha Marcy May Marlene or Ghost Story [make-up artist Dick Smith in attendance]--and the month was a fun one. I ended the month on a good note by getting to see William Castle's 1959 horror film The Tingler in "percepto"! Next post will be about what that means if you don't know Castle or some of his gimmicks. And, I'm not even counting the live script read of The Breakfast Club that was my favorite thing I did all month...not counting the Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark concert in downtown Los Angeles obviously!

Point Blank---2010---france   ****
The Skin I Live In---2011---spain   ****
Copyright Criminals---2009---usa   ***1/2
Moneyball---2011---usa   ***1/2
Martha Marcy May Marlene---2011---usa   ***
Went the Day Well?---1942---england   ****
Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields---2010---usa   ***
Ides of March---2011---usa---***1/2 [$16?!]
The Falcon and the Snowman---1985---usa   ***
The Cool School---2007---usa   ***1/2
L.A. Story---1991---usa   ****
Ghost Story---1981---usa   ***
Straight Outta L.A.---2010---usa   **1/2
50/50---2011---usa   ****
The Tingler---1959---usa   ****