Thursday, December 30, 2010

2010 Reviewed

No film reached the giddy heights of Drag Me To Hell this year, but there were some notables.

The Social Network is hitting the top of many critics' "best of" lists, and with good reason. I reviewed it with much enthusiasm earlier, so there's no need to elaborate. Suffice to say it's a wicked, wildly entertaining film about what sounds like a stultifyingly dull subject. Good work by Fincher, Sorkin, Jesse Eisenberg and...yes...Justin Timberlake.

Get Low, with Robert Duvall as a strange hermit who decides to throw his own funeral party—while he's still alive—is just terrific. With great support from Sissy Spacek, Bill Murray and Lucas Black, this offbeat, charming film wanders into Horton Foote territory...and does it well.

Let Me In, Matt Reeves' Americanization of the great Swedish original, Let the Right One In, was a perfectly acceptable remake, with some notable changes. The children are the focal points in this version, and the adults are reduced to near-"Charlie Brown's teacher" status. Kodi Smit-McPhee and Chloe Moritz are wonderful as the kids, and it's a shame—audiences stayed away in droves. The only sour note for me was the rather ridiculous speeded-up Gollum-style computer animation for the vampire, which really wasn't necessary at all.

127 Hours, Danny Boyle's excellent but hard-to-watch survival drama features a star-making performance by James Franco. Jackass 3D is, of course, a guilty pleasure and delivered everything you expect from these guys...hilariously rude antics that test the gag reflex, funny nudity and frat-boy camaraderie.

Another film that was fun in 3D was The Final Destination. The Wolfman was okay, but I actually enjoyed it more when I caught it on cable a second time. Daybreakers was terrific, while The Crazies was just so-so.

I liked Black Swan and Toy Story 3 very much, but Leo DiCaprio struck out twice in my opinion with Shutter Island and Inception. The Fighter was cliched, shrill and enervating. Splice was fun and Polanski showed some of his old spark with The Ghost Writer. I really hated How To Train Your Dragon, but Tony Scott's Unstoppable was a surprisingly enjoyable, old-fashioned thriller. And I thought the remake of Clash of the Titans was far more enjoyable than the original. What can I say?

I'm burned out on bad remakes, so I didn't even bother with Nightmare on Elm Street or I Spit on Your Grave. George Romero really gave his fans the raspberry with the ridiculously bad Survival of the Dead. I'm looking forward to Kevin Smith's political horror film Red State, set for a March release, and I'm curious about what the hell Dario Argento is going to do with Dracula 3D.

The Oscar race will surely involve The Social Network, Get Low, The Kids Are All Right, Inception (sigh) and Black Swan. I think Eisenberg, Duvall and Franco are going to duke it out for Best Actor.

Television provided more diversion. After a slow start, The Walking Dead picked up steam and I'm looking forward to its return. It's a challenge to make a continuing series on a subject as finite as a zombie apocalypse, but it's smart how they're handling it. And it's certainly the goriest show ever aired on basic cable!

Also making a welcome debut this year was HBO's Boardwalk Empire, a riveting story of Depression-era bootleggers and gangsters. Steve Buscemi is great as "Nucky" Thompson, the boss of Atlantic City, and Michael Pitt made a really smart career move by taking the role of Jimmy Darmody, Nucky's protege. The always-welcome Kelly Macdonald is also good as Nucky's on-again, off-again mistress. And Michael Shannon—the creepiest FBI agent ever!

Michael C. Hall is bound and determined to win his Emmy for Dexter, and this season introduced many new layers to his character, which always helps when vying for the little gold statue. And speaking of smart career moves, Julia Stiles was just terrific as Lumen Pierce, his partner in crime.

It's also smart that the other characters are involved in interesting dramas of their own—LaGuerta and Batista's rocky marriage, Deb's revolving bedroom door—even the stepchildren are developing interesting stories.

I can't wait for the new season of Breaking Bad. This insanely entertaining show was rewarded with two well-deserved Emmys for Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul as methamphetamine manufacturers Walter White and Jesse Pinkman. They get into such nail-biting situations, and you just know it's not going to turn out well.

I wasn't crazy about this season of True Blood, but it doesn't mean I'll stop watching it. The werewolves aren't doing much for me. We need more weird creatures and less soap opera. Hopefully it'll pick up.

I'm looking forward to HBO's miniseries, Mildred Pierce, stars Kate Winslet as the long-suffering mother of nasty. scheming Veda, played by Evan Rachel Wood, who is making the move over from True Blood now that she's (maybe) dead. It's directed by Todd Haynes (Velvet Goldmine, Far From Heaven). I wonder if Winslet is going to channel Joan Crawford or make the character her own. You just know it's going to be nice and warped.

Well, this is the last post of 2010. I wish you all a happy and healthy New Year!

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Grim Reaper Visits Weird Movie Village

Along with the lists of best and worst movies of the year, fashion disasters and the latest news from the Kardashians (gag), there's always a grim rundown of the year's celebrity deaths. I thought I'd take a look at this year's list and point out just a few of the passings that had an effect on Weird Movie Village. Some of them may surprise you.

Andreas Voutsinas. The name may not immediately trip off your tongue, but he was the original Carmen Ghia, the hilariously effeminate assistant of Broadway director Roger Debris in the original film version of Mel Brooks' The Producers (not the musical debacle with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick). A member of the Actors Studio, he befriended Brooks' then-girlfriend Anne Bancroft (also much missed), who recommended Voutsinas for the role. The rest is history.

Although his screen time is brief, his feline appearance and aggressive sexuality (which freaks out Gene Wilder) was memorable and hilarious. My favorite line occurs when he instructs Wilder and Zero Mostel to take off their shoes before entering Debris' apartment with the warning: "White, white, white is the color of our carpets!" And, of course, the really uncomfortable ride in the extremely small elevator. He had roles in a couple of other Brooks films, but he also worked as an acting coach for such luminaries as Jane Fonda and Warren Beatty. Andreas, I'm sure the carpets are white in Heaven.

Jackie Burroughs. A shock. Within a month after my post, "Playing By Their Own Rules," Burroughs was dead of stomach cancer. I didn't even know it until I was doing research for this post—that's how good mainstream media is at covering stories that aren't of interest to "average" audiences. I mean, Brad Renfro's untimely demise in 2008 wasn't even recognized during the 2009 Academy Awards "In Memoriam" segment. That's a crime.

You can read more of what I thought about the wonderfully strange Burroughs in my earlier post, but her last role was in Small Town Murder Songs, made in Toronto (of course), and it does sound intriguing. Burroughs, who played an old lady for decades before she actually was an old lady, shuffled off this mortal coil at age 71. The picture I'm using here shows her in 1966 (she's the one on the right).

Beverly Aadland. Another name that may have disappeared into the sands of time (except here in WMV) was Aadland, who was the 16-year-old girlfriend of 50-year-old, dissipated swashbuckler Errol Flynn, and was with him when he died of a sudden heart attack in 1959. She was also in his last disastrous film, Cuban Rebel Girls. But that was just the beginning.

In 1960, her boyfriend entered her home and was found the next morning, "shot by his own weapon." Ahem. She claimed that he'd attacked her and they'd grappled for the gun. She was made a ward of the court, but soon drifted into dancing and waitressing, marrying twice before she met Ronald Fisher, who seemed to be able to give her the needed stability. However, Aadland told Fisher that she still loved Flynn, and if he was around, she'd be with him. Fisher replied, "Well, it'd be crowded, wouldn't it?"

Cuban Rebel Girls was one of those PD features that was available on super 8mm back in the day, but I was never interested in buying it. It cost $200, it was black and white, and it didn't sound particularly exciting. I wanted to save up for a color print of The African Queen, which I did.

Jamie Gillis. One of the major porn superstars of the newly permissive 70s (after Deep Throat), Gillis was a legend in the industry. He appeared in such legendary epics as The Opening of Misty Beethoven, Barbara Broadcast and Dracula Sucks. He was the go-to guy who could deliver complicated dialogue believably and still...perform. Some called him porno's Harvey Keitel. He made some notorious roughies involving brutalization, rape and forced enemas. He also performed in those squalid Times Square live sex shows (a glimpse of which can be seen in Lucio Fulci's nasty New York Ripper).

He appeared in nearly 500 movies right up to 2005, but he officially retired in 2007 as a gift to his partner, Zarela Martinez. He played a few "straight" roles—Joel M. Reed's Night of the Zombies, the Sylvester Stallone-Rutger Hauer thriller Nighthawks—and, ironically, his last credited performance is in the film, Die, You Zombie Bastards. Amazingly, it's not a Troma film.

Zelda Rubinstein. I saw Zelda in person back in the 1980s when she was accompanied by Franklyn Seales (Silver Spoons) for a terrific Los Angeles production of Larry Gelbart's Broadway show, City of Angels, starring Christine Ebersole (Grey Gardens). Whew. Have I dropped enough names? Indelible as the mini-medium in Tobe Hooper's Poltergeist, Rubinstein seemed to drop out of sight, except for her outspoken activism for little people and against HIV/AIDS. Good for her.

She appeared in Bigas Luna's 1987 Anguish (Anguista), which is such a bizarre film. When I saw it on video in 1988, I said, "Huh?" It reminded me of the Kent Bateman film The Headless Eyes (1971) in that both of the films' killers have an eye-gouging fetish. And yes, Kent is the father of Jason and Justine. Rubinstein plays the mother of a psychopathic murderer who urges him to kill, much like good old Mother Bates, but she's in a film-within-a-film being screened in a grubby Los Angeles theater where a real killer is afoot. Or something. It didn't make much sense to me.

I saw her for the last time in Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, which cult film fans seems to treasure and compare to Man Bites Dog in terms of being a spoof documentary about a murderer, but it just doesn't have the same bite. Get it?

Guess I'll have to do another installment of this post before the New Year. Happy holidays, everyone!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Swan Song

In October I did a post about the New Beverly Cinema and reminisced about other Los Angeles revival theaters that have faded into history. This past Monday, I was meeting a friend in South Pasadena for lunch, so I took a quick stroll down Fair Oaks Avenue to look at what was left of the Rialto Theater.

As I approached, I was saddened to see what an empty shell it had become. Posters for Rob Zombie's Halloween and Grindhouse still hung in the glass frames outside (I guess they had special screenings there). And then I saw the dreaded red tag on the door—"unsafe for habitation." Fortunately, since it's on the national Register of Historic Places, it won't be demolished, but it really needs an angel to provide the funding needed to restore it.

South Pasadena is a classic American small town, and when you take a walk down Fair Oaks, you're really taking a trip back in time. I can't believe that such a neighborhood would be unable to support a single-screen showplace like the Rialto.

I took these pictures with my camera phone. Man, talk about your Last Picture Show. The photo on the right shows a portion of the lobby, providing a glimpse of the art deco magnificence of the auditorium. It's got an orchestra pit, a balcony and one of those swooningly elaborate ceilings that hearken back to a time when "going to the pictures" was truly an event.

The last time I went to the Rialto must have been back in the early '90s, but I still remember how they'd ceremoniously open the stage curtains at the beginning of the program. Now that's showmanship! Do movie theaters even have curtains anymore? But even back then, they'd closed off the balcony because it was too much of an insurance risk.

The Rialto is supposedly haunted: stories abound that a girl slit her wrists in the bathroom, then made her way to the balcony to bleed to death; a man went insane in the projection booth (he must've been running Wings of Desire); and that there's even a phantom cat roaming the aisles!

This post's title has a double meaning (ha-HA!), so here's the second part—my review of Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan. Although still in limited release, it's generating a lot of critical praise and there's even some Oscar buzz.

It's the story of a neurotic ballerina, Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) who is chosen to play the lead in a new production of "Swan Lake." Pressured to succeed by her mother (Barbara Hershey) as well as her manipulative director (Vincent Cassel), she's further stressed by the appearance of a competitor (Mila Kunis). Of course, she snaps and starts hallucinating events that never happened, the appearance of a doppelganger who shows up everywhere she goes. Oh, yes—she also happens to be transforming into a swan.

So how good is it? Well, it's crazy—I was often reminded of Polanski's Repulsion in that the main character is a sexually repressed woman given to hallucinatory episodes. The cast is uniformly excellent, with Portman bearing most of the weight of the story (including some really great dancing) and That '70s Show alum Kunis delivering a truly career-making performance as Portman's competition, a deliciously vulgar, free-spirited ballerina who makes Eve Harrington look like Mary Poppins.

Another standout is Barbara Hershey as the ultimate stage mother from hell. Wielding an implacable emotional grip on her daughter, she's infantalized Nina to the point that she's as naive as Sissy Spacek's Carrie. Winona Ryder appears as the diva who Cassel's director has cruelly dumped for the younger Nina, and she has a couple of memorable scenes, including a shocking self-mutilation.

Sumptuously photographed, the film is never grounded in reality, and viewers must either completely embrace it (as I did Aronofsky's earlier The Fountain) or dismiss it as complete whack-a-doodle. I embraced it.

It maintains such a high level of uncomfortable tension throughout. In one scene, Nina takes her director's advice to "touch herself" and enjoys a vigorous bout of morning masturbation, only to turn and see her mother sleeping in a chair by her bed. And she imagines a lovemaking session with Kunis' Lily, but Lily's face transforms into her own during a—ahem—critical moment.

I have to give Aronofsky props for his audacity. With each of his films, he keeps pushing the envelope. He hasn't yet become a "brand," thank God. He showed the world he could make a memorable "straight" film with the superb The Wrestler, and Requiem for a Dream remains one of the most horrifying studies of drug addiction available on celluloid. Plus, Ellen Burstyn was so so-o-o-o great in it!

Black Swan is full of moments that could be perceived as goofy, unless you're truly committed to the story and are willing to walk in Nina's slippers. Is it Oscar bait? Certainly it will be nominated for cinematography, and Portman and Hershey will get nods, but it's too eclectic for the Academy to consider it as Best Picture. I'm sure The Social Network will win that statue, and that's okay, too.

And you know what? If the Rialto was still open, it'd be showing Black Swan.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Those Holiday TV Classics

I'm late this week. I'll have to do two posts to catch up. I'm seeing Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan on Sunday, so expect to see a review soon. In the meantime, I think it's the appropriate time of year to reminisce about some of my favorite holiday television classics, so indulge me as I take a stroll down Memory Lane.

The first holiday special I remember seeing was a repeat broadcast of the Mary Martin 1960 Peter Pan. Although not technically a Christmas show, it's performed annually in England to raise funds for the Great Ormonds Children's Hospital, an institution to which J.M. Barrie contributed all the rights to his play.

Watching the show now really takes me back to my childhood. Video was so blurry then, and the production values were cheap and cheerful. But it was in color! I remember going to my grandparents' house (they were the only ones in the family with a color television) to watch it and, in the spring, The Wizard of Oz in saturated, fuzzy, unnatural color.

I've never been a big fan of musicals, so Peter Pan never did anything for me in particular. And as a kid, I thought, "Why are they calling that lady a boy?"

Yes, I admit it. I am old enough to have seen the very first showing of A Charlie Brown Christmas, and the holidays only really begin for me when it's aired. It's still charming 45 years later, with the hilariously precocious lines delivered by the Peanuts gang and Vince Guaraldi's too-hip jazz improv score. I love Linus' soliloquy about the true meaning of Christmas and poor Charlie Brown's miserable little tree.

Sure, it's made with limited animation and there are some continuity errors. You can also tell that the sound editors had to piece together the young actors' performances, sometimes word by word. But none of that spoils the show for me. A Charlie Brown Christmas never fails to take me back to a time when Christmas meant sparkling, snowy nights, multicolored outdoor decorations, a shimmering tree in the living room and surprises around every corner. Sentimental, ain't I?

1964's Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is another favorite, even though its cheese factor is high. Maybe I like it because its cheese factor is so high—this is Weird Movie Village, after all.

I don't recall having seen stop-motion animation before Rudolph, and the living, breathing "puppets" transfixed me. And the Abominable Snowman scared (and thrilled) me when I was small. But I still hate the ending when he's been neutered and all his teeth have been pulled out by Herbie, the dentist elf.

And talk about cultural influences—I love this Verizon salute to "The Island of Misfit Toys":

One of my very favorite holiday specials is How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966), and it's easy to understand why. It's the most "horror film" of all the shows, with its creepy green anti-hero and the Frankenstein monster himself—Boris Karloff—doing the narration! He won a Grammy for the recorded version of the story, and I just love it.

But the Whos are sure as hell a bunch of hyperactive little buggers, particularly the kids after they receive their bizarre Christmas loot. As I get older, I can appreciate more and more the Grinch's desire to spoil the holiday for that town full of noisy, endlessly grinning morons.

I have never seen—and will never see—Ron Howard's film version. The idea of watching that overpaid buffoon Jim Carrey hamming his way through a story I hold dear makes my flesh crawl.

Though it was made in 1966, I somehow didn't discover A Christmas Memory until the mid-80s when it aired on a local PBS station. How could I have missed a Truman Capote-written story starring Geraldine Page for so long? Thanks to home video, it became a holiday tradition every year afterward.

It's the bittersweet story of the author and his last Christmas with his beloved Sookie, the elderly cousin with whom he lives (along with a couple of really mean aunts). Every year Buddy (as she calls him) and Sookie bake a slew of fruitcakes to distribute to friends; not necessarily neighbor friends, but people who strike their fancy, including the Roosevelts. The hour-long special follows the unlikely pair as they acquire ingredients for their fruitcakes, including the hard-to-get whiskey, which they must purchase from Mr. Ha-ha Jones, owner of a fish fry and dancing cafe.

Here's a clip of Sookie and Buddy heading for Ha-ha's:

The film was made by Frank Perry of Mommie Dearest fame, and you can tell that editor Ralph Rosenblum literally had to piece it together—but it still works. Really well. Page was only 41 or 42 when she played the elderly Sookie, and she looks startlingly young, but such was her talent that you completely believe her character. The actor who played Ha-ha, Josip Elic, also had a diverse career. He was in Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, the perennial kiddie matinee mess, and he also played Bancini, one of the inmates in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest!

At one point in the 90s there was a viewer revolt over the treatment the classic holiday specials were receiving. In order to shove in more and more commercials, they were shown digitally speeded up and heavily edited. It got so ridiculous that A Charlie Brown Christmas became a continuous onslaught of Dolly Madison commercials with a few scenes from the show thrown in. The networks didn't take into consideration that these were beloved treasures whose millions of viewers knew virtually every frame.

Since they were all available unedited and at the correct speed on home video, viewers went there instead, and ratings plummeted. Realizing the error of their ways, the networks began advertising "complete, restored editions"—sometimes with special (and often lame) features. Even Rudolph aired in hi-def this year!

Holiday specials are still being made right and left, but I don't think of them are going to be considered classics even ten years from now. I mean—Shrek the Halls? New holidays classics are like new classical music. They just don't work. The closest they've come in recent years was with the funny and sweet 1991 Opus and Bill special A Wish for Wings That Work, but even that show only aired a couple of times before being consigned to the discount video pile.

Sigh. Season's Greetings, all.


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