Thursday, February 25, 2010

SLIFR REVIVAL PICK: Feb. 24 - Mar. 3





Well, the word around Movietown this week isn’t Avatar or even Alice, it’s Oscar, and the activity that follows is mostly about filling out Oscar office pool ballots (unless, of course, you’re a member of the Academy, in which case you have actual Oscar ballots to complete before the March 2 deadline) and catching up on the last holdouts among the nominated releases. (I somehow still have to make time for A Single Man and The White Ribbon, and if I can make it to a Laemmle Theater early enough, The Messenger.) In the same way, some of the biggest attractions on the revival circuit this week aren’t the inevitable collection of Best Picture winners from years past or any programming like that. If you poke your nose around there are Q&A screenings at the Guilds and at various auditoriums around Los Angeles geared toward filling in those Oscar gaps, and of course the best places to locate these screenings are within the pages of Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.


Among those screenings are the program of Oscar Nominated Short Subjects (both live action and animated) which continues its run at the Nuart through next Thursday, March 4. And the Academy itself has a Short Films Night scheduled as part of Oscar Week activities next Tuesday, March 2. Wednesday will bring a symposium night devoted to the nominated short and feature documentaries hosted by Oscar-winning documentarian Barbara Kopple (Harlan County U.S.A., 1976). (More Oscar week activity at the Academy will be highlighted next week.)

And if you should want to get a leg up on your own Oscar office pool chances, the American Cinematheque is making available a special seminar which should help to answer one of the age-old questions of the Oscars—what the hell is the difference between Best Sound and Best Sound Mixing? The Cinema Audio Society will be presenting a seminar this coming Sunday afternoon at 5:00 p.m. at the Egyptian (tickets are free and will be available at the door on the day of the event only). It’s a panel discussion featuring the winners of the Cinema Audio Society’s awards for outstanding achievement in sound mixing, which ill e awarded in a closed-envelope ceremony the night before. Those winners will then be invited to participate in a round table discussion to talk about not only their winning projects but all the projects they have been involved with in the past. Awards will be given for teams involved with projects for television movies and miniseries, television series, TV series or specials (non-fiction, variety, music), and DVD original programming, as well as the one for motion picture features. The nominees in that category this year include Avatar, District 9, The Hurt Locker, Star Trek and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. The seminar will commence at 5:30 p.m. on Sunday, February 28.

Just prior to that seminar, in the same auditorium, the American Cinematheque will host its annual KPCC 89.3 FilmWeek Oscar preview, featuring the host of the weekly FilmWeek program on KPCC-FM (89.3), Larry Mantle, moderating a conversation between himself and film critics Andy Klein (Brand X), Lael Lowenstein (Variety), Wade Major (Boxoffice), Jean Oppenheimer (KPCC), Claudia Puig USA Today), Henry Sheehan (HenrySheehan.com), Peter Rainer (Christian Science Monitor) and Charles Solomon, animation expert and critic for Amazon.com. The host and the guest critics will be discussing their Oscar picks in a 90-minute panel discussion that will be taped for broadcast the following weekend on 89.3 KPCC-FM, Southern California Public Radio. The seminar, which is always fun to listen to, both in person or on the radio, is free to American Cinematheque members and will cost nonmembers a nominal fee.


And speaking of a gathering of critics, while not exclusively Oscar-oriented, you can reasonably bet that the subject will come up as IndieWIRE’s Anne Thompson gathers together an impressive panel of critics—among them John Powers, Richard Schickel, Ella Taylor and critic-filmmaker Gerald Peary-- to discuss Peary’s film For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism Saturday night, February 27, at the Billy Wilder theater inside the Armand Hammer Museum in Westwood. In the documentary, Peary recounts the storied history of the practice of film criticism in America, spanning from the prose of James Agee and Manny Farber to the pixels of Harry Knowles, and in the process makes a case for why criticism still matters, which is a subject dear to a least a few of us left out there in the dark. Some of those questioned on the subject for the film include Knowles, Powers, Lisa Schwarzbaum, Elvis Mitchell, B. Ruby Rich, Andrew Sarris and Richard Corliss, with clips featuring Farber, Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael. For anyone to whom criticism is still a vital form, as well as for those who fear it can never again be what it was when the likes of Farber and Sarris and Kael were operating at their peak, this screening and panel is a rare opportunity to hear from those whose voices will this night not be responding to someone else's but instead reflecting upon the practice of their own art. The screening begins at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, February 27, and tickets, while they will be snapped up as the weekend comes closer, are still available.


The Rest of the Week has its own share of delights, both rare and not-so-rare, all made extra attractive by their availability on the big screen. If it weren’t for homework and the fact that it’s a school night, my daughters and I would be first in line at the Egyptian tonight to see Gremlins (1984) and Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1988) together on one cacophonous double bill of unmatched Looney Tunes-infused anarchy. Joe Dante’s first installment was the big hit, cross-wiring It’s a Wonderful Life with Star Trek’s “The Trouble with Tribbles” (only these Tribbles had teeth and a penchant for satirizing the foibles of human behavior). But Dante (and scenarist Charlie Haas) really hit their stride with the sequel, which mutated, like the gremlins themselves, into a full-frontal pop culture assault, one of the great meta-pop culture satires ever made. Of course it was but a shadow of its forerunner at the box office and consequently seen as a “failure.” But anyone who has actually seen it knows of its awesome hurricane force, probably an even closer approximation of the Looney Tunes aesthetic than even Dante’s Twilight Zone episode “It’s a Good Life,” which would again be eclipsed when Dante released Looney Tunes: Back in Action in 2003.



One fact about living a movie-going life in Los Angeles has always been, and remains so, that one must sometimes make difficult choices, because when presented with the bounty of revival screenings at the ready on Friday night, February 26, those choices seem more difficult than usual. The Essential Clint Eastwood series at LACMA concludes with a chance to see the movie that convinced a much broader swatch of influential moviegoers—critics at the Cannes Film Festival, for example—that Eastwood was a director to be reckoned with. (Some of us were already convinced by the likes of The Outlaw Josey Wales, The Gauntlet and Bronco Billy.) The movie that turned a lot of heads toward the idea that Eastwood might just be an artist in the classical Hollywood mode was his 1988 Charlie Parker biopic Bird, starring Forrest Whitaker as the titular and sublime bebop sax master. Bird flummoxed as many as it entranced, however (dooming it at the box office in the process), by foregoing the standard chronology of the “well-told” biopic in favor of jazz-inflected free-associative editing rhythms and fragmented storytelling shards that reflected the life of Parker as it drifted and jutted and thrust itself amongst a litany of professional, legal, chemical and emotional conflicts. Eastwood, himself a serious jazz aficionado, clearly approached Bird as a labor of love, brilliantly conjuring the smoky milieu of post-war New York jazz clubs, utilizing master tracks of Parker’s actual solos and integrating them with fresh takes on the tunes blown by a roster of inspired musicians. (The movie's innovative use of sound in this regard earned it an Oscar.) This is one of Eastwood’s darkest (sometimes literally) films, and if you’ve never seen it projected you will likely be stunned by the way in which Jack Green’s cinematography, murky and vague on DVD, becomes an expressive seductive force of its own in 35mm. The movie screens Friday, February 27 at 7:30 p.m. inside the Bing Theater at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.


If you’re like me and you have a youngster whom you’re schooling in the fine arts of Hollywood movie history, then you’ll probably want to follow me and my girl to the New Beverly Cinema on Friday night to take in two Columbia Pictures classics directed by George Cukor and starring the mousy-voiced life-force Judy Holliday. Number one on the bill is Holliday’s hilarious Oscar-winning turn as Billie Dawn, the none-too-bright moll to Broderick Crawford’s gangster tycoon Harry Brock, who hires William Holden’s suave Paul Verrall to tutor her in book-learning and social sophistication , and who hits the roof when Billie’s smarts start to eclipse Brock’s own and the student starts to take a shine to her teacher. The movie is Born Yesterday, and even if it betrays its stage origins a little too obviously at times it’s still hilarious, buoyed by Crawford’s slow-burn, Holden’s easygoing attractiveness and the luminous presence and richly funny cadences of Judy Holliday. Less celebrated, but just as much fun (and perhaps even more pertinent to The Times We Live In), is Cukor and Holliday’s follow-up It Should Happen to You (1954), in which Holliday transforms herself into one Gladys Glover, seeker of fame, who achieves her immodest goal in the most immediate fashion-- by plastering her name across a Columbus Circle billboard. The movie, scripted by Garson Kanin (who also wrote Born Yesterday) features Peter Lawford, Vaughan Taylor and Jack Lemmon in his movie debut. I can’t wait to hear my daughter cracking up over Judy Holliday for four hours. The double bill graces the New Beverly screen Friday and Saturday, February 27 and 28, with accompanying late matinee shows on Saturday afternoon in addition to the evening 7:30 p.m. show time.

Cultra Video has sponsored the Art of Exploitation series all month at the Cinefamily, and it comes to a rollicking close Friday night, February 27, with David Gottlieb’s 1977 B-movie classic Game Show Models. The history of this one is pretty entertaining in and of itself. It apparently began as a strange AFI-funded art film entitled The Seventh Dwarf and rather quickly mutated into this mishmash of music-business satire, inexplicable nudity and, as the Cinefamily notes have it, “assorted sleaze grafted on at the eleventh hour.” The plot, such as it is, revolves around a record executive who beds a mean-spirited and childish new singing starlet, only to have her friends and co-workers turn the tables on him, threatening his life if he doesn’t succumb to their increasingly weird advances. Features odd cameos by Dick Miller, former Los Angeles Times film critic Charles Champlin, and a bunch of mimes. (Perhaps it’s better just to go see it for yourself and ask no questions, until afterward.) The movie is joined by Christopher Odin’s Groove Tube knock-off entitled, none too surprisingly, The Boob Tube (1975), which features more TV and occasional commercial parodies, headed by a lumpy cast of straight-faced actors who may not even get jokes (or that they’re even in a film). The Cinefamily gives it “points for being puerile, witty and raunchy all at the same time,” and as such it could be the perfect capper for the Art of Exploitation series at the Silent Movie Theater.


Also wrapping up the next night is the theater group’s Czech Your Head series, featuring fascinating and none-too-frequently screened films from the early ‘70s when Czech cinema was, hard as it may be to imagine now, somewhat in vogue among connoisseurs on these shores. Saturday, February 28, the Cinefamily rings the velvet curtain down with Jaromil Jires’ lavish and witty Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970), a coming-of-age tale from a time and sensibility that did not require a red flag be raised at the very phrase “coming of age.” Valerie’s first menstruation ushers in her sexual awakening and sets off a wild and hallucinogenic series of experiences bracketed and informed by the conflicting nature of teenage sexuality, the excitement, the sense of frontiers unexplored, and the strangely manifested fears. It’s all set to a beautiful and buoyant and darkly insinuating score by Lubos Fiser which the Cinefamily describes as “one of the great film scores of the era, a cocktail of psych-folk and avant-garde classical.” The Cinefamily presents this rare Czech film, the finale to the Czech Your Head series, in 35mm and would like nothing more than for you to join Valerie as she navigates her wondrous week.

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But as bounteous as these options are which we've just gone through, the SLIFR Revival Pick of the Week, again a multi-pronged pick designed to let me off the hook and give you a harder time in choosing amongst the ridiculous amount of treasures we have at our disposal here every week in Los Angeles, comes from none of the above.


Instead, three different engagements and 10 different films make up the Pick of the Week high points, and we start off back at the Egyptian on Friday night, February 27. It has been said that, whether you like CGI and all of its slick creations or not, they would not have been possible without the stop-motion animation techniques of Willis O’Brien (King Kong), Ray Harryhausen (The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad) and the various effects artists, stop-motion and otherwise, who were inspired in the wake of the work generated by these two men. Embrace it or dismiss it, Avatar too, as Glenn Kenny has rightly observed, is only possible because of the pioneering, handmade work of Harryhausen et al., not in spite of it. And one of the greatest showcases for that work unspools on the Egyptian screen Friday night. Don Chaffey’s Jason and the Argonauts (1964) may not necessarily be a great film, but really, none of the movies for which Ray Harryhausen created effects were great films. The greatness they had in them was supplied usually exclusively by Harryhausen, his fertile imagination and his steady, patient hands, and for many of his fans Jason represents the zenith of his imagination on film. Just by coincidence a clever rejoinder to the super-slick Greek mythology-lite of Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, Jason and the Argonauts is packed with one classic sequence derived from Greek mythology after another—the descent of the harpies; the heroes warding off an attack by a giant bronze statue; Poseidon himself making himself known and providing safe passage for their ship as they pursue the Golden Fleece; and the final battle against an army of living skeletons, the template for a generation’s worth of nightmares and inspiration for the can-you-top-this? effects maestros who would sprout like weeds from the Star Wars phenomenon. Along with Jason is Jack the Giant Killer (1962), director Nathan Juran’s follow-up to The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, a surprising potent and snappy entry into the Sinbad-esque swashbuckler/giant monster genre, with effects by Harryhausen protégé Jim Danforth. If you’re a Harryhausen devotee and you’ve never seen Jack the Giant Killer, this is an opportunity you should not deny yourself.

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Over at the Aero, starting tonight, four evenings devoted to the splendid comic vision of Jacques Tati. His masterful Playtime (1967), in which M. Hulot gets swept up in an American tourist invasion in Paris, is a brilliantly funny display of Tati’s physical talents and a superb architectural tour of the city. In 70mm!



Friday brings Mon Oncle (1958), in which M. Hulot (Tati) makes his way through an unfamiliar modernized society. It’s doubled with the Los Angeles premiere of Michael House’s hour-long documentary The Magnificent Tati (2009), which traces the rise of the director from the Parisian music hall stage, through his Oscar-winning films of the ’50, right up to his biggest challenge, Playtime. The Cinematheque promises a delightful documentary portrait “filled with rare Tati archival footage, television appearances and commentary from an eclectic mix of film historians, animators, rock stars and fans.” Plus, following the feature film the Aero will spotlight three rare shorts co-written or directed by Tati, and all starring Tati: René Clement’s Soigne ton gauche (1936, 20 min.), Tati’s School for Postmen (L’Ecole des facteurs; 1947, 18 min.) and Nicolas Ribowski’s Evening Classes (Cour du soir; 1967, 30 min.) Of all the nights of the Tati series, if your familiarity with this great comic director is fairly limited, this could be the most enriching night to attend.



Saturday will be a real treat for Tati fans as well, however. The Cinematheque will be showcasing a beautifully restored print of Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (1953), in which Hulot’s attempts to keep his destructive slapstick tendencies tamped down meet with a decided lack of success while on holiday in a tiny French resort town. This classic is paired with Tati’s directorial debut, The Big Day (Jour de Fete) (1949), in which he plays a mailman who attempts to modernize the mail delivery system and discovers such an ambitious undertaking, especially during a coinciding Bastille Day celebration, probably wasn’t such a good idea.



The series concludes on Sunday with the return of M. Hulot in Tati’s vibrant and calamitous Traffic (1971), who must escort a camper vehicle loaded with absurd gadgets from its factory to an auto show in Amsterdam. Would it be a Hulot outing if everything went well? The evening is capped by Tati’s rarely screened Parade (1974), in which the Hulot persona is put away in favor of the pantomiming and looser-formed clowning that marked his years as a youthful music hall star. The entirety of the four days at the Aero will be a guarantee treasure chest for those who know Tati largely by name, and a wonderful chance to get reacquainted with the master on the big screen for those you already love him well.

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Finally, stay up late Saturday night (Sunday morning) at your own risk for Phil Blankenship and Shock Till You Drop’s midnight presentation of a movie that doesn’t get seen much on big screens these days. It’s David Cronenberg’s visionary 1983 science fiction masterpiece Videodrome, a movie that, despite its being anchored in visual imagery based on a video technology (the Betamax and the Beta tape) that was all but gone by the time the movie had its first video release, has remained fresh and alarmingly prescient regarding its sobering geopolitical perspective and the ideas behind its dated technology. To say nothing of Cronenberg’s fairly radical narrative strategies, in which not only protagonist James Woods but also the audience is continually shifting and adjusting, trying to get oriented and grounded in some sort of reality before that accepted reality begins to mutate into… something else. In true great midnight movie fashion, the experience of seeing Videodrome may, in fact, be augmented by the typical punchiness and fighting against sleep that can often kick in midway through a late night showing such as this. I remember seeing Night of the Living Dead for the first time at midnight in a packed theater and convincing myself that upon leaving the cinema the audience would actually be set upon and consumed by meat-eating zombies. Similarly, I can recall a couple of times beginning to slip into a fugue state while watching this movie and having little trouble at all identifying with the tortured loyalties and static-infused confusion that beset Woods on his way toward realizing the New Flesh. Videodrome at 11:59 p.m. at the New Beverly Cinema this coming Saturday night is the very definition of a can’t-miss.

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As always, more information on tickets, prices, parking and show times for all of the above venues and more can be found by clicking the links to the Art Theater in Long Beach, the Cinefamily (at the Silent Movie Theater), the Billy Wilder Theater, the Bing Theater at LACMA, the Downtown Independent theater, the American Cinematheque at the Egyptian and the Aero, the New Beverly Cinema and the Nuart.

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4 comments:

Peter Nellhaus said...

The FilmMuseum in Berlin has one of their rooms devoted to Ray Harryhausen. As many times as I've seen them, those sword fighting skeletons never fail to thrill me.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Peter, I couldn't agree more. There's something truly awe-inspiring about that sequence, and about the best of Harryhausen's other great sequences, that touch on something that escapes more sophisticated special effects. It has something to do with perceiving their handmade quality, of course, and even with the degree to which the lo-fi approach (as we experience it in 2010, anyway) directs you to utilize your imagination to fill in the spaces where the effects fall short in the photo-realism department.

But I think also that, even after years and years of exposure to a computer-generated philosophy of effects which has more or less erased the line between simple physics and seeing things realized that are physically possible while being encouraged to believe they're really happening,* a sequence like the skeleton attack in Jason remains magical because it has somehow managed to retain, some 50 years after its conception, the ability to make us go, "How did he do that?", despite our supposed sophistication regarding matters of movie magic.

We know about the painstaking work and Herculean patience Harryhausen must have had to design and execute those sequences (which he did on his own, with minimal assistance). But it's not a process most of us can relate to in any way. CGI comes as part of the package in an age where I'd say 90% of the population is tied to their computers, either for work, play or through some sort of psychological addiction. Therefore even though most of us couldn't actually do what Pixar does, or what the teams that create memorable effects like those seen in Starship Troopers or in any other average action film do, we at least have a day-to-day familiarity with the language, the hardware and software, the virtual world of the computer in which those effects are created.

But the idea of sitting down with models of one's own creation under hot lights on a miniaturized set, in relative isolation, and creating a spectacular fusion of stop-motion and live-action imagery like the skeleton attack in Jason, well, I'd wager most of us wouldn't have the foggiest idea where to even begin to fantasize about such an undertaking, let alone actually doing it. May we never figure it out.

(* Of course, the very nature of those swooping, diving camera moves, taking us over cliffs and under moving vehicles and out the other side, or tracking past miles of terrain in a few seconds, we know are not physically possible, and the knowledge of that is welded to every one of these shots, making it almost impossible for me to suspend my disbelief in the way that I manage to just fine with less polished effects even to this day.)

Rupert Pupkin said...

Really well said Dennis. I am totally with you regarding the "how did he do that" sense of wonderment I still get when I watch a Harryhausen film. It just never ceases to amaze me. Just last night I was showing my son THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS and several times during the movie he asked me questions about what was a real set and what was a model and how things were done.
I love living close to LA in that there is so much for cinefiles to do on any given week or weekend night. You gotta love it! Just wish I had more time!

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