It wasn’t too long ago that I took a look at what was happening at just one theater here in Los Angeles, our beloved New Beverly Cinema, and realized that Hollywood didn’t have as many must-sees on their entire summer slate as the New Beverly did during the months of May and June alone. Of the movies I hoped to see on the big screen in those two months, I flat-out missed Big Man Japan, The Brothers Bloom and The Girlfriend Experience; I hope to still see The Hurt Locker, Public Enemies and Year One; I did see The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 and would have been just as happy had I not, but then again I caught Land of the Lost, which provided the biggest return on the chasm between initial excitement and the stink of suspicions raised by bad reviews—I thought it was much more fun than even the kindest reviews seemed to let on. Only Up and Drag Me to Hell have turned out to be every bit as good as their advance notices and worth every ounce of hype, and still audiences roundly rejected Raimi’s marvelously effective fright show as somehow beneath their consideration. (Of the summer movies I have seen that didn’t make my initial list of anticipation, Tetro was a magnificently obsessed epic, Whatever Works was as mummified a movie as I’ve seen all year, and The Hangover was flat-out nasty without the compensation of actual laughs.)
Now, at the midpoint of the summer, with July and August still to go, there are only four movies left on my initial list that actually belong to the summer months (Black Dynamite and Extract will be Labor Day Weekend treats). Those movies are: Bruno, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, Inglourious Basterds and The Final Destination, previously known as Final Destination: Death Trip and now distinguishing itself in title only by playing the opposite game of definite articles that made the chronology of Fast and Furious so confused. (Was that number four or the first one you’re talking about?)
Bruno looks like another successful provocation from Sasha Baron Cohen a full week before it’s even officially released; Mandy Lane, which has been finished and playing in festivals since September 2006, has just become the latest dance partner in the Weinstein shuffle, Dimension Pictures having pulled it off the release schedule with no replacement date announced-- Mandy Lane might be headed down the same rabbit hole as Rogue, another superior genre picture buried by the Weinsteins while they fiddle amidst the crackling flames surrounding the marble pylons of the Weinstein Company. At this point, Harvey and Bob might even be desperate enough to keelhaul Inglourious Basterds were it not for the distribution partnership with Universal that, along with its unassailably high profile among not just film geeks but the general public, virtually assures its late August premiere. (That and a tantalizing rave from Scott Foundas which can be read only by purchasing the print edition of Film Comment, a periodical that seems to understand the idea of on-line exclusives as well as the invalidity of giving away all your magazine content for free and then wringing your hands because no one buys the mag anymore.)
So subtract Mandy Lane, add a couple of low-profile nuggets to my big-screen wish list (like The Beaches of Agnes, Moon and Food, Inc.), and what do you know—even if the New Beverly Cinema were the only alternative to Hollywood’s high-tech mind games (and it’s not—more on that later), it would still outnumber the short list of Hollywood must-sees with its July-August schedule by at least double the titles. Never one to look a gift horse in the mouth, uh, or, uh…. to look away from a gift horse while it opens its mouth wide when I have my back turned, let’s take a look at the treats lined up for the discerning fan/geek/hipster/cinephile on the New Beverly’s screen over the next two months.
Coming up this Wednesday and Thursday (July 8 & 9) is a chance to see a brand-new print of Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels (1971) doubled with another underground(ish) provocation, Ralph Bakshi’s much-maligned (but actually pretty terrific) Fritz the Cat (1972). Zappa’s movie is considered a masterpiece of sorts by the converts and somewhat of a muddle by those not particularly attuned to his brand of cacophonous, stylistically promiscuous musical stew, just as Bakshi’s movie is considered by some (R. Crumb included) a bastardization of the free-floating, easy-goin’ nihilism which devotees of the comic feel the director completely missed. This one would be a hard one to program for home video—my 200 Motels laserdisc is in considerably better shape than my Betamax copy of Fritz the Cat-- and I’m not sure how easy it is to lay hands on these titles otherwise. Once again the New Beverly casually, and with very little fanfare, serves up a can’t-miss just to see how appreciative we are. Well, are we?
Friday and Saturday, July 10 & 11, makes for a rare weekend appearance of Grindhouse Night. Curators Brian Quinn and Eric Caidin had originally planned this great double feature-- Ilsa: She-Wolf of the S.S. (1975) and Ilsa: Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks (1976) as a tribute to festival friend and writer-director of the Ilsa movies, Don Edmonds. Unfortunately, Edmonds passed away earlier this summer, and what was intended as a celebration of the director and his creations, with Edmonds present to soak up the adulation, has turned into what Brian calls “an Irish wake of sorts,” that is, a sad, heartfelt tribute accompanied by a rowdy night of enjoying Edmonds’ penchant for mind-boggling tastelessness and the comedy of politically incorrect shocks. And just for good measure, Brian and Eric have a treat for the faithful—the double feature that magically, at Midnight, becomes a triple, with the addition to the bill of Edmonds’ knockabout 1977 thriller, Bare Knuckles, a hit at Quentin Tarantino’s 2007 New Beverly Grindhouse Festival.
If you’re like me and you’ve never seen Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960)—It’s okay to admit it; you’re among friends here—then we really must avail ourselves of this opportunity to see an archival print of this influential landmark of Italian cinema the way it’s supposed to be seen. The sweet life lasts for three days only—July 12-14.
July 15 and 16, the New Beverly turns its attention to the film career of the late Michael Jackson, which, once Captain EO, the Thriller and Bad videos, and that stilted cameo in Men in Black II have been eliminated, basically boils down to his appearance as the Scarecrow in Sidney Lumet’s ill-fated adaptation of The Wiz (1978). Getting Lumet, king of the New York street movie (‘70s division) to direct Diana Ross as an apparently mentally challenged Dorothy, a 40-ish spinster pretending to be a teenager who’s never been off her city block, sounds like a good idea, right? Somebody thought so, but The Wiz has absolutely no wings beyond Jackson’s elasticity and Mabel King’s sinister comic turn as the zaftig Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the Whatever. For an adaptation of a zesty, if thematically questionable musical, it’s a long, leaden slog, almost worth the glimpse of Jackson’s potential as an actor in musical comedies had that path been one he could have ever chosen for himself.
The real draw on these New Beverly nights is the second feature, after The Wiz. It's a rare chance to see one of the most misunderstood, underappreciated, and yes, best movies of the ‘80s—a movie probably even more reviled by audiences and the film press than The Wiz-- the Disney sequel Return to Oz (1985). Directed by master sound and image editor Walter Murch, the movie was so roundly drubbed as a disaster that it sent Murch scurrying away from a directing career, which, even for all the wonderful work he’s done for others in the interim, particularly Francis Ford Coppola and the late Anthony Minghella, is a damn shame. For Murch captures brilliantly the helter-skelter fearsomeness of Oz with a kind of visual flexibility that more seasoned directors probably envied—the effects are rendered with a catch-all Rube Goldberg playfulness, and the dark undercurrent is far more in tune with L. Frank Baum’s original vision of the dangers within the Emerald City and beyond than the vaudeville-derived sensibility of the beloved 1939 MGM classic that, for generations after the books were published, defined The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Fairuza Balk is a spectacular Dorothy, and Jane March will haunt your nights in a dual role as Dorothy’s evil nurse and the even more frightening Mombi. Don’t let anyone talk you out of it-- Return to Oz is a brilliant piece of work, and it deserves a better reputation, not to mention a cult following all its own.
For those charmed by the wiles and clipped upper-class East Coast cadences of Katharine Hepburn, it’s hard to imagine a better double bill than The Philadelphia Story (1940) and Adam’s Rib (1949)—Okay, it might be possible; Kate starred in one or two good movies in her flash-in-the-pan career. Let’s just say this one is as guaranteed a good time as any, especially if they happen to be your introduction to the grand dame of American screwball comedy. See Kate (and Cary, and Jimmy, and Spencer) at the New Beverly July 17-18.
The next spot on the calendar is reserved for the first “pinch-me-I’m-dreaming, no-don’t-I-don’t-wanna-wake-up” engagement of the New Beverly’s July offerings. If you’re like me, you have extra-fond memories of seeing great early Walter Hill movies when they were in theatrical release. Now that Hill’s classics, as well as his fine modern work (Deadwood, Broken Trail), have been consigned to video, we can be even more thankful to Michael Torgan for bringing a double feature like this to town-- The Warriors (1979) and The Long Riders (1980), two of the most visually arresting action movies ever made. The Warriors looks a little quaint now, and will probably seem even more so in the shadow of Tony Scott’s upcoming remake—but that remake is reason number one to get reacquainted with Hill’s version right now. And no matter how you slice it, it has a freaky, organic vitality that is all its own, and remains undiluted. Since its release The Long Riders has existed, for many cinephiles, in the long shadow of Sam Peckinpah. Though it does seem apt on the surface, I’ve never quite bought that comparison because it usually comes as an attempt to demean Hill as a sycophantic homage artist. Hill, quite independently of Peckinpah's influence, brings strong ties to all his characters and the Missouri landscape, including the women, and renders poetic and lyrical some of the visual edges that Peckinpah preferred to leave rough and jagged. Yet the haunting refrain for an old west of myth, amorality and contained madness seems plainly written on the line that connects this movie with, say, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Don’t miss the double feature for the movies, but stay and enjoy the conversation, because on Sunday night, July 19, members of the cast of The Warriors (guest list to be determined) will be along for the ride and your questions. If the movies are enough, the double bill plays Monday, July 20, as well.
The Long Riders has been well and widely praised for its casting, bringing together for sets of brothers-- Stacy and James Keach, Carradines David, Robert and Keith, Randy and Dennis Quaid, and Nicholas and Christopher Guest—as, respectfully, the James boys, the Youngers, the Millers and those bringers of destiny, Bob and Charlie Ford. And The Long Riders provides an excellent bridge into the next program, after the Grindhouse boys bring ‘80s Hong Kong thrillers Heartbeat 100 (1987) and Angel Enforcer (1989) our way on July 21. Look for the David Carradine tribute to continue in earnest with Martin Scorsese’s Boxcar Bertha (1972) and Hal Ashby’s Bound for Glory (1976) on July 22 and 23. Given the actor’s untimely death, as well as the release of the new book on Ashby by Nick Dawson and Carradine’s notorious scuffle with Haskel Wexler at a screening of Glory this past March, the time would certainly seem to be right for revisiting both of these movies, career highlights for the actor, if not for his directors. And once again, time for an admission—I have never taken advantage of the opportunity to see either one of these films, so what better time and place than this summer at the New Beverly?
July 24-28 are dates given over to international cinema at the New Beverly. The recent omnibus features Tokyo! (2009; segments directed by Bong Joon-Ho, Leos Carax and Michel Gondry) and Paris, Je T’aime (2006; Olivier Assayas, Joel and Ethan Coen, Tom Tykwer, Gus van Sant, et al) are a great way to prep for that vicarious vacation you probably can’t afford, and while they are almost by definition uneven, there’s enough inspiration and inquiry into the titular cities, into the surface charms as well as the hidden mysteries, to keep anyone fascinated. And then, on successive nights, July 26, 27 and 28, the New Beverly unravels brand-new 35mm prints of Masaki Koyabashi’s masterwork The Human Condition (Parts 1, 2 & 3) (1959; 1959; 1961). Though recently released on stunning DVD editions, if you can arrange your schedule to make a three-night commitment to this program, you will likely not regret it. I’ve gotten to the point where I cannot bear, if I can at all help it, to have my first exposure of a film classic happen on DVD, no matter how great the transfer, because I feel like I’m not able to give it my full attention at home. Here’s my chance, and yours, to experience the real deal, in a place meant to accentuate all of the movie’s subtlety, agony and scale.
The theme double bills continue as the month winds down. On July 29 and 30 it’s a virtual referendum on the state of Jim Jarmusch, a chance to look at his most recent two features, The Limits of Control (2009) and Broken Flowers (2005) and think about the career path of this most stubbornly independent American filmmaker.
And then, as if by way of antidote, old Hollywood comes roaring back with a jaunty and hilarious coupling of titles from the inimitable, somewhat brittle, undeniably charming Irene Dunne. Her pairing with Cary Grant (and Ralph Bellamy, and Asta) in Leo McCarey’s indefatigably witty The Awful Truth (1937) is one of screwball comedy’s untouchable highlights, and while it doesn’t quite soar as mightily, Richard Boleslawski’s Theodora Goes Wild (1936), in which a small town matron masks her identity as the scribe of a saucy best-seller, is plenty delightful enough. It co-stars Melvyn Douglas and the unbeatable Thomas Mitchell. Sounds like my daughter and I have a date, either July 31 or August 1.
Finally, to wrap up August we must skip ahead two weeks to August 19 & 20, when the New Beverly presents two hard-boiled noirs that are rarely seen on repertory screens. Vince Edwards is a killer whose M.O. is Murder by Contract (1958; Irving Lerner) and who begins to question his trade when his next victim turns out to be a woman. Philip Pine, Herschel Bernardi and Caprice Toriel co-star. Second on the bill is The Sniper (1952; Edward Dymytryk) in which Adolphe Menjou and Gerald Mohr hit the streets in search of a serial killer with a high-powered rifle. Neither of these movies are first on the tongues on noir enthusiasts, but they do have their backers (Martin Scorsese, for one), and it’s fun to get the opportunity to see some films of this period whose reputations do not precede them as strongly as others. However you slice it, a dirty, tough-minded double bill.
The spirit, as well as the words, of Noel Coward take over the New Beverly on August 21 and 22, when the spanking-new version of Easy Virtue (2009; Stephan Elliot) takes the stage, starring Jessica Biel, Kristin Scott Thomas and Colin Firth, alongside David Lean’s 1945 film of Blithe Spirit starring Rex Harrison, Constance Cummings and Margaret Rutherford.
And finally, time for a new generation, and a bunch of the old generation too, to get their Indiana Jones on, on the big screen. Steven Spielberg’s original Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981; and no, kids, it’s not called Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, no matter what it says on your DVD box) gets to duke it out in our hearts as number-one chronologically (inarguable) and in quality of the series (way arguable), with the movie I think wins hands-down, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which I cannot wait to be overwhelmed by again in full-stretch Panavision and Dolby stereo. I used to think that the “Anything Goes” opening was worth the price of admission but that the rest of the movie fell badly short. Well, I’ve undergone a sort of religious conversion vis-à-vis this movie in the last few years, and now it seems obvious to me that it towers over not only the rest of the movies in the series, but also takes a spot perched high above much of the rest of the director’s filmography, alongside Jaws, Duel, Empire of the Sun, E.T. and, yes, 1941. See these first two chapters on August 23, 24 and 25.
That’s not all, folks. Just look at what Phil Blankenship has in store for the midnight maniacs in July and August:
Perhaps one of the best bad movies of all time, John Frankheimer’s inimitable and, believe it or not, influential eco-horror hokum, Prophecy (1979). Beware the freakisms! (And that shock ending!) (July 18)
The next night, another shocker, and this one is legitimately good-- William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) has a couple of moments where, however much you may have resisted the notion, you become convinced you're in the hands of master filmmaker. (We can debate all night as to whether this is actually true, but it feels like it, dammit, at the time!) (July 19)
Then Phil and the New Bev plumb the slimy depths of the unknown (at least by me) quantity that is Dangerous Men (2005; not on DVD!) We’re gonna have to trust Phil on this one. (July 25)
The following weekend brings a rarity that, if the utterly bizarre trailer is any indication, must be seen at all costs. It’s Stunt Rock (1985), also unknown to me before this year (when Matthew Kiernan sent the trailer to me attached to a VHS copy of Freebie and the Bean), and this one looks unmissable. I refer you to the visual evidence: (July 31)
Then, on Saturday, August 1, those of you with a Charles Band obsession can work out your issues at midnight with The Dungeonmaster (1985).
Finally, at midnight, on August 15, just in time for Rob Zombie’s sequel, Phil invites you to cleanse your palate with the Carpenter-derived mise-en-scene of Rick Rosenthal and the variations on a theme he works with Jamie Lee Curtis as that fateful night continues, in Halloween II (1981). All new!
One final New Beverly note: You may have noticed a glaring gap in August’s schedule, from August 3 to August 15. Well, it is my pleasure to announce that the slot will be filled by none other than a return appearance by Joe Dante and nearly two weeks more of great programming put together by the maestro himself. Those of you who were able to attend any and/or all of Joe’s New Beverly festival of last year, culminating with the Movie Orgy, don’t have to be reminded just how mind-blowing that festival really was. So far no word on just what the director of Matinee, The ‘burbs, Small Soldiers and Gremlins 2: The New Batch has in store for those lucky/smart enough to attend, but if last year’s program is any indication, there are some minds and eyes that are due to be opened. Joe has promised me some time in between now and then to sit down and talk about what he has planned this year (including, perhaps, another screening of the Movie Orgy?? Please???!!), and I will pass that along as soon as I can. But whatever may be on the schedule, do yourself a favor-- block out August 3-15 right now on your calendar and just be prepared for whatever happens. With Dante at the controls, anything will.
Time is tight as well as late, but I do want to clue you in, if you are not already sufficiently clued, to the joys of the aptly-named Cinefamily, a repertory collective that has effectively taken over the Silent Movie theater on Fairfax and turned it into, against all odds, yet another film repertory happening during the age of home theater and on-demand delivery that one might have reasonably guessed would have killed such programming once and for all. But not when it’s done with flair, originality and intelligence, as at the New Beverly and here. You are best directed to the Cinefamily’s extensive calendar for a list of every fascinating nook and cranny with which these folks have filled the July and August days. But as confident as I am that you’ll find something to suit you on your own investigation, I just have to highlight a couple of things.
First off, the Cinefamily is highlighting a July-August series of “Silent Sirens” every Wednesday night. On the way is Greta Garbo (Love; July 8), Pola Negri (Sappho; July 15), Marion Davies (Show People; July 22), Colleen Moore (Ella Cinders, Orchids and Ermine; July 29), Mabel Normand (The Extra Girl; August 5), Joan Crawford (Our Dancing Daughters; August 12), Anna May Wong (The Toll of the Sea; August 19) and Gloria Swanson (Male and Female; August 26). Most of these pre-code melodramas are pretty juicy, and the rare opportunity to see this kind of programming ought to be draw enough. But each of these female stars fascinates in her own way, and the Cinefamily’s two-month long essay on their enduring magnetism and allure is just about irresistible.
As is the chance to see, ragin’ full on big-screen-wise, Brother Theodore in the well-regarded documentary of his strange life entitled To My Great Chagrin: The Unbelievable Story of Brother Theodore. It screens August 11 at 8:00 p.m. For those of us who first saw Brother Theodore on David Letterman’s old NBC show, I think it’s safe to say we’ve never known quite what to make of him (and neither did Dave).
Here’s what the liner notes from the Cinefamily calendar has to say:
“He was considered to be one of the most significant links in the history of comedy, admired by such people as Woody Allen, Dick Cavett, and Eric Bogosian. His television appearances have spanned from Steve Allen to Merv Griffin to David Letterman. His long-running Off-Broadway show was hailed as ‘diabolical genius.’ He was Brother Theodore. Formerly a millionaire playboy living in pre-war Germany, Theodore endured the sobering destruction of his entire family, his fortune, and his own identity, as a survivor of Dachau. Later shipped to America and continually haunted by his loss, Theodore re-invented himself by capitalizing on his dark, existential humor, to become one of America’s most respected humorists and monologists. Combining ultra-rare footage of performances and TV appearances along with puppetry and innovative use of voiceover, To My Great Chagrin reconciles the cryptic, oddly comic fury of Brother Theodore’s performing persona with the stranger-than-fiction chronology of his life.”
Finally, your tolerance for ‘80s cheese may be slaked or tested by the Cinefamily’s "Holy Fucking Shit!" series of midnight programs appropriately themed “Summer Camp.” On the schedule is a Pia Zadora tribute-- the Golden Globe Award-winning Butterfly (1981) and the utterly stupefying The Lonely Lady (1984), every bit the equal of the Stephen Boyd-Tony Bennett stunner The Oscar, will be shown, with Zadora in attendance, on July 11; Lambada and The Forbidden Dance (July 26); Magic BMX and Rad (Aug. 1); The Blue Lagoon (August 8); Troll 2 wioth Monster Dog (August 15); Caveman! and Grunt (August 22); and the Summer Camp Grand Finale on August 29. There is no way I could ever do justice to the level of commitment the Cinefamily has to this relentless parade of processed trash—their liner notes for the Holy Fucking Shit series are little gems, each and every one, and far more enjoyable than actually sitting through Rad or Troll 2.
But even those notes won’t replace making it out to the inarguable gem in the Cinefamily HFS “Summer Camp” series—they’re staging a New Year’s Eve party in the middle of July—streamers, noisemakers, giant midnight dropping ball, and a very special movie guest: Allan Arkush’s Get Crazy! (1983), oft cited as one of the best rock movies ever made, as well as one of the most genuinely anarchic and downright goofy, will screen at midnight on July 18. It’s a ton of fun. But don’t take my word for it. Here’s the Cinefamily again on their showcase feature:
“(It’s) the absolute ultimate party movie, Get Crazy, the most wild, untamed, unleashed, unbelievable sex-drugs-and-rock-'n-roll movie ever made. Move over, Animal House, there's a new sheriff in Partytown! This devastatingly addictive comedy orgy, set on New Year's Eve, is Rock 'N' Roll High School director Allan Arkush's loving tribute to his bacchanalian days working at NYC's legendary concert venue Fillmore East, and features a nonstop parade of slick rock parody (including Lou Reed as a Dylan-esque mumbling stumbler and Malcolm McDowell as a Jagger clone who ends up having a conversation with his penis), a surprising amount of edgy, dangerous-looking stuntwork, cameo porn galore (Lee Ving! Fabian! Clint Howard!), enough rapid-fire schtick for a dozen Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker flicks, a buffet of salacious souped-up T&A--and a stratospheric level of insane drug use. Every substance in the rainbow is partaken in, joyously and without consequence, almost all provided by the film's mythical El Topo-esque space cowboy, Electric Larry, one of the coolest motherfuckers you've ever set eyes on. Get Crazy is rabid, manic and totally raging, so strap yourself in, tip back that drink--and say goodbye to your brain!”
Can you say, can’t miss? Won’t miss?! July 18. Silent Movie Theater. See you there.
All right, now, is that enough to convince you, dear L.A. filmgoer, that your entertainment dollar (x14) is better spent at one of these creative venues, establishments dedicated to breathing life into the local repertory film scene, than on Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (for the third time) or G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (even once)? I hope so. Even if you can’t make it to all of these great screenings (And how could you, you maniac?), you can come out for at least one or two, right? If you’re not in L.A., well, maybe they’ll give you some ideas for home theater double and triple features you can book yourself, transporting you to some of these screenings in spirit if not always in body. Because if going to the New Beverly or the Cinefamily with regularity will convince you of anything, it’s that the spirit of cinema is alive and well in a city where, of all places, it has oft been thought of as moribund, if not flat-out dead. The movies live! And here’s to keeping them alive at the New Beverly and the Cinefamily Silent Movie Theater.
UPDATE 7/7/09 3:33 p.m. Word is out this afternoon that the Cinefamily and Silent Movie Theater longtime organist Bob Mitchell has passed away at the age of 96. Mitchell, a fixture with the Cinefamily, had a rich history with providing musical accompaniment to silent films, and Mr. Mitchell was also the original organist when Dodger Stadium opened in 1962. A tribute is planned preceding tomorrow night's screening of Love starring Greta Garbo.
Thanks to Jon Weisman and to Art and Culture for passing along the Cinefamily's heartfelt words about Mr. Mitchell and his legacy. A real connection to the history of cinema, he will be sorely missed.