Wednesday, February 17, 2010

SLIFR REVIVAL PICK: February 18-24

A survey of the Los Angeles repertory and special screenings landscape this week reveals it to be a good one in general, but especially if you’re a fan of hard-to-find classic exploitation pictures.

The Art of Exploitation series continues at the Silent Movie Theater this weekend when the Cinefamily presents Lawrence Mascott’s Teenage Divorcee (aka Josie’s Castle; 1971), according to the Cinefamily “equal parts eccentric travelogue, drug bummer dramaturgy and salacious swinger smorgasbord -- all continuously punctuated by a giant sackful of lilting musical montages.” Doesn’t sound strange enough? Well, it stars George Takei (Star Trek’s original Sulu), Tom Holland (director of Child’s Play and Fright Night) and some other guy not well known enough to be of note apparently, as three recently divorced friends who decide to pack up, move to San Diego and start a commune, where surely all their troubles will end and their lives will turn around for the better. Right? Right. Teenage Divorcee screens as the first half of a double bill completed by porn maestro Charles De Santos’ Honky Tonk Nights (1978), a soft-core mix of comedy, romance, country tunes and, of course, sex (some) and nudity (plenty). It may not be Nashville, but DeSantos gets points for having the nerve to cast Georgina Spelvin, Chris Cassidy, Serena and Carol Doda for their acting abilities! The Silent Movie Theater will undoubtedly be swingin’ for this double feature Friday, February 19.


Friday and Saturday the Aero features four from horror auteur Wes Craven on the big screen. Look for the original down-and-dirty versions of The Hills Have Eyes (1977) and The Last House on the Left (1972) to hold your retch reflex hostage on February 19. Then on Saturday, it’s two from Craven’s more “respectable” period, the twisted and goofy Reagan-era social satire The People Under the Stairs matched with his straight-up scary adaptation of Wade Davis’ first-person account of voodoo horror and zombification The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988), again with an eye toward the material’s distinct political subtext.


But the week’s best two-fer dip into the grimy Grindhouse gene pool comes courtesy of Brian Quinn, Eric Caidin and the twice-monthly Grindhouse Film Festival at the New Beverly Cinema. The boys are hauling out two blaxploitation nuggets that are definitely worth stepping out for, from two of the genre’s most distinctive and over-the-top filmmakers. The evening starts with Jamaa Fanaka’s downright crazy Penitentiary III, starring series stud Leon Isaac Kennedy, with appearances by gusto-filled soap star Anthony Geary (as “Serenghetti”) and flamboyant female impersonator Jim Bailey as Cleopatra. It all has something to do with Kennedy getting thrown in prison (again), tortured in the most pictorially and cinematically fascinating ways, and then forced to go up against the prison’s most notorious and brutal fighter—And that’s all I’ll say about that. But believe me, it’s worth the surprise to see for yourself. But as flamboyant as Mssrs. Fanaka, Kennedy, Geary and, of course, Bailey are, they can’t hold a candle to blaxploitation superstar Rudy Ray Moore, whose Dolemite character epitomized the extremes to which the genre could go in fulfilling the fantasies of its mostly urban, ill-served African-American audiences. If you ever get a chance to see Moore’s satanic masterpiece Petey Wheatstraw (The Devil’s Son-in Law), by all means do. But until that day comes, you’d be well-advised to “settle” for the outrageous bumper car ride that is Disco Godfather, I which retired cop Moore becomes a DJ at a local club, where the women are sweet (especially Carol Speed), the music is hot (especially Moore’s blistering theme song) and the trouble doesn’t take too long in coming. Disco Godfather doesn’t have the manic razzle dazzle of the Dolemite movies at their best, not to mention the mind-blowing visual energy and no-holds-barred lunacy of Wheatstraw-- it’s a nasty comedy, not unlike Richard Pryor’s old Exorcist routine done up a full speed by a cast of drunken carnies with the devil’s fire in their eyes. But Disco Godfather has its own seedy moves down pat, and Moore is a delight even in this more grounded variation on his familiar persona.


It’s not a revival program per se, but for the next two weeks the Nuart will be playing host to all the films nominated for Oscars in the Live Action Short Film and Animated Short Film categories. The animated shorts include: French Roast (France), in which an uptight businessman in a fancy Parisian café finds his wallet missing just as the check comes due; Granny O'Grimm's Sleeping Beauty (Ireland) tells the story of a grandmother who loses her way through the plot of a fairy tale as she relates her version of "Sleeping Beauty" to an increasingly terrified granddaughter; The Lady and the Reaper (Spain), a tale of lost love in which an old lady is invited to enter death's domain, where she expects to be reunited with her beloved husband, if her plans are not thwarted; Logorama (Argentina), featuring spectacular car chases, an intense hostage crisis and wild animals rampaging through the city (Jumanji meets Ronin?); and A Matter of Loaf and Death (UK), the welcome return of Nick Park, who brings Wallace & Gromit back as proprietors of a successful bread-baking business who begin to worry about a rash of disappearances of local bakers and decide to take charge of sleuthing the mysterious details of an apparent murder mystery which may claim them next. Filling out the bill are three non-nominated shorts: Pixar's Partly Cloudy (USA), Poland's The Kinematograph and Canada's Runaway.

The live action program includes The Door (Ireland), about a father who attempts to come to terms with the devastating affects of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster; Instead of Abracadabra (Sweden), in which Tomas, who is a bit too old to still be living at home with his parents, is left with few options when his attempts to become a magician continue to fail, which leads to a bizarre performance at his father’s 60th birthday party; Kavi (India/USA), which tells the story of a boy in India who wants to play cricket and go to school but who is instead forced to work in a brick kiln as a modern-day slave. Restless and unsatisfied, Kavi must either accept the conventional wisdom about his life and circumstances or fight to change them, even if he's unconvinced that the change will make his life any better; Miracle Fish (Australia), in which a boy named Joe spends his eighth birthday in an infirmary after being mercilessly teased by friends. When he wishes that everyone in the world would go away, he wakes up to discover that he may have to face a strange new reality where his wish has come true; and in The New Tenants (Denmark/USA), two men looking for a fresh start (Kevin Corrigan, Vincent D’Onofrio) move into a new apartment which gradually reveals to them its terrifying history in a narrative that has been described as “funny, frightening and unexpectedly romantic.”

For more information on show times and schedules, consult the Nuart page at the Landmark Theaters web site.


A special program of shorts also helps wrap up the UCLA Film and Television Archive’s salute to Iranian Cinema. Coming up Friday night, February 19 you can see Abbas Mohammadi’s My Little Country (2008), The Legend of Gordafarid (2008), directed by Hadi Afarideh, and Reza Haeri’s Final Fitting (2008) all on one bill. Each film runs approximately 30 minutes and provides a succinct, poetic and vastly entertaining window onto the worlds of education, theater and tailoring in modern-day Iran. The following evening the series closes with Iran’s official entry for this year’s Academy Awards, Asghar Faradi’s About Elly (2009). A beautiful schoolteacher is whisked away by friends on a pleasure trip, but soon she finds out their true agenda-- to marry her off to a recently divorced man who she barely knows. The untruths begin to pile up and become even more significant when Elly disappears and the film becomes a lyrical inquiry into the mystery surrounding her fate.


Three other directors take the spotlight this week. The American Cinematheque gets an Elia Kazan retrospective under way tomorrow night. You can see Andy Griffith and Patricia Neal in Kazan and writer Budd Schulberg’s prescient political drama A Face in the Crowd (1957) paired with the director’s 1960 social drama Wild River starring Montgomery Clift as a TVA administrator who comes to oversee the building of a dam on the Tennessee River and gets caught up in the lives of the people who are protesting the project. The evening will be highlighted by the scheduled appearance of Patricia Neal, who will at the Egyptian to speak about Kazan and A Face in the Crowd.

Friday, February 19, brings Fredric March, Terry Moore and Gloria Grahame in Kazan’s 1953 Man on a Tightrope, the fictionalized story, based on actual incidents, surrounding a small circus in an Eastern Bloc country and its planned escape to the West during the Cold War. The movie is paired with Kazan’s classic On The Waterfront (1954), starring Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden and Rod Steiger.

Saturday, February 20, features two films in which Kazan pushed the accepted boundaries of adult storytelling—his Tennessee Williams adaptations of Baby Doll (1956) and A Streetcar Named Desire (1954) have become nothing if not even more powerful with the passing of time and have, through the brilliant performances by the likes of Marlon Brando, Carroll Baker, Karl Malden, Kim Hunter, Vivien Leigh and Eli Wallach between them, managed to avoid the mothballs of caricature and atmospherics that have hampered the staying power of some productions of Williams’ work. This might be the week’s flat-out best double bill.

And finally, on Sunday evening, February 21, comes Kazan’s epic America, America (1963), the heartfelt story of Kazan's uncle, who grew up in a small village as a member of the Greek minority in Turkey in the end of the 19th century and who dreams of a better life emigrating to the United States. Perhaps less widely seen that some of Kazan’s work in the ‘50s, this movie remained a personal favorite of the director and its reputation has certainly grown in the years since its release. The Egyptian’s big screen should show off its ample ambitions and emotions to great effect.


The Los Angeles County Museum of Art continues its series in tribute to director Clint Eastwood with screening throughout the weekend at the sumptuous Bing Theater. The entire weekend is devoted to four of the director’s most potent and lived-in examinations of masculine mythology. Bronco Billy (1980), with its allusions to Buffalo Bill Cody and its own seedy approximation of the legendary wild west show, was perhaps Eastwood’s first full-on attempt to grapple, in a very Capra-esque way, with the dimensions of his public persona. And Honkytonk Man (1982) finds Eastwood beginning to work more consciously in the more breezy, meandering rhythms of his marginal characters in this story of a consumptive country singer on one last road trip with his son. Saturday February 20 affords another opportunity to see Eastwood’s great, Oscar-winning western Unforgiven (1992) in tandem with one of the director’s most underrated movies, his adaptation of Peter Viertel’s White Hunter, Black Heart (1990), in which he takes on the persona of John Huston in search of a wild elephants on the set of The African Queen and, as it happens, an assessment of his own masculine ideals and limitations.


Finally, speaking of directors, Jason Reitman has only made three movies, but he’s been nominated for an Oscar three times now (twice as director) and he might just win one this year (for screenwriting). But way more importantly, he’s finally got his own movie series to curate at the New Beverly Cinema, and it gets underway Friday night. These are movies in which Reitman has presumably found some influence and/or inspiration, and while a cynic (or someone like me) might suggest that he hasn’t yet himself made one as good as any of the six he has in store for the enthusiastic New Beverly crowd, that should in no way detract from your appreciation of his appreciation of these movies. You can have all kinds of fun drawing lines connecting the likes of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Election, Shampoo, Boogie Nights, Breaking Away and Bottle Rocket to Reitman’s own bittersweet oeuvre, and he will be there in person all week to help you along in that endeavor.


All of these choices are enough to make anyone not living in Los Angeles insanely jealous on their own, but none of them made my pick status for the week. Since initiating this weekly column last month, I have been incredibly spineless in my refusal to narrow the field down to one pick. I have usually offered at least three programs, and one time even as many as 11 films, as the highlight of the week’s movie-going. And this week’s SLIFR Revival Pick is no different—three different choices on two separate days of the weekend in which to enrich your cinematic experience, although the Friday night selections might involve some fairly hairy traffic dodging down the southbound freeway system in order to take it all in.

Make your way to the Aero Theater Friday night to pay tribute to a comedy legend, Bob Newhart, who will be in attendance to screen two of his best movie comedies. A con artist (Peter Ustinov) fresh out of prison gets hired as an insurance company computer programmer and begins embezzling the company for Hot Millions (1968). Maggie Smith plays the twerpy secretary who falls for him, and Newhart is the (I’ll say it) buttoned-down office manager who sniffs out Ustinov’s scheme. But Millions is definitely eclipsed by the hilarious satire at the heart of Norman Lear’s caustic comedy Cold Turkey (1970), in which a small town is offered $1 million by a sinister tobacco company if they can stop smoking for one month. The movie’s curdled Americana is a riot, and Newhart is just one in an amazing ensemble cast (Jean Stapleton, Graham Jarvis, Dick Van Dyke, Pippa Scott) but he's a standout nonetheless— he plays the tobacco company shill who orchestrates the many attempts to undermine the town’s efforts, which just might succeed if withdrawal from smokes don’t kill them, or make them kill each other first. Characterized by Randy Newman’s bitterly funny hymn of sacrilege “He Gives Us All His Love,” Cold Turkey is a rarely seen treat and evidence that Lear, had he not gotten sidetracked by that whole Archie Bunker thing, might have had a real career as a director of merciless movie comedies.

That same night, at the beautifully restored Art Theater on Fourth Street in Long Beach, you can see Benjamin Christensen’s eye-popping 1922 “documentary” Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages with a live score performed by Cabeza de Vaca Arkestra. Often seen with a pre-recorded score written and performed by Jean-Luc Ponty, the opportunity to see it with the Cabeza score performed live is just too good to pass up. And that’s not even considering the film itself, which purports to trace the history of witchcraft and Satanism throughout history-- the movie’s bizarre, gooseflesh-inducing visuals, which invoke the starkly agonized hellscapes of Goya and the prevalent style of depicting weird, sexualized satanic rites in elaborate wood carvings, are transcendently unsettling. (There is an awful lot of devil’s ass-kissing going on in art from this period, apparently.) Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages is singularly haunting and unlike anything I’ve ever seen.

And finally, you’ll find me and the girls at the Billy Wilder Theater at the Armand Hammer on Sunday morning at 11:00 a.m. for the free screening of Claude Nuridsany and Marie Pérennou’s spectacular nature documentary Microcosmos (1996). Years of research and planning went into the conception and photography of this phenomenal documentary which goes David Lynch one better and takes a long, fascinated look into the hidden world of insects populating a small expanse of French countryside. But despite how it may sound, Microcosmos is no mere technical triumph, or a simple bit of Discovery channel fare. The directors infuse their luxurious, eye-popping imagery with layers of expressive meaning, tracing the connections between these arachnids and arthropods and gastropods at work (and at play) and the motivations and even desires and self-conscious human world. (The scene of two snails making love might be one of the most erotic sequences ever filmed.) As the notes for the UCLA presentation make clear, “As science meets the sublime, children of all ages will delight in the film's infectious sense of discovery.” Absolutely right. Microcosmos locates the universal in the specifically magnified majesty of these creatures by meticulous filmmaking means both expansive and poetic. (Note that Microcosmos will be projected digitally, which means DVD and not 35mm, so a certain downgrading of imagery should be expected.)


And 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.